“Some of our current ‘abstract’ paintings are, in the best sense of the word, endowed with artistic life: they possess the throbbing of life, its radiance, and they exert an influence on man’s inner life via the eye” ('Reflexions sur l’art abstrait' in Cahiers d’Art, 1931, quoted in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, New York, 1994, p. 756).
Painted in 1930, Pfeil zum Kreis demonstrates the growing compositional complexity of Wassily Kandinsky’s paintings during the final years of the Dessau Bauhaus, as he continued to push the boundaries of his art to new levels of innovation. Combining a variety of strict geometrical shapes with delicately variegated color patches and textured surface effects, this striking work artfully demonstrates Kandinsky’s indomitable ability to instill a powerful sense of tension and force between independent, yet interconnected, geometric forms. At the center of the composition, two great sweeping curves are joined together by a pair of thin diagonal lines, creating an almost quadrilateral form that tapers inwards towards the top. Filled by a gently shifting field of pale green hues, this central form is then intersected and overlapped by a series of sharply delineated shapes of varying complexity, from a glowing pink orb in the upper right hand corner to a rectangular panel alongside the left edge which is subdivided into several different compartments containing individual patterns. Each of these elements interact and engage with one another in subtle, almost imperceptible ways, to create a dynamic abstract composition that seems to vibrate with an internal tension and life.
Following his return to Germany in the early 1920s, Kandinsky was invited to join the faculty of the innovative Bauhaus, where he would remain a member of the teaching staff for over a decade. The revolutionary school had been founded by the architect Walter Gropius in 1919 with the aim of transforming artistic education in Germany, proposing a curriculum in which all disciplines of the fine and applied arts could be brought together to create a new, rational form of art suitable to the modern age. Attracted by the school’s innovative and inclusive educational program and welcoming attitude towards his previous artistic and theoretical activities, Kandinsky moved to Weimar and took up the role of Master of Form in the mural-painting workshop, and soon added a class in analytical drawing and a course in the Theory of Form to his schedule.
The Bauhaus was an incredibly stimulating environment at this time, encouraging a lively exchange of ideas across various disciplines, which enriched the minds of both students and teachers alike. Following the departure of Johannes Itten in 1923 and the subsequent appointment of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to the faculty, the Bauhaus gradually began to adopt a new direction in its teaching, shifting away from an emphasis on individual and largely hand-crafted art towards the creation of designs suitable for more universal, industrially mass-produced and functional objects. This renewed focus on uniting art and technology was further accentuated by the school’s move to the industrial city of Dessau in 1925, where many of the original craft workshops (stained glass, bookbinding, pottery) were closed, and new technical departments, including architecture and photography, took their place.
It is in this context that Kandinsky’s seminal theoretical treatise, Punkt und Linie zur Fläche (Point and Line to Plane) was published in 1926 as the ninth volume in the series of Bauhaus Books edited by Gropius and Moholy-Nagy. The text was logical, measured, and systematic in the progressive development of its theories, distilling Kandinsky’s hypotheses on form and color into an easy to follow pedagogical monograph. The artist regarded Point and Line to Plane as the “organic continuation” of the ideas he had addressed in his earlier book, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (On the Spiritual in Art), and featured notes the artist had been compiling since before the First World War (Kandinsky, "Foreword" Point and Line to Plane, in ed. K.C. Lindsay & P. Vergo, op. cit., New York, 1994, p. 530). Drawing elements from his own observations and experimentations on the relationships between form and color, as well as his extensive readings of perceptual psychology and artistic theory from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the book sought to elucidate the fundamental elements of painting, in an effort to develop a science of art.
