The Blue Rider





In the final years before World War I, Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944) evolved an expressive abstract style in painting that would become his epoch-making contribution to twentieth-century art. From 1909 on, he divided his larger pictures into three fundamental categories he called Impressions, Improvisations, and Compositions.

Impressions was his term for “direct sensations received from ‘outward nature;’” in 1911, Kandinsky painted a total of six Impressions, which appear largely nonrepresentational even though they were inspired by impressions of nature outside of him. In fact, the Impressions may render not just visual, but also acoustic sensations: Impression III (Concert) is one of the earliest and most striking examples of modern art’s endeavor to fuse color and sound in a synaesthetic experience.

In the Improvisations, which frame sensations received from “inward nature,” the artist visualizes inner visions, ideations, and imaginations. With these works, Kandinsky genuinely expanded the boundaries of visual art and broke new ground with regard to what it could represent. Between 1909 and 1914, he created more than thirty-five Improvisations, most of which similarly bear associative subtitles and offer an especially clear illustration of his personal path to abstraction: to Kandinsky’s mind, abstraction meant a sustained effort to conceal and encode representational content in order to convey spiritual ideas in physical form by unfolding their “inner harmony.”

The Compositions — over a lifetime, he created no more than ten of these pictures, seven of them between 1909 and 1913 — were what he thought of as the supreme category of painting, fusing rational conception, imagination, and intuition. In formal terms, we may observe in all his pictures the conclusive liberation of color from the depiction of objects and its unrestrained sweeping bloom in an anti-perspectival space, while the line gains independence as a symbolic vestige of the representational register. Kandinsky’s Compositions VI and VII are devoted to the themes of the Flood and the Last Judgment; they must be seen in the context of the atmosphere of fervent eschatological expectation on the eve of World War I.

After the outbreak of the war, in late 1914, Kandinsky separated from Gabriele Münter, leaving her in Switzerland, and returned to his native Russia. In Moscow, he was active in several revolutionary artists’ councils; in 1921, he accepted a position Walter Gropius offered him at the Bauhaus and returned to Germany with his second wife, Nina Andreyevskaya. In Weimar, Paul Klee was among his colleagues, and after the Bauhaus moved to Dessau in 1925, the two became neighbors. When the Nazis closed the school in 1933, Kandinsky emigrated to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1944, creating a late oeuvre in which he translated the constructive solidity of the formal vocabulary of his art from the Bauhaus years into a universe of organic microstructures in luminous colors such as pink, turquoise, silver, and gold.