Wassily Kandinsky, 'Cossacks' 1910-11

Wassily Kandinsky
Cossacks 1910-11
Oil on canvas
support: 946 x 1302 mm frame: 1118 x 1477 x 74 mm
Presented by Mrs Hazel McKinley 1938© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002

The Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky was one of the most significant artists of the early twentieth century, and a pioneer in the development of a new visual language - abstraction. Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction focuses on the early, exploratory period of his career, as he moved from early observations of landscape towards fully abstract compositions.

Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866, the son of a wealthy tea merchant. He studied law and economics at the University of Moscow, and taught in the law faculty. It was not until 1896 that he decided to become an artist, prompted by two revelatory experiences. When he saw one of the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s paintings of haystacks at an exhibition in Moscow, Kandinsky was stirred by the colour and composition of the work, which he realised was far more important than its depiction of a physical landscape. The other experience was a performance of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. Music influenced Kandinsky’s art profoundly: he admired the way it could elicit an emotional response, without being tied to a recognisable subject matter. Painting, he believed, should aspire to be as abstract as music, with groups of colour in a picture relating to one another in a manner analogous to sequences of chords in music.

In 1896 Kandinsky left Russia for Munich, where he studied art and began to pursue his new career. By 1908, he was in his early forties and had been painting representational images for over a decade. From this point onwards, he began developing his range of artistic tools, gradually stripping away recognisable imagery from his work, using areas of vibrant colour instead to stimulate emotion in the viewer. This exhibition traces that intense process of development up to 1921, when his work took a decisive shift to become more structured and geometric, his vibrant colours more frequently muted.

Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction was curated by Sean Rainbird, assisted by Ann Coxon. Exhibition organised by Tate Modern and Kunstmuseum Basel.