Der Blaue Reiter (named after an emblem of St. George)

Vasily Kandinsky. Autumn in Bavaria
1908; Oil on cardboard, 33x45cm; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Form: Oil on canvas. Bright, saturated colors laid on in thick impastos. Impressionistic

Iconography: He's playing with the formal elements, texture, color, composition, light, and shadow. One of his earlier works, Kandinsky is here still very representational. Though the colors are bright and harmonious, the picture meant to be somewhat abstract, we still recognize it as a sunny lane seen through the trees.  We can see by this work that he is still very much in tune withthe idea of a harmonious symphony.

Context:  As a musician first, Kandinsky was interested in harmony and balance, he wanted his paintings to reflect beautiful music. "Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky spent his early childhood in Odessa. His parents played the piano and the zither and Kandinsky himself learned the piano and cello at an early age. The influence of music in his paintings cannot be overstated, down to the names of his paintings Improvisations, Impressions, and  Compositions. In 1886, he enrolled at the University of Moscow, chose to study law and economics, and after passing his examinations, lectured at the Moscow Faculty of Law. He enjoyed success not only as a teacher but also wrote extensively on spirituality, a subject that remained of great interest and ultimately exerted substantial influence in his work. In 1895 Kandinsky attended a French Impressionist exhibition where he saw Monet's Haystacks at Giverny. He stated, "It was from the catalog I learned this was a haystack. I was upset I had not recognized it. I also thought the painter had no right to paint in such an imprecise fashion. Dimly I was aware too that the object did not appear in the picture..." Soon thereafter, at the age of thirty, Kandinsky left Moscow and went to Munich to study life-drawing, sketching and anatomy, regarded then as basic for an artistic education. Ironically, Kandinsky's work moved in a direction that was of much greater abstraction than that which was pioneered by the Impressionists. It was not long before his talent surpassed the constraints of art school and he began exploring his own ideas of painting - "I applied streaks and blobs of colors onto the canvas with a palette knife and I made them sing with all the intensity I could..." Now considered to be the founder of abstract art, his work was exhibited throughout Europe from 1903 onwards, and often caused controversy among the public, the art critics, and his contemporaries. An active participant in several of the most influential and controversial art movements of the 20th century, among them the Blue Rider which he founded along with Franz Marc and the Bauhaus which also attracted Klee, Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), and Schonberg, Kandinsky continued to further express and define his form of art, both on canvas and in his theoretical writings. His reputation became firmly established in the United States through numerous exhbitions and his work was introduced to Solomon Guggenheim, who became one of his most enthusiastic supporters."



Vasily Kandinsky. Composition No. 2 1910
Form:  Oil on canvas. Thick impastos of saturated color.  "Color directly influences the soul.  Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.  The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul."

Iconography:  “Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds that are destined in and through conflict to create that new world called the work,” he wrote. For him, a work of art came into being the same wayas the cosmos, through catastrophes, and out of the cacophony." He tried to dissolve the object in order to create the whole.

Context: "Art historians still argue which was the first non-objective painting, but Kandinsky is clear on the subject: he did not paint it; he saw it, or allowed himself not to see it, to be more precise. It just happened suddenly, when he looked at one of his landscapes standing on its side against the wall and saw it as an abstraction. From this point, in every subsequent work, he tried to dissolve the object in order to create the whole. The final symphony was what he called “the music of the spheres” — or his “Moscow hour.” Kandinsky began to see all his paintings as music, compositions meant to reflect the increasingly turbulent world surrounding him. This did not sit well with his conservative minded comrades in Russia, to whom art was not an expression of inner feeling, it was a realistic view of mother Russia. Or, more succinctly, good propaganda. 
"During his Munich years, though considered a Russian artist, Kandinsky was a leader of Munich’s early expressionist scene, organizing the Phalanx exhibition club in 1901 and the New Artists’ Union in 1909. He published the famous Blue Rider almanac in 1911. At that time, Munich was one of the best cities in which to be a foreign artist. Still, inevitably, Kandinsky was considered “a Byzantine” by the conservative Munich critics, and “a degenerate follower of Western art” by the even more conservative critics in Russia.  Meanwhile, he was keen to maintain contact with Russia: he took part in Russian exhibitions; included Russian artists in his Munich projects; and sent his manuscript of On the Spiritual in Art to Russia where it was read at one of the meetings of the Artists’ Union in 1911 and became an important influence."


Vasily Kandinsky. Improvisation No. 30 (War Like Theme) 1913
oil on canvas 43 x 43" Chicago AI
Form: Oil on canvas. The picture is conceived of as a vibrant arrangement of rapidly moving color areas that make no reference to a storyline or object in external reality.

Iconography: "One of Kandinsky's Improvisations, which carries a subtitle (unusual for him at this period, especially because the subtitle does make an association with external reality). The only way to account for this is to realize the time period: one year before the outbreak of WWI. This image, perhapps more than any others by Kandinsky, expresses the theme of impending apocalypse. A reference to a firing cannon and buildings toppling over foreshadow the war and destruction to come. The drama here is backed up by the explosive formal dynamics, which act out his theme. Opposed to the orderly construction and restricted color range of Cubism and other hard-edge geometric abstraction; did not trust an art that evolved out of logic or the rationale; trusted only internal feelings and intuition. His art, thus, has a mystical core that takes form at this time in dreamy improvisations that are not earthbound. Space is conceived of as an unbounded, energy field; he has no interest in illusionistic one-point perspective. Line, shape, and color all have their own autonomy and function freely within the unbounded field. Note how the color bleeds here and suggests a slippage beyond any boundaries that would attempt to contain it.  The picture has its own reality, though this image does make reference to an external reality. Significantly, though, that external world is being destroyed; for Kandinsky it is the spirit that will rule in the end.  Germany in the years leading up to WWI where "joie de vivre" (joy of life) was not the atmosphere. In his desire to make abstraction spiritual, Kandinsky expresses the growing spiritual crisis of Germany, which moved abruptly from an agricultural society (close to nature) to a technological society (factories and German efficiency) due to the Industrial Revolution." 

