Wassily Kandinsky
Biography of Russian Colourist & Expressionist Painter.

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Autumn in Murnau (1908)
Private Collection.

See: Abstract Paintings: Top 100.
For a list of styles/periods,
see: Abstract Art Movements.

Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)


Early Life
Munich Academy of Art
Travel with Gabriele Munter
Blue Rider Painting
Blue Rider Expressionst Group (1911-14)
Abstract Art
Return to Russia
Final Years: Neuilly-sur-Seine

NOTE: For analysis of works by expressionist painters like Kandinsky,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Bedroom in Aintmillerstrasse (1909)
Lenbachhaus Gallery, Munich.
A good example of Kandinsky's
unique use of colour in painting.


One of the greatest Russian artists of the 20th century, and a leading exponent of Expressionism, Wassily Kandinsky was both painter and art theorist. Together with a number of other Munich based artists, he founded the Der Blaue Reiter art movement, one of the most influential groups of German Expressionism. Renowned as an outstanding 20th century colourist, he had a strong physical sensitivity to certain colours which he was able to 'hear' as well as 'see': a condition called synaesthesia. He is also credited with creating some of the first abstract art of the 20th century. Among his most notable works are Blue Rider (1903, private collection), Black Frame (1922, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and Several Circles (1926, Guggenheim Museum). He is regarded as one of the leading expressionist painters and arguably the greatest of the early abstract painters. Many of Kandinsky's paintings are now available online as prints in the form of poster art.

Harmony Squares With Concentric
Rings (1913) . An example of his
pioneering non-objective art, a
form of geometric abstraction also
known as concrete art.

See: Modern Artists.

For biographies of other painters
from Russia, Ukraine & Siberia,
see these resources:
Ivan Kramskoy (1837-1887)
Russia's finest portraitist.
Ilya Repin (1844-1930)
Greatest Russian genre-painter.
Vasily Surikov (1848-1916)
Russia's greatest history painter.
Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)
Symbolist painter.
Isaac Levitan
Landscape painter.
Valentin Serov (1865-1911)
Russia's greatest Impressionist.
Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935)
Founder of Suprematism.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Painter, decorative artist.

Early Life

Born in Moscow, the son of a rich tea merchant, Kandinsky spent most of his childhood in Odessa. He learned to play several instruments as a child; music in fact had a huge influence on his paintings, even down to their names like 'compositions' and 'improvisations'. In 1886 he enrolled in the University of Moscow to study law and economics. After successfully passing his exams, he was offered a Professorship in Law, which he accepted. In 1889 he was sent on a government mission to Vologda, where, as his diary reveals, he became as interested in the art, architecture and folklore of the peasants as in studying local laws, which was the official reason for his journey. During that trip his first entrance into an isba (a peasant house) remained fixed in his memory: on seeing the popular images with their vivid, primitive colours decorating the walls, he had the feeling he was "walking into a painting".

For details of modern era painters,
see: Russian Painting, 19th-Century.

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In 1895 he attended an exhibition of Impressionism held in Moscow, and quite soon thereafter decided to quit his job and move to Munich to study drawing. He was 30 at the time. He was always fascinated by colour, even as a child. He once said that his childhood memories of Moscow were of sun melting "into a single patch of colour: pistachio-green, flame-red house, churches - each colour a song in it's own right". We see these 'patches' appearing time and again in his work.

Munich Academy of Art

Having arrived in Munich towards the end of 1896, Kandinsky enrolled in the Azbe art school, run by Anton Azbe (1861-1905). Here, he met Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941) and Marianne von Werefkin (1870-1938). He found, however, that the school's drawing lessons did not interest him, and for a time he worked alone, notably on studies of landscapes. In 1900, he attended classes at the Munich Academy under Franz von Stuck (1863-1928) - who disapproved of his 'extravagant colours' - and met Paul Klee (1879–1940) who become his close friend. Kandinsky's father provided his son with a generous monthly allowance, and he settled - along with his wife - in Schwabing, the bohemian suburb of Munich. In 1901 he co-founded the exhibiting society Phalanx; for its first exhibition he designed a poster in a style similar to Art Nouveau, then the dominant style in Munich. The following year he taught at the art school run by the group. Gabriele Munter (1877-1962), one of his pupils, became his partner until they separated during the Great War.


