Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first artists to make completely abstract paintings. His 1913 oil painting on canvas Composition VI is an example of his non-representational works.
Kandinsky is another step in the progression from the previous artists Constable, Renoir and Boccioni. Constable, Renoir and Boccioni used recognizable figures and scenes, but used new and often abstract techniques to express perception, feelings and ideas. Kandinsky took it to the next level, dropping recognizable things and trying to express his ideas and feelings entirely through pure colors, shapes, lines, marks and composition. Not only did he want to express his ideas in non-representational art, he felt that was the only way to do it.
Kandinsky was a devout Orthodox Russian and felt colors and other qualities not only affected the emotions and aesthetic experience but resonated with the soul. He aspired to have a communion between art, artist and audience, and the act of painting was an emotional and spiritual experience for him.
Europe was in a time of turmoil, of industrial, artistic and philosophical change, and the upcoming World War I. This affected many artists, including Boccioni, who saw the world as changing and saw the world in a new light. They tried to express and address the changes in new aesthetic languages. The old languages were outmoded, artifacts of a world that no longer existed. A new world needed new languages. Many artists were as much philosophers and theorists as artists. As a deeply religious person who saw things differently that the average person, Kandinsky felt he was a prophet bringing people to a new art, language and era. He felt that today’s avant garde understood by few was tomorrow’s common knowledge, and he was a leader bringing a new knowledge and rebirth out of the day’s turmoil.
In previous painting essays I have discussed how neurobiologists believe humans naturally and neurologically react to basic sensory qualities, including colors, symmetry (or lack thereof), shapes, angles, etc., and this is a major part of our aesthetic and artistic experience, along with how we perceive the natural world. These are the things that Kandinsky worked in. He was trying to communicate entirely this way, using what he felt were natural inborn reactions to basic qualities, He wanted to make an art that communicated beyond culture and historical perspectives.
While Kandinsky was concerned with resonating on an emotional, aesthetic level, he was a theorist and academic and his works involved much academic study, research and planning. He was a law professor before turning to art, taught art design courses and was a theorist who wrote extensively on how colors, shapes etc created meaning. He experimented with and tested how colors and other basic qualities resonated with him and, he hoped, resonated with others (Though this shows how his theories and color rules were in part subjective to him. Whether or not they apply to everyone’s mind and eyes is debatable.). Composition VI involved six months planning. It also was finished with him repeating a mantra (‘flood’) to get over a mental block and free his subconscious. This illustrates how his work was both academic and intuitive.
He compared visual art to music and wanted his art to be like music. He said music is abstract yet evokes specific ideas and emotions. And this is true. Combinations of notes and instruments can communicate ideas such as speed, physical landscape, danger, drama, evil, happiness, joy. Music can be sad and it can be funny. And much of this reaction to sounds in inborn in humans. Our reactions to thunder and songbirds, loud low notes and soft high ones are natural. This is what Kandinsky was trying to achieve through colors, shapes and visual composition.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where people see or strongly associate colors with musical notes, tastes, other. He saw colors when he heard notes and heard notes when he painted color. In fact he associated specific colors with specific notes. This clearly was an influence on his art and theories, and other artists have had synesthesia including Duke Elliott, Vladimir Nabokov and Frank List.
Beyond just emotions, he was trying to express complex ideas and stories. Composition VI is about the apocalypse, a giant flood and rebirth– depicted all at once! As with Boccioni, he was trying to show many, often conflicting and juxtaposing ideas and qualities in one work. The apocalypse and rebirth are conflicting– one is about turmoil, violence and terror, while the other is about peace and happiness. His work is like trying to depict the “calm before the storm,” but with the calm and storm happening at the same time. In writing about Composition VI, Kandinsky said how there were many different feelings, conflicting and juxtaposing emotions from the different colors and shapes. It is telling a complex story with many parts and details.
This painting was a challenge for me– in part because it is so complex, busy and non-representational. However, when I looked at his other paintings, I did get different reactions and feelings from them, and saw how colors and shapes evoke aesthetic feelings and aesthetic responses. And Composition VI is supposed to be complex. It is is supposed to take thought and examination. Kandinsky even said the painting had three centers. He also said the meaning and feelings one gets from it change as you look at the different parts and move closer to the painting. This is comparable to Boccioni’s sculpture where its form changed as you walk around it.
One way the work is harder to understand than Boccioni’s is there is no clearly recognizable representational anchor. It is, after all, non representational. Boccioni’s sculpture was complex and abstract, but it clearly was a running figure. Your reading and interpretations started from this anchor and easy to understand theme. Though once I read about Composition Vi being about the apocalypse, flood and rebirth, that was something from which I could start. And in fact, once this theme is known, many visitors to a museum may enjoy discussing how it shows this and if it shows it well. Boccioni is also better understood and appreciated when you know his philosophy and what he was trying to thematically express in his art
The painting certainly perplexed me at first. But looking at his other paintings and watching a youtube video where his paintings were shown with Schoenberg music gave me a better handle. I like some abstract art, especially music. This includes Schoenberg, Gyorgi Ligeti and noise music (try listening to the drone metal band Sunn 0))). It can greatly resonate with me. The Kandinsky didn’t, but that’s all subjective and I do understand and appreciate what he was trying to do. I also have bad color vision, which won’t help.
The painting is valued as an artwork and a new artistic movement. Further Kandinsky studied and showed how we communicate and perceive things, including emotionally and aesthetically, through basic qualities. This helps teach us how all art works, including centuries old representational works. Even representational works use qualities of color, angle, shape to express ideas and emotions. And art involves reactions that are beyond the literal and conscious. Kandinsky’s works and theories help us look at past art, but also how we look at the world and how artist can do things in their own works even when representational.
Though I didn’t entirely get into Kandinsky, some of his works remind me much of Hieronymous Bosch’s works, which I do like a lot. Bosch’s great paintings on similar religious themes used identifiable if fantastical creatures, but were complex and busy stories like Composition VI and produce visceral, sublime reactions from the audience. Bosch speaks to the subconscious. He had a way with composition and details that to me is Kandinsky-esque. And, as mentioned, really all art communicates to us using these devices. All art connects to the subconscious and communicates feelings and ideas that are beyond the conscious. That is what is the art.