5 Iconic Artworks by Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky is said to be a pioneer of abstraction. Many of his pieces are easily recognizable—but what exactly do they mean?

Feb 14, 2024By Miles McMorrow, BA Art History
works wassily kandinsky


Up until the Modern period, art was centered around naturalistic depictions of figures or landscapes. With a linear brushstroke, it was the artist’s job to create a window onto the world, inspired by traditional stories of history, mythology, and the Bible. Artists like Michelangelo, Caravaggio, or Vermeer were said to represent exactly what art should be. During the mid-1800s, a sharp shift in the art world brought on a new era, marked by large-scale rejections of academic standards. Artworks became less formal and more abstract. One of the leading figures of abstraction was a Russian-born, German-French citizen who made non-objectivity the leading force in art it is today. Meet Wassily Kandinsky.


Who Was Wassily Kandinsky?

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Wassily Kandinsky. Source: Bibliothèque Kandinsky


Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944), sometimes stylized as Vassily or Vasili, was born in Moscow, Russia on December 16. Raised in Odesa in modern-day Ukraine, Kandinsky was the son of a tea merchant, and, despite the fame he is known for today, he would not start painting until he was in his 30s. Still, he tailored an artistic lifestyle for himself, inspired by the music education he received as a child. This experience would prove instrumental to his artworks.


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Portrait of Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, 1906. Source: Schlossmuseum Murnau


After graduating from the University of Moscow at the age of 26 with degrees in law and economics, Kandinsky taught Roman Law at the University of Dorpat in Estonia. Despite his promising career in jurisprudence, Kandinsky quickly shifted towards the artistic world, highly inspired by experiences with music and color as a child. In 1897, he moved to Germany and studied under Anton Azbe, a Slovene realist painter. He was then taught by Symbolist Franz von Stuck at the Kunstakademie in Munich. During this period, Kandinsky started showing immense promise with his art, as well as his theoretical work.


1. Blue Mountain, 1908-09 

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Blue Mountain, Wassily Kandinsky, 1908-09. Source: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.


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Once Kandinsky finished his art education, he turned back to teaching in 1901. He first taught art as the director of the Phalanx School of Painting, an art group created by himself and three other artists. While this group was short-lived, it kickstarted Kandinksy’s interest in teaching art. After traveling for a few years, he settled back down in Munich, where he then became president of the Munich New Artists’ Association. He soon became dulled with the traditional aspect of the group, disagreeing with many of its members, and left his post in 1911. He shifted his focus to creating his own group which exemplified his turn to abstraction.


Blue Mountain represents a turn away from linearity, marked by the visible brushstrokes, similar to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists like Monet or Van Gogh. Kandinsky actually calls on an experience of seeing Monet’s Haystack series and being enraptured by the use of color and light. His early works are reflective of Impressionism, as many of them are still representational. Here, the viewer can see two horseback riders–a common theme in Kandinsky’s works. Primary colors are the focus of this piece, with the yellow and red trees framing the titular blue mountain. While this representation is far from realistic, it is also quite far from Kandinsky’s later abstractions.


2. The Blue Rider, 1903. 

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The Blue Rider, Wassily Kandinsky, 1903. Source: Wikimedia


Der Blaue Reiter was a group created around 1912, with the publishing of the group’s Almanac. Here, Kandinsky and fellow artist Franz Marc composed a collection of essays written by themselves, along with composers and critics. Most of the artworks featured in the Almanac represented this stark removal of European artistic conventions and instead drew inspiration from ‘primitive’ art. The title of both the group and the Almanac, translated as The Blue Rider, was simply designated by Marc’s love of horses and Kandinsky’s fascination with the color blue. Some have argued that the name of the group came from this 1903 painting by Kandinsky.


In his The Blue Rider piece, there is an apparent move away from traditional representations in art. Like Blue Mountain, this work is still figurative (seen again by the horseback rider in the right half of the canvas), but it starts to lean into abstraction with its thick, broad brushstrokes. This stylistic form of line works well with the movement of the subject, with the brushiness representing the speed of the horse. Yet, the linework also lends to a little bit of confusion. The horse and trees are quite visible, but there are some white shapes on the left that are unclear. While this work is a little more naturalistic and less abstract than Blue Mountain, the influence of Impressionism is still evident.


3. Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles, 1913. 

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Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles, Wassily Kandinsky, 1913. Source: Lenbachhaus.


