MODERN TRENDS

EXPRESSIONISM / VASILY KANDINSKY

INTRODUCTION

    In 1912, Vasily Kandinsky stated that his painting had become “abstract”. So what did he mean by this?

    First of all, he was distinguishing it from being “figurative”. He did not paint an apple to look like an apple. He saw the apple and had sensations or impressions of its colour and its shape, of its redness and its roundness. Red-roundness are what would have appeared on his canvas.

    These are the qualities of things. Abstract art is the painting of qualities, of what gives essence to all the things of the world, of their relationships, of movement and their kinds, of contrasts, of all those aspects that make an object particular and unique.

    Such qualities are what Kandinsky observed in his looking around in the world, and then he took the next step – to be aware of his own very personal reactions to his observations of qualities. He called them his “impressions” and in the case of colours he could describe his reactions to them, such as “shrill canary yellow”.

    And since the spectator can experience all these things, an abstract painting may have an abundance of sense impressions, as Kandinsky called them, to which he gave shape and colour.

    So these sense impressions can be used to paint a picture since qualities are their vehicle. They thus become the source of the spectator’s experience of a painting.

    [Kandinsky . Complete Writings on Art. Edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo. Volume. One, London, Faber and Faber, 1982.]

    PAINTING WITH WHITE BORDER, 1913

    In 1913 Kandinsky selected reproductions of 25 paintings for an album which was published in October by the Galerie der Sturm in Berlin. It was titled Rückblicke / Reminiscences, but Review is a better translation because for the artist it meant the making visible of the memory, that vast panorama with both its pictures and all the impressions and sensations that went with them.

    In this sense, Kandinsky’s painting is autobiographical, the autobiography of what his eyes had seen and his heart remembered. As he wrote in his introduction to the album, most of his painting at the time was influenced by his love of Moscow, and in choosing to write about three paintings, he chose one that had been inspired by the city where he had spent some time in December 1912.

    V. Kandinsky, Painting with White Border, 1913. Oil on canvas, 140.4 x 200.3 cm. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York

    He had titled it Painting with White Border, and wrote that it was “the outcome of those recent, as always extremely powerful impressions I had experienced in Moscow itself”. Then as he concluded in the introduction to his album, “I regard this entire city of Moscow, both its internal and external aspect, as the origin of my artistic ambitions. It is the tuning fork for my painting”.

    So how did Kandinsky experience Moscow both while visiting it in the winter of 1912, and in remembering it – what he had seen and what he had felt – in the first half of 1913? We will “take a stroll within the picture… and become absorbed in it, forgetful of ourselves”, to paraphrase Kandinsky’s words, in three pictures. For in addition to the final version, the Guggenheim canvas, one is a depiction of part of the composition and belongs to the Phillips Collection in Washington D. C.. It was twinned with the Guggenheim painting for the exhibition, Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence – Painting with White Border, held at the Phillips Collection in 2011.

     V. Kandinsky, Sketch 1 for Painting with White Border (Moscow), 1913. Oil on canvas, 100.5 x 78.5 cm., Phillips Collection, Washington D. C.

    INTRODUCTION

    In 1912, Vasily Kandinsky stated that his painting had become “abstract”. So what did he mean by this? First of all, he was distinguishing it from being “figurative”. He did not paint an apple to look like an apple. He saw the apple and had sensations or impressions of its colour and its shape, of its redness and its roundness. Red-roundness are what would have appeared on his canvas. These are the qualities of things. Abstract art is the painting of qualities, of what gives essence to all the things of the world, of their relationships, of movement and their kinds, of contrasts, of all those aspects that make an object particular and unique. Such qualities are what Kandinsky observed in his looking around in the world, and then he took the next step – to be aware of his own very personal reactions to his observations of qualities. He called them his “impressions” and in the case of colours he could describe his reactions to them, such as “shrill canary yellow”. And since the spectator can experience all these things, an abstract painting may have an abundance of sense impressions, as Kandinsky called them, to which he gave shape and colour. So these sense impressions can be used to paint a picture since qualities are their vehicle. They thus become the source of the spectator’s experience of a painting.

    [Kandinsky . Complete Writings on Art. Edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo. Volume. One, London, Faber and Faber, 1982.]

    The two paintings side-by-side.

    The other is what he would refer to in his article as a Large Study, quite possibly the work that inspired him to add the white border; it has recently been re-discovered in a private collection.

    V. Kandinsky, Painting with White Border – Large Study, 1913. Oil on canvas, 140 x 225 cm. Private Collection

    During his some 6 months of creative activity, Kandinsky did over 15 designs, sketches, and drawings including gouaches and oil paintings, both small and large. The three paintings reproduced here together reveal the immense variety of Kandinsky’s experiences of Moscow in colours, shapes and relationships. The artist describes these beginning with what he called the “two centres” of the composition, but says nothing about the differences in the overall lighting of the paintings – they would seem to capture Moscow during the day and at a less luminous moment – perhaps twilight.