Travel With Gabriele Munter

Meantime, in 1903, disillusioned by the unshakeable conservatism of Munich artistic circles, Kandinsky left Munich with Gabriele, travelling to Venice, then Odessa and Moscow (1903), Tunis (1904), Dresden, Odessa once more, then Italy (1905), before settling for a year at Sevres, near Paris. During this period Kandinsky was experimenting with various methods and techniques. His native city of Moscow often served as his inspiration, both in paintings done from memory and those from studies or sketches from life. The latter, executed in the old Schwabing area of Munich - where the intensity of light reminded Kandinsky of the colours of Moscow  disappointed him nonetheless, because he seemed to be engaged in a 'fruitless attempt to capture the power of nature'. He was also influenced by Russian folk art and the Symbolism movement.

The best of his early painting from this period include: Promenade (1901, Goldberg Collection, Zurich); Old Town (1903, Stadtische Galerie, Munich); Old Town II, 1903 (Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris); The Golden Sail (1903, Stadtische Galerie, Munich); The Blue Rider (1903, private collection) and The Singer, (1903, Stadtische Galerie, Munich) Panic (1907, Stadtische Galerie). In style, they are both medieval and Russian, influences that can be seen again in his woodcuts and engravings (146 between 1902 and 1912). Like his Poems without Words (twelve woodcuts, 1904, Moscow) and his Xylographies (five woodcuts, 1906, Paris), these are similar to his paintings as regards 'subject' but reveal a greater interest in colour for its own sake.


The Blue Rider Painting

One of Kandinsky's most important expressionist paintings from this era is The Blue Rider, which shows a small cloaked figure speeding on horse through a rocky meadow. The rider’s cloak is blue and his shadows are darker blue. The horse has an unnatural gait, and it is not clear if the rider is carrying a child in his arms. The idea was, Kandinsky wanted to involve the viewer in the picture, and wanted to indicate a motion by a series of colours rather than painting specific details. This was an early indication of the direction his painting would take over the next few years.

Early examples of Kandinsky's portrait art include Munter Painting in Kallmunz (1903) and Gabriele Münter (1905) - both in Stadtische Galerie, Munich; while other examples of his landscape painting include: In the Forest (1904), Beach Baskets in Holland (1904), Couple Riding (1906) - all in Stadtische Galerie, Munich - and Volga Song (1906, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France).

Kandinsky was strongly influenced by the writings of the controversial Russian spiritualist and thinker Helena Blavatsky (1831-91), co-founder of the Theosophical Society which promoted Theosophy, a philosophical-religious system which states (inter alia) that all creation is a geometrical progression, beginning at a single point. It also states that the creative aspect of form is expressed by a series of circles, triangles and squares. Kandinsky himself wrote several books based on this theory.


After returning to Munich in 1908, Kandinsky settled in Murnau with Gabriele Munter. It was here that he made his 'leap into the abstract'. Returning to his studio one evening, he saw, in the half-light, 'a painting of indescribable beauty, imbued with an inner flame'. Seeing at first 'only forms and colours whose meaning was incomprehensible', he soon recognized one of his own paintings, standing on its side. The revelation made him realize that subjects were harming his pictures, and, in his search for a means of expression, he began gradually simply filling 'subjective' forms with colour, thus giving colour its proper expressive function: (Street in Murnau with Women, 1908, Nina Kandinsky Collection, Paris; Landscape with Bell-Tower, 1909, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris).

Another important work is The Blue Mountain (1908, Guggenheim Museum, New York). In this painting a blue mountain is flanked by 2 coloured trees, one red and one yellow. Several riders are making their way across the bottom of the scene, their body and clothing only indicated with a dash of colour. The colour almost takes a life of it's own, to the point where the objects in the picture ultimately have no part to play at all. He was moving to a point where ultimately what was left were shades and shapes that were no longer reminiscent of reality. Other paintings from this time include Cemetery and Vicarage in Kochel, 1909 and Grüngasse in Murnau, 1909 (both Stadtische Galerie, Munich).

It was around this time that he took part in the exhibition of graphic art organized in Dresden by the expressionist group Die Brucke (1909). Die Brucke's members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976), Erich Heckel (1883-1970), as well as Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Otto Mueller (1874-1930) and the Dutchman Kees van Dongen (1877-1968). In the same year, along with his friend Jawlensky, Kandinsky founded the society Neue Kunstlervereinigung. But following fundamental differences over the very meaning of art, which culminated in one of his paintings to be rejected by the society, he left the group and formed a rival organization Der Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), whose almanac he prepared in collaboration with Franz Marc (1880-1916).

