Abstraction in the Art and
Architecture of
Early 20th-century Russia
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
The figure of Wassily Kandinsky is seminal in the history of early
20th-century painting. Kandinsky studied law from 1886-92 and
then served on the law faculty of the University of Moscow from
1892 to 1896. However, he was increasingly drawn to painting.
In 1896, he left Russia and went to Munich in order to study
painting there. He painted in a broad and eclectic stylistic range
from 1896 until 1909, a range that reflected the changes in
European painting in general in the mid to late 19th century.
Beach Cabins in
Holland, 1902
This painting reveals Kandinsky's understanding of the postimpressionist painters who, after the dissolution of subject matter by
light in the impressionist period, sought to re-introduce structure.
Here, structure is found not only in the composition of the work, i.e.
the arrangement of forms, but in the use of color and the reality of the
paint and even the brushstrokes.
Historically, from the Renaissance through the late 19thcentury, western art had conceived of the canvas or painted
surface as a window or imaginary plane through which
another world, usually an ideal world, could be viewed. The
ability to arrange that ideal world mathematically through one-,
two-, and three-point perspective from the 15th century on
reinforced the concept of illusion that underlay the imaginary
Although the quality of the paint itself on the surface of the
canvas had fascinated the baroque painters of the 17th century
because of its sensuous nature, the post-impressionists began to
treat the painted surface and the paint on the surface as a
reality of equal or even greater value than the subject matter
The post-impressionist characteristics of Beach Cabins in
Holland also permeate Bavarian Mountains. The
structure of this painting is dependent in large part on
the geometry of the forms as they are arranged across the
picture plane. Color likewise is used to emphasize the
composition while the brushstrokes further articulate the
paint as the surface of the work. There is a tension
between the flat, two-dimensonal qualities and the
illusionistic three-dimensional qualities that enlivens the
Bavarian Mountains, 1909
Beginning in 1909, Kandinsky began to work on three series of
paintings which he named "improvisations," "compositions,"
and "impressions,." Each series had a specific definition.
• Impressions: paintings which retain an impression of exterior
• Improvisations: paintings which arise from an inner emotion
• Compositions: paintings built up from preliminary studies and
into whose construction the painter's consciousness enters
Improvisation 9, 1910
In this work, the
illusionistic qualities
begin to subside,
subordinated by the
almost vibrating
quality of the
brushstrokes and the
rich harmony of the
color palette. Line-whether as outline, as
separator between
forms, or as an active
agent of movement-becomes an important
expressive vehicle
along with color and
Composition 2,
The considerable number of figural components in the
composition along with the very active sense of movement is
amplified by the sense of rapid brushstrokes, the lack of an
organizing "gravity" or spatial orientation, and by the strong
color constrasts. The complex nature of the painting suggests that
it fulfills the definition of the "composition" as a painting "built
up from preliminary studies." However, the rest of the definition
says, "...into whose construction the painter's consciousness
This suggests that the painting is very directly expressive of the
mind, soul or spirit of the painter; and that somehow an
element of the consciousness of the painter is the real subject of
the work, not the recognizable forms that the viewer can
observe. The expressive value of the elements that make up the
painting seem now to dominate Kandinsky's notions about what
the activity of painting means.
Of course, Kandinsky was not just a theorist. His writings were
widely read and may have reached more people than his
paintings, but he was nevertheless a painter of significance. In
1910, before he published Concerning the Spiritual in Art,
Kandinsky took the decisive step in the direction he had been
moving by painting the first work that totally eliminated
recognizable subject matter and relied on abstract form and
the "vibrating" power of color to construct its composition.
As with most theory, Kandinsky's writing is an effort to
explain what he achieved in his work, not a formula for
making the work happen. In assessing his own motivations and
passions, he came up with the critical apparatus by means of
which he could evaluate even his own work, let alone offer a
critique of the art around him.
First Abstract Water Color, 1910
Autumn, 1914
In 1914, Kandinsky returned to Moscow, where he
remained until 1921. In 1918, after the October Revolution,
he became a member of the Fine Arts Division of the
Commissariat for Public Instruction and Professor in the
Government Art Workshops. He left Russia and returned
to Germany in 1921 where, in 1922, he became a member of
the faculty at the Bauhaus in Weimar.
Not only did Kandinsky pursue painting in his studio; but he
also tried to formulate his ideas in writing. During 1912, his
two principal texts appeared in the form of a book
(Concerning the Spiritual in Art) and an article ("On the
Question of Form"). In these, he laid the theoretical
groundwork for a purely abstract art, an art that is devoid of
traditional illusionism and recognizable subject matter.
In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky suggests that
true art comes of inner necessity and must not only speak to
and for its own time but must lead its time into the future.
That is beautiful which is produced by internal necessity,
which springs from the soul.
He posits that just at the beginning of the 20th century
humanity is at a turning point in which the effects of 19thcentury materialism will have to be combatted by soul-sensitive
artists who recognize the power of the spiritual.
The spiritual life to which art belongs, and of which it is one of
the mightiest agents, is a complex but definite movement above
and beyond, which can be translated into simplicity. This
movement is that of cognition.
He compares the elements of painting to the elements of music,
defining some compositions as "melodic" and others as
"symphonic," and to the elements of poetry. He further points
to French painting--especially Matisse for color and Picasso for
form--as the "great signposts pointing toward a great end."
Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935)
Russian artists in the early 20th century were well aware of
western European developments through periodicals, travels to
France, italy, Germany, and Holland and by contact with the
works produced in western Europe that were owned by private
Russian collectors. Although Russian music and ballet were highly
developed in the 19th century and had a strong theoretical base as
well as a good tradition and reputation, the visual arts remained
more derivative. Twentieth-century artists saw the need to
participate in the revolutionary experiments of the cubists and
other western European groups.
Kazimir Malevich studied art in Moscow and visited the private
collections of important collectors. By 1911, he had experimented
with painting in the cubist mode. For two years, he explored
cubism and futurism (the radical movement led by Marinetti in
Cow and Violin, 1913
Cow and Violin of 1913 reflects
Malevich's interest in cubism
as well as his appreciation of
the power of folk art. It was
common among many late
19th-century and early 20thcentury artists, such as
Picasso, to seek new energies
within old and so-called
primitive art. Here, Malevich
draws on the compositional
and formal strategies of
cubism while retaining the
subject matter of folk art.
Bather, 1911
In this work, Malevich
explores the possibilities of
giving the painting structure
by virtue of its color, line,
and brushstroke, stressing
the flatness of the canvas
and the primacy of the act of
placing the paint on the
canvas. This painting still
derives from western
influences but begins to
explore aspects of western
styles that lead to more
important achievements in
Malevich's work.
Nevertheless, Malevich was plagued by the persistence of
subject matter in these works, even if the subject matter was
only residual. He finally took the decisive step in 1913 by
completing eliminating recognizable subject matter. He drew a
black square on a white field, a pencil work and the first
example of the style that he suprematism.

PowerPoint Presentation - Abstraction in the Art and Architecture of