Wassily Kandinsky’s Colourful Path to Abstraction

Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Credited with painting one of the first purely abstract modern works, Kandinsky developed his abstract style with the express intent of being accessible to all audiences. How did Kandinsky explore the use of colour and pioneer abstract modern art? 

Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky is considered one of the most influential artists of the 20th century

Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866, the son of a wealthy tea merchant from Siberia. He studied law and economics at the University of Moscow and became Associate Professor of Law after his graduation. Everything changed when he visited a Monet exhibition at Moscow in 1896, where he saw a painting from Monet’s Haystack series. The colour and composition of the work had a profound impact on Kandinsky.

One of the paintings from Claude Monet’s Haystack series

In 1896, at the age of 30, Kandinsky gave up his career and moved to Munich to study art. In 1900 Kandinsky was accepted into the atelier of Franz von Stuck; it was here that he rejected the prevailing established Munich School of painting and begin to experiment with a more sensuous and symbolic content in his art.

In 1903, the artist painted his first milestone artwork, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an Impressionistic scene of a man in a blue cape astride a white horse. It’s perhaps the most important of Kandinsky's paintings from the first decade of the 1900s.

Wassily Kandinsky. Der Blaue Reiter. 1903

In this painting, he demonstrated a clear stylistic link to the work of the Impressionists, like Claude Monet, particularly evident in the contrasts of light and dark on the sun-dappled hillside. And the inspiration for many of Kandinsky's early works come from Vincent van Gogh's paintings with his heavy use of impasto.

Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter

Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter spent six months in Rapallo on the Ligurian coast in the winter of 1905 and spring of 1906 during their extensive travels around Europe. During their stay, Kandinsky painted eighteen works featuring the harbour and its picturesque boats along with the town’s coastline.

Wassily Kandinsky. Rapallo: Grauer Tag (Rapallo: Grey Day). 1905

Grauer Tag, one of the first in this series, shows Kandinsky’s interpretation of the Impressionist style. The painting conveys his characteristics expression of emotion and mood, which in this case is a more solemn, melancholy tone.

After spending a great deal of time travelling across Europe, he settled in the small Bavarian town of Murnau. The picturesque scenery of the countryside around Murnau gave his paintings a renewed energy. In Murnau, Kandinsky was able to build on that experience and join Matisse and Derain in understanding how to formulate an abstraction from nature. Townscapes, such as Treppe Zum Schloss, are characterised by a simplification of forms which gave way to Kandinsky's chromatic abstract works of 1910. No longer deeply influenced by impressionist movement, Kandinsky looked at the Fauves for inspiration.

Wassily Kandinsky. Treppe Zum Schloss (Steps to the Castle). 1909

During these years Kandinsky began to emerge as an important art theorist. In 1910, he published his first book exploring abstract art theory, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, which advocated for abstract art as a means of achieving the spiritual. Kandinsky made a case for the similarity of music and visual art in terms of expression. The artist used musical terms such as "improvisation" and "composition" in the titles of his pre-war paintings, emphasizing the link between the two art forms.

The extraordinary colour palette in Improvisation Auf Mahagoni represents a step away from the natural world and multiple steps into abstraction. The colours can also be attributed to Kandinsky’s love of traditional Russian folk art.

Wassily Kandinsky. Improvisation Auf Mahagoni (Improvisation on Mahogany). 1910

Through constant experimentation and extensive preparatory work Kandinsky’s artistic means developed from an essentially figurative Fauve style to pure abstraction. By 1910 he had found the language he sought, with sweeping lines, beautiful iridescent patches of colour and kaleidoscopic compositions.

Kandinsky in his Munich apartment in 1913

Years leading up to the First World War are considered by many the peak of Kandinsky’s career as he accelerated toward non-representational painting. The development of his thinking and the possibility of an entirely abstract art was closely linked with his interest in a wide range of religious and philosophical inquiries. After abandoning the Russian folk imagery of his earlier work, he turned to the universal roots of Christian myths.

Wassily Kandinsky. Composition VII. 1913. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

For example, Kandinsky’s Composition VII, considered to be the apex of his artwork before the First World War, is a combination of several themes namely Resurrection, the Judgment Day, the Flood and the Garden of Eden. Such combination is expressed as a symbiosis of pure painting.

Wassily Kandinsky. Zum Thema Jüngstes Gericht (on the Theme of the Last Judgement). 1913

Kandinsky went back to Moscow in 1914 and returned to Germany in 1920, where he taught at the Bauhaus from 1922 to the Nazi closure of the school in 1933. As a Russian in German, Kandinsky was especially targeted by the Gestapo. He decided to emigrate from an increasingly hostile Germany to France, where he was to live out the remainder of his life.

Kandinsky in front of Courbe dominante in 1936

Once in Paris, Kandinsky was inspired by the surrealist movement which galvanised Kandinsky to employ dramatic, rich colours. He had almost entirely eliminated references to objects and the outside world, and succeeded in creating a universally understood mode of expression that does not require recognition of objects by the audience.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Le Rond Rouge. 1939


Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings from Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Rapallo: Grauer Tag (Rapallo: Grey Day)

Lot no.: 9
Painted in: 1905
Size: 24 x 32.7 cm

  • Gabriele Münter, Murnau (acquired from the artist)
  • Fritz & Peter Nathan, Zurich
  • The Lefevre Gallery, London (acquired in 1963)
  • Private Collection, England
  • Sale: Christie’s, New York, May 18, 1983, lot 334
  • Acquired at the above sale

Estimate: US$400,000-600,000

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Treppe Zum Schloss (Steps to the Castle)

Lot no.: 18
Painted in: 1909
Size: 44.9 x 33 cm

  • Moderne Galerie Thannhauser, Munich
  • Herwarth Walden (Galerie Der Sturm), Berlin
  • (possibly) Private Collection, The Netherlands (acquired circa 1912)
  • Paul F. Sanders, Amsterdam (acquired circa 1930)
  • Thence by descent

Estimate: US$3,000,000-5,000,000

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Improvisation Auf Mahagoni (Improvisation on Mahogany)

Lot no.: 6
Painted in: 1910
Size: 63.5 x 100.2 cm

  • Nina Kandinsky, Paris (until at least 1963)
  • Galerie Beyeler, Basel
  • Acquired from the above on June 15, 1972

Estimate: US$15,000,000-20,000,000

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Zum Thema Jüngstes Gericht (on the Theme of the Last Judgement)

Lot no.: 8
Painted in: 1913
Size: 47 x 52 cm

  • Gabriele Münter, Murnau (acquired from the artist)
  • Gabriele Münter und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich (acquired by 1961)
  • Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York (acquired by 1967)
  • Robert Schwarz, Jr., New Jersey
  • The Norton Simon Foundation, Los Angeles
  • Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York
  • Acquired from the above on March 5, 1979

Estimate: US$22,000,000-35,000,000

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Le Rond Rouge

Lot no.: 4
Painted in: 1939
Size: 89 x 116 cm

  • Galerie René Drouin, Paris (acquired by 1946)
  • Sidney Janis Gallery, New York
  • Galerie Maeght, Paris
  • Gustav Zumsteg, Zurich (acquired by 1946, probably from the above, and sold: Christie’s, London, April 6, 1976, lot E)
  • Davlyn Gallery, New York (acquired by 1982)
  • Acquired in 1996

Estimate: US$18,000,000-25,000,000


Auction summary:
Auction house: Sotheby’s New York
Sale: Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 12 November 2018|7pm