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‘Composition VIII’ and the Father of Abstract Art

When Wassily Kandinksky created Composition VIII, he considered it the high point of his postwar achievement. Looking at the playful, complex composition, it is easy to see why – the intersecting lines and circles show a mastery of abstract art. In this article, Singulart will discover why Kandinsky is considered the father of abstract art, explore Composition VIII, and delve into Kandinksy’s relationship with music, which heavily influenced his art. 

Kandinsky and Abstract Art

Although Kandinsky briefly experimented with expressionism, he channeled their use of color and emotion into his own unique style. In 1903, he created his breakthrough piece Der Blaue Reiter. The painting depicts a figure riding a horse across a field, which sounds like a simple image and definitely not on the abstract level of Kandinsky’s later work. However, Der Blaue Reiter shows the influence of artists like Claude Monet, and the way Kandinsky has chosen to paint the rider with a variety of colors that blend together in an ambiguous way suggests his interest in abstract art. 

In 1909, he co-founded the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen (the NKVM, or New Artists Association of Munich), an organisation that nurtured the careers of avant-garde artists who were considered too radical for the time. As he refined his style, his artwork became exceedingly abstract. Kandinsky titled his pieces with names like Composition, Impression or Improvisation, as a way to further separate his artwork from their objective world. 

Wassily Kandinsky

Kandinsky’s involvement with the NKVM came to an abrupt end in 1911, after his work was rejected from their annual exhibition. Alongside artist Franz Marc, Kandinsky founded Der Blaue Reiter, a group of nine expressionist artists. The group emphasized the relationship between art and spirituality, something that was of extreme importance to Kandinsky. Although the group disbanded with the advancement of World War I, they were extremely influential on the German art scene. 

After Kandinksy accepted a position teaching at the Bauhaus School, his work became even more experimental. He focused on the significance of geometric elements, incorporating these lines, circles and shapes into his work. 

Forced to move to Neuilly-sur-Seine after the Nazis shut down the Bauhaus School, Kandinsky continued to experiment with geometric elements. His artwork from this period focused on biomorphic forms, giving his work a gentler quality than his previous artworks of harsh, haphazard lines. Kandinsky continued to create up until his death in 1944, having enjoyed an isolated but calm lifestyle. Of abstract art, Kandinsky said:

“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. 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.”  

Composition VIII 

Composition VIII clearly indicates the influence of the Bauhaus School on Kandinsky’s artistic style. The piece combines abstract art with elements of suprematism, constructivism, and the ethos of the Bauhaus school itself. 

Art critics have discussed the differences between Composition VII and VIII, created almost ten years apart. While VII is a riotous explosion of color and emotion, VIII is relatively stark in comparison, eschewing the splashes of color in favor of a much more controlled artwork. 

Composition VIII (1923)

Composition VIII features a selection of geometric forms interacting with linear elements. One of the most dominant elements of the piece is the large circle at the upper left of the artwork, a striking black with a purple center and pink outer ring. This foreshadowed the importance that circles would have in Kandinksy’s later work, for example Several Circles in 1926. 

The pink ring surrounding the circle has also been referred to as a ‘halo’, signifying Kandinsky’s belief in the relationship between art and spirituality. The halo effect is echoed with the yellow circle in the lower left of the piece, surrounded by a soft blue and purple ring of color. 

While color plays an important part in Composition VIII, it is the geometric forms which are the most arresting component. The forms are not harmonious; there seems to be no relationship between the various shapes and lines on the canvas. The busyness of the shapes contrasts with the relatively sparse background, creating an atmosphere that is at once both dynamic and calm. 

Kandinsky, Color, and Music

Kandinksy had a deep affection for music. He compared the two mediums: “Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposely, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

It has been suggested that Kandinsky may have experienced Synesthesia, a condition in which one sense (for example, sight), triggers another sense (such as sound). For example, a person with Synesthesia may taste a food which triggers a certain color, or associate a sound with a certain kind of shape. 

Although there is no hard evidence that Kandinsky had Synesthesia, he certainly had a profound understanding of the relationship between the senses and how to best translate this on the canvas. He said, “The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to define anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”

Kandinsky first described this feeling of Synesthesia after attending a performance of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. He stated, “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” 

Composition VII (1913)

Critics have suggested that Kandinsky’s artwork, particularly his Composition series, is an artistic tribute to music in the sense that the pieces can be viewed as a sort of symphony, a combination of elements that work together to create a harmonious piece, much like the different instruments working together to create a cohesive piece of music.

Perhaps the best way to view Kandinsky’s work is, in his own words, to “Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?”

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