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Wassily Kandinsky

(1866—1944) Russian painter and theorist

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Russian-born painter who pioneered abstract painting.

It was not until the age of thirty that Kandinsky decided to abandon an academic career that had begun with his appointment as lecturer in the faculty of law at the University of Moscow in 1893. He left his native city in 1897 to study painting in Munich. The current avant-garde movement there was art nouveau, and Kandinsky's early work is characterized by the broad flat areas of colour and the rhythmic lines of this style. He travelled between 1903 and 1908 but continued to be based in Munich until 1914.

Most historians credit Kandinsky with the first abstract painting, dating it as early as 1910. In his treatise On the Spiritual in Art (1912), he argued that art depended on inherent aesthetic principles, not on resemblance to the outside world. He wanted to produce a ‘spiritual vibration’ by expressing inner and essential feelings rather than the surface appearances of the natural world. His emphasis on spiritual qualities in art reflected the intensely mystical side of his personality and the influence of such theories as those of theosophy. The two years before World War I also saw the foundation of the Blaue Reiter group of artists led by Kandinsky, all of whom were interested in nonobjective painting and the correspondence between different art forms. The latter conception was explored in Kandinsky's stage play The Yellow Sound.

The outbreak of war in 1914 forced Kandinsky along with other Russians to leave Germany. He returned to Russia and for six years became closely involved in cultural policy after the revolution. Increasing hostility to his ideas, however, prompted his acceptance in 1921 of the post of professor at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, where he taught from 1922. During his Bauhaus period, Kandinsky's pictures, which until then had often contained echoes of external reality, became for the most part wholly abstract. They were full of energy and movement conveyed purely by colour, line, and shape. They also displayed a mastery of composition, which provided the basis for almost all nonspontaneous expressive abstract painting in the twentieth century. In 1926 the Bauhaus published his most influential treatise, Point, Line and Plane. When the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis in 1933, Kandinsky, who had become a German citizen in 1927, went to live in Paris and in 1939 became a French citizen. During this period he continued to create masterpieces, which became less harshly geometrical with softer and less angular shapes.

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