Context: German Expressionist artists picked up on the apocalypse to come in the tense years leading up to war (1910-1914); the theme that they continually express or try to overcome is angst: an alienated anxiety. What they want to do is give visual form to inner life; they are, thus, against Mimesis. The art is highly subjective and they do not hesitate to exaggerate or abstract to express internal, felt reality. It is an art born out of inner necessity. There are two groups of German Expressionists: Die Brucke (the bridge) and Der Blaue Rieter (the Blue Rider). Kandinsky belongs to Der Blaue Reiter, which is an art that stresses intuition and a metaphysical projection beyond the world of matter through color and forms that push away from description and towards non-objectivity. The movement is typically more lyrical and romantic than the sharpened tensions and jagged edges of Die Brucke. Kandinsky had trouble letting go of  the object in the beginning for fear people would mistake his abstractions for formal decoration. This canvas was painted one year after he published his book, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" and one year before the outbreak of WWI. In its reference to a cannon and the destruction of cities, Kandinsky is perhaps expressing the "apocalyptic enthusiasm" that showed up in Franz Marc's work of 1913, as well (see "Fate of the Animals"). From 1910-12, Kandinsky had struggled to make a complete break with the objective world, realizing in the end that "the object  harms my painting." Though trained in the logic of law, Kandinsky wants only to be guided by creative intuition. In a scientific age, intuition is often looked on as fuzzy thinking; Kandinsky's book is an important theoretical text for making an argument that the intuitive is a valid position of  knowledge in its own right. Kandinsky would return to Russia, his homeland, during the war. When Russia has its own revolution in 1917,  Kandinsky becomes the director of the Russian museum system; during this short-lived period--the Heroic Period of Communism--Russia will emerge as the most progressive country for abstract art in all the world. In the 1920s, Kandinsky returns to Germany and joins the faculty at the Bauhaus, where his work begins to take on more of a geometric hard-edge; the book he writes in 1926, "Point and Line to Plane," suggests a different logic than the earlier "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," but Kandinsky's art will remain mystical and abstractly directed his whole career. He ends up in Paris where he dies in 1944."
(taken entirely from

"His inclination to spirituality must have seemed outdated, as must have his great reluctance to embrace the political and ideological project of the Bolshevik party as his own. For Malevich, Kandinsky was just a refined and uninteresting German. For young and fiercely Bolshevik constructivists, like the multitalented Rodchenko and his energetic wife, Varvara Stepanova, who were both working with Kandinsky at the Institute for Artistic Culture, he was an old man, still an artist only in a very outmoded sense. Rodchenko and Stepanova wanted to create in the social space rather than on the canvas. They even banned the word that was sacred to Kandinsky: “composition.” For them, the idea of composition was an anathema: a contemplative approach that they planned to abolish in favor of more active and ideological constructivism. And they succeeded. 

In late 1921, Kandinsky was forced to resign from his post as the director of the Institute of Artistic Culture. Very soon, he departed for Germany. By 1920, the first monograph about him was published in Germany; and in 1922, Walter Gropius appointed him to his faculty in Bauhaus. Kandinsky was almost sure that art in Russia had gone a way that was not exactly his own. There was no Moscow any more, just the USSR. But Kandinsky did not emigrate, far from it, at least originally. For a long time he was considered a representative – the representative, in fact – of the Soviet avant-garde, the one that worked abroad. And that was how he thought of himself, until 1927, when he had to take German citizenship: as a Soviet citizen, he would no longer be allowed to stay abroad or travel. For the same reason he took a French passport in 1939: to maintain his cosmopolitanism. “National anthems have now been sung in almost all the countries, but I am content not to be a singer,” he  wrote in 1938, six years before he died in his French exile. Still, Moscow remained at the core of his universalism, of his synthetic ideology opposed to artificial separation. “Moscow,” he  wrote, is defined by “the duality, the complexity, the extreme agitation, the conflict, and the confusion that mark its external appearance and in the end constitute a unified, individual countenance.” 


Composition VIII
1923 (140 Kb); Oil on canvas, 140 x 201 cm (55 1/8 x 79 1/8 in);
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Form: Oil on canvas. some saturated colors. assymetrical and geometrically abstract.  

Iconography: "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. Note also how Kandinsky uses different colors within the forms to energize their geometry: a yellow circle with blue halo versus blue circle with yellow halo; a right angle filled with blue and an acute angle colored pink. The background also works to enhance the dynamism of the composition. The design does not appear as a geometrical exercise on a flat plane, but seems to be taking place in an undefined space. The layered background colors - light blue at bottom, light yellow at top and white in the middle - define this depth. The forms tend to recede and advance within this depth, creating a dynamic, push-pull effect." 

Context: Kandinsky created a series of these "Compositions". "Kandinsky viewed the compositions as major statements of his artistic ideas. They share several characteristics that express this monumentality: the impressively large format, the conscious, deliberate planning of the composition, and the transcendence of representation by increasingly abstract imagery. Just as symphonies define milestones in the career of a composer, Kandinsky's compositions represented the culmination of his artistic vision at a given moment in his career. Regrettably, the first three compositions were destroyed during World War II. They are represented in the exhibition by full-scale, black-and-white photographic reproductions. One of the strengths of the exhibition is the assembly of preliminary studies for most of the works. These were done in oil, watercolor, ink and pencil.These help convey a sense of the three lost compositions, but cannot hope to replace the actual canvasses. The viewer is left with a profound feeling of loss for the
destroyed works."