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

Cosmic realms

I do not choose form consciously; it chooses itself within me.
Vasily Kandinsky

Kandinsky returned to Germany in late 1921 after working as an arts teacher and administrator in Russia for many years. In 1922, he began teaching at the Bauhaus, a progressive school of art and applied design founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius (1883–1969) in Weimar, Germany. The school was sympathetic to the artist’s belief in the ability of art to transform self and society, and fostered an environment of experimentation and innovation.   

There, Kandinsky furthered his investigations into the correspondence between colours and forms and their psychological and spiritual effects. The circle, especially, would come to play a dominant role in many works and suggest the spiritual and cosmic realm. The Bauhaus was closed under pressure from the Nazi government in 1933, and Kandinsky was forced to abandon Germany a second time. 

Coloured lines, circles and triangular shapes on a pale quadrilateral shape on a black square

Vasily Kandinsky In the black square June 1923, oil on canvas, 97.5 x 93.3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Executed two years after he returned to Germany late 1921, In the black square epitomises Kandinsky’s synthesis of the Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde’s utopian artistic experiments and his own lyrical abstraction. The white trapezoid and black square recall the powerful non-objective emblems of suprematist paintings. The work seems at first glance to rely exclusively on line and the forms of circles, rectangles and triangles, but the dynamic compositional elements resembling clouds, mountains, sun and a rainbow, still refer to the landscape. 

Speaker 1: Some lines are thick and thin and if you can see those little like black dabs, I think he did, I think those are like the darkness areas, like the dark side of him. And like the mountain and the sun and the little footstep there like are kind of his bright sides.

Speaker 2: The black arc looks almost smoky like a dark energy that’s either entering or exiting his body if this is Kandinsky as a painting, and then the rainbow and light beams are the bright side of his personality.

Speaker 3: I feel kind of happy and also like very confused at the same time, but it’s like spikes and just different shapes and you don’t know where you’re going to end up at.

  • 01

    Listen to students from Years 5 and 6 respond to ‘In the black square’

An abstract painting composed of many geometric shapes, including lines at various angles and colourful concentric circles

Vasily Kandinsky Composition 8 July 1923, oil on canvas, 140.3 x 200.7 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift 1937 

Kandinsky believed his Compositions series constituted his most accomplished output. Between 1910 and 1939, Kandinsky produced ten paintings that investigate colours and forms and their psychological and spiritual effects. Here, colourful, geometric shapes interact in a dance with precise directional lines to create a pulsating surface that is alternately dynamic and calm, aggressive and quiet.  

Composition 8 represents an important touchstone in the relationship between the US businessman Solomon R. Guggenheim and Kandinsky. At the urging of Guggenheim’s art advisor, the German artist Hilla Rebay, the future museum founder purchased this painting – which Kandinsky called ‘the high point of his postwar achievement’ – in summer 1930 during his first meeting with the artist at the Dessau Bauhaus.  

Speaker 1: I imagined that I would be flipping through a void past all these interesting shapes and circles and lines, just flipping for eternity through the void. 

Speaker 2: I think I’d be floating because there’s half circles down the bottom and they kind of remind me of clouds.

Speaker 3: There’s lot of like diagonal lines and in the middle left, the triangle, like if you land on that you’d probably fall and if you just jump in there you’d just probably, immediately just fall.

Speaker 4: All those circles could be planets and it looks like the end of a Star Wars film at the top left because of those like two sunsets.

  • 01

    Listen to students from Years 5 and 6 respond to ‘Composition 8’

  • K–6 discussion questions

    • What made Kandinsky different to many other artists exploring abstract art in the early 20th century was his interest in staying connected to real objects in some way. Can you find a yellow mountain, sun, clouds or a rainbow in Composition 8? Do any of the shapes and forms make you think of something you know?    

    • The Bauhaus was a school in Germany that brought a community of artists together to bring design, new technologies, architecture and applied arts in line with the fine arts such as painting and sculpture. Research the Bauhaus and find examples to display in the classroom. Choose an example and discuss why it is your favourite.  

  • K–6 activities

    • Kandinsky was a teacher at the Bauhaus school from 1922 to 1933. At the Bauhaus, a common teaching activity involved taking a white A4 sheet of paper and folding, twisting and ripping it in the most creative way possible to transform it into a 3D form. Try this activity and exhibit your form with others in the class. How similar or different are they? Do any of them make you think about something you’ve seen before? 

    • Create a set of cards that name an emotion on each card. Working in pairs, have one person select a card and call out the emotion. The other person immediately draws a line that represents this emotion and one that contrasts with it. They should draw automatically and without thinking. Take turns until all the emotions are drawn. Discuss the types of mark making you have both created.  

  • 7–12 discussion questions

    • Kandinsky’s teacher colleagues at the Bauhaus included the artist Paul Klee (1879–1940). How does Kandinsky’s art compare to the work of Klee? Is there evidence in their bodies of work to suggest their conceptual practice aligned or if they traded motifs? Discuss.   

    • Kandinsky regarded Composition 8 July 1923 as a high point of his post First World War achievement. Primary forms such as circles, triangles and squares interact across the surface. Compare this artwork to one from the artist’s earlier career. Has the use of colour, form and line changed? Why do you think the artist considers this artwork a high point?    

    • In 1930, Kandinsky’s work was collected by New York businessman Solomon R. Guggenheim, with the help of Hilla Rebay, the first director of the Guggenheim Museum. Research who these key figures are and consider why Rebay believed in Kandinsky’s art practice. How does being in a major museum collection impact the career and status of an artist?   

  • 7–12 activities

    • As a class, create a Bauhaus exhibition in the classroom. Decide who will work as the curators, artists, exhibition managers, installers and writers. Include well-known Bauhaus examples from the visual arts, design and architecture, as well as original artworks that reflect key Bauhaus ideals. Write wall labels and publish a catalogue including an introductory essay. Think creatively about the display. How can you make the space also reflect Bauhaus design?   

    • At the Bauhaus school, Kandinsky challenged his students to answer the question ‘what shape is colour?’ with this exercise. Draw a triangle, square and circle. Colour each shape in with a different primary colour that you feel it represents. What colour did you choose and why?

      Kandinsky believed that yellow is a ‘sharp’ colour that corresponds with the triangle, red is an ‘earthbound’ colour that corresponds with the square, and blue is a ‘spiritual’ colour that corresponds with the circle. Did your decision align with Kandinsky’s? What are your thoughts on shape as colour?