At the onset of World War I, Kandinsky moved back to Moscow where he would continue his artistic career. Der Blaue Reiter was dissolved by this time, but he remained a driving force in the art world. His publishing of Concerning the Spiritual in Art in 1910 kick-started his dive into art theory, earning him world recognition. He was a large proponent of advancing Russia’s art education, helping to establish both the Museum of the Culture of Painting as well as the Institute of Artistic Culture. During this period in Russia, Kandinsky honed his craft, turning further and further away from objectivity in every painting he created. He was largely inspired by the Russian avant-garde with suprematist artists like Malevich, Rodchenko, and Popova.


As detailed in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, the most important aspect of painting to Kandinsky was the use of color. Within his theory, he cataloged shades of color and explained their ‘psychic’ impression. In Squares with Concentric Circles, Kandinsky created a study with watercolor in order to observe how different colors played off of each other. The complementary reds and blues are juxtaposed while cool greens and purples reflect off of one another; all working to create a mixture of hues. Some of the warm colors jut out towards the viewer whereas the cool tones recede into the canvas, forcing the audience to feel a sense of movement despite the stagnant shapes. Through his abstraction, Kandinsky was able to break down art to its absolute fundamentals, leaving infinite room for interpretation.


4. Composition VIII, 1923.

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Composition VIII, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923. Source: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.


Kandinsky then moved back to Munich after the war, where he began teaching at the Bauhaus art school in 1922. Some of his most famous pieces were created then, including his Composition series. The title of Composition also calls on another one of Kandinsky’s largest inspirations—music. Similar to his experience seeing a Monet exhibition, he was greatly transformed after witnessing a performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin early in his life. Kandinsky is said to have experienced a neurological sensation called synesthesia, defined as the conflation of senses.


When he heard music, Kandinsky would see specific colors, and when he observed color, he would hear a specialized instrument. In Composition VIII, Kandinsky creates a cacophony of shapes, representing the turbulent postwar conditions of Europe, especially of the Weimar Republic. In trying to read this work like a piece of music, there is a symphony of dissonance splattered across the canvas. The looming glowing circle in the upper left corner is foreboding, while the chaos of the shapes below may remind one of a battlefield. Spheres bounce off of lines, which slice through triangles attacking squares. Yet, the calming white background may give the viewer a different impression of the scene.


5. Composition X, 1939.

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Composition X, Wassily Kandinsky, 1939. Source: Wikimedia


Kandinsky had great success during the 1920s. Die Blaue Vier (The Blue Four) was founded by four Expressionists, including Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee, and Jawlensky. The goal of this group was to market all of their artworks together to sell abroad in the United States. Kandinsky had his first solo American exhibition at the Société Anonyme in 1925. This group gave him even further international recognition. Yet, with World War II on the horizon, as well as age catching up to him, Kandinsky’s works slowed, but not before completing his most famous series.


One of his last paintings created is Composition X, the final piece of his Composition series. Bringing the sequence to a head, this work lays on a background of stark black, relatively uncommon for his canon. According to the spiritual intonations of color from his theory, this black may represent closure. There is a jarring lack of outlines on these shapes, an unorthodox convention, even for Kandinsky. The colors are bright yet less saturated than his usual color palette. It is clear that this work symbolizes the end of all things, as the shapes float around in an endless abyss.


The Last Days of Wassily Kandinsky 

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Portrait of Wassily Kandinsky by Hugo Erfurth. Source: Google Arts and Culture


Kandinsky followed the Bauhaus to Dessau in 1925 and continued to teach there until it was closed down by the Nazis in 1933. A portion of his oeuvre was stolen and either destroyed or sold during Nazi seizures of art. Artists like Kandinsky were deemed degenerate due to their abstract style. This, unfortunately, leaves scholars in the dark for parts of Kandinsky’s life. Kandinsky moved to Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, just before the outbreak of the war. Here, he would produce some of his final masterpieces. He died on December 18, 1944, just a few days before his 78th birthday.


It is very easy for the viewer to get jaded when looking at many works made by Kandinsky. One can become frustrated with the lack of apparent meaning, confused by all of the shapes and colors jutting out towards them. The most important idea to keep in mind when studying his artworks is that everyone will have different interpretations and that there is no right or wrong way to analyze these pieces. The meanings of his works were best summed up by artist Diego Rivera who said that a painting by Kandinsky gives no image of earthly life, it is life itself.

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By Miles McMorrowBA Art HistoryMiles holds a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Juniata College. They specialize in Modernism, primarily in Expressionist and Dadaist works. As a recent college graduate, they are exploring the fascinating work force within the art world, with a particular interest in writing and criticism. While history is their greatest passion, Miles also enjoys reading classic literature, listening to a wide array of music, and trying out new meals to cook.