Kandinsky’s paintings during the years immediately preceding the First World War often convey a dramatic sense of a world on the verge of destruction. It was a time of enormous upheaval, with the old social order on the verge of collapse in his native Russia. An artistic revolution was also underway, with Kandinsky emerging as one of the key figures, as his works showed a distinct move away from figuration.
Improvisation 30 (Cannons) 1913 evokes the imagery of war. Whilst placing increasing emphasis on lines, shapes and colours to convey emotion, Kandinsky still uses recognisable elements, such as cannons, a castle and a crowd of figures. Although Kandinsky admitted that it was probably the perpetual talk of war that led him to include the cannons, he went on to explain that the painting was not intended as a literal representation. Instead, he said, the recognisable elements in the painting were expressions of what the spectator feels while looking at the painting.
Composition VII and the closely related Composition VI, in the next room, were painted in quick succession in 1913. His two largest paintings, they embody his complex philosophical and pictorial ideas of that time. Composition VII was the result of two months of preliminary work: Kandinsky made more studies for this composition than for any other – over thirty drawings, watercolours and sketches. However, according to Gabriele Münter, the final version was painted in just three days. Münter took four photographs of the painting at critical stages of its evolution. These, together with the many studies, give an insight into Kandinsky’s working methods and underlying vision. While the final painting appears to be totally non-figurative, the photographs and studies, together with Kandinsky’s own writings, suggest apocalyptic themes of Deluge, Last Judgement, Resurrection and Paradise. It is possible to detect recognisable motifs, such as the boat and oars in the lower left corner, but Kandinsky has deliberately veiled these external, representational elements in favour of the internal, spiritual meaning.