Wassily Kandinsky’s Woodcuts: Early Representations of Non-Objective Imagery

28 February 2022

Anne Regina Grasselli, University of Edinburgh

Figure 1
Figure 1. Wassily Kandinsky, Schwarze Linien, 1913, oil on canvas, 130.5 x 131.1 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

For artist-theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), experimentation with line, form, and colour were critical in establishing a new, fully non-objective artistic style. The paintings he produced during the first decades of his career, for example, from 1896 until 1921, are generally characterised by their unrestrained expressions of bold, saturated colours (fig. 1), whereas those from his years at the Bauhaus, from 1922 through 1933, are typically geometric abstractions in which he focussed on combinations of lines, shapes, and colours (fig. 2). However, Kandinsky’s sensitivity to geometric form during his early artistic years is oftentimes overlooked, even though many of the works he produced during this time contain important hints of non-objective imagery that can be regarded as precursors to his later abstractions. A brief examination of three woodcuts from 1903, 1907, and 1912 shows how Kandinsky’s use of unmodulated shapes and spatial ambiguity indicates an early propensity towards non-objective renderings. Furthermore, these case studies demonstrate his heightened awareness of contemporary studies on the psychology of visual perception and a strong penchant for optical balance and repetition, which predated those facets of his later, more geometric works.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Wassily Kandinsky, Kleine Welten IV, 1922, colour lithograph on paper (4 plates: yellow, green, purple, black), 34.0 x 29.0 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Georges Meguerditchian – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.

From the beginning of his artistic career, Kandinsky experimented with different media and techniques. His initial studies at the Ažbe-Schule and at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Munich with Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), for example, exposed him to a variety of Jugendstil (German version of Art Nouveau) practices and theories on form, colour, and figural types. In terms of his experimentation with visual perception and compositional manipulation, Kandinsky’s work with woodcuts, in particular, allowed him to discover—perhaps accidentally—a new, non-objective pictorial language that eventually led him to the establishment of a fully abstract style in his art. In his woodcuts Kandinsky could challenge and play with scale and proportion, relative sizes and shapes of objects, and depth perception, tactics he would continue to experiment with throughout his career. His use of these practices in his art is consonant with psychological studies in visual perception that were developing concurrently, in which psychologists theorised about how the eye and mind interpret a complete visual field. Among the leaders in this new discipline were Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), Christian von Ehrenfels (1859-1932) and Theodor Lipps (1851-1914), all of whom published extensively about their findings and theories.[1] These studies were important for Kandinsky’s interests in perception and aesthetics, and he formulated similar principles in his own treatise on art, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (first published 1911).[2]

Figure 3
Figure 3. Wassily Kandinsky, Ewigkeit, 1903, xylography on paper, 11.2 x 12.7 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Philippe Migeat – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.

Kandinsky’s print Ewigkeit (Eternity) (fig. 3) is an early example of his engagement with visual perception and proves to be an interesting study for this. Consisting of a path winding from the lower left-hand corner to the door of a building at centre and trees silhouetted against a large sun emitting broad rays, the work is dominated by the sharp contrasts between positive and negative spaces. Kandinsky included patterns of quadrilaterals and simplified lines—especially those on the façade of the building, indicating windows and doors—that create similar optical effects to those that psychologists such as Lipps were studying (fig. 4). Although this woodcut presents a believable though rather simplified landscape scene of sorts, it can also be perceived as flat patterns of black and white shapes.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Theodor Lipps, Fig. 49, from Raumästhetik und geometrisch-optische Täuschungen (Leipzig: Verlag von Ambrosius Barth, 1897), p. 137.

