Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) is generally credited as the pioneer of Abstract Art. For this visionary and influential painter and art theorist, colour and music shared an inseparable and profound bond.
Kandinsky recounts an extraordinary visual reaction he experienced while attending a performance of Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ – “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me”.
In fact, the influence of music inhabits most of Kandinsky’s artwork. In his ground-breaking 1912 Treatise ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, Kandinsky espouses the deep interconnectedness of colour, shape, form, music, art, spirituality and the soul.
Impressions, Improvisations and Compositions
Exploring the connection between art and music even further, Kandinsky went so far as to give generic titles to his abstract paintings based on musical terminology. ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ outlines his three basic classifications:
Impressions – “A direct impression of outward nature, expressed in purely artistic form”
Improvisations – “A largely unconscious, spontaneous expression in inner character, the non-material nature”
Compositions – “An expression of a slowly formed inner feeling, which comes to utterance only after long maturing. In this, reason, consciousness, purpose, play an overwhelming part. But of the calculation nothing appears, only the feeling”
Kandinsky painted a collection of 10 ‘Compositions’ between 1907 and 1939. Unfortunately, the first three of these large-scale works were destroyed in the second world war, but from what remains of sketches and photographs at the time, art historians can piece together the concept of an overarching sequence of paintings which were intended to be the musical equivalent of a cycle of ‘Symphonies’.
The ‘Improvisations’ have variously been described as less immense, more dramatic – perhaps more akin to a ‘Concerto’.
While the ‘Impressions’ may have a less musical title, several of them were apparently specifically written in response to hearing particular pieces of music.
Perhaps this painting was inspired by a concert Kandinsky attended? When I look at the work, I can easily image the hustle and bustle of concert-goers filing into a large auditorium, the vibrant colours giving a sense of urgency and anticipation. Maybe it’s because I play the piano, but to me, the large, black, almost triangular shaped block of colour suggests the lid of a grand piano.
Kandinsky’s extraordinary ability to simultaneously experience music and colour so vividly (which he described at the opera performance) comes from the neurological phenomenon called synesthesia.
From the Greek syn meaning ‘join’ and aesthesis meaning ‘perception’, individuals experiencing synesthesia will have one sensory input involuntarily stimulate a second sensory pathway. For example, when someone hears a cat meow, they may experience the taste of an apple. In Kandinsky’s case, he saw colours when he heard music, and experienced sound when he painted.
Michael T. H. Sadler, the translator of Kandinsky’s ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, states in his introduction to the book, “Kandinsky is painting music. That is to say, he has broken down the barrier between music and painting, and has isolated the pure emotion which, for want of a better name, we call the artistic emotion.”
A Personal Note
The more I’ve investigated Kandinsky’s paintings, the more I’ve come to like them, even though many appear challenging and sometimes difficult to understand. But perhaps that’s the point. The less you try to ‘understand’ and ‘rationalise’, the more you ‘see’; not from a representational or pictorial viewpoint, but ‘instinctively’ and ’emotionally’.
Embracing the endless interplay of colours, tracing the developing shapes and patterns and absorbing the entire canvas as one dynamic entity is incredibly rewarding.
Out of all of Kandinsky’s works, I would have to say, this is probably my favourite, ‘Yellow – Red – Blue’ painted in 1925.