His “Black Lines” oil on canvas from 1913 still show fragments of recognizable imagery.


By Linda Marx


Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a leader in avant-garde art as a founder of pure abstraction in early 20th century painting. His work is on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City through spring 2016.

As a young boy growing up in Moscow, Vasily Kandinsky lived through the divorce of his musical parents. At age five, he moved to Odessa to stay with an aunt. There he learned to play piano and cello at school, and he studied drawing with a coach. Soon, he became fascinated with color.

According to the biography of this respected leader of the abstract art movement in the early 20th century, his works of that time reveal specific color combinations infused by his perception that “each color lives by its mysterious life.”

Although he later wrote, “I remember that drawing, and a little bit later painting, lifted me out of the reality,” he ended up going to law school as his family urged, entering the University of Moscow in 1886. He graduated with honors and got a field scholarship where he visited the Vologda province to study their traditional criminal jurisprudence and religion.

While there, he became interested in folk art, especially the use of bright colors on a dark background. His spiritual studies seemed to “stir up latent longings,” yet he married his cousin Anna Chimyakina in 1892 and took a position on the Moscow Faculty of Law, managing an art-printing works on the side.

Despite his attempts at a career in law, a pair of events shaped the rest of his life, bringing him a career change in 1896. He saw an exhibition of the French impressionists, including Claude Monet’s “Haystacks at Giverny,” his first experience of nonrepresentational art, and he heard composer Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at the Bolshoi Theatre.

His works of that time reveal specific color combinations infused by his perception that “each color lives by its mysterious life.”

Mesmerized and obsessed with Monet, he decided to abandon his law career and move to Munich to devote himself fulltime to the study of art. He likened painting to composing music in the manner of which he would become noted, writing, “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

In Munich, Kandinsky was accepted into a private painting school before attending the Academy of Fine Arts, called Royal Academy of Fine Arts at the time. But much of his study was self-directed. He began to form theories derived from his spiritual studies and his fascination with music and color. These theories kept him focused through the first decade of the 20th century and led him toward the status of “father of abstract art.”

He taught art classes and published his controversial ideas on art theory. In 1903, he met art student Gabriele Munter and moved in with her before finalizing his divorce from his previous wife, Anna Chimyakina, in 1911. The new couple traveled, got engaged, settled in Bavaria before World War I, but split and never married.

He formed the New Artists Association in Munich; the Blue Rider group with artist Franz Marc, and he later became a member of the Bauhaus Movement, the school of art and applied design founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, with his painter pal Paul Klee and composer Arnold Schoenberg.

In December 1911, his treatise Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art), laid out a program for developing an art independent from observations of the external world. He advanced abstraction’s potential to be free from nature. The development of a new subject matter based solely on the artist’s “inner necessity” would occupy him for the rest of his life.

each color lives by its mysterious life.

World War I took him back to Russia where he was influenced by the constructionist movement based on dots, geometry and hard lines. While there, at age 50, he fell in love with a much younger woman named Nina Andreevskaya, the daughter of a Russian army general. They married and had a son who died at age three.

“Circles on Black” oil on canvas from 1921 shows the relationship between colors and elementary forms.

They remained in Russia while Kandinsky helped the administration of educational and government-run art programs, helping to create Moscow’s Institute of Artistic Culture and the Museum of Pictorial Culture.

Back in Germany, he taught at the Bauhaus School in Berlin and wrote plays and poems. In 1933, when the Nazis took over, storm troopers shut down the school. Even though Kandinsky was a German citizen, he had to leave because of World War II. In July, 1937, he and other artists were featured in the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” in Munich. It was well attended but 57 of his works were confiscated by the Nazis, according to published reports.

He and Nina moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, France when artist Marcel Duchamp found them an apartment. After the Germans invaded France in 1940, the couple fled to the Pyrenees but later returned to Neuilly, where they lived a secluded life. Reports indicated that the artist was depressed because his paintings weren’t selling.

However, while he was still considered controversial, Kandinsky had earned prominent supporters such as Solomon Guggenheim and continued to exhibit until his death from cerebrovascular disease on December 13, 1944.

According to the Guggenheim’s records, it was Hilla Rebay, an artist, art advisor and the Guggenheim Museum’s first director, who encouraged founder Solomon Guggenheim to seriously collect Kandinsky’s work in 1929, and to meet him at the Bauhaus in Germany.

This introduction initiated an ongoing acquisition period of Kandinsky’s art, and more than 150 works have entered the museum’s collection. In fact, the Guggenheim’s collection of Kandinsky works is the largest in the U.S. and the third largest in the world. Since the 2004 exhibition, “An Inaugural Selection”, the Guggenheim’s Kandinsky Gallery has primarily featured a rotating selection of focused presentations of his work arranged by theme, period, location of production, or medium.

The current exhibition includes paintings selected from the artist’s beginnings in Munich at the start of the century, the return to Moscow at the outbreak of World War I, his interwar years in Germany as a Bauhaus teacher, and his final chapter near Paris.