How to Read Paintings: Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) by Wassily Kandinsky
There is a story about Wassily Kandinsky, that one night in his studio in Munich, he happened to notice something strange about one of his works.
The painting was both recognisable and yet oddly changed, having been turned on its side. Kandinsky said that in this moment he saw a painting “of extraordinary beauty, glowing with an inner radiance.” The unexpected arrangement of colours impressed him and went on to provide a new inspiration for his own trajectory as a painter. Kandinsky — later referred to as the “Lord of Abstraction” — made good use of this happy accident.
What I think we can learn about Kandinsky from this story was that he was open to seeing his own art with complete open-mindedness. Up until this point in history, no artist had deliberately presented a pure abstract painting. The difference with Kandinsky was that he saw in the arrangement of colours and shapes on a canvas a subject matter in itself.
Kandinsky was born in Russia in 1866 and spent his childhood in Moscow. It took him some time to find his bearings as a visual artist. Until the age of 30, he’d worked as a successful Moscow lawyer. A key moment in his artistic formation occurred when he saw one of Monet’s Haystack paintings. It caused in him a profound change of heart, and ultimately led him to move to Munich to study painting.
And yet, this was no overnight transformation. Kandinsky’s artistic sentiment had been brewing for many years. Even from a young age, he was overtly aware of his unusual sensitivity to colours. The textures and shades of the Moscow cityscape — Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square perhaps most prominent among them — left an enduring impression on him.
Other experiences cemented his preoccupation with colour. On a trip to the Moscow Royal Theatre, he watched a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin. The experience of listening to music whilst spontaneously visualising colour was “shattering”, as the artist later wrote: “I saw all the colours in my mind’s eye. Wild lines verging on the insane formed drawings before my very eyes.”
Kandinsky was an individual with a broad range of interests, and it’s hard not to ascribe his innovative approach to art at least part to his eclectic tastes. He seemed especially aware of the interconnected nature of things: for example, he kept a keen watch over the developments of science at the time and was particularly moved by the news of the discovery of radioactivity made by the French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel:
“In my soul the decay of the atom was the same as the decay of the whole world. Suddenly the sturdiest walls collapsed. Everything became uncertain, unsteady, and soft. It would not have amazed me if a stone had melted into air before me and become invisible.”
Kandinsky was a very competent draughtsman, as some of his early portraiture demonstrates. Yet his interest was always drawn to the question of what lay beyond or underneath external reality. He remained fascinated by the effect of bright colours, and in this regard developed a theory of colour combinations and what he called their “spiritual vibrations” on the viewer.
His early paintings of around 1905–7 drew on Russian folklore and displayed a fairy tale feel, whilst also adopting some of the painterly techniques of contemporary art of the time, such as applying thick daubs of paint to the canvas as many Post-Impressionists did.
1913 was a critical year for Kandinsky. He produced a number of so-called “Improvisations” that enabled him to more fully experiment with the various possibilities of colour harmony. In these works, figurative representation was almost entirely set aside in preference for a spontaneous play of abstract shapes.
Kandinsky had serious intentions for his art. As he explained in his manifesto Concerning the Spiritual in Art: “To a sensitive soul, the effect of colours is deeper and intensely moving. They produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spiritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance.”
Over and over, Kandinsky equated color with musical sound: “Colour is the means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul,” he wrote. “Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.”
In this painting, Improvisation №30 (Cannons), we see Kandinsky at a transitional moment in his art. Whilst large areas of the painting are taken up with the expression of brilliant colours, there is also the presence of figurative objects, most notably the two cannons that fire across to a row of people and the outline of buildings. The picture was not a description of an actual war, but rather a sense of what might be around the corner. As he wrote in a letter, “the presence of the cannons in the picture could probably be explained by the constant war talk that has been going on throughout the year.”
In reading a painting like this, the viewer has to think afresh about what they might expect from a work of art. There are (virtually) no signs or symbols to read from. We must should simply look, and in doing so, leave behind our intellectual expectations.
For me, looking more closely is the key that unlocks the door. Looking helps to reveal how shapes define other shapes, colours develop and harmonies emerge. The point is that with a painting like this, the pure experience is everything.
And so the metaphor of music comes back again. For Kandinsky, “Working with colour was like playing the piano.” Colours can be “in or out of key.”
Kandinsky had grand ambitions for his art. He hoped that a new age of the spirit would arise, one that was more sensitive to the purely abstract forms of music and painting that he personally found so provoking. He believed his own era was too materialist, believing only in the existence of physical matter. Kandinsky saw a world beyond the material one. And abstract painting was, for him, the appropriate form of expression for this new, brighter era.
My name is Christopher P Jones and I’m an art historian, novelist and the author of How to Read Paintings. (Click link for Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and other e-reader devices).
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