Kandinsky’s art during the years leading up to the beginning of the First World War in August 1914 is the narrative of an all-consuming, accelerating thrust toward and into the realm of abstract, non-representational painting. As his key, defining symbolic protagonist, Kandinsky chose the rider—the man on horseback. He is the painter astride the powerful, noble beast of his convulsive “inner necessity,” as Kandinsky characterized the compelling urge he sensed deep within himself—a force as mighty as nature itself—to create from his most personal, subjective feelings an intuited sense of the world, not only as his sensation of the physical presence of external reality, but more significantly, the experience of a profound spiritual dimension, boundless and unfathomable.
Der blaue Reiter—“The Blue Rider”—first appeared in a namesake painting of 1903 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 82). The horses of three riders rear up against the backdrop of a blue mountain in Der blaue Berg, 1908-1909 (no. 260). Kandinsky and Franz Marc chose Der blaue Reiter as the title for the almanac they published in 1912, a single volume reprinted in 1914, as well as the name of the group of like-minded artists they organized for touring exhibitions in 1911 and 1912.
In Improvisation mit Pferden (“Improvisation with Horses”), Kandinsky celebrates his equine avatar as the invaluable vehicle that transports the creative mind to its spiritual destination. A dreamlike vision of two lovers, in yellow and blue at lower left, morphs into a line of riders that ascends into the upper right corner; from Eros springs the process of creation. Kandinsky’s introduction of the thick, swerving, zig-zag, black line unifies the composition, while reinforcing the perception of foreground and distance in an otherwise flat, modernist space. This emphatic line also serves as the upper contour of the large riderless horse outlined in profile, like a prehistoric cave painting, at lower right.
The creative journey that Kandinsky had embarked upon during the years 1908-1911 was radical and unprecedented. There was no apparent path as he edged toward abstraction. Kandinsky organized his efforts during this process as paintings in three primary categories: “1. ‘Impressions’—“the direct impression of ‘external nature,’ expressed in linear-painterly form...2. ‘Improvisations’—chiefly unconscious, for the most part suddenly arising expressions of events of an inner character, hence impressions of ‘internal nature’... 3. ‘Compositions’—“the expressions of feelings that have been forming within me in a similar way (but over a very long period of time), which I have slowly and almost pedantically examined and worked out” (“Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 218).
Kandinsky painted approximately forty numbered Improvisations between 1909 and the beginning of the First World War; Nos. 18 through 23, plus 18A and 21A, were completed in 1911. Improvisation mit Pferden is a study for the somewhat larger Improvisation No. 20 (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 394; The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow), which is noted in the artist’s handlists as having been painted in April. The present Improvisation stands roughly midway between the two Kompositions Kandinsky completed that year: No. IV, an allegorical contest between war and love, in late February (no. 383), and No. V, a tumultuous scene of Judgment Day and the Resurrection, in mid-November (no. 400). The empathic, swerving black line in Improvisation mit Pferden became a significant pictorial element in Komposition V.
The concert of music by the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg that Kandinsky attended on 2 January 1911 was an auspicious revelation for the artist as he set about his work during this transformative year. Among the compositions Kandinsky heard that evening was Schoenberg’s second string quartet, written in 1908, in which a soprano voice sings above the anxious, questioning strings the words from Stefan George’s poem Entrückung (“Rapture”): “I feel the wind from other planets...I lose myself in tones, circling, weaving...I happily surrender to the great breath.” The following day, Kandinsky painted an Impression of his concert experience (Roethel and Benjamin, no. 375).
“What we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common,” Kandinsky wrote to Schoenberg on 18 January. “In your works you have realized what I have so greatly longed for in music” (quoted in Schoenberg, Kandinsky and the Blue Rider, exh. cat., The Jewish Museum, New York, 2003, p. 79). A few months later Kandinsky sent his photograph to Schoenberg, a gesture of admiration the composer reciprocated at the end of the year.
Kandinsky had been sensing this “wind from other planets” as he pursued his own creative mission. He was seeking a publisher for his book Über das Geistige in der Kunst (“On the Spiritual in Art”), the typescript for which he completed in August 1909, from notes he had been carrying around for years. He set forth in this eclectic text an ambitious and impassioned call for revitalizing the art of his time. A new process—intuitive, drawn from the imagination, no longer governed by external reality but instead, as Kandinsky stated, "determined by internal necessity"—was to be the all-powerful means the artist would employ to forge this new consciousness of a profoundly meaningful and rewarding spiritual reality. Franz Marc recommended the text to Piper & Co., Munich, which published it in December 1911 (recorded as 1912 on the title page).
