One hundred years ago, in December 1913, Vasily Kandinsky made his first truly abstract paintings—including the major works Black Lines and Light Picture—and effectively unfettered painting from its need to be representational.
By 1913, Kandinsky had already been instrumental in the founding of two influential groups of artists, the Phalanx and the Blaue Reiter, exhibited several times in the Salon d’Automne in Paris, and produced the most radically abstracted work shown in the famed Armory Show in New York. He had published the groundbreaking book On the Spiritual in Art in 1911 and had his first solo show at Der Sturm gallery in Berlin in 1912.
These professional successes tracked the achievements he made in his own individual quest towards abstraction. Kandinsky had always been confident in his aesthetic convictions: as early as 1904, he made a self-fulfilling prophecy in a letter to his ex-student and companion Gabriele Münter: “… the road ahead is fairly clear to me. I can claim without exaggeration that, if I carry it through, I shall come up with a new beautiful way of painting suited to infinite development.” 1
Kandinsky pursued that road to abstraction across years of experimentation, preparatory drawings, and major works. In Blue Mountain of 1908–09, rhythmic brushstrokes animate the trees in a decidedly unrealistic way, but the riders beneath the mountain are clearly delineated. Crucially, the unnatural colors of the landscape are symbolic of Kandinsky’s first step towards abstraction: the Expressionist liberation of color from its historically descriptive purpose so that it could serve as a way to could capture something beyond the observable—emotions, or the inner life of an artist. In Improvisation 28 (second version) of 1912 the canvas is dominated by abstract forms and emotional overtones, though schematized depictions of destruction and salvation can be picked out of the composition.
The infinite development Kandinksy foresaw in 1904 burst forth when he completed Light Picture and Black Lines. Although some have argued Light Picture bears traces of landscape painting in its suspiciously mountain-like forms, the disorienting effect of skewed perspective and the levity of the discrete shapes and lines led Kandinsky to describe it as having “nothing whatever to do with an object.” 2 The titular scribbled Black Lines permeate shapes and fields of vibrant and alluring color. Although devoid of narrative or descriptive content, the painting conveys movement and presents an intoxicating, varied jumble of forms and brushstrokes that invites close looking, concentration, and reflection—even one hundred years later.
- Vasily Kandinsky to Gabriele Münter, April 25, 1904, Gabriele Münter-und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich, quoted in Vasily Kandinsky and Vivian Endicott Barnett, Kandinsky (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2009), 27. ↩
- Vasily Kandinsky to Hilla Rebay, December 16, 1936, quoted in Angelica Zander Rudenstine, The Guggenheim Museum Collection: Paintings 1880–1945, vol. 1 (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1976), 274. ↩