Vasily Kandinsky, Around the Circle
Vasily Kandinsky, Dominant Curve (Courbe dominante)
Vasily Kandinsky, Composition 8 (Komposition 8)
Vasily Kandinsky, Painting with White Border (Bild mit weißem Rand)
Vasily Kandinsky, Capricious Forms (Formes capricieuses)
Vasily Kandinsky, Striped (Rayé)
Gallery view
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An exceptional collection of abstract works by an icon of modern art are on display

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is hosting an exhibition of the works by one of the icons of modern art. Vasily Kandinsky: Around the Circle features the Guggenheim’s exceptional collection of works by the artist including paintings, watercolours and woodcuts, as well as a selection of his illustrated books.

The exhibition presents the artist and his work from his earlier years in Russia through his years as a teacher at the Bauhaus in Germany and through his exile, post World War II in France and to the end of his life.

Installed throughout the museum’s spiral rotunda, in the iconic UNESCO World Heritage site-building in New York designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Kandinsky’s career is reconsidered not as a fixed path from representation to abstraction, but as a circular passage through persistent themes centred around the pursuit of one dominant idea: the impulse for spiritual expression. The display of Kandinsky’s ground-breaking life and career unfolds in chronologically reverse order proceeding upwards along the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp, beginning with the artist’s final chapter and concluding in the final section with Kandinsky’s earliest paintings.

Guggenheim’s collection of Kandinsky’s works is renowned and is intrinsically linked to the history of The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Hilla Rebay, artist and art advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim, was particularly inspired by Kandinsky. Rebay was the museum’s first director and promoted non-objective painting above all other forms of abstraction. In 1930, Rebay and Guggenheim visited Kandinsky’s studio in Dessau, Germany. Guggenheim became hugely enthusiastic about Kandinsky’s works and their potential as an innovative art form. With Rebay’s encouragement and guidance, they collected the artist’s works in-depth. The collection now contains over 150 works, across various media and from different periods of Kandinsky’s career.

Kandinsky was among those who advanced nonrepresentational modes of art-making to lasting effect. His stylistic evolution was intimately tied to his sense of place and his meaningful intersections with artists, musicians, poets, and other cultural producers who shared his transnational vision and experimental bent.

Vasily Kandinsky was born on 16 December 1866, in Moscow. He was from a family of wealthy merchants and studied law and economics at the University of Moscow from 1886 through 1892.

On a visit to an exhibition, he encountered the works of Claude Monet, which greatly changed his views and the trajectory of his life. In particular, he was intrigued by the impressionist style of Monet’s Haystacks. Kandinsky wrote that he only knew of the painting’s subject, haystacks, from the catalogue. He thought the haystacks were unrecognisable, and that Monet had no right to paint so indistinctly. Yet he was confused. The painting had indelibly imprinted on him and gripped him with power and splendour that surprised him.

Following this experience, Kandinsky pivoted away from his legal career and declined a teaching position to study art in Munich.

In 1896, at the age of thirty, he began an artistic life. From 1987 to 1900, he studied art.

In 1902, Kandinsky exhibited for the first time with the Berlin Secession and produced his first woodcuts. In 1903 and 1904 he began his travels in Italy, the Netherlands and Tunisia and made visits to Russia. He showed at the Salon d’Automne in Paris from 1904.

Kandinsky’s early works were ridiculed. Although he had poured his soul onto the canvas, viewers thought his works were too eccentric and exotic. The public was hostile because they had not seen anything like it before and did not understand his ideas and the liberation of form and colours from the representation of things.

He found comradery with the Phalanx, a group he co-founded in Munich of art students who shared his views.

In 1911, Kandinsky and Franz Marc, another pioneer of modern art, formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a loose confederation of artists, writers and musicians. This art movement was named after Kandinsky’s painting Der Blaue Reiter, painted in 1903, which depicts a horseman in a blue cloak. The painting represented a pivotal milestone in Kandinsky’s artistic evolution toward modern abstract art. The Blaue Reiter group’s first exhibition was held at the Moderne Galerie later that year.

In 1912 the second Blaue Reiter show was held at the Galerie Hans Goltz, Munich. Kandinsky’s first solo show was held at Der Sturm gallery in Berlin in 1912. In 1913, one of his works was included in the Armory Show in New York.

Kandinsky lived in Russia from 1914 to 1921, principally in Moscow, where he held a position at the People’s Commissariat of Education. In 1922, Kandinsky began teaching at the visionary Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany.

In 1923, he was given his first solo show in New York by the Société Anonyme, of which he became vice-president. Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, Kandinsky and Paul Klee made up the Blaue Vier (Blue Four) group, formed in 1924.

Kandinsky moved with the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1925 and became a German citizen in 1928. After the Bauhaus closed under pressure from the Nazi government in 1933, Kandinsky settled in Neuilly-sur Seine, near Paris; he acquired French citizenship in 1939. Fifty-seven of his works were confiscated by the Nazis in the 1937 purge of so-called “degenerate art”. Kandinsky died on 13 December 1944.

Recognized as a major artistic innovator, Kandinsky was committed to exploring a subject matter based on what he called the artist’s “inner necessity”. His abstract works broke new ground during the first decades of the twentieth century. His treatise, On the Spiritual Art, published in 1911, laid out his theories on developing art independently from the observations of the external world. Kandinsky’s works showed the potential of abstraction to break free from representation, a quality of music that he admired.

Kandinsky’s works do not require the viewer to have any preconceptions about what they would see. Instead, the viewer can look at the works freely and enjoy the pure colour, form and spiritual vibrations that emanate from the surfaces.

The exhibition begins with the artist’s final years in France, when the natural sciences and Surrealism, as well as an abiding interest in Russian and Siberian cultural practices and folklore, informed his biomorphic imagery and prompted recurrent themes of regeneration and metamorphosis.

Then works from his decade at the Bauhaus, a German school of applied art and design, manifest Kandinsky’s conviction that art could transform self and society. This body of work reflects the revitalization of his abstract style following his renewed contact with the Russian avant-garde in the late 1910s. The artist increasingly adopted geometric motifs, in particular the circle, as a vehicle for his emotive language.

The final section examines Kandinsky’s earliest paintings, made when he pivoted to a life and career as an artist while he was living in Munich. There he participated in heightened vanguard activity across multiple disciplines. In time, the artist interrogated the expressive possibilities of colour, line and form, inspired in part by contemporary music.

He had a rare gift that set him apart. He had “synaesthesia”, a condition whereby senses are activated by stimulation of another sense. When he saw colours, he heard music. When he heard sounds, he saw colours. His later works and most iconic paintings were thus his visual responses to hearing concerts. Colour and their relationship to sound were very important to him.

At every turn, Kandinsky responded to his environment and developed new ways to explore themes from sensorial experiences and spirituality into more abstract forms and imagery.

Text Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum & Cammy Yiu / Photos Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum