A Life Imbued with Music

"The artist is the hand that, by the appropriate use of such or such a key, causes the human soul to vibrate"

Wassily Kandinsky and a friend playing the cello and piano (c. 1886) by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

Music was a favorite source of reflection for Kandinsky: it let him design a renewal of shapes which inspired him throughout his whole life

As a cultured wealthy bourgeois Muscovite, music was, of course, part of his education. Kandinsky studied the piano and cello and his parents both also played an instrument. 

Since 1908, Kandinsky had been developing ideas about music and theater, and creating "stage compositions" which spilled out of the frame of the painting on an easel.

The Bolshoi Theater in Moscow (c. 1900) by Daziaro, J.Centre Pompidou

An admirer of Wagner after having seen a production of Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theater in 1896,  Kandinsky envisaged a  new performance art in which  musical, pictorial, and physical movement were combined in a tapestry of harmony and dissonance. 

Stage Directions for Yellow Sound (c.1909) by Von Hartman, ThomasCentre Pompidou

Yellow Sound, a stage composition for an opera in one act created with composer Thomas von Hartmann, was a work full of color and light. 

Page of the Blaue Reiter Almanach by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

"Every art has its own language; that is to say, means that belong to it alone, but the means are identical because they work toward the same goal: affirming the human spirit through a spiritual process, at once indefinable and yet fixed (vibration)," wrote Kandinsky in the chapter On Stage Composition in the Blue Rider Almanac. 

Composition IV - Black Figure (c. 1808) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

 Kandinsky brought new life to the "total art" so dear to Wagner through a dynamic understanding of the relationships between artistic practices. 

Bild XVI. Das Grosse Tor Von Kiew (Paiting XVI. The Great Door of Kiev), preparatory drawing for the staging of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (1928) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

It was on the stage of the Friedrich-Theater in Dessau that Kandinsky developed his experimental research. The Bauhaus was a fertile ground for new inquiries. 

"Bilder einer Ausstellung, Tableaux d'une exposition", partition by Modest Moussorgsky with annotations and diagrams by Félix Klee (1928)Centre Pompidou

Kandinsky staged Pictures at an Exhibition, a series of 10 pieces for piano created by Russian composer Mussorgsky, after seeing an exhibition of paintings by Viktor Hartmann when he visited St Petersburg.

Study for Impression III (Konzert) (1911) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

On January 2, 1911, Marc and Kandinsky, along with other members of the NKVM, attended a concert by Arnold Schönberg. 

Impression III (Concert) (1911) by Wassily KandinskyStädtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau

Blown away, the very next day, Kandinsky began the first sketches of what would become one of his most beautiful paintings, the famous Impression III (Concert), a work and manifesto on the liberation of color and its correspondence with sound. 

The  canvas composition is arranged according to the principles used in music: variations on a theme, reprise in canon, growing and fading rhythms.

 With its yellow wave evoking a vibrant emanation of a high pitch, it is a masterful example of the representation of synesthesia: the color visualization of an acoustic phenomenon. 


Über Das Geistige in der Kunst (Of the Spiritual in Art) Über Das Geistige in der Kunst (Of the Spiritual in Art) (1912) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

The gift of synesthesia is probably at the origin of the pictorial theories that Kandinsky brought together in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and in painting in particular, published by Piper at the end of 1911.

Impression V (Park) (1911) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

In this treatise, the painter says of yellow that it "irritates man, pricks him, excites him." He associated it with the brightest tones, corresponding to the sound of "a trumpet playing high notes, more and more loudly" or to the "brilliant sound of a fanfare."

In the most famous passage of the treatise, Kandinsky explains the global functioning of his pictorial theory :

Über Das Geistige in der Kunst (Of the Spiritual in Art) Über Das Geistige in der Kunst (Of the Spiritual in Art) (1912) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

"As a general rule, color is thus a means to exert a direct influence on the soul. The color is the key. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the many-stringed piano. The artist is the hand that, by the appropriate use of such or such a key, causes the human soul to vibrate. It is thus clear that the harmony of colors must rest solely on the principle of efficiently coming into contact with the human soul. This basis will be defined as the principle of internal necessity." 

Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg in a garden in Pörtschach Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg in a garden in Pörtschach (1927) by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

Impressed by the audacious innovations of atonality, Kandinsky embarked on a rich exchange of letters with the Viennese composer on the correspondence between dissonance in music and in painting. 

Wassily, Nina Kandinsky, Arnold Schönberg and his wife in Pörtschach Wassily, Nina Kandinsky, Arnold Schönberg and his wife in Pörtschach (1927) by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

In his first letter to the composer on January 18, 1911, Kandinsky wrote:

"The specific destiny, the independent pathways, the unique lives and individual voices in your compositions are exactly what I am looking for in pictorial form."

In Kandinsky's opinion, painting should catch up with music, which is an intrinsically abstract art. From this first letter, a friendship grew between the two men that lasted until the war pushed them apart in 1914. At the same time, Kandinsky set to work on translating Schönberg for publication in Russia. 

First exhibition "Le Cavalier Bleu" [Der Blaue Reiter] at Thannhauser gallery in Munich (1911) by Münter, GabrieleCentre Pompidou

Schönberg revealed to Kandinsky that he also painted. While his constructive approach differed from Kandinsky's colorful and visionary art, Kandinsky, committed to dissonance in art, asked him to participate in the famous editorial exhibition of Blue Rider which was held at the Thannhauser gallery from December 18, 1911. 

Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky in the Bauhaus park in Dessau (c. 1926) by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

In Munich, Kandinsky also became friends with painter Paul Klee, who remained dear to him his whole life. 

Paul Klee, who wrote in his Journal: "I have never remained on good terms with anyone but music" was also a musician and was married to a pianist. 

Accord réciproque (Reciprocal Accords) (1942) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

The titles of his work are eloquent: Fugue, Composition, which is also the title of works by Kandinsky,  Polyphony, Rhythm, Harmony, Key and even The Order of the High C.

Again in his Journal, Klee wrote of "polyphonic painting that surpasses music insofar as the temporal is more spatial there." 

Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee on the terrace of the teacher's house in Dessau (c. 1930) by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

The thought exchanges between Klee and Kandinsky were particularly intense in Munich through the Blue Rider project and at the Bauhaus in Dessau, where they were neighbors. 

They are both on a quest for formal elements, such as the drawing of lines or the rhythmic organisation of pictorial elements that music can bring to painting.  

KN der Schmied (KN the forger) (1922) by Klee, PaulCentre Pompidou

They revolutionized the art of the 20th century by searching for the relationships between different arts and connecting music and painting in their practice.  

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