This art must be “pure”, Kandinsky resolved, and—to this end—eventually purged of all traces of materialism. “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,” the artist wrote in his 1910-1911 text Content and Form. “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" (K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., op. cit., 1994, p. 88).
In his Reminiscences, 1913, Kandinsky recounted how once, when returning to his studio at dusk, he noticed a picture he did not immediately recognize, because he had earlier turned it on its side. He attempted to recreate this impression the next day. “I only half succeeded,” he wrote. “I constantly recognized objects... Now I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures... What is to replace the missing object? Only after many years of patient toil and strenuous thought,” Kandinsky continued, “and my constantly developing ability to conceive of pictorial forms in purely abstract terms, engrossing myself more and more in these measureless depths, did I arrive at the pictorial forms I use today” (ibid., pp. 369-370).
Kandinsky painted many of these remarkable, pioneering pictures in an unlikely place, the small Bavarian market town of Murnau, on Lake Staffel at the foot of the Alps, about 44 miles (70 km.) south of Munich. Having first visited Murnau in 1904, Kandinsky and his companion, the painter Gabriele Münter, who were residing in Munich, took rooms there in the summer of 1908, returned the following year, and purchased a house which townspeople called the Russenvilla.
“As if a gate had suddenly opened onto a new vista,” Peg Weiss has written, “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” (Kandinsky in Munich, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1982, p. 59).
The separation of line from color is a salient principle in various works Kandinsky painted during 1911. By drawing attention to line as an agent in itself, Kandinsky enabled the deployment of a new kind of imagery, no longer relying on conventional outward appearance, but as signs in a pared-down aspect that would indicate, or merely suggest, those themes and ideas which were driving the content in his compositions. These signs would also serve to organize the pictorial structure of Kandinsky’s compositions, becoming crucial elements in his principle of “hidden construction.”
“The objective element in art seeks today to reveal itself with particular intensity,” Kandinsky explained. “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...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 elements—i.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).
In Supplementary Definition, notes to Komposition IV written in March 1911, Kandinsky summarized the basic pictorial principles he employed in constructing his compositions: “the concord of masses...counter-movements...contrast between blurred and contoured forms...the running over of color beyond the boundaries of form...the predominance of color over form...resolutions” (ibid., p. 384). As Magdalena Dambrowska has pointed out, “Kandinsky wants the viewer to read the painting first as a composite of contrasting masses, colors, and lines, and only secondly to apply to it a more specific reading of the subject matter” (Kandinsky Compositions, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995, p. 34).
Kandinsky realized that in taking this approach to his imagery, by placing form before content, he was placing strenuous demands on his viewers as they encountered this new art. “An evolution of the observer in this direction is absolutely necessary,” he declared (quoted in R.-C. Washton Long, op. cit., 1980, p. 66). Kandinsky’s intention, Washton Long explained, is 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.).
Improvisation mit Pferden and other works of 1911 stand on the very verge of Kandinsky’s imminent passage into abstraction, as he pursued his quest and drew closer to his aim of purging all that was superfluous and extraneous—that is, all remaining evidence of materialism, that ordinary appearance of nature, as well as all familiar production of human manufacture, as he and countless other artists had treated them for centuries—from his art. He was about to enter a domain where the immaterial, the mysterious, and the imponderable held sway, and to make this place the center of both his evolving spiritual life and an entirely new way of image-making.
Kandinsky did in fact accomplish the object of this quest later in 1911. As he acknowledged in a letter dated 4 August 1935 to the dealer J.B. Neumann, Bild mit Kreis (“Picture with a Circle”), created 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.R. Roethel and J.K. Benjamin, “A New Light on Kandinsky’s First Abstract Painting,” in The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXIX, no. 896, November, 1977, p. 772).
The line of innovative paintings, stretching in 1911 from Improvisation mit Pferden and other works, through Bild mit Kreis, and thereafter key works of 1912, marks the momentous fulfillment of the initial phase in Kandinsky’s endeavor to achieve a new and utterly radical kind of pure painting. During that feverish chronology of events and ideas that flourished throughout Europe during the years leading up to the beginning of the First World War, Kandinsky created an artistic legacy that transformed art in his time, and still informs and guides our contemporary sensibility, having irrevocably altered the ways in which we look at art and the world, and in the most immediate, personal way, envision the depths of our own inner consciousness.