Kandinsky Publishes His Theory of Abstract Art

Wassily Kandinsky explained his theory of abstraction in art as a need to reject natural images to impress industrial, secular society with the coming of a new spiritual age.

Summary of Event

In various ways, the publication of Über das Geistige in der Kunst, insbesondere in der Malerei (1912; Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular, 1912) was the culmination of Wassily Kandinsky’s personal and professional development. Trained as a lawyer in Moscow, where he was born, Kandinsky left that profession and his native land when he was thirty-one years of age. In 1897 he went to Munich, Germany, to take up studies in painting. Art Nouveau and the Jugendstil movement of craft artists attracted him with their stress on nonrepresentational art, but he found unsatisfying the decorative purpose of the art of those movements. He began to paint in the Fauvist Fauvism style for exhibitions and to write about the theory of art. For several years, he wrote articles for Mir Iskusstva (world of art), a journal published by the Russian artistic society of the same name, in St. Petersburg, Russia, from his home in Germany. Art;abstract
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Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular (Kandinsky)
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Kandinsky, Wassily
Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna
Malevich, Kazimir
Steiner, Rudolf
Matisse, Henri
Marc, Franz

The most important influence on his development was that of the German mystic, Rudolf Steiner, founder of a variant of Theosophy, Theosophy which itself had been founded in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in the United States. This new religious movement as a whole suggested a hidden meaning within all material culture. Blavatsky’s Anglo-American sector stressed the unity of the world’s religions, whereas Steiner believed in the centrality of Christ. As early as 1909, Kandinsky was editing some of the writings of Steiner. All Theosophists adhered to the notions that the spiritual world was in reach of the average person and that artists were charged with aiding people to contact the “vibrations” of that other world. The materialistic culture was certain to give way soon to a higher, spiritual stage of human development.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular explained Kandinsky’s rationale for abandoning representational painting. He described his commitment to the values of Theosophy and his rejection of materialistic principles. He also provided a unique conception of the use of colors and a new method of space and form in art.

Kandinsky completed this work in December, 1911, and it was published the following year, at about the same time that his artistic work began reflecting his new abstraction. Making analogies to the writing of Maurice Maeterlinck, Maeterlinck, Maurice the music of Claude Debussy, Debussy, Claude the dance of Isadora Duncan, Duncan, Isadora the colors of Henri Matisse, and the forms of Pablo Picasso, Picasso, Pablo Kandinsky explained his notion of abstract value by looking for hidden meaning in art, meaning not found simply in the external expression. Viewers of art, he argued, should allow the work to speak for itself in order to understand its abstract effect.

Kandinsky noted Maeterlinck’s opinion that elaborate scenery was unnecessary for his plays because audiences could image the settings, in much the same way that a child can imagine a horse while pretending to ride a stick. Even more important, Maeterlinck knew that words, when repeated, lose their symbolic, material representation and take on meanings and emotional content of their own, divorced from the original representation. Turning to music, Kandinsky indicated that the impressionistic music of Debussy (like the painting of Matisse) is never very explicit, that sudden leaps into dissonance show that conventional beauty is not the same as internal beauty. In painting, Picasso departed from conventional beauty by annihilating materiality, fragmenting objects into separate parts. Duncan’s dance was in part an attempt to explore commonality with the primitives, a transitional stage to new kinds of movements that could be divorced from conventional storytelling and that would spring solely from the inner spirit.

In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular, Kandinsky referred to the spiritual triangle. Spiritual triangle At the bottom of this figure stand the broad masses, for whom realistic representation is a comfort, but comfort without a soul. Barely above this broad stratum are those artists who appear to be avant-garde because they adopt some peculiar style without real meaning; they pretend to have captured some hidden significance but in reality only court the devotees of the newly fashionable. Higher on the triangle (and therefore lesser in number) are those who recognize uncertainties, who question the assertions of positivism and science but are at a loss to provide new answers. Those at the top of the triangle, the least numerous and least popular, are the spiritual leaders who recognize that an era of spiritual darkness has descended. It is this group, often artists, who provide a glimmer of light from which the new age can ripen. Kandinsky saw the prophetic role of the artist, whether literary, visual, or musical, as helping to save civilization from material degradation. He perceived merit in the thoughts of Blavatsky, Steiner, and other Theosophists, as well as in others who examined “nonmatter.”