In Hügel, Baum, Wolken und Figur (Hill, Trees, Clouds, and Figure) (fig. 5) from about four years later, Kandinsky carved away more of the woodblock, reversing the proportion of positive to negative space and printing lines and contours in black. The main focus is the visual interplay of repeated forms, such as the several curvilinear lines shaping the hill, the curves of the clouds at left, and the oval, halo-like shape hovering above the figure’s head. Though loosely shaped and expressed, both these forms and the figure standing on the hill are still readily identifiable, even if they have a distinct quality of unreality, but the amorphous, black, phantom-like shape to left of centre bears little resemblance to the ‘tree’ mentioned in the title. Furthermore, Kandinsky has flattened the space and exploited patterns in a way that obstructs recognition of foreground and background, making them nearly interchangeable.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Wassily Kandinsky, Hügel, Baum, Wolken und Figur, 1907, woodcut, 7.7 x 10.3 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.  Bertrand Prévost – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.

This closely mirrors such psychological principles as the ‘figure-ground’ phenomenon, later more formally investigated by Edgar Rubin (1886-1951) in his doctoral thesis from 1915.[3] In it, Rubin explored the interactions between foreground and background planes and the illusions that can be created when the two become visually interchangeable (fig. 6). Kandinsky’s work Hügel, Baum, Wolken und Figur, though largely two-dimensional in terms of space and with quite abstracted forms, still has an identifiable subject, like Rubin’s illusion. This indicates that Kandinsky had not yet taken the leap into total abstraction, but the seeds of abstracted patterns and imagery of his Bauhaus years were already beginning to germinate just as studies about perception and aesthetics were continuing to develop.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Edgar Rubin, Rubin’s Vase, 1915, redrawn from ‘Synsoplevede Figurer’, reprinted in Jörgen L. Pind, Edgar Rubin and Psychology in Denmark: Figure and Ground (New York: Springer Science & Business Media, 2013), p. 95.

In contrast to these two examples, Offen (Open) (fig. 7) from 1912 reveals Kandinsky’s total preoccupation with non-objective form as he attempts to establish a visual balance and equilibrium amongst a chaotic array of repeated shapes and patterns. This phenomenon relates to studies in experimental psychology that explored how the mind seeks to counter-balance visual chaos by means of distilling pictorial fields into rudimentary forms, theories about which were being developed by Wundt and Ehrenfels.[4] Without a discernible subject, for example, Kandinsky’s work is dynamic in its arrangement, challenging the eye to perceive the image in its entirety at a single glance, whilst simultaneously processing the details and disparate lines, making ordered sense of what might otherwise be seen as a fragmented cluster of shapes. This composition is representative of Kandinsky’s full embrace of non-objective abstraction, and the juxtaposition of lines, shapes, and dots identifies this as a close predecessor to his Bauhaus productions.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Wassily Kandinsky, Offen, 1912, woodcut, 9.5 x 9.2 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.  Philippe Migeat – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.

Taken all together, these three prints reveal Kandinsky’s early experiments in distilling, simplifying, and reconfiguring forms and in delineating and distorting space in a modern and distinctly unnatural way. Those compositions that predate his fully abstract works already show his preoccupation with unmodulated forms, reductive geometry, and recurring patterns as he created a new visual syntax. In short order, these would serve as the basis of the uniquely innovative, geometric-optical structures that would come to define Kandinsky’s contribution to abstract art in the first decades of the twentieth century.


Cover image credit: Wassily Kandinsky, Bunte Wiese (Pré bariolé), woodcut, 6.4 x 8.5 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. © Philippe Migeat – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.


Sources

[1] See Wilhelm Wundt, Grundriss der Psychologie (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1896); Christian von Ehrenfels, ‘Über Gestaltqualitäten’, Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 14 (1890), 249-292; Theodor Lipps, Raumästhetik und geometrisch-optische Täuschungen (Leipzig: Verlag von Ambrosius Barth, 1897). For a more comprehensive understanding of the development of experimental and Gestalt psychology in Germany, see Mitchell G. Ash, Gestalt Psychology in German Culture, 1890-1967: Holism and the Quest for Objectivity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

[2] Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Munich R. Piper Verlag & Co., 1911).

[3] Edgar Rubin, ‘Synsoplevede Figurer’ (PhD diss., University of Copenhagen, 1915).

[4] Wilhelm Wundt, Grundriss der Psychologie (Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann, 1896); Christian von Ehrenfels, ‘Über Gestaltqualitäten’, Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophie 14 (1890), 249-292.

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