We are grateful to Vivian Endicott Barnett for her assistance in researching the history of this painting.
Wassily Kandinsky acknowledged in a letter dated 4 August 1935 to the dealer J.B. Neumann that Bild mit Kreis ("Picture with a Circle"; (fig. 1), done in Munich and left behind in the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution, "is my very first abstract painting from the year 1911 (this was the first abstract picture that was ever painted in our time)" (quoted in H.K. Roethel and J.K. Benjamin, "A New Light on Kandinsky's First Abstract Painting," The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXIX, no. 896, Nov. 1977, p. 772). The path to non-objective painting, in compositions that did not seek to describe or refer to real things, in which painting was "absolute" and created through purely painterly means, was found by way of a slow, but steady and-as we are inclined to view with hindsight--a seemingly inexorable process toward an inevitable conclusion. The series of Improvisations and related studies that Kandinsky initiated in 1909 were an essential effort in shaping and achieving this outcome. Studie für Improvisation, done in that year, is a key work of this kind, a masterwork of this period, and stands out as being an exceptionally beautiful modern painting, richly colored, which moreover contains a deep well of imagery drawn from early Russian history, and tells a compelling story dear to the spiritual life of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples.
1909 was an exciting and momentous year of irrepressible international ferment in the visual arts. The great wave of Fauvism had come and gone in Paris, but had already fanned the fires of expressionism in Germany; Matisse painted the first version of La Danse--a new kind of ecstatic, primitive painting done in arabesque line and large, flat zones of color--while Parisians were puzzling over the peculiar appearance of les petites cubes in the paintings of Picasso and Braque. A handful of visionary pioneers--Kupka, Mondrian, Delaunay and Kandinsky--were setting out, tentatively at first, each on his own path, towards abstract, non-objective painting. The chronology of events and ideas during the years leading up to the beginning of the First World War in 1914 left a legacy that still informs and guides our contemporary sensibility, having irrevocably altered the ways in which we look at art and the world--in our time, for all time.
This was also the year in which Kandinsky completed the typescript in German for his book Über das Geistige in der Kunst, (On the Spiritual in Art), which he dated Murnau, 3 August 1909. He set forth in this eclectic text an ambitious and impassioned agenda for revitalizing the art of his time. From the tenor of his pronouncements it is clear that he had chosen to undertake what amounted to a messianic questhe sought to bring about the ascendancy of spiritual values over materialism in all aspects of human consciousness. He committed himself to act as the very kind of seer whom he described in his pages: "And then, without fail, there appears among us a man like the rest of us in every way, but who conceals within himself the secret, inborn power of 'vision.' He sees and points... He continues to drag the heavy cartload of struggling humanity, getting stuck amidst the stones, ever onward and upward" ("On the Spiritual in Art," in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 131). A new kind of art, intuitive, drawn from the imagination, no longer governed by external reality but "determined by internal necessity," was to be the prime instrument Kandinsky would employ to forge the new consciousness of a more profoundly meaningful and rewarding spiritual reality. Kandinsky wrote in his 1910-1911 text Content and Form.
"The great epoch of the Spiritual which is already beginning, or, in embryonic form, began already yesterday amidst the apparent victory of materialism, provides and will provide the soil in which this kind of monumental work of art must come to fruition. In every realm of the spirit, values are reviewed as if in preparation for one of the greatest battles against materialism. The superfluous is discarded, the essential examined in every detail. And this is happening also in one of the greatest realms of the spirit, that of pre-eternal and eternal art" (quoted in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., op. cit., 1994, p. 88).
The aspiration and impetus for a universal and all-consuming transformation was everywhere in the air during the early years of the 20th century. As Rose-Carol Washton Long has noted in her illuminating study of Kandinsky's early abstract works, the Apocalypse of Saint John was widely read in Russia during the early years of the 20th century, especially in the wake of the abortive Revolution of 1905, when many artists, writers and other members of the intelligentsia came to believe that another, even more convulsive cataclysm was in
"Kandinsky's concept of the spiritual realm was an amalgamation of ideas derived from numerous Symbolist and Theosophical sources. The ideas of [Stefan] George, [Karl] Wolfskehl, the Russian religious movement espoused by [Sergei] Bulgakov and [Nikolai] Berdiaev, the Symbolist ideas of [Andrei] Bely, [Dmitri] Ivanov and [Viacheslav] Merezhkovsky, and the Theosophical ideas of [Rudolf] Steiner all played a crucial part in shaping Kandinsky's messianic vision. All of these men took an apocalyptic view of history and attached great importance to The Revelation of John. Not only Steiner, but many of the Russians believed that an eschatological upheaval was at hand. Many of the Symbolists, such as Bely, actually believed for a while that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was the cleansing spiritual apocalypse of which they had dreamed" (Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, Oxford, 1980, p. 41).
