Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was one of the most innovative practicing artists and art theorists of the 20th century. Son of a wealthy Siberian tea merchant, his first memories were of colors, "light juicy green, white, carmine red, black and yellow ochre." His parents divorced when he was 5 and he lived with his father and aunt in Odessa (Ukraine), first painting in oils at age 13. In 1886 he moved to Moscow to study law while painting as a hobby, but was transformed by his immersion in Russian folk art during an ethnographic field trip to Vologda province in 1889. He married his first cousin and worked as a law instructor after graduating in 1893, then as a printing company art director; but in 1896, after seeing Monet's haystack paintings and attending a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin, he moved to Munich to study the foundation skills of art — sketching, anatomy and life drawing — first at the school of Slovenian painter Anton Azbé, then (in 1900) at the Munich Art Academy. What he lacked in artistic promise he made up for in administrative skills and ambition. In 1901-04 he helped to found and direct the avant garde Phalanx exhibiting society (the main forum for Jugendstil art in Germany) and taught in the Phalanx art school. He began writing criticism and color theory in 1904, and separated from his wife to enter exhibitions and travel throughout Europe and Africa with his lover, the talented art student Gabriele Münter. In 1906 they settled in Paris, but in 1907 Kandinsky suffered a nervous breakdown, caused by alienation from Münter and a lack of progress in his own art, and retreated to Bad Reichenhall (Bavaria) to recuperate. Here he began painting landscapes around the nearby market town of Murnau, borrowing the Fauvist colors and spare imagery of the Russian Expressionist painter Alexei von Jawlensky (1864-1941), and quickly effaced the representational elements of his paintings. In 1908 he moved back to Munich with Münter and entered a period of intense creativity — founding the the New Artists Association of Munich (1909) with Jawlensky, Münter and others, mastering the Bavarian peasant technique of glass paintings, producing his first abstractions (Improvisations in 1910 and Compositions in 1911), finishing his art theoretical book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), organizing with the German Expressionist painter Franz Marc (1880-1916) the Blaue Reiter exhibition (1911) and almanac (1912), writing poetry and plays, developing friendships with Paul Klee (1879-1940) and the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and contributing to group and one man exhibitions around the world. Throughout this period he continued to spend summers painting at Münter's house in Murnau. When war erupted in 1914 he returned to Russia via a brief stay in Goldach (Switzerland), where he began work on his theoretical work Point and Line to Plane (1922). In Moscow he observed the new Constructivist trends initiated by Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), Aleksandr Rodchenko (1891-1956) and others, but produced little art of his own. Kandinsky married the art student Nina Andreevskaya, almost 30 years his junior, in 1917 and threw himself into a variety of government administrative roles and art educational programs in the new Communist government. Political and artistic frictions with his younger and more ideological colleagues forced him to return to Germany in 1921, where he accepted an invitation from the German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) to teach at the new Bauhaus in Weimar (1922-25; later in Dessau, 1925-33). He taught introductory art and mural painting, wrote art criticism, and exhibited productively throughout Europe and the United States. He became a German citizen in 1928, but fled to France in 1933 when the Bauhaus closed in protest of Nazi harassment. He settled in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, became a French citizen in 1939 and remained artistically productive but reclusive at his home until his death in 1944, at age 78.

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Kandinsky's earliest paintings (not shown here) drew heavily on imagery from Russian folk art, presented with Art Nouveau stylization and Fauvist intensity of color. These paintings often contain dozens of ornately dressed figures moving through fantastical landscapes. By 1908, however, Kandinsky began systematically to eliminate representation from his paintings, spurred (so the story goes) by an encounter with one of his own paintings in the dark, set upside down, which though unrecognizable was "an indescribably beautiful picture impregnated with an inner radiance." By 1913 he had arrived at complete abstraction. Untitled (1915, 23x34cm) is typical of this first completely abstract style. Many elements in the picture have strong representational associations — the dark "M" above center might be two mountain peaks, the curving blue below it a river — but from his very first folk art paintings Kandinsky gave his representations of space a crowded and fluid character, making even literal images difficult to read. By simplifying and stylizing the figural aspects of his work, Kandinsky created abstract designs that retained strong landscape associations. This painting uses the muted greens and browns of nature, with the heavy black lines that Kandinsky picked up from his earliest woodcuts and German glass paintings; variations in the direction, shape and emphasis of these lines create a surprising sense of depth and air. Kandinsky's fascination with color theory has also brought in unmixed red, blue and yellow, for both expressive and symbolic purposes.

Relatively few paintings survive from Kandinsky's years in revolutionary Russia (economic hardship and administrative duties got in the way), but he was very productive during his Bauhaus years in Germany. He rapidly went through a variety of styles in an exploratory application of the principles developed in Point and Line to Plane, and in response to the ideas of his colleague Paul Klee. Vibration (1924, 49x34cm) retreats from the severe style of dots, lines, curves, grids and geometric figures that Kandinsky adopted after exposure to the purely geometric art of the Constructivists, and returns to more "organic" forms that characterize all his best work. The title might at first seem to allude to Kandinsky's famous quote: "Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key then another to cause vibration in the soul." The color areas are mostly somber, limited to warm earth hues and contrasting areas of dark blue and black (all heavy, motionless colors in Kandinsky's theory), but bright oranges and yellows at the bottom spin off coiled, concentric and wavy lines. Vibrations also emanate from the crossed arcing lines and wavy dark bands, which recall both rippling water and the crenelated facades of Murnau houses. Imitating a technique used by Klee, watercolor washes are overlapped — in the umber fields at the top and in shapes under the curving bridge — to create translucent fields of color. The small window at left and the railings across the brown curve suggest buildings and a bridge, perhaps a glimmer of happiness in a memory steeped in brown nostalgia.

By the time the Bauhaus moved to Dessau, Kandinsky was one of senior staff members and a major contributor to the school's outlook. He also continued to respond to the works of Klee, whose influence can be strongly felt in Into the Dark (1928, 48x32cm). This painting applies the watercolors with an atomizer spray, using cut paper stencils to mask areas from the colors, a technique Klee showed to his painting students. But Klee's influence also appears in the vaguely narrative feel of the painting, with its vertical sequence of upward pointing triangles, its double crescents and dimly outlined cross suggesting celestial or spiritual forces. The overlapping rectangular areas vaguely outline an urban or constructed environment, through which the sequence of triangles trace increments or steps of an evolving energy. Blue, placed at the top, was for Kandinsky the heavenly color, cold, tranquil, and sorrowful as it approaches black; the color yellow was earthly warmth; and the color red represented life, energy, purposeful strength, and masculine maturity. The progression from light to dark implied, in Kandinsky's ideas, movement away from the viewer, so that the sequence suggests movement upward from earth to heaven (yellow to blue), and forward from present to future (light to dark). In various ways the image suggests the reserved Kandinsky's attempt to translate his artistic passions into austere works of art, and also suggests the spiritual sublimation of his animal energies as he entered his seventh decade. These interpretations do not unlock the meaning of the image, but suggest a receptiveness to its many possible spiritual implications — which, Kandinsky believed, abstraction would communicate to us most powerfully.

The best current overview of Kandinsky's works on paper is the catalog to the Royal Academy's 2000 exhibition: Wassily Kandinsky: Watercolors and Other Works on Paper by Frank Whitford (Thames & Hudson, 2000). His extensive and often mystical writings on art are collected in Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, edited by Kenneth Lindsay & Peter Vergo (Da Capo Press, 1994).