Wassily Kandinsky could have been the premier abstract artist of the 20th century is a world at war had no twice interfered with his artistic career and destroyed three of his early works. Kandinsky was born in Russia in 1866 and soon moved to Germany where he worked with the Bauhaus School of expressionist painters integrating art in architecture and design (“Artcyclopedia”). He also founded the Der Blaue Reiter, a group of artists attempting to express and define spirituality through art (“Artcyclopedia”) Kandinsky believed that music and art should be integrated as a well as a means of defining the influence of the soul on the outer world.
To that end, he began his series called Composition and had completed 7 of them before the beginning of World War II. Tragically, the first three canvases in the series were destroyed during the war. While Kandinsky could not have planned for the destruction of his work, the loss of the first three Composition pieces helps complete the series as an allegory for his life, the ultimate tribute to a man who believe art should be spiritual.
At the only time in recent history when the entire collection, with full-size black and white photos of the lost three holding their place, was displayed, reviewer Mark harden called Kandinsky one of he most original and influential artists of the 20th century. “His “inner necessity” to express his emotional perceptions led to the development of an abstract style of painting that was based on the non-representational properties of color and form. Kandinsky’s compositions were the culmination of his efforts to create a “pure painting” that would provide the same emotional power as a musical composition.
The exhibition “Kandinsky: Compositions”, organized by Magdalena Dabrowski and on display at the Los Angeles County Art Museum until September 3, 1995, presents these monumental works together for the first and possibly last time and provides an opportunity to witness the creative process of Kandinsky” (Harden, 1995). The loss of the first three works and the attempt at representing them in the show left the viewer with a great sense of loss, Harden wrote, but perhaps more interesting is the fact they were lost at sometime near the artist’s death in 1944. That they were destroyed in Germany during the war as some much of his life had been as well simply adds an ironic twist to the entire project.
The other twist on the Composition series is that the final painting is the only one of the series done on a black background. In 1911, when he was working on Composition IV and V, Kandinsky is quoted as saying, “(Black) is like the silence of the body after death, the close of life.” (Harden, 1995) He painted Composition X on a black background just five years before his death, when Germany was once again disrupting the world and taking the world back to war.
By 1911, Kandinsky was already a world-renowned painter and known for his desire to incorporate spirituality into his art but as tension rose in Europe, he returned to his native Moscow where he remained until 1921. Compositions VI and VII would be completed in 1913 and then he did not return to the series until a decade late. (Geggenheim, 2007). “Composition VII is the pinnacle of Kandinsky’s pre-World War One artistic achievement. The creation of this work involved over thirty preparatory drawings, watercolors and oil studies. Each of these is included in the exhibition, documenting the deliberate creative process used by Kandinsky in his compositions. Amazingly, once he had completed the preparatory work, Kandinsky executed the actual painting of Composition VII in less than four days.” (Harden, 1995).
Composition VII may have also been intended to be his finale in the series as art scholars “through Kandinsky’s writings and study of the less abstract preparatory works, have determined that Composition VII combines the themes of The Resurrection, The Last Judgment, The Deluge and The Garden of Love in an operatic outburst of pure painting” (Harden, 1995). Because Kandinsky had such a strong belief in the use of abstraction to present underlying themes with symbols and it is likely that he had intended this wrapping up of religious themes to be his final work in the series (Long, 1975). Then, he began his self-imposed exile to his native land and stayed there until it appeared Germany was a haven again for thought and progress.
In 1922, he joined Bauhaus and in 1923, painted Compositions VIII, like all the works in the series it was highly representational of his emotions and mental state at the time of its painting. “Composition VIII reflects the influence of Suprematism and Constructivism absorbed by Kandinsky while in Russia prior to his return to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus. Here, Kandinsky has moved from color to form as the dominating compositional element. Contrasting forms now provide the dynamic balance of the work; the large circle in the upper left plays against the network of precise lines in the right portion of the canvas.” (Harden, 1975) This work also is more bright and less chaotic than his final pre-war effort, possible indicative of a more upbeat and spiritual peaceful time. Kandinsky was making progress in his work, developing with the group at Bauhaus and gaining additional international acclaim. His first solo show in New York coincided with this work (Guggenheim, 2007).
Perhaps this perceived happiness and his involvement in other pursuits is why it would be another 10 years before Kandinsky added another painting to the Compositions series. He gained citizenship in Germany in 1928 and seemed contented in his new homeland until 1933 when Bauhaus was one of the early casualties of the Nazi government. He then moved to France where his Composition IX was definitely influenced by the surrealists gaining popularity there (Harden, 1995). After Composition IX was completed in 1936, Europe once again became an ugly place to live and in 1937, 57 of Kandinsky’s works were seized by the Nazi government.(Guggenheim, 2007). Some, like the first three Composition pieces, were destroyed.
Two years later, in 1939, Kandinsky completed the series, breaking from all the previous works and creating his work on a field of black. Given his earlier statements about the color and the loss of his other works, it is no doubt a reflection of the very pain in Kandinsky’s soul brought on by the second World War. “The outstanding characteristic of Composition X is obviously the stark, black ground. The colors and forms appear particularly sharp against the black background. The brilliance of the colored shapes brings to mind the cutouts done by Matisse over a decade later.
The movement of the forms is distinctly upward and outward from both sides of a central axis running through the book-like form near the top of the canvas. This movement enhances the evocation of hot-air balloon forms rising into an infinite space. The round form between the book shape and the brown balloon shape has a lunar feel to it that even conveys a feeling of literal “outer space”. Kandinsky had always expressed a strong dislike for the color black and it is significant that he chose it as the dominating color of his last major artistic statement.” (Harden, 1995).
Ultimately, the reviewer is right and the final Composition is kandinsky’s statement about his loss and the world at war. “For Kandinsky, if that objective element of a painting were taken away, the building blocks of the composition would reveal themselves to cause a feeling of repose and tranquil repetition, of well-balanced parts.” (Dabrowski, 1995). The artist spent a lifetime telling the world that he disliked the color black and that his work was all about the symbolism and the meaning behind the painting itself. It makes perfect sense then that his final major work would be about death itself and the life that has been interposed over it. Whether Kandinsky knew that Compositions X would be among his final works is not clear.
What is clear is that death too is symbolic of loss and pain, emotions that the highly spiritual Kadinsky could not help but feel when his work was captured by the Nazi regime. Perhaps more so than even the usual artist, Kandinsky was tied to his art, deeply and emotional. That they were an expression of his belief system and his very soul make the loss of the first three Compositions even more tragic.
Sadly, World War II was a horrible time for the great works, with many works of art lost forever to the savages of war. The difference in Kandinsky’s work, as opposed to other great masters, is that the artist was still alive and he was able to present one last finale, to express the pain and rage and the destruction and to show that life, even without art, must sometimes go on.
Dabrowski, Magdelena. “Kandinsky:Compositions” Museum of Modern art: New York, 1995.
“Geggenheim Museum”, http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_bio_71.html, November 14, 2007
Harden, Mark. “Kandinsky: Compositions” http://www.glyphs.com/art/kandinsky/, November 14, 2007.
Long, Rose-Carol Washton. “Kandinsky’s Abstract Style: The Veiling of Apocalyptic Folk Imagery”,Art Journal > Vol. 34, No. 3 (Spring, 1975), pp. 217-228 Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0004-3249%28197521%2934%3A3%3C217%3AKASTVO%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4 , November 14, 2007.
“Wassily Kandinsky” <http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/kandinsky_wassily.html> November 14, 2007.