The transformation in Kandinsky's own art during the years 1908-1910 was radical and unprecedented, and had come largely from within, stemming from the imperatives of his own "internal necessity." There were no guideposts to mark the way for Kandinsky as he edged his way toward abstraction. In 1909 he could sense where his destination might lay, but it was not until two years later, when the text of On the Spiritual in Art was given its final revisions and first published in December 1911 (dated January 1912 on the title page), that he could look back on his recent work and assess the means that had taken him thus far. "Today I can see many things more freely, with a broader horizon," he wrote in the foreword to the second edition, published in April 1912 (ibid., p. 125). Kandinsky divided his paintings during this period into three primary categories:
"1. The direct impression of 'external nature,' expressed in linear-painterly form. I call these pictures Impressions.
2. Chiefly unconscious, for the most part suddenly arising expressions of events of an inner character, hence impressions of 'internal nature.' I call this type Improvisations.
3. The expressions of feelings that have been forming within me in a similar way (but over a very long period of time), which, after the first preliminary sketches, I have slowly and almost pedantically examined and worked out. This kind of picture I call a 'Composition...'"
(in "Concerning the Spiritual in Art," ibid., p. 218).
By the end of 1909 Kandinsky had not yet painted any pictures that he called Impressions, although he had done and continued to paint numerous landscapes derived from nature. He painted the first of his Compositions in 1910; he executed a total of seven such major works before the beginning of the First World War in 1914. The Improvisations were in fact his most frequently employed and productive starting point: in these paintings he first laid down the very imagery and means he began to use in radically altering the form and content of modern art. He painted six numbered Improvisations, during 1909, with five related studies no. 8 was the final study and painting he completed that year (in summary, nos. 1, 2, 3 [Roethel and Benjamin, no. 275; fig. 2], 4, 6 and 8 were done in 1909; and nos. 5 and 7 [Roethel and Benjamin, no. 333; fig. 3] were painted in 1910). More than two dozen others would follow before the war. Will Grohmann has noted that "The landscapes Kandinsky called 'Improvisations' occupy a special place in his works of the transitional period 1910-1912. They come closest to the ideas he developed in On the Spiritual in Art. The strict canon of the human figure is less amenable to new conceptions than the landscape, which can be treated with greater freedom" (op. cit., 1958, p. 116).
Kandinsky painted these remarkably prescient pictures in an unlikely place, the small Bavarian market town of Murnau (fig. 4), on Lake Staffel at the foot of the Alps, about 44 miles (70 km.) south of Munich. Kandinsky, while living in Munich, first visited Murnau in 1904. From the end of 1905 until the summer of 1907, Kandinsky and his companion, the painter Gabriele Münter, had lived outside Germany, first traveling in Italy, then spending just over a year Sèvres, a suburb of Paris. They attended the 1906 Gauguin retrospective, visited Ambroise Vollard's gallery, called on Gertrude Stein, and became familiar with the paintings of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Munch, Matisse and Picasso. The works Kandinsky submitted to the Salon d'Automne, however, had gone unnoticed, and he and Münter failed to develop any strong ties with other artists working in Paris. They returned to Germany, and lived for eight months in Berlin, before returning to their base in Munich.
While taking a bicycling tour in Bavaria during the early summer of 1908, Kandinsky revisited Murnau. He wrote in a postcard to Münter: "It is very, very beautiful... the low-lying and slow-moving clouds, the dusky dark-violet woods, the gleaming white buildings, velvety-deep roofs of the churches, the saturated green of the foliage, remain with me. I've even dreamt of these things" (quoted in H. Fischer and S. Rainbird, ed., Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2006, p. 209). He and Münter took rooms at the Gasthof Griesbrau in Murnau for the remainder of the summer, and returned to the town the following spring, in 1909.
