Abstract art has definitely shaken the world, reinventing people’s perception of what reality is (Walther, 2000); and, talking about abstract art, Kandinsky and his daring experiments should be mentioned first. By far the most famous, the most frequently researched and the most often misinterpreted, his Improvisation 28 deserves a close attention.
Despite the fact that the chaos depicted in the artwork is typically attributed to the horrors of the World War I, it can be assumed that the artist’s goal was to display not the pointless bloodbath that the WWI was, but the atmosphere of complete denial and total loss of hope that swung in the air since the World War I broke out.
Even being a specimen of an abstract art, Kandinsky’s work still has all the properties of a traditional artwork. However, some of these properties have been stretched to their furthest extremes, therefore, making the painting look almost grotesque and yet managing to convey the despair that the Improvisation 28 is shot through with. For example, the line is very smooth in the composition; neither or the elements has any sharp edges or simply looks clumsy – every single line is drawn in a nonchalant yet smooth manner.
Another formal element worth a discussion is the color cast. On the one hand, the work looks unusually colorful for expressing the despair and sorrow that gripped the world after the WWI. Indeed, taking a quick look at the painting is enough to see that Kandinsky’s choice of colors is very versatile.
With yellow, green and blue being the focus of the picture, and a touch of the red color to mark the edges and add the impression of flickers of fire, or, perhaps, a dawning day, the picture might seem rather optimistic. However, the gloomy, almost grayish shades that Kandinsky uses in his painting suck all the liveliness out of the picture, therefore, making one think of the hopes that used to be so daring and yet were killed so mercilessly.
Hence the use of another formal element, i.e., light, stems. With a number of spots left empty on the white canvas, Kandinsky managed to keep the light out of the picture as hard as possible therefore, hinting at the probable post-apocalyptic results of the WWI for the entire humankind (Aronov, 2006).
As a result, Kandinsky made a very wise use of space, cluttering the elements that are supposed to symbolize the outcomes of the WWI and leaving considerable white space at the bottom of the picture. Thus, the emptiness, which the bloodbath of the WWI resulted in, was shown to the audience.
The structure of the artwork is rather peculiar. On the one hand, there is no clear symmetry in the painting; every single element has its own unique shape and role in the artwork. However, together, these elements see, weirdly harmonic. For example, the two picture planes that the right prolonged elements split the artwork in, make the painting look especially organic.
The line drawn from the upper right side of the picture into the horizon also contributes to understanding the structure of the picture better. The texture of the picture is rather standard. By using oil on canvas, Kandinsky managed to create a truly outstanding work of art.
Finally, one must say a couple of words about the composition of the painting. As it has been stressed, the work is split into three parts, i.e., the cluttered left side, a more spacious right side and the horizon, which has been painted in blazing red. It seems that the aforementioned elements represent the chaos (the left side), the devastation and emptiness that the WWI has left the humankind to (the right side), and the unclear future (the upper right corner).
As it has been stressed above, the key historical context of the Impression 28 is the concept of the World War I as one of the most, if not the most devastating and horrendous events that have ever taken place in the world history. One of the key reasons why the given artwork differs so much from the rest of the portrayals of the WWI, especially the use of smooth lines, can be explained by Kandinsky’s life experience.
As Gardner and Kleiner explain, “Born in Russia, Vassily Kandinsky (1866– 1944) moved to Munich in 1896 and soon developed a spontaneous and aggressively avant-garde expressive style” (Gardner & Kleiner, 2009, 386).
Therefore, it can be assumed that the Slavic origin, combined with the experience in Germany and, therefore, resulting in both denial of the Nazi movement and the feeling that he was still a part of it, led to Kandinsky developing a very unusual, sharp and emotionally unstable, almost to the point where it turned into a grotesque, painting style: “Artists, Kandinsky believed, must express the spirit and their innermost feelings by orchestrating color, form, line and space” (Gardner & Kleiner, 2009, 692).
Improvisation 28, thus, seems the utter manifestation of the given style, Kandinsky’s most successful attempt at portraying his denial of the Nazi policy and the fear of the post-WWI world, with its devastation and the death of all hopes for further development. In some respect, however, Kandinsky’s work can be considered the product of its time. It would be wrong to claim that Kandinsky was the only artist who used the “lineless” and “shapeless” manner of painting at the beginning of the XX century. As Selz explained,
The first decade of the twentieth century saw European art moving along a number of fronts in the general direction of an art without representational imagery – toward an art purely of colors, lines and shapes that bore no direct relationship to the appearance of the outside world. (Selz, n. d., 421).
That being said, one must admit that there is much more to the artwork than most people see in it; the chaotic elements are supposed not to express a specific event in history, even such grandeur one, as the WWI, but to embrace something even more overwhelming, like the spirit of lost hopes that had been soaring in the air since the beginning of the XX century (Knapp, 2000).
These were not the acts of violence occurring during the WWI that Vassily Kandinsky focused on, but the moods in the society that drove people to committing these acts of violence.
In other words, Improvisation 28 is not supposed to express the artist’s idea about the tendencies in the society at the beginning of the XX century. The painting expresses the turmoil, the fears, the anxiety and the despair of the humankind at the beginning of the new century, making the audience experience every single emotion, which makes the painting unbearably true and amazingly grotesque at the same time.
Aronov, I. (2006). Kandinsky’s quest: A study in the artist’s personal symbolism, 1866–1907. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
Gardner, H. & Kleiner, F. S. (2009). Gardner’s art through the ages: A concise global history. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning.
Knapp, S. (2000). The contemporary thesaurus of search terms and synonyms: A guide for natural language computer searching. Phoenix, AZ: The Orys Press.
Selz, P. (n. d.). The aesthetic theories of Kandinsky and their relationship to the origin of non-objective painting. Retrieved from https://msu.edu/course/ha/240/selzkandinsky.pdf
Walther, I. F. (2000). Art of the 20th century. Vol.1. Koln, DE: Taschen.