Kandinsky: Compositions

A Review by Mark Harden


Kandinsky: Compositions
by Magdalena Dabrowski
Published by the Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53 Street
New York, NY 10019. $45.00

Wassily Kandinsky was one of the most original and influential artists of the twentieth-century. His "inner necessity" to express his emotional perceptions led to the development of an abstract style of painting that was based on the non-representational properties of color and form. Kandinsky's compositions were the culmination of his efforts to create a "pure painting" that would provide the same emotional power as a musical composition. The exhibition "Kandinsky: Compositions", organized by Magdalena Dabrowski and on display at the Los Angeles County Art Museum until September 3, 1995, presents these monumental works together for the first and possibly last time and provides an opportunity to witness the creative process of Kandinsky.

(Black) is like the silence of the body after death, the close of life.

- Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

Kandinsky viewed the compositions as major statements of his artistic ideas. They share several characteristics that express this monumentality: the impressively large format, the conscious, deliberate planning of the composition, and the transcendence of representation by increasingly abstract imagery. Just as symphonies define milestones in the career of a composer, Kandinsky's compositions represented the culmination of his artistic vision at a given moment in his career.

Regrettably, the first three compositions were destroyed during World War II. They are represented in the exhibition by full-scale, black-and-white photographic reproductions. One of the strengths of the exhibition is the assembly of preliminary studies for most of the works. These were done in oil, watercolor, ink and pencil. These help convey a sense of the three lost compositions, but cannot hope to replace the actual canvasses. The viewer is left with a profound feeling of loss for the destroyed works.

"Composition IV", 1911
( 639 x 404 / 59 k / jpeg )

This feeling provides a contrast that enhances the impact of Composition IV, a maelstrom of swirling colors and soaring lines. The painting is divided abruptly in the center by two thick, black vertical lines. On the left, a violent motion is expressed through the profusion of sharp, jagged and entangled lines. On the right, all is calm, with sweeping forms and color harmonies. We have followed Kandinsky's intention that our initial reaction should result from the emotional impact of the pictorial forms and colors. However, upon closer inspection the apparent abstraction of this work proves illusory. The dividing lines are actually two lances held by red-hatted Cossacks. Next to them, a third, white-bearded Cossack leans on his violet sword. They stand before a blue mountain crowned by a castle. In the lower left, two boats are depicted. Above them, two mounted Cossacks are joined in battle, brandishing violet sabers. On the lower right, two lovers recline, while above them two robed figures observe from the hillside. Kandinsky has reduced representation to pictographic signs in order to obtain the flexibility to express a higher, more cosmic vision. The deciphering of these signs is the key to understanding the theme of the work. An awareness of Kandinsky's philosophy leads to a reading of Composition IV as expressing the apocalyptic battle that will end in eternal peace. Composition IV works on multiple levels: initially, the colors and forms exercise an emotional impact over the viewer, without need to consider the representational aspects. Then, the decoding of the representational signs involves the viewer on an intellectual level. I find that I can no longer view Composition IV without automatically translating the imagery to representational forms. Yet this solving of the work's mysteries does not draw the life from it; rather, the original emotional impact is strengthened in a new way.

"Composition V", 1911
( 639 x 446 / 61 k / jpeg )

Later in 1911, Kandinsky produced Composition V, a much more abstract work. Here, the theme is the Resurrection of the Dead. The iconography is much more difficult to discern. Comparison must be made to more representational works that treat this theme done by Kandinsky around the same time. Reference to these more literal depictions of the motifs allow us to perceive their abstracted forms within Composition V. Several angels blowing their trumpets are included in the upper portion of the canvas. The strong black line crossing from right to left can be felt as a representation of the blowing of the trumpets. Above this line, the towers of a walled-in city are visible. Below the line, the thin application of paint produces a luminescence that affects our perception of space in that portion of the canvas. The luminescence conveys a sense of infinity through the lack of volume and the absence of perspectival illusion. Out of this void, the viewer can sense the rising of the dead.

