Wassily Kandinsky and His Engagement with Experimental Psychology

30 September 2021

Anne Regina Grasselli, University of Edinburgh

The preoccupation of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) with scientific theories of visual perception and their role in his move toward an abstract non-objective art has been a key subject of research on the artist. These have focussed for the most part on the influence of the publications of the founders of Gestalt psychology, Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887-1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886-1941), whose theories on visual perception do bear some important similarities with those expressed by Kandinsky.[1] Kandinsky himself, however, stated forcefully in the 1928 second edition of his second major book, Punkt und Linie zu Fläche (Point and Line to Plane), that his ideas predated those of the Gestaltists.[2] Indeed, there are clues in both his writings and his art that he was influenced by the work of an earlier generation of psychologists, including Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) and Theodor Lipps (1851-1914). Connections with Lipps’ research have been noted before, but the importance of Wundt, who is regarded as the ‘father of experimental psychology’, for Kandinsky’s work has not previously been recognised.[3] Presented here is some evidence of his early contact with the theories of Wundt and Lipps and his later use of some of their diagrams as the basis of painted compositions and theories.

In 1896, when the thirty-year-old Kandinsky arrived in Munich to pursue a professional career as an artist, he encountered a vital centre for both artistic and scientific thought. Theories of visual perception, which would have been of special interest to the newly fledged artist, were circulating within the spheres of philosophy, science, and experimental psychology. Wundt had founded Germany’s first laboratory for experimental studies in Leipzig in 1879, and Lipps, one of his leading acolytes, had moved to Munich in 1894.[4] For the polymath Kandinsky, the then-evolving principles of visual perception and the related diagrams of geometric-optical illusions would have held particular appeal, even before he began to advance his art toward total abstraction and strove to create a visual language for non-objective art.

Figure 2 Grasselli
Figure 1. Theodor Lipps, Fig. 136, 137, and 138.
Fig 2 Grasselli
Figure 2. Wassily Kandinsky, Drawing for Point and Line to Plane (1925).

Aspects of Lipps’ research coincided quite closely with Kandinsky’s interest in bridging the visual gap between the physical and spiritual worlds in his art. In 1897, for example, Lipps, who was working as the head of the institute for psychology at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München at the time, outlined visual interpretations of geometric combinations in his formative work Raumästhetik und geometrisch-optische Täuschungen (Space Aesthetics and Geometrical-Optical Illusions), expanding upon optical studies that were then ongoing in the field of psychology. Lipps studied therein how shapes interact with one another based upon their spatial and directional orientation on a page, advancing the ‘aesthetic-mechanical’ understanding of geometric forms in art.[5] His examination and diagrams of points, ‘tensions’ (angles), and illusions (fig. 1) expanded upon previous psychological studies of lines and angles, and helped to provide a theoretical bridge between the disciplines of optics and psychology, as Kandinsky also did in his book, Point and Line to Plane, three decades later (fig. 2).

Fig 3 Grasselli
Figure 3. Wassily Kandinsky, In the Black Square (1923).
Fig 4 Grasselli
Figure 4. Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with White Border (1913).

This kind of logical focus on the geometric construction of shapes, angles, and lines can be seen later on in Kandinsky’s art, from his time at the Bauhaus (fig. 3), when his constructions, in a departure from his earlier, more explosive canvases (fig. 4), appear more orderly, static, and precise. Remarkably, during this period Kandinsky’s focus on distilling the visual field into fully deconstructed, atomised compositional elements echoes diagrams produced by psychologists from years earlier. These include those developed by Wundt in his formative work Grundriss der Psychologie (Outlines of Psychology) (first published 1896), in which he investigated the notion of ‘visual totality’ and ‘unity’, which were also central to Kandinsky’s own experimentation with art and theory in the first years of his career.

Fig 5 Grasselli
Figure 5. Wassily Kandinsky, Lithographie n° I (1925).
Fig 6 Grasselli
Figure 6. Wilhelm Wundt, Fig. 17. Binocular Parallax.

