Composition VIII offers an abstract contrast between calm and chaos, through shapes and lines
Composition VIII, produced in 1923 by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, is an oil-on-canvas painting created in the Abstract style. The painting consists of a variety of geometric shapes, colours, straight and curved lines set against a background of cream that melds at certain points into areas of pale blue. The use of circles, grids, rectangles, semicircles, triangles and other mathematical forms in the artwork is consistent with the painter's belief in the mystical properties of geometric shapes while the colours on display are chosen for their emotional impact.
Kandinsky, who had been fascinated with colour since an early age and considered them to have transcendental properties, wished to explore an interrelation between sound and colour that would allow a painter to produce an artwork in a similar manner to how a musician composes a song. At present the painting is displayed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
At the time in which the painting was created, sometimes referred to as the Bauhaus era, Kandinsky had moved from the fledgling Soviet Union to the Weimar Republic due to increasing restrictions on artistic freedom under the Marxist-Leninist system of government. The years spent in the former Russian Empire and its successor state, largely spent reforming museums and promoting his artistic theories, had not been productive ones in terms of artworks created although the artist would emerge from this chapter of his life re-energised and ready to return to painting. The Weimar Germany of the early 1920s in which Composition VIII was painted, having transitioned from a monarchy into a democratic republic, was one of the most liberal countries in Europe and provided a nourishing environment for the avant-garde scene that so inspired Kandinsky during his formative years.
The painting, eighth in an instalment dating back to 1911 when Kandinsky co-founded The Blue Rider group in Munich, was the first of his compositions to be painted since the outbreak of the First World War. A composition, as opposed to an improvisation, referred to a painting that was executed in adherence to a specific plan rather than created in the spur-of-the-moment and driven by impulse. The difference between a composed and an improvised painting may have been, in the artist's perception, the same as that which existed between classical music and free-jazz. Kandinsky, having spent several years prior to World War One in Germany before returning to Russia at the outbreak of World War One, was able to re-connect with the avant-garde current in Germany and to begin composing again. Composition VIII, drawing on influences of the previous nine years, is an expression of Kandinsky's internalised vision in the abstract form.
One of the painting's most prominent features, a purple circle within a black circle enveloped by a double-layered halo of pink and orange, is positioned at the top-left corner of the canvas. The blurred edges of the halo, similar in appearance to the corona surrounding an eclipsed sun, stand in stark contrast to the clean lines of the black circle with its purple core. A partial red circle, emerging from the bottom-right of the black circle's periphery and cutting across its halo, is bordered by its own yellow nimbus that mixes with the pinks and oranges of the adjacent form. A yellow circle edged by a thin black line, positioned in the lower-third of the canvas, possesses a halo consisting of a blue inner-layer and a purple outer-layer. Another circle, blue with a salmon border and located near the bottom-centre of the canvas, is surrounded by a fiery ring of yellow. The circles to the right of the canvas, by contrast, do not possess haloes.
The halo, a recurrent artistic theme throughout the ages and across several cultures, has more than one meaning and is open to different interpretations. Light, in some spiritual and philosophical traditions, represents higher consciousness while a person who basks in the light-of-reason may be considered enlightened. Heads of Greek and Roman deities, such as Helios and Jupiter, were at times shown encircled with a nimbus of light and this artistic convention seems to have been adopted by early Christians living in the Greco-Roman world. Kandinsky, an adherent of Russian Orthodox Christianity whose faith often influenced the themes in his paintings, would have been aware of the halo's significance in the religious iconography of his native country. Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Saints and the Apostles were all depicted in Russian Orthodox iconography with heads illuminated by haloes that symbolised their holiness.
There were six solar eclipses between 1921 and 1923, with two occurring in the year of Composition VIII's creation, which may have been an inspiration for the black circle with its pink and orange corona. Black, according to Kandinsky's sonic theory of colour, signified external silence while orange indicated the highest male singing voice and corresponding musical instruments in the alto range. Pink, as a mixture of red and white, could be interpreted as a dampening of cacophonous sounds or a softening of harsher tones. Yellow, forming a halo around the blue and red circles, represents disturbance and rage while in musical terms it signified loud trumpets and fanfares.
One of three grids, formed of quadrilaterals and arranged into a shape reminiscent of a high-rise building, appears on the left side of the canvas and appears under a black-lined and partially formed triangle of pale blue that melts into the cream background. Composition VIII was produced by Wassily Kandinsky in July 1923. It is currently on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, US. Circles would be used by Wassily to represent planetary symbolism, and this became common during the abstract period of the famous artist's career. The artist would then use straight lines to create the appearance of surfaces to sit alongside the orbiting circles.
Composition VIII is very typical of Kandinsky's abstract period, with shapes and lines intertwined to produce an exhilirating final artwork. See also Composition VII. This series of compositions, with others included in this website, serve as a guide to how his abstract work changed over time. The modern art style of naming paintings by sequence helps us to easily place them in an abstract timeline and judge the changes made to his work as time progressed. Kandinsky was a painter who covered different styles during his career, starting off with abstract landscapes before moving deeper into modern art with his shapes and lines. Colour was always a siginificant element to his work, and something he studied in great detail throughout his career.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.