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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian/French expressionist painter and an established art theorist. He was born on December 16th, 1866 in Moscow. He died on December 13th 1944 in Paris, he was 77 years old.

As a child and young man, Kandinsky was an excellent student, and was particularly interested in psychology and the symbolism of colour. This would transfer later on into his painting career and his colourful expressionist works of art. Kandinsky graduated from the Grekov Odessa Art school before studying at the University of Moscow. It was during 1896 that Kandinsky's artistic career really began to take off, with his enrolment at the Munich Academy of Art. He had previously worked as a teacher, specialising in the subjects of economics and law, although he had always studied art and painted in his spare time.

Before leaving Moscow in 1896, he visited an exhibition of Monet's paintings, with the painting, Haystacks, having a profound effect upon him. In particular he was struck by the use of the intensive colour that was applied to the canvas. Other artistic and musical influences included the work of Richard Wagner' and in particular the painting known as, Lohengrin. Early spiritual influences included the works of Madame Blavatsky and her study of theosophy, in that creation began from one single point in time. Kandinsky reordered this theory visually, by a series of descending circles, squares and triangles.

Kandinsky's first decade of painting 1900-1910

Most of Kandinsky's paintings were created during the early 20th Century. Most of these contained images of landscapes, or those of Russian towns. They very rarely featured people. His technique was that of using broad and sweeping brushstrokes, packed full of colour, that made his work instantly recognisable. One of his paintings, that did feature the human side of life, was that of Sunday, Old Russia that he painted in 1904. In this painting we observe many peasants mingling with noblemen, who are all stood before the high walls of the town. The painting is vibrant and full of colour. Comparisons can be drawn with artist Malevich.

Another painting which features humans is that of Riding Couple that he painted in 1997. This painting shows a man riding a horse, while a woman sits besides him, his arm encircling her waist. They are crossing a river with the city walls clearly evident behind them. What is so very defining about this work, is that the eye is focussed upon the background, that of the trees, the river and the walls of the city, as opposed to the horse itself. This is because the horse is painted in muted colours, while the rest of the image constants of vibrant spots of colour that bring the painting to life while adding light. This was a much preferred art technique that Kandinsky used in many of his paintings.

During the years from1906 to1908, Kandinsky travelled around Europe until he eventually settled in Bavarian, a small town located in Murnau. From 1908-1909 he painted, The Blue Mountain. This colourful and abstract painting depicts a blue mountain, with two trees dominating the image, one of which is red, the other yellow. We can then observe three people riding on horseback, they have been painted so that they appear blurred, with no real definition to their form, nor having any facial features. His use of colour, being separate from the object he is representing, is classic Kandinsky and is a recurring theme in all of his paintings. In terms of composition, the image is very simple. The painting is divided into four separate planes, that of the blue mountain and the riders, the yellow tree, the red tree and the sky.

What art critics perceive to be the most influential painting of this early period, is that of The Blue Rider that he painted in 1903. What we observe is a rider on horseback riding quickly through a meadow that is made of rocks. The cloak that the rider wears is blue, hence the name of the painting. It is that jacket that also creates a blue hue across the entire image. Although the rider is not sharply painted, he is the focus of the painting. What is unclear about the image, is if the rider is holding a child. Due to the haziness of the image, it could simply be a shadow. What Kandinsky has managed to create is an image of a rider and a picturesque landscape that has been created simply by the use of colour technique.

The Blue Rider Period 1910-1914

During this period, Kandinsky's creations increased in both intensity and colour, with many of his paintings featuring coloured masses on the canvas without any real shape or form. During these years, his work as an art theorist helped him to set up the Munich New Artists' Association. Sadly the group only lasted until 1911 as there were differences of opinion with regards to the radical ideas that Kandinsky proposed and lived by, that were in direct opposition to the more conventional art forms of its day. However, shortly after, Kandinsky then founded the Blue Rider group, that consisted of artists who shared the same passion and influences as Kandinsky. These artists included: August Macke, Albert Bloch, Franz Marc and Gabriele Münter.

The group successfully had two exhibitions that showcased their work, and there would have been more if not for the start of the First World War. This was when Kandinsky headed back home to Russia. One art theory book that Kandinsky wrote at this time, On the Spiritual In Art, was reviewed in Art News in London, having been written by Michael Sadleir, who then published the translated version in English. This was in 1914. It was four years earlier, in 1910, that he took part in an exhibition that was created by Frank Rutter, the Allied Artists' Exhibition, that took place in London at the Royal Albert Hall. This then led to his work being reviewed by Spencer Frederick Gore, himself an artist, in The Art News. This interest, together with the recognition from Michael Sadleir from Art News, helped Kandinsky to break into the British art market.

Return to Russia 1914–1921

It was when back in Russia, that Kandinsky embarked upon the cultural political world that was present in Russia, as he began to work with, and inform, the museum and art reform in the country. This was one of the reasons that he produced very little art work during these years. During this time he also helped to set up the Institute of Artistic Culture that was located in Moscow. In 1916 he was to meet his future wife, Nina Andreievskaya. The couple married in 1917.During the years, 1922-23, Kandinsky worked in Bauhaus teaching advanced art theory. He also taught art classes in which he explained his colour theory techniques.

It was during this time that he began working upon his second book, Point and Line to Plane that was later published in 1926. The study during this time greatly influenced his later works. In 1925 he painted Yellow – red – blue that featured a Red Cross, a rectangle painted yellow, several black lines, and a large blue circle. Other black and white circles are scattered across the canvas, as if they have been placed onto a brightly coloured chequerboard. The entire image is busy, with the observer noticing different shapes and concepts, depending upon the number of times that the painting is viewed.

The Blue Four

This group of four artists came together in 1923. They consisted of Kandinsky, Klee, von Jawlensky and Feininger. The quartet exhibited their work, as well as performing lectures, within the USA. It was during this time that Kandinsky left Russia to live in Paris, France.

The Paris Years 1934–1944

Kandinsky spent the last decade of his life living in Paris. He lived in a small flat and converted the living room into an art studio. His work remained much the same, focussing upon colours and non geometric shapes, but the images that he used became smaller, less magnificent. It was during this time that he returned to his Russian roots and used natural colours to represent his Slavic infused art. He also experimented with differing mediums, using sand in several of his paintings, that he mixed with the paint. This gave his last paintings a rustic feel, taking his art back to nature and its Russian origins.