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


Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul …
Vasily Kandinsky

Kandinsky spent his childhood in Russia and Ukraine, where his family instilled in him an early love of art and music. He initially studied law and economics and his life seemed destined to follow a conventional path. Yet at age 30, he left the city to study painting in Munich, Germany, one of Europe’s leading cultural centres. Later, with his companion, artist Gabriele Münter (1877–1962), he travelled throughout Europe and North Africa, absorbing diverse cultures and new artistic developments. 

After settling in Bavaria in 1908, Kandinsky took part in the Munich-based group the Blue Rider, its artists united around a common interest in the expressive potential of colour and the symbolic, often spiritual, resonance of forms.  

As his work shifted to reflect these new values, his paintings transformed from naturalistic scenes to visionary narratives, moving increasingly towards abstraction. The horse-and-rider motif he used frequently symbolises his crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his dream of a utopian future achieved through the transformative powers of art. 

A painting with a blue mountin in the centre. In the foreground are two riders on rearing horses.

Vasily Kandinsky Blue mountain 190809, oil on canvas, 107.3 x 97.6 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

The horse-and-rider motif appears frequently in Kandinsky’s work around this time. It first featured in the artist’s folk-inspired paintings executed in his native Russia at the turn of the 20th century and, in 1909, on no less than seven other canvases with images of riders.  

The motif symbolises the artist’s crusade against conventional aesthetic values and his hope for a spiritual revolution or ‘great upheaval’. This was likely in response to mounting socio-political tensions in the years leading up to the First World War, as well as what he perceived to be a clash between matter and spirit in human society more generally. 

For Kandinsky, who uses colour here expressively rather than naturalistically, blue was the most spiritually resonant colour.  

Speaker 1: It’s like a calm blue. 

Speaker 2: The blue is a calm blue, makes me like relaxed but also sorta like sad blue ‘cause it’s like darker like than light blues. And it also has like black and dark green on it.

Speaker 3: There was horses and trees and a river was really, really dark blue and there was people and they were riding on horses.

Speaker 4: People in the left hand corner look like they’re elves or they could be people watching the horses. I feel like there’s like a little village up there.

  • 01

    Listen to students from Years 2, 3 and 4 respond to ‘Blue Mountain’

  • K–6 discussion questions

    • Kandinsky is known for his expressive use of colour. He wanted colour to make people feel things rather than describe them. When you look at this painting, how do the colours in it make you feel? What things do they remind you of? Think about each of your senses and describe what these colours might make you hear, taste, smell or feel.   

    • For Kandinsky, blue was the most spiritual of colours. He even thought the colour blue, when deep, sounded like a cello. What does blue symbolise to you? What does it sound like? How do different shades of blue affect you? 

  • K–6 activities

    • In 1896, two events inspired Kandinsky to think about art in a new way. He saw one of Claude Monet’s Haystack paintings from 1890–91, a body of work about the effects of light and colour, and heard Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, a musical performance that stirred strong emotions in the artist. Look at Monet’s paintings and listen to Wagner’s opera. Create an artwork inspired by what you see and hear.   

    • In Blue mountain, Kandinsky depicts motifs, symbols and the landscape from his childhood in Russia and Ukraine. Create an artwork using motifs and symbols from your childhood. Think about a special memory and capture the mood through colours and forms.  

    • Collect colour swatches and choose five colours you are particularly drawn to. What feelings or emotions do these colours represent to you? Create an abstract artwork only using the colours you have chosen.   

  • 7–12 discussion questions

    • Kandinsky believed the artist expressed their own inner world; a radical belief for a time when most artists painted the real, visible world around them. He also believed that painting and colour could move the viewer, vibrating the soul. Kandinsky wrote: ‘Open your ears to music, open your eyes to painting. And don’t think! Examine yourselves … when you have heard and seen. Ask yourselves, if you like, whether the work of art has carried you away to a world unknown to you before. If so, what more do you want?’

      Reflect on this quote. How does it relate to your own experience with art? Look at Blue mountain and follow Kandinsky’s directive. Discuss your observations with your classmates.   

    • Blue mountain includes one of Kandinsky’s many depictions of the horse and rider, a motif that appears throughout his work. Consider this quote by Kandinsky: ‘The horse carries its rider with vigour and speed. But it is the rider who steers the horse. Talent steers the artist to the highest heights with vigour and speed, but it is the artist who is the master of his talent.’ Think about this statement in relation to Blue mountain. Who are the horse riders and where are they going? What do you think the mountain symbolises? How do you think an artist might control their talent?   

    • In 1911, Kandinsky and Franz Marc founded the Blue Rider (Blaue Reiter), the highly influential group of artists from the worlds of visual and folk art, music and theatre, united by a desire to find synthesis in art across these different artforms. Research and develop a case study on the Blue Rider group and its significance to abstract art. Consider the origins of this movement and the artists’ attempt to expand the concept of art.  

  • 7–12 activities

    • Kandinsky uses colour expressively rather than naturalistically. For example, for him, blue was the most spiritually resonant colour, and he used it to paint subjects that are not blue in the real world. What does it mean to use colour in this way? Create your own artwork using colour expressively rather than naturalistically.   

    • Kandinsky is best known as a painter, but during his early years as an artist he also made woodcuts, a printmaking technique that often requires simplified forms and compositions. Read about Kandinsky’s early representational woodcuts and discuss their role in shaping the artist’s style and imagery at this time. Create your own woodcut or lino print, depicting a place that has significance to you, then use the forms from your print to create a painting. How does this exercise make you think about the relationship between nature and abstracted form, or about the process of translating what you see into simplified shapes?