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

Towards abstraction

Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds … every work of art is created in the same way as the cosmos – through catastrophes that finally form a symphony from the chaotic roar of the instruments, which is called music of the spheres. The creation of a work is the creation of a world.
Vasily Kandinsky

Early pastoral landscapes and cataclysmic scenes emerged from Kandinsky’s dissatisfaction with urban industrialisation and perceived materialism. By 1910, many shared a common literary source, the Bible’s Book of Revelation, with its visionary descriptions of the conflicts between good and evil. His earlier motif of the horse and rider had now come to signify the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who bring destruction after which the world is redeemed. By 1913, that and his other recurrent motifs – rolling hills, towers and trees – had become subsidiary to line and colour.  

As his calligraphic contours and rhythmic forms revealed scarcer traces of their representational origins, Kandinsky began to approach abstraction and elicit what he called the ‘hidden power of the palette’. Though he was not the first to experiment with abstraction, either among his modernist peers or within its rich history in diverse world cultures, his intrepid work marked a broader shift toward nonrepresentational art, which proved to have an enduring impact. 

A colourful painting of three figures in dresses. In the background is an abstracted landscape of trees and a lake.

Vasily Kandinsky Pastorale February 1911, oil on canvas, 106.4 x 157.2 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection 1945 

Kandinsky had responded in wonder to the hidden forms in Islamic paintings he’d encountered in a major exhibition in Munich in 1910. In works like this electrically charged ‘landscape’, Pastorale, he proposed a method of concealing images aimed to dissolve ‘objects to a greater or lesser extent within the same picture, so that they might not all be recognised at once’. 

Pastorale is a transitionary work in which one can still identify figures and landscape elements, but where colour and rhythm dominate. It was painted only a month after Kandinsky had attended a concert by composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and been shaken by the dissonant music that seemed to parallel his own move toward abstraction. The two artists began a longstanding and creatively stimulating friendship. 

Speaker 1: So, it would like a morning picture so if you looked at it you’d just wake up straight away and you’d be happy.

Speaker 2: I feel like happy and sad because the blue makes me feel a bit sad but the yellow and the green and the pink and all those other colours make me feel happy.

Speaker 3: I feel like I want to swim with the dolphins in the water because I’m really hot and I want to cool down.

Speaker 4: You have to sort of look at it closer to see what’s going on. 

Speaker 5: Looks like family mountains and animals, tigers and a mini elephant and a sheep.

  • 01

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

Vasily Kandinsky Improvisation 28 (Second Version), 1912

Vasily Kandinsky Improvisation 28 (second version) 1912, oil on canvas, 112.6 x 162.5 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by gift, photo courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

The title of this series, Improvisations (1909–14), is a nod to terminology from music, a discipline that captivated Kandinsky throughout his life. The artist was additionally interested in synaesthesia, a phenomenon in which the senses are commingled and felt simultaneously, such as experiencing colour as sound in one’s mind.   

Here it is possible to find abstracted figurative elements relating to both cataclysmic events and redemption or salvation – a favoured dichotomy of the artist. The canvas contains images of a boat and waves (signalling a global deluge), a serpent, and, perhaps, cannons, as well as an embracing couple and what appears to be a church or tower.  

Speaker 1: I think it would be pop music, but like crazy pop music that goes like all over the place which is like, crazy but loud for some places and just like pop music for other places, and then it just keeps going all over the place. 

 Speaker 2: Straight away I thought it was like either a climbing thing, or like lots of art stuff just hanging about. Like paintbrushes, which I can see over there on the left corner. And um, like flowers, and like the head of a guitar, or something like that. And pencils and pens. And I thought it was like a climbing playset first but then I know that it was like a whole new art thing.

  • 01

    Listen to students from Years 2, 3 and 4 respond to ‘Improvisation 28 (second version)’

  • K–6 discussion questions

    • When Kandinsky began painting in the early 1900s, abstract art felt like a new language. What do you think ‘abstract’ means? Refer to the definition of abstraction in this resource. Is your definition similar? Find examples of art created in the early 1900s, both abstract and non-abstract artworks. How are they similar and different? What style do you prefer and why? Choose your favourite one to present to the class.    

    • Kandinsky purposefully left the characters in Pastorale 1911 in a blurry state. Look at the forms made of colour in the painting. Are the edges of each shape hard or soft? Imagine if the figures were outlined with a black line. How would this change the way you see this painting and the objects in it? Why do you think Kandinsky painted these forms without an outline?

  • K–6 activities

    • Kandinsky made art like a composer might create music. Music doesn’t describe an object in the world, it lets you feel and think and has its own independent language. Listen to a piece of music that inspires you. While you listen, imagine the sounds as shapes, lines and colours. Create an artwork that uses these forms.  

    • Kandinsky was interested in creating art that conveyed emotions. Look at either Pastorale 1911 or Improvisation 28 (second version) 1912 and consider the emotions they suggest. Compile a list of adjectives to go with the artwork. Write a poem in response to the artwork using your adjectives.  

  • 7–12 discussion questions

    • In Pastorale, the figures and objects are barely recognisable. In his first steps towards abstraction, Kandinsky wanted to hide the objects under a veil of unbound colour and abstracted form, rather than eradicate them. What objects do you think have been concealed or dissolved in this painting? Do you think Kandinsky has been successful in achieving his aim? What makes you feel this way?   

    • Kandinsky went to a concert by the Austrian–American composer Arnold Schoenberg a month before he painted Pastorale . Schoenberg’s atonal, dissonant and radically progressive music overwhelmed him, and convinced Kandinsky of the validity of his own abstract explorations in art. Watch this video of Kandinsky painting with Schoenberg’s music overlaid. How does his mark-making relate to the music? What aspects of his music were as daring and experimental as Kandinsky’s paintings?   

    • Many of Kandinsky’s artwork titles come from musical terms, such as improvisation, composition and impression. He called his improvisations ‘suddenly created expressions of processes with an inner character’. Reflect on this quote and think about why he borrows these terms from music and how they are reflected in his art. Could you apply other musical terms like staccato, rhythm or crescendo to Improvisation 28 (second version) 1912?   

    • Research the mounting socio-political tensions in the years leading up to the First World War in Europe. How did they impact Kandinsky and other artists in this period?  

  • 7–12 activities

    • Gesamtkunstwerk is a German word that roughly translates to ‘total work of art’. It is a term used to describe an artwork, design or creative process that encompasses all or many of the creative and performing artforms at once. Kandinsky was interested in this idea. Can you see evidence of this approach in his art practice? Create a body of work inspired by this method.   

    • Kandinsky wasn’t eradicating all objects in his paintings, but ‘hiding’ and veiling them under a skin of abstracted forms and unbounded colour, ‘so that they might not all be recognised at once’. Create an artwork that has veiled objects and hidden meanings.   

    • Kandinsky was interested in synaesthesia, a phenomenon in which the senses are commingled and felt simultaneously, such as experiencing colour as sound. Research this phenomenon and find other artists who may have experienced this condition. Why do you think this was a source of inspiration for Kandinsky? Create a list of five colours and write down the sounds and emotions you associate with each one.