Wassily Kandinsky



On display at Tate Modern

Wassily Kandinsky 1866–1944
Original title
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 946 x 1302 mm
frame: 1118 x 1477 x 74 mm
Presented by Mrs Hazel McKinley 1938

Display caption

Kandinsky believed that abstract paintings could convey spiritual and emotional values simply through the arrangement of colours and lines. Cossacks was made during a transitional period, when he retained some representational elements, such as the two Russian cavalrymen in tall orange hats in the foreground of the painting. Kandinsky considered these as points at which the images could be registered, rather than the true content of the painting.

Gallery label, February 2009

Catalogue entry

Wassily Kandinsky 1866-1944

N04948 Cossacks 1910-11

Inscribed 'Kandinsky 1910' b.r. and, on stretcher, 'KANDINSKY-Zu Komposition 4 (Fragment) 1910' and 'No.119 | 130 x 94'
Oil on canvas, 37 1/4 x 51 1/4 (94.5 x 130)
Presented by Mrs Hazel McKinley 1938
Prov: Mrs Hazel McKinley, London (purchased from the artist through Guggenheim-Jeune, London, 1938)
Exh: Kandinsky, Kunsthaus Schaller, Stuttgart, 1928 (no catalogue); 20th Century German Art, New Burlington Galleries, London, July 1938 (211, ex catalogue) as 'Cosaques' 1911; The Blue Rider Group, RSA, Edinburgh, August-September 1960 (60) as 'Study for Composition IV' 1911; Tate Gallery, September-October 1960 (60)
Lit: Kandinsky, 'Komposition 4: nachträgliches Definieren' in Kandinsky 1910-1913 (Sturm-Album, Berlin 1913), pp.23-4; Kenneth Lindsay, 'The Genesis and Meaning of the Cover Design for the First Blaue Reiter Exhibition Catalogue' in Art Bulletin, XXXV, 1953, pp.48-9, repr. facing p.48, fig.7; Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work (London 1959), No.119, pp.121-3 and 331, repr. p.353, pl.52; Paul Overy, Kandinsky: the Language of the Eye (London 1969), pp.62-3, repr. pl.15 in colour
Repr: The Tate Gallery (London 1969), p.125 in colour

This picture is related to the left-hand section of the much larger 'Composition 4' now in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen at Düsseldorf, which measures 159.5 x 250.5cm. It appears as No.119 in Kandinsky's house catalogue, where it is dated 13 January 1911, which conflicts with the date 1910 on the picture itself: presumably it was either finished in 1911 or painted at the end of 1910 and not entered in the catalogue until a few weeks later. ('Composition 4' is No.125 in the house catalogue and the five intervening numbers refer to completely different compositions).

Both pictures are 'objective abstractions' in which an expressive arrangement of colours and lines is of primary importance, but a certain representational element still remains. In the Tate's painting one can identify: top left, two Cossacks on horseback fighting with sabres; bottom right, three more Cossacks, two of whom hold lances; top right, a castle on a hill and a party of birds in flight. All these features except the birds are also present in 'Composition 4' but are compressed sideways in order to fit almost exactly into the left-hand half of the composition, with the right-hand lance forming a vertical division down the centre. The right-hand part includes several additional themes, particularly two lying figures which introduce a diagonal movement to the right. Kandinsky wrote a retrospective analysis of 'Composition 4' in March 1911 (first published in the Sturm-Album of 1913) which describes it both in abstract terms (effects produced purely by different colours and forms) and in terms of specific objects (horses, figures, the castle and so on); this analysis also applies to some extent to the present work.

Will Grohmann referred to the Tate's picture as an oil study for 'Composition 4', but the five preliminary drawings which are known for the larger picture, a charcoal drawing, two brush drawings and two watercolours, are all studies for the complete composition, including the right-hand section, and therefore do not really bridge the gap between them. In Kandinsky's hand list 2 the picture is listed in Russian as 'Fragment Kompozitsiyi 4 (13.1.)' - that is to say 'Fragment of Composition 4 (13.1.)' - but in his hand list 3 written by Gabriele Münter (which appears to be a draft for hand list 2 written by Kandinsky himself), it appears as:

119. Improvisation 17 (Schlacht) 13.1.

Zu Komp. 4 (Fragment) Fragment zu Comp. 4

(The first part of the title, 'Improvisation 17', was afterwards crossed out by Münter). The fact that Gabriele Münter or Kandinsky, or both, originally thought of calling the picture 'Improvisation 17' may be an indication that Kandinsky painted it as an end in itself, and not a study, and that he only decided later on to extend the composition or to use some of the same motifs again in a larger work. 'Schlacht' (Battle) is the subtitle both of this picture and of 'Composition 4'. Although there are paintings entitled 'Improvisation 16' (dated 1910) and 'Improvisation 18' (dated 1911), there appears to be no other work known as 'Improvisation 17'.

Hans Konrad Roethel, who has provided much helpful information about this picture, has drawn attention to a letter by Kandinsky to Galka Scheyer of 13 January 1939 (now in the Norton Simon Museum at Pasadena) commenting on its acquisition by the Tate:

'An American woman living in London has bought a pre-war painting from me and presented it to the Tate Gallery in London! It is the first truly modern painting in the famous museum in London. The painting is called "Cosaques", dates from the year 1911, still bears traces of "the object", but makes nevertheless a wholly "concrete" impression.'

Thus the painting has been variously known as 'Cossacks', 'Improvisation 17', 'Battle', 'Fragment for Composition 4' and 'Composition 4 (Fragment)'. The title 'Cossacks' has been adopted here because it is the one Kandinsky seems to have preferred at the time of its acquisition.

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, pp.380-1, reproduced p.380

Tate Paper

Kandinsky and Contemporary Painting

The author assesses the reach of Kandinsky’s early painting, first reflecting upon the sense of scale and time in ...