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Images in Psychiatry

Wassily Kandinsky, 18661944

Black Relationship (watercolor and ink on paper, 1924) is reproduced by permission of the Artists Rights Society 2014 Artists Rights Society
(ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris. Reproduction, including downloading of Wassily Kandinsky works, is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of the Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

bstract art was not invented in the West. Many non-Western

cultures have a centuries-long tradition of nonrepresentational art
that infuses their ceramics, textiles, and architecture. Dickerman
observed that the advent of abstract art in the West in the early 20th
century presented paintings that differed from almost all of those
that had preceded them in the long history of the medium in the
Western tradition: shunning the depiction of objects in the world,
they displayed works with no discernible subject matter. Indeed
they abandoned the premise of making a picture of something
(1, p. 13).
Wassily Kandinsky was a seminal gure in this upheaval. As
Whitford commented, Kandinsky did not invent abstract art but
he was its most consistent and consequential pioneer. He was also
the rst to give abstraction a coherent theoretical foundation. In
numerous essays and two books he dened a basic pictorial
language of pure colours and form and suggested what it could be
made to communicate and how (2, p. 12).
Kandinsky was born in Moscow, the only son of a wealthy tea
merchant. Art entranced him (and was therapeutic) from an early
age. In a memoir, he recalled that from childhood on, periods of
intense anxiety characterized by inner shuddering, depression,
and nightmares could be resolved only through drawing, so that I


no longer felt myself (3, p. 50). He had an extensive musical

education, which later had an impact on his painting: The tones
of colours, like those of music, are of a much subtler nature than
can be described in words (3, p. 51).
While a student at Moscow University, be became fascinated
with ethnography, perhaps because of his fathers exotic origins
in eastern Siberia. In 1889 he made a eld trip to the remote
Russian province of Vologda. This was a transformative experience: I shall never forget the great wooden houses covered
with carvings. In these magical places I encountered something
I have never encountered again. They taught me to move within the picture, to live within the picture (4, p. 368). Much later
Kandinsky wrote of the violent impression that Vologda
evoked and credited the abstraction of his work to its impact
(4, p. xiii).
In 1896 Kandinsky, by now married to his older second cousin,
left Moscow for Munich to pursue a career as an artist. He became
a founding member of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group, a radical Expressionist movement that postulated that color could
convey spiritual meaning. In the inaugural exhibition of the group
in 1912, Kandinsky contributed Komposition V, which Dickerman
asserts was a radically new picture type and initiated the assault
Am J Psychiatry 171:10, October 2014


on referential form (1, p. 50). Simultaneously, Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, in which he proclaimed in
somewhat messianic terms, The artist is not only a king because he has great power, but also because he has great duties
(5, p. 55).
At the outbreak of World War I, Kandinsky left Munich for
Moscow, where he became intimately involved with innovative abstract artists, such as Kazimir Malevich. Criticized after
the formation of the Soviet state for his lack of utilitarianism,
in 1921 he accepted an invitation from Walter Gropius to
become a teacher at the modernist Bauhaus in Germany.
While there, he published another theoretical text, Point and
Line to Plane, and geometric elements came to dominate his
art (see illustration). The Nazis made the Bauhaus a target of
their assault on degenerative art and closed the institution in
1933. Kandinsky left for Paris, where he remained for the
rest of his life, continuing to produce an extensive body of
abstract art.
Kandinsky was a revolutionary artist, following closely, and
inuenced by, the ground-breaking achievements of Schoenberg
and Wagner in music and opera. He was central to the transformation of the landscape of 20th-century painting. In an essay
published shortly before his death he wrote, Ask yourselves

Am J Psychiatry 171:10, October 2014

whether the work of art carried you away to a world unknown to

you before. If so, what more do you want? (3, p. xvii).

1. Dickerman L: Inventing Abstraction 19101925: How a Radical
Idea Changed Modern Art: Catalogue of the Exhibit. New York,
Museum of Modern Art, 2013
2. Whitford F: Kandinsky: Watercolours and Other Works on Paper.
London, Thames and Hudson, 1999
3. Lindsay KC, Vergo P (ed): Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art.
Boston, GK Hall, 1982
4. Weiss P: Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer
and Shaman. New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press, 1995
5. Kandinsky V: Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Translated by Sadler
MJH. New York, Dover Publications, 1977


From the Department of Psychiatry, Monteore Medical Center, New
York. Address correspondence to Dr. Buckley (
Image accepted for publication January 2014 (doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.