This spiritual dimension of art is extended to Kandinsky’s detailed discussion of color and form. Certain colors are apt to cause a defined impression in limited use but then grow stale. The task of the artist is to render colorful impressions with deep and lasting meaning. Soft blue was a color accented by the Symbolist movement. Symbolist movement Kandinsky founded the artists’ association Der Blaue Reiter Blaue Reiter, Der (the blue rider) with Franz Marc and certain émigré Russian artists in Germany. Kandinsky developed the same argument with respect to forms. All forms say something, even if it is not immediately understood by the artist. In any case, the union of color and form must never be merely decorative, an empty response to the need for nonrepresentational art. The future of art lay precisely in the harmony between form and color, divorced from material objects.


Attracted by the new schools of painting in Russia as well as in Germany, Kandinsky returned to Russia in 1914, shortly after he committed himself to this new abstract style of art. Like painter Marc Chagall, who returned to Russia at about the same time, Kandinsky involved himself in the political life of the nation. He was no Marxist, because he rejected materialist philosophy, but he was probably close to the syndicalists or anarchists.

Kandinsky stayed until 1922, until it was clear that there was no future for his ideas in his homeland. He was personally and professionally close to the two Burliuk brothers, David and Vladimir. David, who asked Kandinsky to become godfather to his second son, arranged for the members of Der Blaue Reiter to exhibit their works in Moscow with the exhibits of the Jack of Diamonds artists’ group in 1911 and 1912. After his return to Moscow, Kandinsky actively pursued his new style of painting and aggressively exhibited his works in Russia during the war years.

Mysticism flourished in Petrograd and Moscow during the war. Composer Aleksandr Scriabin, an early convert to Theosophy and an exemplar of the new faith in Kandinsky’s book, was planning his magnum opus, an opera to be performed in the Himalaya Mountains in 1915. It was to be an open-air performance to demonstrate the divine experience of ecstasy. Theosophist Peter D. Uspensky wrote an influential book on the fourth dimension, time, which would enable humankind to free itself from death. This work was known to Kandinsky and greatly influenced fellow painter Kazimir Malevich.

During the revolutionary year of 1917, Kandinsky married Nina Andreevskaya and painted several of his most famous works. Several of his abstract paintings were exhibited at the Fifth State Exhibition in 1919 in a show titled The Trade Union of Artist-Painters of the New Art: From Impressionism to Abstract Painting. The exhibit was held in the Museum of Fine Arts (now the Pushkin Museum) in Moscow.

Kandinsky was appointed professor at the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts in 1918 and was made director of the Museum for Pictorial Culture the following year. In 1920, he was made professor at the University of Moscow and was appointed to the new Institute of Artistic Culture. The latter was organized around a theoretical program drawn up by Kandinsky and was based on an explication of many of his ideas in his publication of 1912. This program was published in two parts: the theory of separate branches of art and combinations of separate arts to create monumental art. The first part, in particular, included an examination of color in its absolute and relative values and in relationship to forms. The synthesis and interrelationship among the arts was a theme of the Symbolists and was shared by Kandinsky for many years, as is evident in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular. The spiritual union of poetry, drama, music, dance, and painting would also form the core of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus course in Weimar after 1922.

The revolutionary era in Russia generated debates in the arts as well as in politics. Members of the Institute of Artistic Culture debated the central proposition of Kandinsky and Malevich that art is a spiritual activity. Kandinsky refused to accede to the supporters of what was called the New Objectivity movement that art could be organized practically by an engineer.

