Studie zu Improvisation 3 is a highly important work belonging to a revolutionary series of paintings known as 'Improvisations' that mark Wassily Kandinsky's first major forays into the realm of abstraction.
It was in 1909, one of the crucial years of breakthrough in Kandinsky's gradual progress towards the creation of a non-material, non-objective and abstract art of the spirit, that the artist began the first of his 'Improvisations'. These were the very first paintings intended to convey, through spontaneously and unconsciously created near-autonomous coloured forms, an inner emotional response to and understanding of the visual phenomena of the outer world.
1909 was the year that Kandinsky first began to divide his most important paintings into three distinct categories: 'Impressions', 'Improvisations' and 'Compositions'. As he wrote in the conclusion of his first great theoretical treatise at this time, his book entitled Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 'Impressions' were paintings that conveyed 'the direct impression of 'external nature', expressed in linear painterly form'. 'Improvisations' by contrast, were, 'chiefly unconscious' creations. They were, 'for the most part', paintings that were 'suddenly arising expressions of events of an inner character, [and were] hence impressions of [an] internal nature.' Less spontaneous and intuitive, 'Compositions' were similar 'expressions of feeling that have been forming within me in a similar way (but over a long period of time) which, after the first preliminary sketches, I have slowly and almost pedantically examined and worked out' (Wassily Kandinsky, 'On the Spiritual in Art', in P. Vergo & K. Lindsay, eds., op. cit., p. 218).
The paintings that Kandinsky named 'Improvisations' therefore, formed a central part of the artist's concerted attempt to bring out what he described as the 'internal nature' or, the inner 'sound' of visual experience. Throughout 1909 Kandinsky painted eight numbered 'Improvisations' and subsequently more than two dozen others before the outbreak of the First World War. The artist's friend, the art historian Will Grohmann noted of these works that they 'occupy a special place' within the transitional period 1910-12, being the works that 'come closest to the ideas he asserted in Concerning the Spiritual in Art' (W. Grohman, Kandinsky, New York, 1958, p. 116).
The scientific concept then being championed in the world of modern physics, that matter was not a fixed entity but one that could be transmuted into energy, was a powerful influence upon artists such as Kandinsky and Franz Marc. It was a revelatory concept that had 'powerfully transformed the human mind' Marc argued and confirmed the validity of his and Kandinsky's search to find a truer reality of the spirit residing behind the curtain of appearances that represents our conventional picture of the material world.
Kandinsky's 'Improvisations' are among the first paintings in the history of art to mark the deliberate freeing of form and colour from their conventional pictorial duties towards the representation of the outward appearance of objects and things in favour of a spiritual vision. 'The impossibility and, in art, the purposelessness of copying an object, the desire to make an object express itself, are the beginnings of leading the artist away from 'literary' colour to artistic, i.e. pictorial aims' Kandinsky had argued in this respect (Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, New York, 1947, p. 48). As a work like Studie zu Improvisation 3 shows, it was in the 'Improvisations' that Kandinsky first began to 'dissolve' the external and material forms of a landscape scene and to develop and articulate a more fantastical, inner, spiritual and holistic vision of the world as a kind of cosmic soup of colliding spiritual forces and energies symbolized by abstracted colour relationships. 'I dissolved objects' Kandinsky said, 'to a lesser or greater extent within the same picture, so that they might not all be recognized at once and so that these emotional overtones might thus be experienced gradually by the spectator, one after another. Here and there, purely abstract forms entered of their own accord, which therefore had to produce a purely pictorial effect without the above-mentioned colouration' (Wassily Kandinsky, Cologne Lecture, 1914, quoted in P. Vergo & K. Lindsay, eds., op. cit., p. 396).
Acting like a conceit for such visual poetics, the subject-matter of Kandinsky's 'Improvisations' all tended to be founded on a set of similar motifs drawn from fairy-tales. In their tonal range, their heightened and exuberant colour reflected the exotic radiance that Kandinsky both admired in much non-European art and which he had also witnessed first hand in Tunisia on a visit there in 1904-05. Indeed, the very first of Kandinsky's numbered Improvisations almost all depict Tunisian subjects and motifs.
