Kandinsky

By Becca Foreman

            Wassily Kandinsky completed many significant artworks in his lifetime that span over a number of different art movements from the beginning of the twentieth century and continuing through the 1940s. He was born in Russia in 1866, and throughout his life he has lived in Munich, Russia once again at the start of World War I, and then back to Germany after the Russian Revolution where he became a teacher at the Bauhaus in the post World War I era.  His paintings span many different eras of art, but some of his most notable works came from his time spent at the Bauhaus.  The contributions he made at the Bauhaus helped to enhance the world of abstract art. In his teaching at the Bauhaus and artworks during that period, Kandinsky focused on the simple elements of color, lines, and shapes to portray certain emotions that could be communicated to the masses, regardless of language.

Kandinsky was one of many artists who made up the Bauhaus School. Founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus’ intent was to bring craftsmen together without defining specific social classes while also bringing together the art forms of architecture, painting, and sculpture.[1] His belief was that architecture could unite the visual arts with craft in order to effect cultural transformation and change.[2] This was an important movement in the time after WWI, because people were looking for a change and for something to believe in. The destruction caused by the war was severe, especially for the Germans. Kandinsky entered the Bauhaus during a transition in German art from Expressionism to a more Constructivist way of creating artwork. Using many themes of constructivism, such as the simplification of art through the use of materials and basic forms, the early Bauhaus focused on materials used to compose artworks, not the specific artist who completed it.  Instead of honoring a specific small group of artists as being the only people who could produce art, the Bauhaus thought that all craftsman deserved to contribute to art equally.  Gropius wanted artists to “return to the craft” instead of focusing only on creating artworks for the sake of fame.[3]  Art in the Bauhaus was meant for all people; all idolization of artists was taken away.  Instead of praising certain people, all artists were considered equal as skilled craftsman.

The Bauhaus had 3 distinct phases during the period that it was open from 1919-1933.  The original goal for the Bauhaus goal was to reform art education to create a new society, but this was changed within a few years to more rational, scientific like ideas instead of expressionistic, romantic ideas.  The third phase was the period of time that the school was located in Dessau.[4]  These three aims defined the Bauhaus school as well. They wanted to rescue the arts from isolation and help to train craftsman to use certain skills, give craftsman a higher social status, and help establish contact between the arts and the economy.[5]  The teaching at the Bauhaus was based on the theoretical and practical application of the synthesis of the plastic arts,[6] something that Kandinsky easily fit in to because his abstract style allowed him to identify with a number of different art forms. He came to Weimar from Berlin in 1921, and was given the position of teaching the basic Theory of Form course and was in charge of the workshop on wall painting.  The contributions he made while teaching at the Bauhaus shaped the program greatly.

Kandinsky’s presence at the Bauhaus was certainly felt by all who interacted with him. One of his biggest contributions was his basic design course. According to Whitford, the course was one of the most useful aspects of the curriculum.[7] It was Kandinsky’s belief that he could use color to communicate emotions and feelings better than any language could. People admired his dedication to his classes and his logic and his teaching style was very constructive. He was held in very high esteem by everyone there, and he was thought to have “a divine gift that consisted in never placing himself above his pupils but rather helping them and guiding them in their development.”[8]  In his introductory course, Kandinsky focused on the elements of color, shape, lines, and angles. He believed in the power of art to change humanity and explored evocated color and form.[9]  Kandinsky didn’t abandon his fundamental belief in the power of color and line to stir up inspirational states. As he had believed before the war, he showed that contrasting colors and the play of thin versus thick line and/or shapes could create the illusion of movement and space.[10] His system for colors, shapes, and lines were translated into his artworks. Using lines to show warmth and coldness, shapes and colors to draw the eye to the top or bottom of the picture to signify lightness or heaviness respectively, Kandinsky used basic elements to create masterpieces that lead the Bauhaus movement.

