Art as music: the encounter between Vasily Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg

The art of Vasily Kandinsky, the first abstract artist in history, owes much to the music of Arnold Schoenberg-this is how the relationship between the two great artists developed.

Ofabstract art there is often a distorted perception: in the eyes of many people who have little familiarity with these forms of expression, abstract compositions seem almost dictated by chance, not regulated by a precise order, created through the fortuitous arrangement of colors on the support. To understand how much making an abstract painting actually requires commitment, inspiration and dedication, it would be enough to think of the painting as a symphony: just as it is impossible to compose a harmonious melody by arranging notes randomly on the staff, in the same way it is impossible to create an evocative painting by pulling brush strokes at random. In essence,art is like music. And this is not just an example: it is a basic premise for getting to know the art of Vasily Kandinsky (Moscow, 1866 - Neuilly-sur-Seine, 1944).

Vasilij Kandinskij
Vasily Kandinsky
In 1988, a leading French philosopher, Michel Henry, wrote a book in which he intended to reveal the meaning of the great Russian painter’s art. And this meaning could be safely summed up in the book’s title: Voir l’invisible, or “seeing the invisible.” Kandinsky intended to capture, to use his own expression, the"inner sound" of the elements. According to the artist, beyond tangible and perceptible reality, there would exist a dimension that cannot be expressed by words, or by the forms of reality. It is a dimension, precisely, invisible, made up of emotions and spirituality, which needs its own, entirely original language. But not only that: every object of reality bears an intrinsic value that cannot be expressed with a form that is the same for everyone: because if I see an object, I can associate it with different feelings than others would feel in front of that same object, and then because forms are linked to places and eras. So form is the main creative tool of artists and, to use Kandinsky’s words again, “form is the outward expression of inner content.” Each artist will therefore use forms that are most congenial to him or her, and, the Russian artist is careful to point out, every form is good for expressing what the artist has within him or her: because “the spirit of the artist is mirrored in the form, and the form carries within itself the pattern of the artist’s personality.”

Kandinsky came to these conclusions in 1912, expressing them in his article entitled Über die Formfrage, “On the Problem of Form.” In order to arrive at the above, however, there were some decisive steps: one of them was the painter’s attendance, on January 2, 1911, at a concert by the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg (Vienna, 1874 - Los Angeles, 1951). The painter was deeply moved by the ecstatic music he got to hear at the concert, which was held in Munich, the city where he lived: so much so that he decided to shape his impressions into a painting destined to become one of his most celebrated masterpieces. It is entitled Impression III: Concert, and right from the title we can see how Kandinsky had a propensity to use terms from the lexicon of music for his paintings: impression, improvisation, composition. And this already gives us a very interesting idea of how solid, for Kandinsky, the links between art and music were. The painting, preserved today at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, is dominated by a large black triangle that is sandwiched between a yellow background and a series of colored shapes that are arranged near the bottom edge: the black triangle represents the piano, while the shapes placed on its diagonal, lower left, are the concert-goers. The large yellow mass can probably be interpreted as the sound of the piano investing the audience and igniting them with fervor: it does not seem strange to detect people leaning forward to applaud the musician. A musician who, in our case, is a woman, Etta Werndorff, who played at the concert attended by Kandinsky, and who certainly appears much more evident in the two sketches made on paper for the painting than in the finished work. The sketches, moreover, help us better identify the figures that appear on the far left, and who are supposed to be other musicians who played at the concert. The figure that appears as a white rectangle surmounted by a purple roundel and crossed by a black diagonal line should be soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder, while the figures around her have been identified as the members of the Rosé Quartet, who played Schoenberg’s string pieces in the Munich concert. Moreover, the two drawings that preceded the work are also crucial for understanding Kandinsky’s creative process: between the first and the second the difference is, in fact, abysmal. If in the first one we could still find a hint of the traditional rules of painting (we see how the concert hall is scaled in perspective), and every element is still easily intuitable, the final result confronts us with a work in which the degree of abstraction is much higher: it even becomes difficult to locate the chandelier clearly recognizable in the first drawing (perhaps, in the painting Kandinsky rendered it with blue marks above the piano).

Vasilij Kandinskij, Impressione III (Concerto)
Vasily Kandinsky, Impression III (Concert) (1911; oil on canvas, 77.5 x 100 cm; Munich, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus)

Vasilij Kandinskij, Primo schizzo per Impressione III (Concerto)
Vasily Kandinsky, First Sketch for Impression III (Concert) (1911; charcoal on paper, 10 x 14.9 cm; Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou)

Vasilij Kandinskij, Secondo schizzo per Impressione III (Concerto)
Vasily Kandinsky, Second Sketch for Impression III (Concert) (1911; charcoal on paper, 10 x 14.8 cm; Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou)

Arnold Schönberg
Arnold Schoenberg
Enthusiastic about the inspiration the concerto had sparked in him, a couple of weeks later Kandinsky took pen and paper and wrote to Schoenberg, who willingly replied: thus began one of the most interesting epistolary relationships of the 20th century. Kandinsky’s first letter was dated January 18, 1911: in it, the painter took care to convey to the composer how much the two had in common, because Schoenberg, according to Kandinsky, had succeeded in achieving in music what the Russian artist intended to achieve in painting. To use his words: “dissonance,” that is, an art free from preconstituted rules, arising from the artist’s feeling and not from academic learning. The idea was to find a “new harmony”-Kandinsky warned that his quest was totally in line with that of Schoenberg, whose atonality had subverted the rules of classical music. Schoenberg’s atonal music, simplifying, set itself the goal of no longer following the tonal hierarchies of tradition: pieces of music until then had been built around a tonic, that is, a main note, which dictated the rhythm of the entire composition, resulting in harmonies subjected to a system that followed certain rules so that the end result would appear pleasing. Schoenberg had challenged this tradition: in his music there were no main notes, each had equal importance, and there were no insurmountable hierarchies. The greatest importance was given to the inspiration of the composer, who was free to follow his instincts.

