We acknowledge the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the Country on which the Art Gallery of New South Wales stands.

A circular journey

Form without content is not a hand, but an empty glove filled with air.
Vasily Kandinsky

Kandinsky lived and worked in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in his last decade. His style shifted and, in his final move to France, long-held concerns resurfaced. He incorporated a soft palette of pastels and jewel tones, conjuring his early depictions of Russian and fairytale subjects and revealing little of the dejection surrounding his departure from Nazi Germany in late 1933. Earlier, Kandinsky had collected organic specimens and scientific encyclopedias; this interest intensified as he embraced imagery related to the natural sciences, such as botany, embryology and zoology.   

Many among the Parisian vanguard were familiar with alchemical, astrological and occult practices through the literary and artistic pursuits of the surrealists, who aimed to unlock the unconscious and irrational mind. Kandinsky’s own memories of his youthful encounters with the mystical re-emerged. 

In 1937, the artist recalled his formative 1889 fieldwork as an ethnographer with the Komi peoples of northern Russia: ‘There, I saw farmhouses completely covered with painting – nonrepresentational – inside. Ornaments, furniture, crockery, everything painted. I had the impression I was stepping into painting that “narrated” nothing.’ He likewise sustained a preoccupation with the literature and belief systems of several Russian or Siberian cultures, whose shamanic narratives involved transformation and ascendance. 

A complex arrangement of different coloured shapes and forms on a pale background

Vasily Kandinsky Dominant curve April 1936, oil on canvas, 129.2 x 194.3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

In his late-life work, the natural sciences often informed Kandinsky’s compositions; he had for some years collected organic specimens, illustrations from journals, and scientific textbooks. In Dominant curve, the figures within the green rectangle in the upper left recall microscopic marine animals, while embryo-like shapes appear elsewhere. These buoyant, biomorphic forms painted in jewel-like colours gesture to rebirth and regeneration – an optimistic view that contrasts with the mounting European political crisis that precipitated the Second World War.  

Speaker 1: It looks like there’s just an explosion of colours like smoke or something?

Speaker 2: Maybe it could be an unfinished world.

Speaker 3: Yeah it looks like another picture, like he drew another picture in another, like another painting in another painting.

Speaker 2: I recently went to a Japanese restaurant with my Dad and all those colours remind me of delicious Japanese food and I feel like I could eat this painting.

Speaker 3: Very vibrant colours, very like sunset. Orange pink, yellow, purple, blue. And there’s just so many shapes and that, so curved, so fun.

  • 01

    Listen to students from Years 5 and 6 respond to ‘Dominant curve’

  • K–6 discussion questions

    • Describe the visual qualities of Dominant curve April 1936. How has the artist used line, shape, colour, space, balance and repetition. What elements stand out to you? What makes this composition interesting to look at? Why do you think the artist has called this work Dominant curve? Imagine being an art critic and write an article about this artwork discussing your thoughts.    

    • In the 1930s, Kandinsky started using pastels and soft tones in his artworks, along with bright colours. Look at the colours in Dominant curve April 1936. How is the colour palette different from earlier works? What patterns do you see?   

  • K–6 activities

    • Kandinsky collected organic specimens and scientific encyclopedias, embracing imagery related to the natural sciences. Create your own artwork inspired by organic and scientific imagery.    

    • Choose five 2D materials with varying textures and forms from your school bag or classroom to use for a collage on an A4 piece of paper. Cut or tear into simple shapes and create an abstract work. Consider layering and composition before you make the final decision.  

  • 7–12 discussion questions

    • In 1937, Kandinsky’s art was exhibited in the Degenerate Art exhibition that showcased work the Nazi regime believed challenged their ideals. Research this exhibition. Why do you think Kandinsky was included? Which other artists were included and why?   

    • How do you think audiences responded to Kandinsky’s artworks at the time of their creation? How did art critics and audiences define ‘good art’ in the early 20th century? How does this differ to people’s response to Kandinsky today? Debate the lasting effects of modernist artists, particularly abstract artists, on current art practice.    

    • Alchemy is defined as the ancient tradition of sacred chemistry, in particular of attempting to convert base metals into gold. Find out more about alchemy. Why do you think Kandinsky was interested in this concept? 

  • 7–12 activities

    • Kandinsky wrote that ‘the circle is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It contrasts the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension’. Build a body of work around the form of a circle. What are the emotive, spiritual and symbolic representations associated with this primary form. How does the circle relate to your world?   

    • The Bauhaus aimed to establish a universal aesthetic language, and Kandinsky was inspired to expand his own pictorial vocabulary – mainly by focusing on geometry (line, shape, form) rather than colour. Create an abstract artwork using your own pictorial vocabulary inspired by your thoughts, feelings and the world around you.