"Composition VI", 1913
( 640 x 421 / 60 k / jpeg )

Standing below the six by ten foot expanse of Composition VI, the viewer cannot help but brace himself against the impending crash of a tidal wave of colliding forms and colors. And, in fact, the theme of this work is The Deluge. Kandinsky defined three centers to this Composition, which are discerned sequentially by the viewer. Initially, the eye is drawn to the pink and white vortex in the left center. The multiple lines representing torrential rain carry the focus to the right section, where a darker center of discordant forms and stronger rain lines adds to the tumult. From this second center, the eye slides to the lower center, where a blue form outlined in black cowers below the torrents of rain and crashing waves. In this work, Kandinsky has pushed further beyond representation to the very limits of abstraction.

"Composition VII", 1913
( 640 x 426 / 69 k / jpeg )

Composition VII is the pinnacle of Kandinsky's pre-World War One artistic achievement. The creation of this work involved over thirty preparatory drawings, watercolors and oil studies. Each of these is included in the exhibition, documenting the deliberate creative process used by Kandinsky in his compositions. Amazingly, once he had completed the preparatory work, Kandinsky executed the actual painting of Composition VII in less than four days. The exhibition includes a series of four photographs taken between November 25 and 28, 1913, offering a fascinating record of Kandinsky's artistic procedure. Through all of the preparatory works and in the final painting itself, the central motif (an oval form intersected by an irregular rectangle) is maintained. This oval seems almost the eye of a compositional hurricane, surrounded by swirling masses of color and form. In Composition VII's final form, Kandinsky has obliterated almost all pictorial representation. Art scholars, through Kandinsky's writings and study of the less abstract preparatory works, have determined that Composition VII combines the themes of The Resurrection, The Last Judgment, The Deluge and The Garden of Love in an operatic outburst of pure painting.

"Composition VIII", 1923
( 640 x 442 / 53 k / jpeg )

The viewer receives quite a shock in moving from the apocalyptic emotion of Composition VII to the geometrical rhythm of Composition VIII. Painted ten years later in 1923, Composition VIII reflects the influence of Suprematism and Constructivism absorbed by Kandinsky while in Russia prior to his return to Germany to teach at the Bauhaus. Here, Kandinsky has moved from color to form as the dominating compositional element. Contrasting forms now provide the dynamic balance of the work; the large circle in the upper left plays against the network of precise lines in the right portion of the canvas. Note also how Kandinsky uses different colors within the forms to energize their geometry: a yellow circle with blue halo versus blue circle with yellow halo; a right angle filled with blue and an acute angle colored pink. The background also works to enhance the dynamism of the composition. The design does not appear as a geometrical exercise on a flat plane, but seems to be taking place in an undefined space. The layered background colors - light blue at bottom, light yellow at top and white in the middle - define this depth. The forms tend to recede and advance within this depth, creating a dynamic, push-pull effect.

"Composition IX", 1936
( 640 x 372 / 39 k / jpeg )

It was another ten years before Kandinsky completed another canvas that he would call a Composition. Composition IX reflects Kandinsky's exposure in Paris to Surrealist imagery. Although he denied any Surrealist influence in his work, the biomorphic shapes distinctly recall the pictorial language of Miro in particular. There is only one preparatory drawing for Composition IX and none for Composition X. According to Nina Kandinsky, the artist at this stage of his development was able to visualize a painting entirely in his head and then translate it directly to the canvas. This explains the paucity of studies for the late compositions. Composition IX is possibly the least impressive of the series. The wide diagonal colors serve as a solid background for the biomorphic and geometrical shapes that seem to float in front of it. There is an almost dream-like quality to the rhythm and unfurling of the forms. In the final analysis, however, Composition IX has a tangible decorative feel to it that makes it pale in comparison to the emotional intensity of the earlier compositions.

"Composition X", 1939
( 639 x 419 / 56 k / jpeg )

Five years before his death in 1944, Kandinsky completed the final work in the series. The outstanding characteristic of Composition X is obviously the stark, black ground. The colors and forms appear particularly sharp against the black background. The brilliance of the colored shapes brings to mind the cutouts done by Matisse over a decade later. The movement of the forms is distinctly upward and outward from both sides of a central axis running through the book-like form near the top of the canvas. This movement enhances the evocation of hot-air balloon forms rising into an infinite space. The round form between the book shape and the brown balloon shape has a lunar feel to it that even conveys a feeling of literal "outer space". Kandinsky had always expressed a strong dislike for the color black and it is significant that he chose it as the dominating color of his last major artistic statement.


Mark Harden is the art editor at Glyphs.


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