As a part of his teachings at the Bauhaus, Kandinsky developed a questionnaire that explored how people associated shapes and color.  The questionnaire included the basic shapes of a square, triangle, and circle. He then asked for the shapes to be assigned a primary color; red, yellow, and blue.  The results were pleasing to Kandinsky, and were mostly the same amongst all who took the questionnaire.  Believing that colors and shapes share inherent characteristics, the colors were naturally assigned to their corresponding shape. The circle was assigned the color blue; the triangle was assigned yellow, and the square assigned red. Kandinsky’s original theory was that “the circle is cosmic, absorbent, feminine, and soft; the square is active, masculine – and the triangle, with its acute angles, intrinsically yellow.”[11] Contrast could be shown through changing the colors associated with each shape. This color and shape theory goes along with Kandinsky’s belief that science correlates to art in many ways.  He paired colors with certain angles, for example saying that a 30 degree angle is yellow and a 150 degree angle is blue. By matching these geometric forms with colors, he created his own method of how painting should be done. He also paired colors with shapes that corresponded with the assignments he gave to the angles. They were assigned according to aggressiveness and appearance of shapes, which was explained by Kandinsky when he said “the more acute the angle, the hotter it gets; inversely, the heat decreases progressively towards the red right angle and rends more and more towards the cold until it reaches the obtuse angle.”[12]

In 1925 the Bauhaus teachings changed slightly as a result of relocating.  They moved to Dessau, Germany in 1925 due to a lack of funds in Weimar. The city had a larger population, lay at the centre of an important coal-mining area, and was consequently the site of a number of modern industries.  It was also closer to the capital of Germany, which made it a much busier city then Weimar. A department of architecture was introduced, adding a greater element of craftsmanship to the Bauhaus.  The building built in Dessau was clean lined, functional, and assertively modern and it was a reminder that the school was a place where a new type of industrial designer was being trained.[13]

Kandinsky’s painting style changed during the late years of the Bauhaus. In the late twenties and early thirties, his paintings shared stylistic features that distinguish them from the major works of the Weimar and early Dessau years.  As this transition was occurring, Kandinsky’s paintings changed to be “noticeably warmer than his work in Weimar.”[14] His works became less complex than his previous works.  Instead of using shapes and colors to create a large structure, Kandinsky depicts figures and forms individually.[15]  It is interesting that he changed in this way, because a time of political conflict usually signifies a colder, harsher type of painting.  Kandinsky seems to be showing that he is not being affected by all of this conflict. During this time, Kandinsky’s works changed to show simpler images while still using color and lines as the main spotlight.

Slow Release, completed in 1931, shows Kandinsky’s style at the end of the Bauhaus era perfectly. It shows shapes and lines fitting together in 90 degree angles without harsh lines and colors, making the work more peaceful than some of his previous works.  Each color is assigned to a specific block, and there is a sense of order to the painting.  Architecture was prominent in the Bauhaus at this time, and this work mimics the order that can be found in architecture.  Many colors are used instead of just the three primary colors.  The image overall is softer than his previous works.  All of these things suggest that Kandinsky was making a statement that things did not need to escalate into war, and that people should just focus on being peaceful and keeping things the way they are.

When the Dessau Bauhaus was forced to close in 1933, Kandinsky remained with the school for as long as he could. The Nazis had finally succeeded in becoming the majority of the government in Germany, causing the school to move to Berlin in its final months. However, Kandinsky, along with other faculty members, voted to close the Bauhaus for good in April 1933.[16]  At this point, Kandinsky and his wife moved to France, hoping to find more success in the art world.

 

Bibliography

Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years, 1915-1933. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1983.

Rose-Carol Washton Long. “From Metaphysics to Material Culture: Painting and Photography at the Bauhaus.” In Bauhaus Culture, From Weimar to the Cold War, edited by Kathleen James-Chakraborty, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Targat, Francois. Kandinsky. Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, S. A., 1986.

Weber, Nicholas Fox, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

Whitford, Frank. Bauhaus. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1984.

 


[1] Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years 1915-1933 (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1983). 42.

[2] Rose-Carol Washton Long, “From Metaphysics to Material Culture: Painting and Photography at the Bauhaus,” in Bauhaus Culture, From Weimar to the Cold War, ed. Kathleen James-Chakraborty (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 43.

[3] Francois Targat, Kandinsky (Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, S. A), 16.

[4]Frank Whitford, Bauhaus (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1984), 9.

[5] Whitford, 12.

[6] Targat, 15.

[7] Whitford,  12.

[8] Targat, 18.

[9] Long, 46.

[10] Long, 48.

[11] Weber, 225.

[12] Targat, 17.

[13] Whitford, 151.

[14] Weber, 254.

[15] Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years 1915-1933, 79-80.

[16] Weber, 257.

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