In their respective publications, Kandinsky and Wundt illustrated visual interactions set up by organised arrangements of circles, lines, and angles (figs. 5 and 6), but their purposes were different. Wundt’s diagram was intended to show the optics of binocular vision and was developed from similar schematics that had already been published as early as 1860.[6] In 1925, Kandinsky, by contrast, used the same basic triangular forms and slanted lines, organised in a similar way but considerably amplified by other lines and shapes to construct an abstract design that has the general appearance of a human figure, adhering to the crisp, linear aesthetic of the Bauhaus where he was then working. Furthermore, another of Wundt’s illustrations from Outlines of Psychology (fig. 7), this one showing a diagrammatic rendering of the inner makeup of the eye, shares the same overall shape as a key part of a painting by Kandinsky, On Points (fig. 8), dating from 1928. In both images, the left-leaning, cone-shaped figure composed of a large circle supported by lines that angle down to a point are closely similar, even if Kandinsky has again surrounded that basic shape with additional forms and this time, of course, colour.

Fig 7 Grasselli
Figure 7. Wilhelm Wundt, Fig. 13. Diagram representing the Muscles of the left Eye.
Fig 8 Grasselli
Figure 8. Wassily Kandinsky, On Points (1928).

These examples give only the merest hint of the multifarious intersections between the theories of Kandinsky and the experimental psychologists, but they do bear witness to an important narrative not only encompassing the spheres of art and science in general, but also regarding Kandinsky’s exposure early in his artistic career to the seminal works of Wundt and Lipps. The theories of the Gestaltists are still relevant and must also be taken into consideration, but in terms of Kandinsky’s early development in the late 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, the connections to Wundt and Lipps open a whole new avenue of exploration. Even from the very beginning of his career, Kandinsky challenged his viewers to regard his works through the lenses of both art and science and the union of the two, urging them to discover thereby that there is ‘more than meets the eye’ than they might first have expected.


Sources:

[1] See for example Paul Overy, Kandinsky: Language of the Eye (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1969); Roy R. Behrens, ‘Art, Design and Gestalt Theory’, Leonardo, 31, 4 (1998), 299-303.

[2] Wassily Kandinsky, Point and Line to Plane, trans. by Howard Dearstyne and Hilla Rebay (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1947), p. 14.

[3] For connections between Kandinsky and Lipps, see David Morgan, ‘The Idea of Abstraction in German Theories of the Ornament from Kant to Kandinsky’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 50, 3 (Summer 1992), 231-242. See also Crétien van Campen, ‘Early Abstract Art and Experimental Gestalt Psychology’, Leonardo, 30, 2 (1997), 133-136.

[4] Robert S. Harper, ‘The First Psychological Laboratory’, Isis, 41, 2 (July 1950), 158-161 (p. 158).

[5] Theodor Lipps, Raumästhetik und geometrish-optische Täuschungen (Leipzig: Barth, 1897), p. 39.

[6] J. C. Poggendorff, Annalen der Physik und Chemie 110, 186 (1860), 1-677 (p. 661).

Images:

Figure 1. Theodor Lipps, Fig. 136, 137, and 138, from Raumästhetik und geometrisch-optische Täuschungen (Leipzig: J.A. Barth, 1897), p. 293.

Figure 2. Wassily Kandinsky, Drawing for Point and Line to Plane, 1925, India ink on paper, 30.9 ´ 12.7 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Philippe Migeat – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.

Figure 3. Wassily Kandinsky, In the Black Square, 1923, oil on canvas, 97.5 ´ 93.3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Figure 4. Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with White Border, 1913, oil on canvas, 140.3 ´ 200.3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Figure 5. Wassily Kandinsky, Lithographie n° I, 1925, lithograph, 53.5 ´ 34 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Philippe Migeat – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.

Figure 6. Wilhelm Wundt, Fig. 17. Binocular Parallax, from Outlines of Psychology, trans. by Charles Hubbard Judd, 3rd rev. English edn from the 7th rev. German edn (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907), p. 154.

Figure 7. Wilhelm Wundt, Fig. 13. Diagram representing the Muscles of the left Eye, trans. by Charles Hubbard Judd, 3rd rev. English edn from the 7th rev. German edn (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1907), p. 136.

Figure 8 and Cover Image. Wassily Kandinsky, On Points, 1928, oil on canvas, 140 ´ 140 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Service de la documentation photographique du MNAM – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.

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