Our 21st century eyes don’t appreciate Wassily Kandinsky’s radical artistic leap into total abstraction. (Russian. December 16, 1866 – December 13, 1944.)
Improvisation No. 29, 1912. Collection of Solomon R. Guggenheum Museum
My favorite art history professor projected an image of a Kandinsky painting onto the screen and said, “This is considered to be the first completely abstract painting created in the history of western art. Painted by Wassily Kandinsky in 1910.” The piece looked utterly current, absolutely new — modern. “Visualize the methods of transportation in 1910,” she said. “Imagine how people washed their clothes in 1910. How did people communicate in 1910? What did women wear? They weren’t allowed to vote.” And then she swept her arm toward the screen. “THIS was painted in 1910!”
Kandinsky’s paintings were experiments, testing his complex theories about line, shape and color, and our psychological reactions to them. He believed that color, shape and line — in and of themselves, devoid of all representation — created emotional reactions. Eliminate all subject matter from a painting and, simple line, shape and color will create psychological reactions within their viewers. We experience blue one way, red another; straight line one way, curved another — as purely abstract elements.
In 1912, Kandinsky published his treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which was widely embraced by his contemporaries and future generations of artists. It radically altered the trajectory of art as we know it.
Compositon VII, 1913. Collection of The State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia