FRAGMENT 2 FOR COMPOSITION VII, 1913
oil on canvas
framed: 45 3/8 x 50 1/8 inches (115.25 x 127.32 cm)
For Wassily Kandinsky, music and color were inextricably tied to one another. So clear was this relationship that Kandinsky associated each note with an exact hue. He once said, “the sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”
Born in Moscow in 1866, and studied art in Munich. In 1909, after a trip to Paris during which he was introduced to the works of the Fauve artists Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, his paintings became more highly coloured and loosely formed.
In fact, it was after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Wagner’s composition Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre that he abandoned his law career to study painting at the prestigious Munich Academy of Fine Arts. He later described the life-changing experience: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”
Around 1913, Kandinsky began working on paintings that came to be considered the first totally abstract works in modern art, for they made no reference to or described objects in the physical world. In 1911, along with Franz Marc and other German expressionists, Kandinsky formed Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a group of artists who shared a belief that art should be in the service of the spiritual and transcendent rather than describe the material world.
The neurological phenomenon Kandinsky experienced is called synesthesia (or “joined perception,” from the Greek word synmeaning “join” and aisthesis meaning “perception”). It’s a rare but real condition in which one sense, like hearing, concurrently triggers another sense, such as sight. People with synesthesia might smell something when they hear a sound, or see a shape when they eat a certain food. Kandinsky literally saw colors when he heard music, and heard music when he painted.
The artist explored these sensations in unconventional, artistic ways. Conceived for the theatre, Kandinsky created experimental performance-based expressions of synesthesia–The Yellow Sound being the most famous–which utilized original musical scores, lighting, and various media to explore prevalent color theories of the time.
Music played an important role in the development of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings. The famous Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg was one influence. Schönberg abandoned tonal and harmonic conventions in his compositions the same way that Kandinsky rejected the figure or recognizable object in favor of shapes, lines, and discordant colors in his work. He deployed color, line, shape, and texture to create a rhythmic visual experience that evoked an emotional response. Not surprisingly, Kandinsky gave many of his paintings musical titles, such as Composition or Improvisation.
For Kandinsky, color also had the ability to put viewers in touch with their spiritual selves. He believed that yellow could disturb, while blue awakened the highest spiritual aspirations. Just a year before he painted Fragment 2 for Composition VII, Kandinsky wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art. An important statement of Kandinsky’s theories on art’s potential to evoke psychological, physical, and emotional responses, the treatise is considered the first theoretical foundation of abstraction.
He returned to Moscow during the Revolutionary period to teach at the Moscow Academy of Fine Arts, leaving in 1921 to teach at the Bauhaus in Germany. He remained at the Bauhaus until the Nazis closed the school in 1933, this time moving to Paris where he died in 1944.