Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866 to a multicultural, bourgeois family: his father was a tea merchant from Siberia, his mother descended from Mongolian aristocracy. He trained as a lawyer, and was Associate Professor of Law at Moscow University before ever picking up a paintbrush.
Everything changed when, in 1896, he came upon a painting from Monet’s ‘Haystack’ series in an exhibition — and was awestruck. The way the worldly forms dissolved into a blaze of colour ‘surpassed [his] wildest dreams,’ he would later explain. Kandinsky was to become the foremost pioneer of abstraction, freeing art from its age-old reference to the objective world.
That same year, at the age of 30, Kandinsky abandoned his career and moved to Munich to study art. Among the early styles he embraced were Impressionism and Jugendstil (the German equivalent of Art Nouveau). Travels across the rest of Europe followed, before he settled with his lover, Gabriele Münter, in the picturesque Bavarian town of Murnau in the foothills of the Alps.
Works from this time — such as Murnau: Ansicht mit Burg, Kirche und Eisenbahn (1909), Murnau: Strasse (1908) and Herbstlandschaft mit Baum (1910) — mark a stunning advance. Bathed in high-key colour, they show the influence of Henri Matisse and the Fauves. Even more striking is the way Kandinsky simplified the forms of the local townscape and surrounding landscape, reducing them to basic shapes. This was a crucial period in his transition towards abstraction.
Alongside Münter, Franz Marc and a few others, in 1911 Kandinsky briefly formed part of a group called ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ (The Blue Rider), named for his painting, Der Blaue Reiter (1903). This loose association of experimental painters exhibited together first in Munich, before exhibiting in Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm gallery in Berlin. Walden was so taken by Kandinsky’s work that in 1912 he offered the artist his first solo show.
Kandinsky was a keen lover of music, and counted Richard Wagner and Alfred Schoenberg among his favourite composers. He saw a strong affinity between music and painting, believing in the perceptual phenomenon of synaesthesia, and gave music-inspired titles to three different categories of paintings: his ‘Compositions’, ‘Improvisations’ and ‘Impressions’.
The outbreak of World War I forced Kandinsky to return to Russia, where he associated with Russian Constructivists like Alexander Rodchenko. By 1921, having first served, then rejected the new Bolshevik regime, he had returned to Germany and was teaching at the Bauhaus where, with paintings such as On White II (1923) and Development in Brown (1933) he continued his exploration of the transcendental nature of geometric abstraction.
In 1933, under pressure from the new Nazi regime, the Bauhaus closed. Kandinsky moved to Paris and in 1939 assumed French citizenship. In France, his art took a bold, new direction, introducing more playful, non-geometrical, biomorphic shapes. These evoked the embryos, larvae, plankton and other minuscule life forms he’d observed while using a microscope — as well as ancient hieroglyphs and pictographs.
His time in Paris was one of great productivity, yielding 144 oil paintings and around 250 watercolours and gouaches in just over a decade. Kandinsky died in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944, at the age of 77.