In addition, in 1910, Kandinsky exhibited at the exhibition of European and Russian avant-garde art, staged by the Knave of Diamonds group in Moscow. However, he did not participate in the show held by the more insular Russian artists society called the Donkey's Tail group, in March 1912.


Blue Rider Expressionst Group (1911-14)

The five core members of the Blue Rider group were Kandinsky and Marc, together with Paul Klee (1879-1940), August Macke (1887-1914), and the 'Russian Matisse' - Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941). Other artists who participated in Blaue Reiter exhibitions, included the Dutch artist Heinrich Campendonk (1889-1957), Fauvists Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, the German graphic artist Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), the avant-garde Russians David Burlyuk (1882-1967), Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964), as well as Kandinsky's partner Gabriele Munter (1887-1914). The name of the movement came from Kandinsky's 1903 painting, but was also connected to the Marc's love of horses and Kandinsky's love for the colour blue. There was no central manifesto, and the aims of the group varied. They were however united in their wish to use symbolic use of colour and to take a spontaneous, intuitive approach to painting. They were influenced by Primitivism, which was popular in Europe at the time.

The first Der Blaue Reiter exhibition opened at short notice in Munich at the Thannhauser Gallery, in December 1911. In March 1912, it travelled to Berlin (where it inaugurated the Sturm Gallery - the influential gallery founded by Herwarth Walden), followed by Cologne and Frankfurt. A second exhibition followed in February 1912, at the Hans Goltz Gallery, in Munich. There were no more 'official' shows of the group, but all five core members were represented at the great Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne, in 1912, and the acclaimed First German Salon d'Automne Exhibition at the Sturm Gallery in Berlin, in 1913.

Kandinsky himself was given a retrospective in 1912 by the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin, a key platform of the expressionist movement in Germany. In 1913 he was represented at the Armory Show in New York, wrote his autobiography, Ruckblicke (Reminiscences), and a collection, of poems illustrated with six woodcuts, Klange (Sounds).

Abstract Art

During the period 1910-1914, Kandinsky turned increasingly to abstract art, as his expressionism fused with Fauvism (fl.1905-7), Cubism (fl.1907-14) and Orphism (fl.1910-13), leading him to dispense with figurative elements. Coloured surfaces, distinct from subjective forms and edged in black, became 'signs' (Improvisation III, 1909, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris; Sketch Composition II, 1909, Guggenheim Museum, New York). Then, by abandoning the tradition of spatial illusion, he affirmed the two-dimensional character of the canvas and at the same time the arbitrary nature of his space. Little by little the black outlines became autonomous graphic elements, in ever-increasing numbers, while the colours started to overflow the edges of the 'subject' (Church, 1910, Stadtische Galerie, Munich; Composition IV, 1911, Kunstzammlung Nordrhein-Westfallen, Dusseldorf; With the Black Arch, 1912, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris; Improvisation, 1912, Guggenheim Museum, NY).

His first abstract watercolour painting (Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) dates from around 1910 and proved to be a perfect experimental medium for him. However, it was another year before he succeeded in completely detaching the subject from his oil painting. From then on, while his Impressions were still expressive representations of nature, his Improvisations, and to an even greater extent his Compositions, were gradually turning into pure creations of forms and colours. Other works from this period include: Black Strokes I (1913, Guggenheim Museum); Gorge Improvisation (1914, Stadtische Galerie, Munich) and Fugue, 1914 (private collection).

The Blue Rider group disbanded in 1914, on the outbreak of World War I. Two of its members, Franz Marc and August Macke were killed in combat during the war. As foreign nationals, both Kandinsky and Jawlensky were forced to return to Russia.

For more about the contribution of Wassily Kandinsky to expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).

Return to Russia

Between 1914 and 1921 Kandinsky taught art theory at the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow - the new controllers of Russian art. He became a member of the arts section of the Commissariat for Intellectual Progress in 1918, taught at the Academy of Fine Art, and the following year founded the Museum of Culture in Moscow. But after founding the Academy of Artistic Sciences in 1921 and seeing the initial enthusiasm for modern art gradually disappear (the Communist government banned all abstract art) he left Moscow with Nina de Andreenky, whom he had married in 1917 and returned to Germany.

