Kandinsky: The Sounds of Music in Abstract Art

Kandinsky pushed the barriers with his art. Through criticism and rejection, his perseverance paid off to become a master in his field. As he fought off this strong criticism in his early stages as an artist, Kandinsky created various harmonious places for himself and other artists to release their creativity; a safe haven of sorts in abstract art. This included the Neue Künstlervereinigung München (Munich New Artists’ Association) of which Kandinsky was a founding member and became its president in 1909. However, his association with this group was short-lived after the rejection of his painting Last Judgement. This then resulted in the creation of the group The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) with fellow artists Paul Klee, August Macke, Gabriele Münter, and Alexej von Jawlensky.

The Blue Rider group was much less strict and less traditional than the New Artists’ Association. The artistic values of the Blue Rider group were not expressed in a manifesto but it was generally assumed that the common goal was to express spiritual truths through the medium of art, specifically modern art. Their beliefs were founded more on the spiritual side; on a correlation between visual art and music, of a connection between the spiritual and symbolic associations of colour, the synthesis of the arts and a more natural instinctive approach to painting.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913, Oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The years between 1911 and 1914 became known as The Blue Rider period with music playing an important role in the development of abstract art specifically with regards to painting for rhythm, a merging of the two art forms. The correlation between physical art and the non-material art of music is expressed through the rhythmic non-linear forms which are reminiscent of this Blue Rider period and have now come to represent the German Expressionist movement in all its glory. In the Art of Spiritual Harmony and with regards to form, Kandinsky makes reference to a piano stating “the artist is the hand which, by touching the various keys, (form), affects the human soul to respond to certain vibrations.”1

At a simpler level, Kandinsky’s awareness of this intricate link between these two art forms impelled him to name some of his works of art titles which would typically be reserved for musical pieces. His various composition pieces (Composition, Composition IV etc.) are a direct example of this as well as Musical Overture. Violet Wedge (Study), The Lyrical and Impression III (Concert). This however is just what Kandinsky shares with us about the painting, in turn allowing us to be aware of the impact of music on his art. Without these titles, the correlation might have been much more difficult to establish.

This correlation between art and music can also be described as somewhat of a personal experience as Kandinsky himself remarked that “the relationships in art are not necessarily ones of outward form but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning2.” Everything is relative, what one sound or image may bring to mind in one person will not necessarily be the same as for another as they will evoke something quite different for each individual, drawing from each person’s personal experiences, memories and associations. However it may also be noted that “presumably the lines and colours have the same effect as harmony and rhythm in music have on the truly musical.3” Those who have more experience or knowledge of music and art can truly appreciate the subtlety of Kandinsky’s work and the manner in which he combines his external influences, reminiscent of the Blue Rider movement.

Wassily Kandinsky, Lyrical (plate 9) from ‘Sounds’, 1911, Woodcut from an illustrated book with fifty-six, woodcuts, 14.8 x 21.7 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Wassily Kandinsky, Lyrical (plate 9) from ‘Sounds’, 1911, Woodcut from an illustrated book with fifty-six, woodcuts, 14.8 x 21.7 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

“Kandinsky is painting music. That is to say, he has broken down the barrier between music and painting, and has isolated the pure emotion which, for want of a better name, we call the artistic emotion.”4

Kandinsky was not only an artist but a theorist; his writings in The Blue Rider Almanac as well as The Art of Spiritual Harmony, also known as On the Spiritual in Art, have brought meaning, value and understanding to his artistic decisions. It is in these writings that he divulges more of the meaning of his paintings, a justification of sorts and specifically refers to music and its effect on his work. Throughout his life, Kandinsky had an “unswerving movement towards a synthesis of the arts”5, making his own artwork an example.

In this modern word, a synthesis of the arts has become more and more common and accepted without realisation. In a way, people are surrounded by more art and different art forms than ever before however it is most commonly jumping from screen to screen. Sometimes you may just need to step back, immerse yourself in the simple pleasures of art, and witness the “the effect of music [which] is too subtle for words6” for yourself.

Notes

1 W. Kandinsky, The Art of Spiritual Harmony, Cosimo Inc., New York, 1914, p. 25
2 W. Kandinsky, The Art of Spiritual Harmony, Cosimo Inc., New York, 1914, p. XV
3 M. T. H Sadler in W. Kandinsky, The Art of Spiritual Harmony, Cosimo Inc., New York, 1914, p. XIX
4 M. T. H Sadler in W. Kandinsky, The Art of Spiritual Harmony, Cosimo Inc., New York, 1914, p. XIX
5 Wassily Kandinsky, Parkstone Press, New York, 2015, p. 18
6 M. T. H Sadler in W. Kandinsky, The Art of Spiritual Harmony, Cosimo Inc., New York, 1914, p. XIX

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