The great developments in early modern art often took place, not in the great cosmopolitan centers of Europe, but in small, out-of-the-way locales where painters could experience a quieter, more introspective and elemental way of life (fig. 5). Murnau would become for Kandinsky what Collioure had been for Matisse, or Horta del Ebro, Céret and Sorgues for Picasso. Kandinsky and Münter admired glass paintings and other folk art of the Bavaria, and they were only a few miles from Oberammergau, whose Easter Passion plays had been famous throughout Germany since medieval times. Removed from the bustle and art politics of Munich, Murnau became a retreat where Kandinsky could reflect and take stock of his ideas and his work, and in effect travel back to a simpler time in which to contemplate legend, history and eternal values. It was here that he finally assembled his notes, many of which he had been carrying around for years, and completed the German draft On the Spiritual in Art.
Kandinsky soon persuaded two close friends, the Russian-born painter Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky, to join him and Münter in Murnau. For the first time in two years Kandinsky was again involved in a closely-knit circle of deeply talented and mutually supportive artists. In January 1909, Kandinsky, Münter, Jawlensky, and Werefkin joined with the artists Alfred Kubin, Adolf Erbslöh and Alexander Kanoldt, as well as the art historians Heinrich Schnabel and Oskar Wittgenstein, to form the Neue Knstlervereinigung Mnchenthe New Artists' Association of Munichknown by the initials NKVM. Kandinsky was elected to serve as the group's first chairman. That summer Münter purchased a house in Murnau, where she and Kandinsky could spend a few months each year. They decorated the house with their own folk art-style designs, and because their Russian friends were frequent visitors, it became known as the Russenvilla. The first NKVM exhibition took place in December 1909.
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During this period Kandinsky painted landscapes that drew on local motifs, but in a less descriptive and specific manner than previously (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 303; fig. 6). For a number of years he had also painted picturesquely costumed scenes that evoke life in old Russia (V. Barnett, Watercolors, no. 219; fig. 7), but now he turned increasingly to lyric fantasies in which he featured a more freely imagined mix of folk legend, myth and history, set in a timeless, symbolic dimension that was more conducive to his spiritual quest. Peg Weiss has written:
"As if a gate had suddenly opened onto a new vista, Kandinsky now experienced a liberation in style that represented a drastic break with the recent past. All at once, there seemed to be a way to resolve the dichotomy between his impressionist landscapes and the lyric works that had held his heart in thrall for so long... Kandinsky explained that his transition to abstraction had been effected by means of three major steps: the overcoming of perspective through the achievement of two-dimensionality, a new application of graphic elements to oil painting; the creating of a new 'floating space' by the separation of color from line" (in Kandinsky in Munich, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1982, p. 59).
By means of these steps, Kandinsky had begun to veil his imagery in 1908, instead of depicting it naturally and descriptively. This was his principle of "hidden construction." He wrote in Part VII of On the Spiritual in Art.
"That art is above nature is by no means a new discovery... The objective element in art seeks today to reveal itself with particular intensity. Temporal forms are therefore loosened so that the objective may be more clearly expressed. Natural forms impose limitations that in many cases hinder this expression. They are therefore pushed aside to make room for the 'objective element of form'--construction as the aim of composition... Not the immediately obvious... but rather the hidden type that emerges unnoticed from the picture and thus is less suited to the eye than to the soul. This hidden construction can consist of forms apparently scattered at random upon the canvas, which--again, apparently--have no relationship one to another: external absence of any such relationship here constitutes its internal presence. What externally has been loosened has internally been fused into a single unity. And this remains for both elementsi.e., for both linear and painterly form. The future structure of painting lies in this direction" ("On the Spiritual in Art," op. cit., 1994, pp. 208-209.)
Kandinsky realized that in taking this approach to his imagery he was placing unusually strenuous demands on his viewers as they encountered the new art. He declared "an evolution of the observer is this direction is absolutely necessary and can in no way be lacking" (trans. and quoted in R.-C. Washton Long, op. cit., 1980, p. 66). Long has explained that it was Kandinsky's intention that "hidden images would lead the spectator to take part in the creation of the work almost as if he were taking part in a mystic ritual. By forcing the spectator to decipher mysterious images, he would involve him in the process of replacing confusion with understanding. Kandinsky equated such participation in the creation of art with the creation of the world. If both content and form were too readable, and if the painting did not reflect the confusions of the present with which people identified, the work would not be meaningful" (ibid.).
