The Evolution of Kandinsky’s Painting: A Journey from Realism to Vibrant Abstraction Over 46 Years

Like most renowned abstract painters, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky could also paint real­is­ti­cal­ly. Unlike most renowned abstract painters, he only took up art in earnest after study­ing eco­nom­ics and law at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Moscow. He then found ear­ly suc­cess teach­ing those sub­jects, which seem to have proven too world­ly for his sen­si­bil­i­ties: at age 30 he enrolled in the Munich Acad­e­my to con­tin­ue the study of art that he’d left off while grow­ing up in Odessa. The sur­viv­ing paint­ings he pro­duced at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of the 20th, dis­played on Wikipedi­a’s list of his works, include a vari­ety of land­scapes, most pre­sent­ing Ger­man and Russ­ian (or today Ukrain­ian) land­scapes undis­turbed by a sin­gle human fig­ure.

Kandin­sky made dra­mat­ic change come with 1903’s The Blue Rid­er (above). The pres­ence of the tit­u­lar fig­ure made for an obvi­ous dif­fer­ence from so many of the images he’d cre­at­ed over the pre­vi­ous half-decade; a shift in its very per­cep­tion of real­i­ty made for a less obvi­ous one.

This is not the world as we nor­mal­ly see it, and Kandin­sky’s track record of high­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive paint­ings tells us that he must delib­er­ate­ly have cho­sen to paint it it that way. With fel­low artists like August Macke, Franz Marc, Albert Bloch, and Gabriele Mün­ter, he went on to form the Blue Rid­er Group, whose pub­li­ca­tions argued for abstract art’s capa­bil­i­ty to attain great spir­i­tu­al heights, espe­cial­ly through col­or.

“Grad­u­al­ly Kandin­sky makes depar­tures from the exter­nal ‘world as a mod­el’ into the world of ‘paint as a thing in itself,’ ” writes painter Markus Ray. “Still depict­ing ‘world­ly scenes,’ these paint­ings start to take on pur­er col­ors and shapes. He reduces vol­umes into sim­ple shapes, and col­ors into bright and vibrant hues. One can still make out the scene, but the shapes and col­ors begin to take on a life of their own.” This is espe­cial­ly true of the scenes Kandin­sky paint­ed in Bavaria, such as 1909’s Rail­way near Mur­nau above. The out­break of World War I five years lat­er sent him back to Rus­sia, where he con­tin­ued his pio­neer­ing jour­ney toward a visu­al art equal in expres­sive pow­er to music, which he called his “ulti­mate teacher.” But by the ear­ly 1920s it had become clear that his increas­ing­ly indi­vid­u­al­is­tic and non-rep­re­sen­ta­tive ten­den­cies would­n’t sit well with the Sovi­et cul­tur­al pow­ers that be.

A return to Ger­many was in order. “In 1921, at the age of 55, Kandin­sky moved to Weimar to teach mur­al paint­ing and intro­duc­to­ry ana­lyt­i­cal draw­ing at the new­ly found­ed Bauhaus school,” says Christie’s. “There he worked along­side the likes of Paul Klee, Lás­zló Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers,” and also expand­ed on Goethes the­o­ries of col­or. A true believ­er in the Bauhaus’ “phi­los­o­phy of social improve­ment through art,” Kandin­sky also wound up among the artists whose work was exhib­it­ed in the Nazi Par­ty’s “Degen­er­ate Art Exhi­bi­tion” of 1937. By that time the Bauhaus was dis­solved and Kandin­sky had reset­tled in Paris, where until his death in 1944 (as evi­denced by Wikipedi­a’s list of his paint­ings) he kept push­ing fur­ther into abstrac­tion, seek­ing ever-pur­er expres­sions of the human soul until the very end.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Time Trav­el Back to 1926 and Watch Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Make Art in Some Rare Vin­tage Video

Helen Mir­ren Tells Us Why Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Is Her Favorite Artist (And What Act­ing & Mod­ern Art Have in Com­mon)

Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Syncs His Abstract Art to Mussorgsky’s Music in a His­toric Bauhaus The­atre Pro­duc­tion (1928)

An Inter­ac­tive Social Net­work of Abstract Artists: Kandin­sky, Picas­so, Bran­cusi & Many More

How to Paint Like Kandin­sky, Picas­so, Warhol & More: A Video Series from the Tate

The Guggen­heim Puts Online 1700 Great Works of Mod­ern Art from 625 Artists

Take a Jour­ney Through 933 Paint­ings by Sal­vador Dalí & Watch His Sig­na­ture Sur­re­al­ism Emerge

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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