In his seminal treatise On the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911, Kandinsky separated his paintings into three categories. ‘Impressions’ were observations of the natural world. ‘Improvisations’ were spontaneous expressions of a mood or feeling, such as Improvisation 11 1910 displayed here. ‘Compositions’ were also inner visions, but on a grander, more ambitious scale. The meticulous planning and intricate structure of the Compositions made them analogous to a symphony. Soon after creating his first Composition, Kandinsky became immersed in the new musical theories of the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he began a longstanding friendship and correspondence. The development of Kandinsky’s art, as he moved towards abstraction, relates to Schoenberg’s innovations in musical composition.
Kandinsky made only ten Compositions; the three earliest were destroyed in Allied bombing during the Second World War. However, numerous preparatory works survive, including the large oil painting displayed here, Sketch for Composition II 1910. The exact subject matter of the painting has provoked much debate, but it seems to depict a cataclysmic event on the left hand side of the canvas, with figures engulfed by flood under a dark, stormy sky, and a scene of salvation, with reclining figures, on the right. The work shows a major stylistic advance: Kandinsky turns his back on conventional perspective for broad fields of colour, using linear elements to create depth.