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The work for which the present painting is a study is known as Improvisation 8, which Kandinsky titled Das Schwert ("The Sword") (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 289; fig. 8). This study was removed from the back of another painting and Vivian Barnett has suggested that this work may possibly be the landscape now known as Berglandschaft mit Dorf II, signed and dated 1909 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 300; fig. 11). The larger final version of Improvisation 8, which Jelena Hahl-Koch has called "the most significant of his 1909 paintings" (op. cit., 1993, p. 113), appears on the artist's Handlists under 1910, but is in fact signed and dated 1909. The present study, which preceded it, has been ascribed its date accordingly. The outlining of forms is more firmly succinct in the study than in the final version; Kandinsky has partly bisected the composition in the study along a vertical line rising along the sword and extending into the wall and central church tower above, adding an axial element of balance to the picture which is less apparent in the more freely brushed final version.
The figures and natural motifs in Improvisation 8 and its present study are not difficult to detect and decipher in their general outline. However, now separated by more than a century from the symbolic context to which these elements allude, the narrative in these works will likely be obscure to many indeed, even impossible to ascertainwithout some informative background. The present painting depicts an old monastery complex atop a hill, similar to the Lavra of Kiev (presently the capital city of Ukraine), as it appears in an early 20th century post card (fig. 9), merged with the red-roofed houses found in Murnau to project a composite image of an imagined historical past and the artist's present life. The domes and cupolas of its churches and monastery buildings stand tall above a stout encompassing defensive wall. The broad V-shape of the escarpment and fortifications appears to bear the city aloft as if on a pair of wings, raising it above its surroundings, like a vision of a transcendent spiritual realm set apart from earthly cares, crowned by a halo-like rainbow of colored bands. Pilgrims gather below, outside the city gates; at least one of the women at lower right, dressed in white, appears absorbed in lamentation. One of the male figures at left wields a large broadsword, Das Schwert, on the hilt of which the massive city wall appears to have been magically balanced, as if resting on a fulcrum.
This armed man is the dismounted counterpart to the to the riders on horseback, representing medieval knights and archers, as well the figure of the warrior Saint George, who appear in a numerous paintings by Kandinsky during this period. As Peg Weiss has pointed out, "This most consistent of his images became his personal emblem." (Kandinsky in Munich, exh. cat., 1982, p. 67). In the present Studie für Improvisation, the warrior has taken a defensive but defiant stance, holding his ground and having planted his sword, a warning to potential transgressors. Hahl-Kohl wondered, is he "the gatekeeper of the Celestial City?" (op. cit., 1993, p. 43). Grohmann viewed the man with a sword as an archangel, the town as "the Kremlin or the New Jerusalem." He likened the wall to a cloud (op. cit., 1958, p. 108).
Hahl-Kohl has suggested that the two male figures are the brothers Boris and Gleb (op. cit., 1993, p. 116; fig. 10), whose lives and deaths were closely associated with the rise of the city of Kiev as a powerful principality around the time of the first millennium. Representations of the two men previously appear in Kandinsky's Das bunte Leben ("Motley Life"), 1907 (V. Barnett, Watercolors, no. 219; fig. 7), seen behind the woman nursing her baby near the center of that composition, below the city on a hill. The brothers were sons of Vladimir the Great, the Grand Prince of Kiev, under whom the Rus in the city of Kiev converted from paganism to the Christian rite of the Eastern Orthodox Church during the final years of the 10th century. Vladimir favored Boris and Gleb over his numerous other children, including his eldest son Sviatopolk. Many in Kiev considered Boris to be the heir apparent, but when Vladimir died of old age in 1015, Sviatopolk rushed in to succeed him while Boris was away from the city.
Fearful that his two half-brothers would conspire to depose him, and also desiring to add their lands to his own, Sviatopolk, later known as "The Accursed", first had Boris murdered, then Gleb. The two brothers knew each in their turn that death was coming to them, and in their prayers they invoked the passion of Christ and urged forgiveness for Sviatopolk. For their exemplary Christian virtues, Boris and Gleb are known as "Passion-Bearers", and in 1071 became the first saints canonized by the Orthodox Church in Kievan Rus. They were widely venerated, and their relics, kept in the Church of St. Basil in Vyshorod (a site later destroyed), became a destination for pilgrims. Hans Roethel has noted, that according to Gabriele Münter, Boris and Gleb "may illustrate Kandinsky's deeply cherished vision of ultimate comradeship" (Kandinsky, New York, 1979, p. 66). Kandinsky may have considered the two brothers to be archetypes for Jawlensky and himself, two companions who in their joint quest seek out to become the guardians of a new spiritual dimension in the art of their time.
