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Kandinsky, Wassily

Category: Artist and sculptor

The following description about Kandinsky is from the Preface to Kandinsky’s book Concerning the Spiritual in Art translated by M T H Sadler and is by Richard Stratton

Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow on December 4,1866, to a well-to-do, aristocratic family. His father was a successful tea merchant, and his wealth was to support Wassily during many years of study. Raised in the Russian Orthodox faith, Kandinsky maintained these beliefs throughout his entire life, except during a short period in his youth.

His was a normal childhood, distinguished chiefly by his academic success. Wassily's early schooling was in Odessa in the Crimea, where his family moved in 1871. A frequent visitor to Moscow, he returned there in 1886 to study political economy and law at the university. In 1892 he graduated, and one year later was appointed lecturer in jurisprudence at Moscow University. All indications pointed toward a rewarding academic career when, in 1896, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky turned down a professorship at the University of Dorpat in Estonia and went instead to Munich to study painting.

This decision to pursue art full-time had evolved gradually. Kandinsky had always been fascinated by painting and music, and as a child played both the cello and piano. At thirteen or fourteen, he had saved up to buy his first box of oil paints. A sensitive and observant youth, his autobiography records strong reactions to the colours and natural scenes that surrounded him.

Art and music, ranging from traditional Russian religious icons and Rembrandt oils to a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin, left profound impressions on him as well. An 1895 Moscow exhibit exposed Kandinsky to the French Impressionists, and his feelings upon seeing Monet's Haystack seemed to predict the destiny that awaited him:

"I had the impression that here painting itself comes into the foreground; I wondered if it would not be possible to go further in this direction."

The next year: he moved to Germany and commenced his formal training as an artist”

Kandinsky was unsympathetic to the official theories on art in Moscow, and moved to Germany in 1921. There, he taught at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture from 1922 until the Nazis closed it in 1933. He then moved to France where he lived the rest of his life, became a French citizen in 1939, and produced some of his most prominent art. He died at Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.

We can conclude from this description that Kandinsky had inherited the genes to make him suited to his career as an artist. But the description does not adequately convey the fact that Kandinsky was a deeply spiritual person.  The Russian and Eastern Orthodox churches suffered far less from corruption by political intervention of their roots than did the western Christian church, as such Kandinsky’s adherence to the Church exposed him to a deeply spiritual tradition. 

And he applied his underlying spiritual sense to the idea of painting the music of the spirit – songlines.

Kandinsky’s paintings are thus an attempt to transfer to the canvas the music of the universe.  In doing so he also wanted to use the language of colour.  Colour is also a spiritual thing.  Colours convey emotion and are also indicative of the levels and layers – the rainbow.  Thus the incorporation of certain colours into a painting can indicate at what ‘level’ a person feels himself to be spiritually.  This incidentally, may be entirely unconscious.  When anyone who is able to paint intuitively opens their mind to inspiration, they never know why they paint what they do, they just paint it.  As such colour, form, composition in a true artist are never ‘worked out’, they just come.

I suspect that one could use this description to provide a definition of the difference between a simple good technical painter and an inspired artist.  The truly great do not ‘work it out’.  They wait, and sometimes they can wait for days or weeks, and then suddenly it will come and they can work for hours and hours in a flurry of creativity as they try to capture what it is they have ‘seen’.  Such was Kandinsky.

When Kandinsky first started to paint songlines, no one understood what he was doing.  I suspect that there are a large number of people who still don’t.  The vast majority of people who buy paintings still buy them because they match the colour scheme for the sofa and carpet or because they contain recognisable scenes and images.  Place two paintings in front of the average person – one realistic and one abstract and they will tend to go for the realistic and judge it on how photographically accurate it is.

But we don’t do this with music.  We simply listen to the music and we either love it or are not bothered.  It appeals to our emotions or it does not.  Kandinsky wanted us to look at his paintings that way.  His paintings were music captured, so we needed to sit in front of them and let the emotions they evoked wash over us.    No attempt to ‘see’ anything in them.  There was nothing to see, they were spirit captured.

The only way one can really appreciate his paintings is by letting go – stopping the left brain and engaging the right brain.  As such they are in a strange way a help to the promotion of spiritual experience, because they should open us up and help us to be more right brained and intuitive.

Everyone likes music, so there is no reason why ultimately everyone should not eventually get to at least appreciate Kandinsky’s paintings.  You may not be ‘moved’ by the melody he has portrayed, perhaps he hasn’t quite captured the songline just so, maybe you prefer different harmonies to the ones he has chosen, but, over time, all of us should be able to listen with our eyes.

 Kandinsky, just like Marcel Duchamp was filled with despair when he saw how people treated ‘art’.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art - Kandinsky

Imagine a building divided into many rooms. The building may be large or small. Every wall of every room is covered with pictures of various sizes; perhaps they number many thousands. They represent in colour bits of nature - animals in sunlight or shadow, drinking, standing in water, lying in the grass; near to, a Crucifixion by a painter who does not believe in Christ; flowers; human figures sitting, standing, walking; often they are naked; many naked women, seen foreshortened from behind; apples and silver dishes; portrait of Councillor So and So; sunset ; lady in red; flying duck; portrait of Lady X; flying geese; lady in white; calves in shadow flecked with brilliant yellow sunlight; portrait of Prince Y; lady in green.

All this is carefully printed in a book - name of artist - name of picture.  People with these books in their hands go from wall to wall turning over pages, reading the names. Then they go away, neither richer nor poorer than when they came, and are absorbed at once in their business, which has nothing to do with art.

Why did they come? In each picture is a whole lifetime imprisoned, a whole lifetime of fears, doubts, hopes, and joys. Whither is this lifetime tending? What is the message of the competent artist?

"To send light into the darkness of men's hearts - such is the duty of the artist," said Schumann.  "An artist is a man who can draw and paint everything," said Tolstoi.  Of these two definitions of the artist's activity we must choose the second, if we think of the exhibition just described. ……. But hungry souls go hungry away.

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