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 new reality

It is not obvious geometrical configurations that will be the richest in possibilities, but hidden ones, emerging unnoticed from the canvas and meant for the soul rather than the eye.
Vasily Kandinsky

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany because of his Russian nationality. Later that year he returned to his native Moscow, where he continued to explore abstraction in painting. His pictorial vocabulary underwent changes that reflected the utopian artistic experiments of the Russian and Ukrainian avant-gardes, including the emphasis on geometric forms designed to establish a universal aesthetic language. Kandinsky’s emphasis on spirituality, however, placed him at odds with the dominant, production-based artwork of his Russian contemporaries. 

An abstract painting of blue, red, brown and black lines and shapes.

Vasily Kandinsky Painting with white border May 1913, oil on canvas, 140.3 x 200.3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift 1937 

This painting was inspired by a trip the artist took to Moscow in autumn 1912. On his return to Munich, where he had lived intermittently since 1896, Kandinsky searched for a way to record the ‘extremely powerful impressions I had experienced in Moscow – or more correctly, of Moscow itself’.  

After producing at least 16 preparatory works – including Study for ‘Painting with white border’ 1913 in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection – Kandinsky finally arrived at the pictorial solution to the painting: the white border. According to Kandinsky, the colour white expresses a ‘harmony of silence … pregnant with possibilities’.   

The canvas includes schematic allusions to key motifs from Russia: the horse-drawn troika (the three diagonal, black lines connecting brown forms, at top left) and Moscow’s patron, the Christian martyr Saint George on horseback (the arched form at centre), with his white lance aimed at the dragon (bottom-left corner). 

Speaker 1: Well, I think he wanted to do something different in the outside. If you can see like in the top right there’s a little tornado. I think he just wanted to do it like a wave with lots of stuff, lots of curvy and colourful pictures and just random stuff.

Speaker 2: It looks like an eyeball as like a look into someone’s imagination, all the interesting colours. It looks like a wormhole in the middle there and a monster down at the bottom and it looks very interesting. I was thinking it’s like an alien invasion over Australia.

Speaker 3: The painting looks a bit like a wave if you can see in the outline with lots of squiggly lines and just lines and curves with lots of colour, lots of softness and maybe a bit like watercolour. And it’s just like blending with all the colours and it looks very nice and soft. 

  • 01

    Listen to students from Years 5 and 6 respond to ‘Painting with white border’

A square painting with green, yellow, red and blue shapes and lines.

Vasily Kandinsky Red oval 1920, oil on canvas, 71.6 x 71.2 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1951 

Kandinsky’s artistic development, like that of others in his milieu, was far from linear. Even after his plunge into total abstraction around 1913, allusions to land, sea and sky reappear to varying degrees in subsequent works. In addition, boats or boat-like motifs occur with frequency, potentially suggesting an individual traversing the course of life.   

In Red oval, among the few oils he painted in Russia, Kandinsky brings the remnants of his expressive prewar style together with that most emblematic symbol of suprematism, the trapezoid form. This central yellow form he pins in place with a sharp black diagonal and a pulsating red ovoid.  

An abstract painting with blue, red, green, yellow and black lines and shapes.

Vasily Kandinsky Study for ‘Painting with white border’ 1913, watercolour, gouache, ink, 39 x 35 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

This study for the major work Painting with white border May 1913, is one of many created over five months in which Kandinsky used graphite, pen and ink, watercolour, gouache and oils to explore his subject: his nostalgia for Moscow.    

Kandinsky wrote about the meticulous process in a famous text of 1913, Reminiscences, but did not mention the evolution which took the format from the vertical seen here, to the horizontal one of the finished oil painting. It is the format of this study that suggests it to be one of the earliest in the group. 

  • K–6 discussion questions

    • Kandinsky said he wanted painting to express ‘a feeling I am unable to convey in words’. Think about this quote and imagine plunging into all three of these paintings. Where do you land? What can you see? What does it sound like? What can you smell? What’s the overall feeling of each painting? Is it hard or soft, happy or sad, fast or slow, cold or hot? Why do you think this way? How are they different? How are they similar?  

    • Look closely at Painting with white border May 1913. Do you see the white lance of Saint George on horseback, or the three black reigns of a Russian troika or horse-drawn carriage? Kandinsky called this artwork ‘boisterous’. What does this mean and why has the artist described it this way? Do you agree or disagree? Think about the Russian motifs he’s used – are they in motion or still? What are other adjectives you would use to describe this painting?  

  • K–6 activities

    • Kandinsky was interested in the idea of unlearning what you know and thinking about shape, line and colour in a different way. What does a line sound like? What does a shape feel like? What does colour taste like? Think about one of these questions and create an artwork that reflects your ideas.  

    • Throughout his artistic life, Kandinsky was drawn to Russia’s art and history. Collaborate with the class and create a large-scale visual timeline of important events in Russia from 1900 to 1950. Add examples of Kandinsky’s body of work to this timeline. Can you see a change in the way he painted?  

  • 7–12 discussion questions

    • Kandinsky’s intention was to see reality as being more than just the recognisable and to enhance the concept of the spiritual. Discuss this notion with the class, drawing references from Kandinsky’s body of work. Using Study for ‘Painting with white border’ 1913 as evidence, debate whether Kandinsky has successfully achieved his aim.   

    • Kandinsky produced at least 16 studies before completing Painting with white border May 1913, including Study for ‘Painting with white border’ in the Art Gallery’s collection. Compare these two works. How do they show artistic progression? Kandinsky struggled with this subject because he wanted to make an image of his home. Why is it hard to paint something that’s so important to you? When do you know a painting is finished? 

  • 7–12 activities

    • Painting with white border May 1913 was inspired by a trip Kandinsky took to Moscow in the autumn of 1912. He said he wanted to capture the ‘extremely powerful impressions I had experienced in Moscow – or more correctly, of Moscow itself’. Think of a location that has had a powerful impression on you. Use Kandinsky’s art as inspiration to create your own artwork that captures the essence of this place.  

    • In 1914, Kandinsky moved back to his homeland of Russia where he encountered the artistic experiments of the Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde. Research suprematism, an art movement founded by Kandinsky’s contemporary Kazimir Malevich. What are the ideals and expressions of this movement? Do you see any of these elements reflected in Kandinsky’s art at this time? What sets Kandinsky apart? Create an artwork that plays with pure geometric forms, like Malevich, and geometric forms that still retain expressive content, like Kandinsky.