Highly regarded on its publication, the text became an intellectual touchstone for Kandinsky’s students and colleagues at the Bauhaus, offering a key to understanding the artist’s painterly output of the later Bauhaus years. For Kandinsky theory and its application to artistic expression were intrinsically tied together, as he stated: “the combination of theoretical speculation and practical work is often a necessity for me, but it is at the same time a great joy. I am also convinced that such a combination is the direct line to the future: we must keep them hitched together” (quoted in W. Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky: Life and Work, London, 1959, p. 179). As such, his paintings from 1925 onwards explore and investigate many of the central concepts he put forward in Point and Line to Plane, translating his theories into visual form and proposing new paths of artistic expression. Playing with the strict geometry of different shapes and the relationships between forms, the artist produced complex and powerful combinations of independent geometric shapes and lines during this period, illustrating the manner in which their internal forces and individual characters interacted with one another in different combinations. In this way, Kandinsky shows the viewer the myriad ways in which a simplified geometric vocabulary could be varied and modulated to create ever more interesting and intriguing visual dynamics.
His experiments in this vein continued into the 1930s, with works such as Pfeil zum Kreis illustrating his willingness to experiment more broadly with his geometric imagery, specifically the possibilities of structuring pictorial space. By this time, the abstract constellations had become more concentrated, the forms gradually converging upon one another in the center of the canvas, as if drawn inwards by a strange gravitational force. While they still make extensive use of strong, geometric components, the compositions also feature numerous shapes that have clear associations with the natural or man-made world, such as the cruciform shape at the center of Pfeil zum Kreis, which calls to mind both mathematical signs and man-made geographical indicators, such as in an air field or landing pad, boldly graphic shapes that delineate a specific location within the terrain. Similarly, the arrow form appeared frequently in Kandinsky’s compositions of this period, a nod perhaps to the art of Paul Klee, who in his own Bauhaus publication, Pedagogical Sketchbook, proclaimed: “The father of the arrow is the thought: how can I extend my reach?” (quoted in Pedagogical Sketchbook, New York, 1953, p. 54). Kandinsky’s arrows are likewise thoughts, expressing his desire to insert a specific energy into the painting, as in the present composition where the arrow mentioned in the title appears to push an invisible force upwards towards the large, floating circle directly above.
The effusive brightness of the artist’s palette in Pfeil zum Kreis, meanwhile, illustrates the artist’s turn towards a new chromatic richness in Dessau, as he moved away from the starker, pale, monochromatic grounds of previous years, to a warmer and more variegated color palette, focusing on soft, mixed-hues rather than primary tones. Gradually shifting from one shade to the other, the artist achieves a chromatic dynamism across the painted ground, as contrasts between brighter and darker shades add a new level of intensity to different elements within the composition. This is particularly evident in the layering of colors in this composition, as the delicate hues of green, pink, lavender and blue in various points of the canvas shift, ever so slightly to more intense, saturated shades. As the artist explained, such minute changes in tone could alter the whole effect of a composition: “A tiny little change of a single color–almost invisible–suddenly lends the work a boundless perfection” (Kandinsky, quoted in Kandinsky, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, p. 89).
While in many ways, Pfeil zum Kreis may be seen as a culmination of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus theoretical experiments, the play of color and unusual combinations of form also anticipate the future development of his art, which through the latter half of the 1930s would increasingly come to embrace sinuous, organic forms, directly inspired by the natural world. Most importantly, however, Pfeil zum Kreis demonstrates the continued importance of intuition in Kandinsky’s art–indeed, while the artist discussed the importance of understanding the fundamental rules of form, line and shape as outlined in his writings on the subject, he also proclaimed that “art is never produced by the head alone… We know of great paintings that came solely from the heart, In general, the ideal balance between the head (conscious moment) and the heart (unconscious moment–intuition) is a law of creation, law as old as humanity” (Kandinsky, "Art Today", in Cahiers d’Art, 1935, quoted in K.C. Lindsay and P. Vergo, eds., op. cit., New York, 1994, p. 771). It was intuition that prevented even the most perfectly constructed composition from becoming a "dead canvas," he proclaimed, and which imbued the abstract forms with an internal tension, ensuring the painting never became a banal study of formal rules alone, but rather an intense, personal meditation on the possibilities of artistic creation.