Vassily Kandinsky, A Pioneer of Abstract art

From 1910, Vassily Kandinsky and other pioneers gradually moved away from figurative painting, with his theory of a spiritual approach to art

Centre Pompidou

As Paul Valéry stated at the time, "For the last 20 years, neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial." And so Abstract art was born. 

Portrait de Wassily Kandinsky in a painter's smock by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

Based on the independent nature of form and color, abstract art, no longer trying to depict reality, appeared at the beginning of the 20th century as a gradual movement away from the figurative and the objective. 

Seen as the inventor of pictorial abstraction with his treatise "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," a text that became canonical, Vassily Kandinsky imposed a radical break from everything that had come before him. 

By separating painting from recognizable material forms, a painting becomes nothing more than a painting, referencing nothing but itself. 

Kandinsky believed that people should look at the color, form, and language of art which, as the artist's "inner necessity," was a means by which thoughts and emotions could be directly transmitted.

Mit dem schwarzen Bogen (Picture with a Black Arch) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

This meant that everyone could view an artwork, since it is "a conversation from one soul to another," a direct and unconventional communication "from one soul to another." 

Jüngster Tag (The Day of the Last Judgement) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

In 1896, Kandinsky was 30 years old when he discovered Claude Monet's Haystacks (Les Meules) in a Moscow gallery. When he saw them, he was moved by the fact that he was unable to recognize what the painter had depicted. 

He wrote that "The objects were discredited as necessary elements of the painting."  

Portrait of Wassily Kandinsky by Thiele, R.Centre Pompidou

This striking and lasting revelation was enough to motivate him to stop his university studies and leave for Munich, where he enrolled at the highly prestigious Fine Arts Academy. 

Dimitri Kardovski between a man in a smock and Kandinsky at Anton Azbé's painting school in Munich by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

Some time later, one evening in his studio, it was a painting laid upside down, thereby making the shapes unrecognizable, which made Kandinsky realize that the essential is beyond reality.

Murnau, Landschaft mit Turm (Murnau, Landscape with Tower) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

During his years as a student, Kandinsky developed a "colored spot" aesthetic, with canvases inspired by scenes from Russian folklore and popular art. 

Lied (Song) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

However, disappointed by the German institutional art system and the art critic environment, he began to travel frequently with Gabrielle Münter, whom he met around that time and who prompts him to buy a house in the countryside in Murnau to spend the summer :  the Russenhaus or Russian House.  

Murnau, Landschaft mit Turm (Murnau, Landscape with Tower) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

From 1908, Kandinsky preferred being out in nature with his paintbox around Murnau, where the freshness of the landscapes inspired his colors and paintings on glass, which was a local tradition. 

The Fauves that he discovered in Paris and which firmly assert the painter's view of a world to which he gives his own colours are also a great source of inspiration. With all this practice with landscapes, Kandinsky pursued his quest for "impressions of inner nature."

Herbst in Bayern (Autumn in Bavaria) by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

The Improvisations series showed that he continued to move between figuration and abstraction.

But he had now discovered the power of colors and the free play of vibrations, and so began to gradually move away from motif and replace the colors of nature with strong, full colors. 

Improvisation 3 by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

It was at this time that Kandinsky published his work Concerning the Spiritual in Art in 1912. This was an essential text theorizing his practice and which was largely imbued with an esoteric and scientific cultural context. 

At the time, people were fascinated by the phenomena of materialization, radiation, and the transfer of sensations.  

Portrait de Wassily Kandinsky in a painter's smock by AnonymousCentre Pompidou

By favoring a poetic and subjective approach to art, Kandinsky described the harmony of color theory as relating to six variations (blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and purple) which could be divided into two groups: warm colors and cool colors.

Improvisation XIV by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

Not to mention the dynamic interaction of black and white. Kandinsky would then delimit these colors with a shape, and his approach to shapes was also radically new. He defined a line as "the imprint of energy, the visible trace of the invisible." 

Improvisation 20 by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

Therefore Kandinsky's vocabulary, which made him one of the most important artists of the 20th century, developed through three main fields: improvisations, impressions, and then compositions where only dynamic lines, triangles, arcs, semi-circles and colored masses interacted. 

Abstraction, a key moment in the history of art and the effects of which are still felt today, suggests that one of the promises of the avant-garde, and of Kandinsky in particular, was less to do with the traditional codes of representation and more to do with inventing a new immediate relationship between the artist and the spectator.

Composition IX by Kandinsky, VassilyCentre Pompidou

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