* * *
In his Murnau landscapes and the Improvisations of 1909 Kandinsky forged a distinctively Russian brand of Fauvism, which is also manifest in the concurrent work of Münter and Jawlensky. These painters made the experience of light, as transformed into color, a far more subjective and intensely emotional process than did the French Fauves. For the latter, color was an observable, analyzable and translatable phenomenon of nature that could be altered to suit their pictorial rationale or theories. For the Russian painters, the powers of expression inherent in color were strongly related to symbolic and spiritual sources; they followed the forceful impulse of expressionism as it exhorted them to seek the pictorial outcome which most closely reflected the deeply intuitive emotional imperatives that motivated them.
The deeply resonant colors of Kandinsky and his closest colleagues also stemmed from shared and deeply ingrained traditions rooted in their native decorative and folkloric arts, and their ideas of linear form were strongly influenced by the primitively printed, popular Russian broadsheets known as lubki, which frequently illustrated themes from the Old and New Testaments. Kandinsky has in this Studie für Improvisation 8 deliberately intensified and heightened the chromatic impact of each tone, in itself and in juxtaposition with others, and by simplifying the linear aspect of his imagery he has heightened its visual impact, with the result that we no longer witness the straightforward depiction of nature nor the illustrative recreation of human events and history, but instead we experience in the most profound way the transfiguration of these subjects into a visionary state of mindin pictures of dazzling and ecstatic radiance, as pure and rarified in their technique, as noble and uplifting in intent, as may be found nowhere else in early modern vanguard painting.
From this point onward, Kandinsky's progress to abstraction in terms of his subjects and style would not take long, awaiting but one crucial step--the determination and the willingness of the painter to make the leap of faith by which he would freely enter a domain where the mysterious, the unfathomable and the immaterial held sway, and to make this place the center of both his evolving spiritual life and a new way of image-making. To accomplish this he had to forego the ordinary and familiar appearance of nature as he and countless other artists had known it for centuries.
Kandinsky was not yet ready, however, for abstraction in 1909. He wrote in 1914: "As yet, objects did not want to, and were not to, disappear altogether from my pictures... One can philosophize about form, it can be analyzed, even calculated. It must enter the work of its own accord, and, moreover, at that level of completeness which corresponds to the development of the creative spirit... I was not sufficiently mature to experience purely abstract form without bridging the gap by means of objects. If I had possessed this ability, I would have created absolute pictures at that time" ("Cologne Lecture", in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., op. cit., 1994, p. 396).
This study for and the final version of Improvisation 8 stand at the visionary frontier of Kandinsky's efforts in 1909, and as he continued to mine this vein throughout 1910, the subsequent progression of his painting was like the opening of the Seven Seals, one by one, as the artist persisted in his messianic quest and drew closer to his aim of purging all that was superfluous and extraneousthat is, the remaining evidence of materialismfrom his art. He continued to strip down and veil his imagery, employing the idea of hidden construction, to the point where the object, while often still relevant as a preliminary point of departure, became virtually unrecognizable in the end. In Bild mit Kreis ("Painting with Circle"), 1911 (fig. 1), followed by key paintings of 1912, Kandinsky completed the process of de-materializing the objective nature of conventional painting. Driven by an intensely intuitive imagination, his profound experience of emotion and dedication to his purpose, he transformed the painted composition into the pure and absolute actions of brushed pigment, both in a pre-meditated manner and spontaneously by turns. We recognize the paintings he created in this way to be his first great non-objective, abstract works. Kandinsky declared:
"The more freely abstract the form becomes, the purer, and also the more primitive it sounds. Therefore, in a composition in which corporeal elements are more or less superfluous, they can be more or less omitted and replaced by purely abstract forms, or by corporeal forms that have been completely abstracted. In every instance of this kind of transposition, or composition using purely abstract forms, the only judge, guide and arbitrator should be one's feelings. Moreover, the more the artist utilizes these abstracted or abstract forms, the more at home he becomes in this sphere, and the deeper he is able to penetrate it. The spectator too, guided by the artist, likewise increases his knowledge of this abstract language and finally masters it" ("On the Spiritual in Art," in op. cit., 1994, p. 169).
This brave new world of resolute and uncompromising modern painting began here, in the astonishing and prophetic Improvisations of 1909.