Composition IV. 1991. By Wassily Kandinsky. Oil on Canvas. 159.5 x 250.5 cm
The beauty of this painting in a general sense is undeniable. The appeal and skillful use of bright and contrasting dark hues grab your attention but you may be wondering what exactly you are looking at. Usually when a person looks at a work of art, the first task seems to be finding its meaning- attempting to figure out what the elements stand for. Most of the time these elements may be very recognizable- people, places and objects around us. This isn't the case when you look at an abstract painting such as this. With art closer to nature, the first question one ponders is ‘why?’ but with abstract art, a ‘what?’ precedes ‘why?’
This painting is the fourth of a collection of paintings called Compositions by a Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky. The first three compositions were destroyed during World War II, however, black-and-white photographs of them still exist. Why was the collection called Compositions? Although not medically confirmed, Kandinsky was believed to have had Synaesthesia. This is a condition where a person perceives a stimulus through other unusual senses- such as hearing colour, tasting music or seeing sounds. He seemed to see musical notes as colours and vice versa. As a child, he recalled hearing strange hissing noise when mixing colours in his paint box.
Later in life, he had a strange experience when he attended an opera performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin: ‘I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me." To him, music is the most transcendent form of art so he tried to make paintings that alluded to sound. His understanding of this close relationship between music and art became evident in the titles of his paintings as well as the paintings themselves.
“Our hearing of colours is so precise … Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.”
Composition IV is a representation of an apocalyptic battle. The left side seems more violently busy compared to the right. The painting exhibits various forms of contrast, relaxing yet gripping. Some of the forms end with precision of black lines while others have contours that blur into one another. The predominantly blue and yellow palette creates a simultaneously warm and cold picture. Yellow generally produces an illusion of spreading out while blue draws in. This is probably why the blue mountain top in the centre of the painting holds the viewer’s attention first. The canvas seems to be divided by two central vertical lines that are supposed to be spears held by 2 Cossacks wearing red hats (A Cossack is a member of a people of Ukraine and southern Russia, involved in horsemanship and had military skill). A third Cossack stands to the left of these two, all in front of the blue hill.
The three Cossacks
The two reclining priests
Above the hill is a castle stripped of most of its organic features leaving it demarcated by mere black lines. The upper left side shows a horseback battle illustrated by overlapping lines. Below that is a rainbow bridge hovering over a blue boat which possibly makes the left lower greenish corner of the painting the ocean. To the right of the painting we see two reclining priests watching on with their arms up. Behind them are hills and sky of many shades of yellow, blue and green. A setting sun can also be made out as the yellow blotch surrounded by red and orange.
Kandinsky’s paintings were not always this abstract. He was actually a lawyer and lecturer until he decided to delve into art at the age of 30. This was probably after an event that would later greatly influence the trajectory of his art career. He attended an exhibition where he saw a painting from Monet’s ‘Haystacks’ series. He was greatly inspired by this painting because, for the first time, he observed the use of colour and form to obscure the familiar resulting in something more intriguing.
“That it was a haystack, the catalogue informed me. I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I duly felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour.”
Later that year, Kandinsky left for Munich where he studied art. His style of art greatly evolved with time eventually becoming more abstract. To him, art is meant to improve and refine the human soul. This can only be done when the artist transcends the confines of anatomy or anything of the natural world that limit his artistic expression. A painting of a table that looks nothing like a table unlocks a myriad of possibilities about what it could be. As a form gets more abstract, its appeal and interest increases. The artist can only make that experience accessible to us by creating the painting but has little control over the various impressions the painting will create on anyone who sees it. This is quite magical- that what you see when you look at abstract art tells more about you than the artist.
To Kandinsky, the essence of a painting lies in its colour and form. He felt a triangle, for example, had a spiritual value in itself which may change depending on its relationship with other forms on the canvas as well as its colour. Colour adds a new dimension of meaning to the form- such that a yellow triangle and a green triangle convey would convey different moods. Colours are not to be used just because they are close to the more naturalistic form but because they are necessary to convey the mood and message.
Nature, like water flowing around a blockage, will always find its way into our impression about a painting. This forces us to compare it to what we already know. The viewer must, however, avoid the tendency to instantly try to find meaning in the painting. It must be allowed to reveal its message at its own pace. Perhaps you may not have seen the blue hill in Composition IV as such or the horseback represented something else to you and you are actually right. That is the liberty abstract art gives you- that the painting can have several meanings.
The more obvious the separation from nature, the more likely is the inner meaning to be pure and unhampered
The idea that the components of a painting must be immediately recognizable stifles the soul’s appreciation of the work leaving the viewer with the assumption that it is just another painting. Indeed, even if one did find a meaning right away, this meaning may evolve as the viewer gains more experience and has a change of perspective. Perhaps the next time we struggle to find the meaning of a work of art, like a stranger in a new land, we would attempt to learn the language of the soul it speaks.