    He begins with mention of the troika motif (upper left), the “threesome” of horses attached to a winter sleigh in December.

    A troika sleigh. Etching in Teatro universale, Raccolta enciclopedica e scenografica, No 110, August 6, 1836 

    A troika. Postcard c. 1900.

    Kandinsky writes that there had “long since harbored within me” this motif, and it appears as three blobs at the top of a line, the horses held in their harnesses in two of the paintings. In the Large Study, however, the painter has captured all the animation of the horses as they have been dispersed and moved into the painting itself.

    (Guggenheim painting)

    (Guggenheim painting)

    Phillips Sketch 1

    (Phillips Sketch 1)

    Large Study
    (Large Study)
    “In the upper left-hand corner”, the artist wrote that the pigments themselves convey sensations, saying that Prussian Blue is a “duly sonorous cold colour”, while Naples Yellow has “dramatic clarity” in its light transparency. And Kandinsky concluded that there were “clarity and simplicity”, “blurred dissolution, with smaller dissolved forms vaguely seen in the lower right”.
    (Guggenheim painting)
    Lower right-hand corner (Guggenheim)
    Phillips Sketch 1
    Lower right-hand corner (Large Study)

    Now the painter begins to discuss the “two centres” found in the composition. One is in the middle left with reds, the other is in the middle right with blues and greens. Kandinsky’s remarks interweave colour and his feelings about them.
    On the middle left Kandinsky writes that there is a “combination of standing forms, which approach the second centre, with pure, powerfully sounding touches of colour, the red somewhat fluid, the blue self-absorbed (pronounced concentric movement). The means employed are thus also extremely simple, and quite undisguised and clear”, as he says.

    (Guggenheim painting)
    Middle left (Guggenheim)
    Phillips Sketch 1
    Middle left (Sketch 1)
    Large Study
    Middle left (Large Study)

    He continues, describing the blue colours:
    “The other centre on the right: broad, curving brushstrokes (which cost me a great deal of effort). This second centre has both towards the outside and on the inside, incandescent (almost white) zigzag forms, which bestow upon the rather melancholy character of this curved shape the overtones of the energetic ‘inner boiling’. Which is extinguished (in a sense, putting it over-explicitly) by the dull blue tones, which only occasionally attain a more strident pitch and which, taken together, enclose the upper part of the picture with a more or less egg-shaped background. It is like a small, autonomous realm….”

    Thus does Kandinsky describe the blue-green area. As seen in the three paintings, they are all different in his experience but they are all similar in the painting’s composition as a whole.

    (Guggenheim painting)
    Middle right (Guggenheim)
    Phillips Sketch 1
    Middle right (Sketch 1)
    Large Study
    Middle right (Large Study)

    It took Kandinsky 5 months to finish the composition when, as he described it, one evening “I was sitting looking in the twilight at the second large-scale study” – perhaps the painting reproduced above – “when it suddenly dawned on me what was missing – the white border”.

    Then “I went straightaway to my supplier and ordered the canvas.” And he added the white border: “in the lower left a chasm, out of which rises a white wave that suddenly subsides, only to flow around the right-hand side of the picture in lazy coils, forming in the upper right a lake (where the black bubbling comes about), disappearing towards the upper left-hand corner, where it makes its last, definitive appearance in the picture in the form of a white zigzag.”

    Thus we have strolled around Moscow in three paintings, impressions of “my fairy tale Moscow”. They are similar in their compositions but with differences in the colours, shapes and arrangements, thus giving us a number of sensations, but now of paintings. We have begun with an imagination of Moscow and ended in the sensations of the paintings themselves.

    Note on the Pigments

    The pigments used by Kandinsky for these three paintings are generally the same, the comparisons below based on those analysed. The Guggenheim and Phillips Collection paintings were analysed by scientists in these museums, while the Large Study was investigated by the Paris scientist, Laurette Thomas of ArtAnalysis Paris.

    Phillips, Washington D. C.Guggenheim, New YorkPrivate Collection
    white leadwhite lead
    zinc whitezinc white
    chromium oxide green or viridianchromium oxide green chromium oxide green
    Naples yellow[Naples yellow]
    cadmium yellowcadmium yellow
    chrome yellowchrome yellow
    cadmium red
    red oxidered iron oxides
    vermilion[vermilion]vermilion
    Prussian bluePrussian blue
    ultramarineultramarineultramarine blue
    cerulean blue
    carbon blackcarbon black
    bone blackbone black
         earth pigment

    All these pigments are standard 19th century pigments (if not earlier), and they make up a palette through the spectrum of light.