Improvisation 1 is known today only from a drawing. Improvisation 2 (Moderna Museet, Stockholm) shows a procession of figures and a rider on a white horse; it is subtitled Trauermarsch ('Funeral March'). The space in this and all of the other 'Improvisations' done in 1909 is simplified, very shallow and stage-like. Their flattened natural forms in the background are almost like stage sets that perhaps reflect Kandinsky's collaboration in multi-media theatre projects such as The Yellow Sound at this time as well as his elaborate plans for colour operas in collaboration with the composer Thomas von Hartmann.
A study now in the Städtische Galerie in Munich preceded Improvisation 2 and was approximately half the dimensions of the final version. The same is true for Improvisation 3. Studie zu Improvisation 3 is about half the size of the final version now in the Centre George Pompidou, Paris. Will Grohmann had mistakenly assumed that because the present work was signed by the artist and dated 1910, it must have followed Improvisation 3 which Kandinsky signed and dated 1909. In their catalogue raisonné of Kandinsky's work however, Roethel and Benjamin have pointed out that this was not the case, stating that Studie zu Improvisation 3 did in fact precede the larger version; Kandinsky simply signed and dated the present work at some later date. There is also the beginning of a 'fantasy' painting on the reverse of the board on which Studie zu Improvisation 3 was executed. Vivian Endicott Barnett has dated this verso work 1908-09. A prophet, half buried to his waist in the green earth, declaims his message, as passersby shrink from this bizarre sight and head off on their way. The paint must have been still wet when Kandinsky decided to scrape the surface with his palette knife to cancel the image; this appears to have been done before the artist began painting the present Studie on the other side.
Like most of the 'Improvisations', Improvisation 3 and Studie zu Improvisation 3 are also founded on a pictorial theme that could be seen to derive from both Tunisia and the middle ages. A fusion of the radiant and heightened Tunisian light and colour common to many of these paintings, Studie zu Improvisation 3 also centres on one of Kandinsky's most frequently depicted motifs, a knight with a lance on horseback. Here, the mounted rider is seen charging over a white bridge towards a bright yellow fortress amidst a radiant semi-abstract landscape of near free-form colour.
The motif of the horse and rider appears in numerous Kandinsky paintings from this period, beginning with his famous Der blaue Reiter of 1903, from which the artist's association that he founded with Franz Marc in 1911 took its name. The motif stands as a symbol of the Knight Errant and his pursuit of a sacred quest. In particular, for Kandinsky, the rider often signifies the figure of Saint George, Moscow's patron saint and a knight whose battle with the dragon also symbolised for the Russian artist the victory of the individual human spirit over the vast collective forces of materialism.
The fact that the knight's horse in this work is pale green has led to the suggestion that the figure may also symbolize the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse as described in the Revelation of Saint John. In the original Greek orthodox version of the Bible, which would have been known to Kandinsky, a reader of the Russian Orthodox New Testament, the fourth horseman is described as riding a pale green horse. 'When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature call out, 'Come!' I looked and there was a pale green horse! Its rider's name was Death, and Hades followed with him, they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, famine and pestilence, and by the wild animals of the earth' (The Book of Revelation, 7.7)
Whatever the case, the Romantic image of a lone knight preparing to storm the citadel, as represented by the rider charging over the bridge towards the high yellow wall in this painting, is a clear and oft-repeated symbol in Kandinsky's art of the dawning of a new age, of the coming of the Apocalypse and of the ultimate Resurrection of the spirit that would, Kandinsky believed, inevitably follow it. The lone rider or Knight Errant in this respect is a personalized symbol of Kandinsky's own personal odyssey into abstraction and his mystic quest to herald the end of the materialist age with a new art of the spirit. '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' (Wassily Kandinsky, 'Content and Form', 1910-11, in P. Vergo & K. Lindsay, eds., op. cit., p. 88).