Bauhaus Design School

In 1922 he was appointed to a teaching post at the Bauhaus Design School, where Klee already on the staff. Although Kandinsky's output during his period in Russia was not large (materials were hard to come by), he used the time to think out precisely his theory of the science of art which he developed in Weimar. Kandinsky's appointment to the Bauhaus marked a new phase in his work, characterized by what he himself termed 'lyrical geometricism'. He taught a beginners class for Design and an advanced course in Art Theory. He now felt that each form, each colour, together with its position within a space, had a precise function. He taught his pupils to 'observe precisely and present precisely not the exterior appearance of an object, but the elements of its make up.' He published some of this reflections in Punkt and Linie zu Flache (point, line and surface) in 1926 and in various theoretical studies.

His time at the Bauhaus was one of intense activity and one during which his genius was most appreciated. Circles, straight lines, curves and other geometrical elements took an increasingly important place in his paintings. He developed a new association between three basic shapes - circle, triangle and square - and a code of colours in which each line represented tension and colour affirmed its dynamism (Composition VIII, 1923, Guggenheim New York; Yellow-Red-Blue (1925, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris); and Accent on Pink, 1926, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris). In Yellow-Red-Blue, in particular, the careful positioning of circles, arches and lines combined to produce a wonderful harmony. At this point he was using colour direct from the tube, occasionally mixing sand with paint to give a granular texture to his canvas.

In 1923 he formed, together with Klee, Jawlensky and Lyonel Feininger, Die Blaue Vier (Blue Four). They lectured and exhibited together in America in 1924.


At Dessau, where the Bauhaus had moved in 1925 Kandinsky celebrated his 60th birthday. New nuances of colour started to appear in his work. while the geometry of his shapes either grew more pronounced (Quadrat [Square] 1927, Paris Maeght Collection and Dark Point, 1930, A Bloc Collection, Paris) or, alternatively, faded so that space could be filled with suppler, more 'organic' forms (Wickerwork, 1927, Paris, Nina Kandinsky Collection; Pointed Black 1931, M. Hagenba Collection, Basel).

Continuing in the direction of a 'synthesis of the arts', Kandinsky designed the sets and costumes for a stage version of Mussorgsky's Pictures from an Exhibition (1928) and executed various large murals and ceramic panels for the Music Room designed by Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) at the International Architectural Exhibition in Berlin (1931). In 1933 the Bauhaus, which had transferred to Berlin the previous year, was closed by the Nazis. Kandinsky's painting was labelled degenerate art (entartete kunst).

One of the most prolific collectors of Kandinsky's works was the American philanthropist Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949).

Final Years: Neuilly-sur-Seine

In 1933, when the Bauhaus was forced to shut its doors, Kandinsky moved to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. This move to Neuilly-sur-Seine with his wife saw the beginning of a 'third period', often viewed as marking desire to return to a symbolic style. Shapes are generally smaller and the canvases are subdivided so as to bring closer together the various figures of the ideogram (Sweet Nothings, 1937; Thirty 1937; both Paris, Nina Kandinsky Collection). No stranger to controversy, his later works remained controversial, but were admired by younger modern artists like Joan Miro (1893-1983) and Alberto Magnelli (1888-1971). His reputation was firmly established when he was introduced to Solomon Guggenheim, who became one of his best supporters. Between 1936 and 1939 he painted his last 2 major compositions: Composition IX, 1936 (Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris) and Composition X, 1939 (Kunstzammlung Nordrhein-Westfallen, Düsseldorf). In his last canvases fluid shapes share the space with the artist's final, simplified geometric elements (Joy, 1939; Tempered Impulse, 1944; both Paris, Nina Kandinsky Collection). He continued until his death in 1944. His unrelenting quest for new forms had carried him to the extremes of geometric abstract art. This, together with his contribution to the theory and practice of colour in painting establishes Kandinsky as a seminal figure in the history of art during the early 20th century.

However great Kandinsky's prestige was during his lifetime, it was not until after the war that his true significance was appreciated. His influence became widely felt in the Nouvelle Abstraction movement, for which he had opened the way.


20th-Century paintings by Kandinsky can be seen in the best art museums across the world, notably the National Musee d'Art Moderne at the Pompidou Centre, Paris, and the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum, New York. The period prior to 1914 is well represented in Stadtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany, thanks chiefly to a bequest by Gabriele Munter.

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