Kandinsky in the early autumn of 1913 painted this seething, swirling gyre of incandescent color; elements appear to spin apart, an old world whose center cannot hold, or to coalesce around a hotly glowing core, a new world in gestation–perhaps both metamorphic processes simultaneously. “What thus appears a mighty collapse is a living paean of praise, the hymn of that new creation that follows upon the destruction of the world,” he wrote of his Kompostion VI, completed in March 1913 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 464; State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 388). Such was the world in which he lived, during the year preceding the outbreak of the First World War, in which Europe would completely shed the outworn skin of the tenuously peaceful late 19th century, and emerge raw, bloodied and traumatically scarred into the maelstrom of the 20th.
“Every work of art is the child of its time,” Kandinsky declared at the very beginning of On the Spiritual in Art, the manifesto he published in 1912, which heralded the dawn of abstract painting and thereby wielded an incalculably momentous impact on the development of modern art throughout the course of the 20th century. He eagerly anticipated and prepared the way in his art and writings for “the creation of a new spiritual realm that is already beginning...the epoch of the great spiritual.” He witnessed all around the terrible birth pangs of this transformation–“clashing discords, loss of equilibrium, principles overthrown, unexpected drumbeats, great questionings, apparently purposeless strivings, stress and longing...oppositions and contradictions–this is our harmony” (ibid., pp. 127, 219 and 193, respectively).
Referring to J. J. Thomson’s discovery in 1897 of the electron, the first known sub-atomic particle, Kandinsky declared in his Reminiscences, 1913, “The collapse of the atom was equated, in my soul, with the collapse of the world... Everything became uncertain, precarious and insubstantial” (ibid., p. 364). As it was in the world, and in his soul, thus it became in his art. “Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds that are destined in and through conflict to create a new world called the work,” he wrote in Reminiscences. “Technically, every work of art comes into being in the same way as the cosmos–by means of catastrophes... The creation of the work of art is the creation of the world” (ibid., p. 373).
The artist’s handlist informs us that the oil painting for which this watercolor is a study, Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring, was done in October 1913 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 477); Kandinsky had on 14 October sent an annotated price list including the oil painting to the dealer Herwarth Walden of Galerie Der Sturm, Berlin. Having recently returned via Berlin from a nearly two-month stay in Moscow, the artist evoked this recent journey in Improvisation 34 (Orient II) (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 469; Museum of Kazan), then turned to painting Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring. He likely painted the present watercolor, the only known preparatory study, in a single eruptive outburst of a session within a few days before he commenced work on the canvas.
Comparing this watercolor and the final painting side-by-side would surely be instructive, to observe how Kandinsky translated into slower drying, viscous oils the translucent fluid washes he had applied so spontaneously to paper, employing mainly the primary colors red, yellow and blue, enhanced with the complementaries orange, green and violet, in a virtual demonstration of the chromatic principles he set forth in Color Tables I and II of On the Spiritual in Art (ibid., pp. 178 and 184). In contrast to most other watercolor studies, Kandinsky desisted here from employing pen or brush and India ink to create linear elements, executing them instead with a fine brush and color, allowing his larger masses of pure color to interact, without the constraint of contours or divisive lines, all the more freely and intensely.
The oil painting Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring is no longer believed to exist, however, and is now known only from a black-and-white photograph. Arthur J. Eddy, Chicago, among the earliest of Kandinsky’s American collectors, acquired the oil painting before his death in 1920 from Walden in Berlin. John A. Thwaites, the British Vice Consul in Chicago, purchased Improvisation in the Eddy collection auction of 1937 and transported it to his next posting in Poland. German troops confiscated the painting when they overran the country in September 1939 during the opening weeks of the Second World War. They presumably destroyed it as “degenerate art.”
The significance of the present watercolor, however, extends well beyond its related painting, for it bears the seed which would soon germinate as the very core of Komposition VII, Kandinsky’s next major project (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 476). This “large oil...is the most monumental and complex painting in Kandinsky’s oeuvre of the pre-1914 period,” Magdalena Dabrowski has stated. “It represents the culmination of Kandinsky’s artistic development toward an abstract form that is disconnected from the depictive function. Although overtly abstract, it is known to contain a highly charged iconographic program based on apocalyptic subjects” (Kandinsky Compositions, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 40). Kandinsky made his initial drawings for Komposition VII by the end of October and soon turned to watercolor studies (Barnett Kandinsky Watercolors, nos. 355ff). On 25 November he began Komposition VII–which Gabriele Münter photographed at four stages while it was in progress–and completed it on the 28th.
In the wake of Russia’s defeat in the Far East at the hands of the nascent Japanese empire in 1904-1905 and the abortive uprising that ensued, the eschatological prophecies in the Revelations to John enthralled many Russians as “the key to the understanding of the future,” Rose-Carol Washton Long has written. “Kandinsky began to use apocalyptic motifs around 1910 to convey the utopian promises of the colourful ‘spirit-land’” (Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, Oxford, 1980, p. 41). Drawing on two paintings of 1911 that depict the Angel of the Last Judgement (Roethel and Benjamin, nos. 407 and no. 421; the latter Städtische Galerie, Munich), Kandinsky de-materialized this image in the present watercolor. “I saw another angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He held a scroll open in his hand. Setting his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, he gave a great shout... the seven thunders sounded” (Revelation 10).
The arching blue form of the angel’s hair and mantle, the tricolor orb at upper right, and the oared boat at lower right in the watercolor became prominent signposts in Komposition VII, in which Kandinsky merged iconography from his previous treatments of “the Last Judgement, Resurrection, Deluge and the Garden of Love...abstracted to the greatest degree possible without eradicating all traces of objects,” Vivian Endicott Barnett has stated. “Of all his pictures, Composition VII is the largest and brings together the greatest complexity of images and their inherent meanings (Vasily Kandinsky: A Colourful Life, Munich, 1995, p. 447).
Wassily Kandinsky in 1913. Photograph by Gabriele Münter. Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich.
The first photograph Gabriele Münter made of Komposition VII in progress, on the morning of 26 November 1913. Photograph by Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich.
Wassily Kandinsky, Engel des Jüngsten Gerichts, 1911. Formerly in the collection of Hans Hofmann, and thereafter Mr. and Mrs. Daniel C. Searle; sold, Christie’s, New York, 10 May 1989, lot 20.
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation mit rot-blauem Ring, October 1913. Formerly in the collection of Arthur J. Eddy, Chicago; present location unknown, presumably destroyed.
Wassily Kandinsky, Komposition VII, 1913. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.