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The Life and Works of
Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky

Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was born in Moscow on December 4th of 1866 into a well-to-do family. His background is of interest. Although most of his ancestors were Russian, he had a Baltic grandmother and a Mongolian great grandmother. His Baltic grandmother was of great significance because he learned from her to speak German. The years he spent in Germany would have been difficult without that early linguistic education.

His father, Wassily Silvestrovich Kandinsky, was born in the town of Kyatkha in Siberia near the border of the Russian Empire with the Chinese Empire. Kandinsky's father became a successful tea merchant. This financial success funded extensive travel by the family when Kandinsky was a child and Kandinsky himself continued to travel most of his life. A trip made to Italy in 1869 had a lasting influence on him although he was only two years old.

In 1871 the Kandinsky family moved to the port city of Odessa on the Black Sea. There Kandinsky completed his secondary education. It was apparently of a high quality because he learned to play the piano and cello well enough to become an amateur performer. He also studied drawing and painting. He may have been subject to a mental condition that imbued colors with special significance because he remarked that each color had a life of its own. Here are some of his remarks concerning colors

The first colours which made a strong impression on me were light juicy green, white, crimson red, black and yellow ochre. These memories go back to the third year of my life. I saw these colours on various objects which are not as clear in my mind today as the colours themselves.

He spoke of his reaction to colors as an artist,

There was a decided emotion I experienced on first seeing the fresh paint come out of the tube. … the impression of colours strewn over the palette: of colours-- alive, waiting to come out of their little tubes.

And, his reaction to taking paint from his palette

the brush with unbending will tore pieces from this living colour creation, bringing forth musical notes as it tore away the pieces.

The writer Lafcadio Hearn had a condition of this sort that tied diverse entities such as numbers to colors.

In 1886 at age nineteen Kandinsky went to study law and economics at the University of Moscow. He maintained an interest in art particular the vividly colored religious icons displayed in the churches around Moscow. In 1889 he joined a university ethnological expedition to the province of Vologda in northern Russia. There he saw the brightly colored folk costumes, art and house decorations of the peasants. He said he felt like he was walking about in a painting. After the expedition he journeyed to St. Petersburg where he viewed the art of famous European painters such as Rembrandt at the Hermitage. Still later he journeyed to Paris.

He completed his undergraduate education at the University of Moscow and then stayed on for graduate work, again in law. He married his cousin in 1892 and completed the equivalent of a doctorate in 1893.

Wassily Kandinsky

He was apparently a quite successful student academically because selected to teach law at his university. He was a physically impressive teacher; he was tall and dressed impeccably. He looked like and had the demeanor of a diplomat or statesman. In 1896 he was offered a professorship at the University of Dorpat (later known as Tartu) in Estonia. Despite his success as an academic his heart was not in it and he began to work in a print shop that made color reproductions of paintings. In 1895 he had viewed an exhibition of French impressionist paintings in Moscow and was particularly impressed with a painting of Monet. Kandinsky turned down the offered professorship and took a train to Germany to become a painter.

Kandinsky's Munich Period

In Munich Kandinsky immediately enrolled in the art school of Anton Azbé. After two years with Azbé Kandinsky worked a year as an artist before enrolling in the Munich Academy where he took the art classes of Franz von Stuck. In 1900 he received his diploma and began a career as an artist in Bavaria. He was searching for his own style. At first his painting style was that of 19th century realism. For example the painting below, entitled The Sluice was painted in 1901.

While continuing to paint he becomes involved in the art world of Bavaria. In 1901 he founds the artist group The Phalanx. Kandinsky travels to Moscow for a display of his painting. In 1902 the Phalanx group creates an art school. Students come to study art at this school. One student, Gabriele Münter, became Kandinsky's life companion at least until World War I separated them. The school Phalanx however closed in 1903 and the Phalanx group broke up in 1904. Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter traveled to Tunisia by way of Italy and the two stayed in Tunisia for a year.

Back in Germany in 1905 from Tunisia Kandinsky was soon painting in a style evocative of the myopic style of Monet, such as in The Blue Rider (1903) shown below.

But he was soon producing works that were in style and subject matter distinctively his own such as The Russian Beauty painted in 1905. Perhaps there may have been some influence of the Art Nouveau movement (known in Germany as Jugendstil) in this painting and maybe even something of the Pointillists.

A better example of the possible influence of Pointillism on Kandinsky is his painting The Night, painted in 1907. Here there are the vivid colors that were missing in his realistic painting The Sluice>

But, speaking of vivid colors, Kandinsky's painting of 1908 The Elephant is a riot of colors and a style that suggests Fauvism.

By 1909 Kandinsky was painting improvisations in which the realistic detail has disappeared but the vivid colors remain, as in the one below known as Improvisation 6. This one was perhaps influenced by his year-long stay in Tunisia.

Along with exploring styles of art Kandinsky explored philosophy and the relationships between different art forms such as music and painting.

In 1909 Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter bought a house in Murnau near Munich.

By 1910 Kandinsky has discovered pure abstraction. The watercolor below is known as First Abstract Watercolor. This means not only Kandinsky's first abstract but the first abstract by any artist. Abstraction ultimately becomes Kandinsky's distinctive style although for a few years he continued to produce realistic landscapes of the area near his home in Murnau.

Kandinsky's abstractions became refined that it is hard to believe that he ever painted the above watercolor. Here two example from 1926 and 1927.

Several Circles (1926)

Softened Construction (1927)

But a lot of things took place in Kandinsky's life between the first abstraction in 1910 and the later refined abstractions. In 1910 Kandinsky meets Franz Marc and they found Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) artists' group. Kandinsky meets Paul Klee in 1911. In 1912 Kandinsky publishes his first book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art.

The year 1914 brought disaster to Kandinsky's personal life. The Russian Empire and the German Empire went to to war. Kandinsky broke up with Gabriele Münter and went back to Russia. There had been the arranged marriage with his cousin but it is dissolved after a long period of separation. The Bolshevik regime sought to gain the support of artists and writers and so Kandinsky was given assignments organizing museums. In 1917 Kandinsky married Nina Andreevskaya. In 1918 he was appointed professor at the University of Moscow. His work was exhibited until the style of Social Realism became the dominant artistic style dictated by the Bolsheviks.

In 1921 Kandinsky and his wife left Russia and settled in Germany. In 1922 he was given a teaching position in the Bauhaus school of architecture and applied art in Weimar. In 1925 the Bauhaus school moved to Dessau and Kandinsky moved with it. In 1928 he became a German citizen.

In 1933 the National Socialist government of Adolph Hitler closed the Bauhaus school. Kandinsky and his wife then moved to Paris and in 1934 he became a French citizen. Wassily Kandinsky died in 1944 at the age of 77. His was a full, multifaceted and productive life.

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