"The more frightening the world becomes” Wassily Kandinsky once said, “the more art becomes abstract." Born December 16, 1866, Kandinsky saw his world grow ever more frightening as fascism and war engulfed Europe in the twentieth century. Kandinsky responded to such madness with the first truly abstract paintings, such as Black Strokes I (above, from 1913). After studying and excelling at law and economics, Kandinsky didn’t begin studying art until after he turned 30 years of age. Perhaps coming to art later in life, after seeing and experiencing so much, allowed Kandinsky’s probing, analytical, yet highly spiritual intellect to see a whole new way of painting that a more classically trained artist could ever conceive.
Kandinsky actually began as a relatively conventional figurative painter. The Blue Rider (above) , which Kandinsky painted in 1903, shows his romantic side, with the lone, enigmatic horseback rider crossing the landscape. When Kandinsky and fellow artists August Macke and Franz Marc formed their group, Der Blaue Reiter, Kandinsky’s painting provided the name. Prior to World War I, Kandinsky’s style evolved into something more and more abstract, first resembling the strong, expressive color schemes of Marc and later losing the subject almost entirely in a complete loss of the recognizable subject. Kandinsky fled Germany just before the outbreak of war, returning to his native Russia, where their revoltion would soon turn everything upside down. Unable to fit in with the Constructivist and Suprematist movements en vogue in the new Russia, Kandinsky returned to Germany in 1921, living there and teaching at the famed Bauhaus until 1933, when the Nazis closed it.
Upon his return to Germany, Kandinsky’s abstraction took a more scientific, analytical turn, as can be seen in works such as Yellow-Red-Blue (above, from 1925). The common attack on abstract works such as those by Kandinsky is that “anyone can do it,” but anyone looking closely at Kandinsky’s works can see the intricacy of composition and design. "Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult,” Kandinsky once responded to his detractors. “It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential." Kandinsky’s artistic “poetry” often took the form of art theory, most famously in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which likens life to a pyramid we each must climb with the assistance of the artist, if we permit them to help. We can’t register today the same shock that Kandinsky’s work delivered almost a century ago. Decades of abstract art have jaded us to the full impact of the artistic, political, and spiritual punch they once held. When the forces of darkness in the early twentieth century threatened to obliterate or, perhaps worse, appropriate art to their imperialist ends, Kandinsky’s turn to abstraction changed the rules of the game and denied them their prize. In looking to abstraction, Kandinsky held on to what was truly real in the human spirit.