Schoenberg, who moreover dabbled in painting, responded to Kandinsky on January 24 with a statement that provides us with several elements for understanding the meaning of his (and Kandinsky’s) art: “Art belongs to the unconscious! The artist must express himself! And he must express himself directly! He must not express his own taste, education, intelligence, knowledge or skills. He must not, in short, express what he has acquired, but what is innate, what is instinctive. [...] I do not believe that painting must necessarily be objective. On the contrary, I firmly believe in the opposite.” Inspired by Schoenberg’s research, Kandinsky came to elaborate an art in which the desire to express “dissonance” is embodied in bright tones, juxtaposed masses of colors, abstract forms that develop and chase each other as in a musical composition, absence of drawing and rigid patterns. Kandinsky was the first artist to liberate art from reality: with him, for the first time in the history of art, the work was no longer intended to represent elements drawn from the world around us. It was the beginning ofabstract art. And although Kandinsky’s (and all of art history’s) first abstract work is identified by critics as his first abstract watercolor of 1910 (thus dating from a year before his meeting with Schoenberg), a further turning point is offered by Figure with Circle, from 1911: the first abstract oil painting. The artist deliberately chose the title “Figure with Circle” (in German, Bild mit Kreis), and in addition he himself acknowledged that that was the first abstract artwork in history-a recognition of considerable importance. In 1935, writing to the art dealer Jsrael Ber Neumann, he described the painting as follows, “It is a very large, almost square picture, with very vivid shapes, and a large circular shape in the upper right corner.” Kandinsky’s work is a triumph of colors that take on the freest and most varied forms, which with all evidence follow a harmonious rhythm dictated by the artist’s feeling. There are those who see a face in the painting, complete with eyes and mouth, those who see an animal, those who will surely see something else in it: however, any attempt to trace the painting back to an element of reality can only be in vain. What matters is that the colors are for Kandinsky like musical notes, which the artist arranges on the score to move the soul of those in front of the work.

Vasilij Kandinskij, Figura con cerchio
Vasily Kandinsky, Figure with Circle (1911; oil on canvas, 100 x 150 cm; Tbilisi, National Museum of Georgia)

Initially, the painter was not satisfied with this work: he probably felt that he had not expressed well what he intended to express (although he would later change his judgment). It was, however, a sign that his research was far from having found its fulfillment. Not least because, for Vasily Kandinsky, art should be a response to the world in which one lives. For him, in fact, the need to find an art that disengaged itself from reality was a symptom that the artist was living in an age of decadence: in the words of a great art critic, Mario De Micheli, “it appears evident that for Kandinsky the new conception of art is a way of saving oneself out of history.” The Russian painter was convinced that an artist living in a happy world produces realistic art, and subjective art is instead the prerogative of an artist living in an age of unhappiness. “The more horrible the world becomes (like today’s), the more abstract our art becomes, while a happy world produces realistic art”: this is what Kandinsky wrote in his diary in 1914. That was the year World War I began: the paths of the Russian painter and Arnold Schoenberg, who until then remained linked by a deep professional friendship, were forced to part. The correspondence then resumed in 1922, but the following year the unfounded rumor that Kandinsky was anti-Semitic reached Schoenberg’s ear, who was Jewish. The painter could not accept his relationship with the composer being undermined by backbiting, so the two clarified, but the correspondence continued on rather cool and detached tones. Although without the regularity and intensity of the first phase, the two continued to write to each other until 1936. Today we recognize, in this epistolary exchange between two of the most influential figures of the 20th century in their respective fields, one of the highlights of the art of the last century: who knows what would have happened if on January 2, 1911, Kandinsky had not decided to go together with his friends to the Munich concert. Perhaps, art history would have taken a different turn?

Reference bibliography

  • Vera Giommoni, Arnold Schoenberg painter, CLUEB, 2008
  • Walter Frisch, German Modernism: Music and the Arts, University of California Press, 2007
  • Hartwig Fischer, Sean Rainbird (eds.), Kandinsky: the path to abstraction, exhibition catalog (London, Tate Modern, June 22-October 1, 2006), Tate Gallery, 2006
  • Daniel Albright, Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources, University of Chicago Press, 2004
  • Fred Wassermann, Esther da Costa Meyer, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider, Scala Publishers, 2003
  • Vivian Endicott Barnet, Thomas M. Messere (eds.), Kandinski, Mondrian: dos camins vers l’abstracció, exhibition catalog (Barcelona, Sala d’Exposicions de la Fundació “la Caixa,” November 25, 1994 - January 22, 1995), Fundació “la Caixa,” 1994
  • Mario De Micheli, Le avanguardie artistiche del Novecento, Feltrinelli, 1988 (first ed. 1959)