WASSILY KANDINSKY
Artists & Illustrators|March 2021
The Russian painter was one of the first true abstract artists, using music as a basis for his instinctive paintings. STEVE PILL explores his colourful responses to the world
STEVE PILL

Wassily Kandinsky wasn’t the first artist to embrace music in his painting, but he was possibly the first to do so in such an immersive and comprehensive way. Music for the Russian artist didn’t simply mean a radio on in the studio; it was a source of inspiration that triggered colours and ideas in his mind.

Back in 1877, Walter Pater had declared that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” and here was an attempt to put a chorus of colours into visual form. Colour and line would become Kandinsky’s musical notes as he pursued an increasingly abstract agenda, creating several series of individually numbered works that he called “improvisations” or “compositions”. 1912’s Improvisation 28 is a typical example, a wide canvas with roughly applied passages of pure colour overlaid with seemingly random black lines and marks that call to mind musical notation.

There’s a pleasing rhythm and lyricism to the brushwork in these works as the artist was inspired by modern classical composers such as Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy and Arnold Schoenburg. Yet despite these interests, Kandinsky wasn’t making a considered attempt to transcribe the music but rather a unique and instinctive interpretation of the sounds as he experienced them.

So why did it happen? Wassily Kandinsky is widely believed to have had a condition known as synaesthesia. Whereas the majority of people will think of the senses as five very individual pathways – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell – a person with synaesthesia will often experience two or more of these senses together. The word itself derives from the Ancient Greek: syn, “together”, and aisthesis, “sensing”.

Synaesthesia takes different and very specific forms in different people. A person may have colours triggered in the brain by sounds, for example, or tastes experienced when hearing certain words.

As synaesthesia is a relatively new scientific discipline, only properly studied and understood in the last 40-50 years, Kandinsky was never properly tested. However, he was keenly interested in perception and much of his writing points to him having experienced this neurological phenomenon.

While Kandinsky’s apparent condition eventually made him a very perceptive and instinctive painter, he started out as a very organised and academic student, not even turning to art full time until later in life. The artist was born in Moscow in December 1866, the son of a Russian tea merchant. When the family moved to Odessa (now in the Ukraine), he attended Grekov Odessa Art School before bowing to his parents’ wishes by studying economics and law at the Moscow State University, where he continued to lecture after his graduation in 1892.

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