In 1921, Kandinsky founded the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences with the encouragement of Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lunacharsky, Anatoly the Bolshevik head of culture and education. Lunacharsky approved of Kandinsky’s ideas of art as psychic and intuitive, but other Bolshevik colleagues thought the ideas were un-Marxian. When Kandinsky feared that his ideas were not going to be implemented, he decided to take a promising offer to return to Germany. After seven years in Russia, he left for his adopted homeland in 1922 to work at the Bauhaus school in Weimar, then in Dessau, and then finally in Berlin. In his writings at that time, he as well as other art writers reaffirmed the position taken in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular, that the birth of a new spiritual era was at hand.

In 1928, Kandinsky painted the settings for a production of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. In 1933, the new political leaders of Germany found his works unsuitable, and he was forced to leave his adopted country for Paris, France. He worked in Paris until his death on December 13, 1944.

If Kandinsky was not the first artist to adopt nonrepresentational art, he was nevertheless the first to do so without qualifications and the first major artist to popularize the concept. Among those influenced by Kandinsky’s writing was painter Kazimir Malevich, also a disciple of Theosophy. Although the two painters never had direct contact, their ideas had much in common. Theosophic ideas were most certainly the basis for the nonrepresentational school of Suprematist Suprematism
Art movements;Suprematism painting that Malevich launched. By 1920, Suprematist geometrical forms were evident in Kandinsky’s work.

Perhaps most important was Kandinsky’s influence on a younger generation of painters worldwide, such as the Czechoslovak František Kupka, the French painter Francis Picabia, and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. All of these artists, and countless others, were drawn to abstraction by Kandinsky; some, as in the case of Mondrian, were even drawn to Theosophy. Art;abstract
Abstract art
Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular (Kandinsky)

Further Reading

  • Barasch, Moshe. From Impressionism to Kandinsky. Vol. 3 in Theories of Art. New York: Routledge, 2000. Scholarly work examines the evolution of art and art theory, focusing on the transition from Impressionism to abstract art. Includes bibliographic essay and indexes.
  • Barron, Stephanie, and Maurice Tuchman, eds. The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910-1933: New Perspectives. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1980. Beautifully illustrated volume devoted to the first major exhibition of the Russian avant-garde at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1980.
  • Bowlt, John E., ed. Painting Revolution: Kandinsky, Malevich, and the Russian Avant-Garde. Bethesda, Md.: Foundation for International Arts and Education, 2000. Published in conjunction with the world premiere of an exhibition of Russian avant-garde paintings at the Phoenix art museum. Features three scholarly essays, color plates, glossary, and bibliography.
  • _______. The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early Twentieth Century and the “World of Art” Group. 2d ed. Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1982. Excellent general work puts into perspective the many disparate schools of artistic expression that arose in Russia in response to Western stimuli. Includes many black-and-white photographs.
  • Gray, Camilla. The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863-1922. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1986. First book in English (original edition published 1962) to survey the era of revolutionary art in Russia and to place previously little-known artists in perspective. Demonstrates that Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular was linked directly to the “world of art” spiritual mode of thinking and to the Symbolists before 1912, as well as to his involvement with the proletarian and then the Bauhaus periods later.
  • Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by Michael Sadlier and Francis Golffing. New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947. This edition of the work includes notes on Kandinsky’s painting by his widow, an essay on Kandinsky’s personality by Julia Feininger and Lyonel Feininger, and an essay on Kandinsky’s language by Stanley William Hayter.
  • Long, Rose-Carol Washton. Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1980. Focuses on Kandinsky’s attempts to resolve the philosophical dilemma of his desire to renounce material values through abstract art and the conflict of that desire with a fear that he would not communicate to the masses if recognizable content disappeared from his canvases.
  • Overy, Paul. Kandinsky: The Language of the Eye. New York: Praeger, 1969. Acknowledges the influence of Theosophy on Kandinsky’s thought, but asserts that overemphasis on influences leads to ignoring the paintings themselves. Addresses the painter’s discussions of color and forms in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and Painting in Particular, areas that continued to evolve in Kandinsky’s compositions, especially after 1915.
  • Williams, Robert C. Artists in Revolution: Portraits of the Russian Avant-Garde, 1905-1925. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977. Discusses the recognition among scholars since 1960 of the religious influence on Kandinsky’s conversion to abstraction. Shows that Theosophy influenced not only Kandinsky but also Malevich.

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