Wassily Kandinsky and the colours of the Russian peasantry

Russian izba (log house) at the Semyonkova Museum, Vologda Oblast (Photo credit Aron Ouzilevski)

See the charm, beauty and diversity of folk art in motifs from the Russian countryside that inspired Wassily Kandinsky in his abstract work

By Aron Ouzilevski & Maria Michela D’Alessandro 

16 December will mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Russian-born artist Wassily Kandinsky.  Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky spent an extended portion of his earlier life split between Odessa and Moscow, where he dabbled in a variety of academic fields before emigrating to Munich in 1896.

Wassily Kandinsky (Photo credit: Flickr/tonynetone)
Wassily Kandinsky (Photo credit: Flickr/tonynetone)

In Munich, Kandinsky was one of the principle founders of Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), a highly influential artistic group that is often associated with the creation of the Expressionism movement.  

Following the outbreak of the first world war, the group disbanded, and Kandinsky was forced to return to Moscow. However, his stay there was cut short due to his disagreements with communist Moscow’s ideological outlook on art. He subsequently returned to Germany, where he began to teach at the famous Bauhaus School of Design.

During his time in Germany, national ideology interfered with Kandinsky’s life yet again when the Bauhaus school was forced to shut down under the Nazi regime. Kandinsky then fled to France, where he spent his final days until his death in 1944.

Kandinsky shattered the conventions of the Western art world by redefining the ways in which artists can conceptualise shapes and colours. With Expressionism, Kandinsky and his peers challenged pre-existing theories about the role of the artist by advocating for the new idea that the artists must outwardly project their deepest inner emotions onto the canvas.

Kandinsky’s influence on western art has forcibly aligned him with the western artistic canon. For more than a hundred years, Kandinsky exhibitions have been held all over the world, and his artworks are permanently exhibited in the world’s most famous museums including the Metropolitan of New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Venice’s Peggy Guggenheim.

Map of muesums from around the world that host Kandinsky’s artwork

FOLK ART – Russia’s Kandinsky

Despite being deeply embedded within the western artistic canon, Kandinsky’s strongest surges of inspiration are argued to have come from his Russian roots. This shines through particularly in his earlier, less abstract works. Before emerging into the western artistic sphere, Kandinsky created a series of paintings that maintained an intrinsically Russian character.

The earlier body of his so-called Russian paintings, many of which are currently being exhibited in the Russian Museums’ exhibition Wassily Kandinsky and Russia, strongly reflect themes of Russian archaism—both in content and aesthetic presentation.

In many of these paintings, Kandinsky conjoined the gleaming cupolas of Russian Orthodox churches, the brightly colored cloth of the Russian peasantry, and the picturesque landscapes of the Russian provinces.

Kandinsky applied his incredibly wide use of colours and vibrant brush strokes to create art that is both uniquely his own and uniquely Russian.

From researching his personal diaries and memoires, many artistic scholars have concluded that much of this earlier works were influenced by his travels through the Vologda Oblast in the year 1889. At the age 23, then a student of anthropology at the Moscow State University, Kandinsky joined an ethnographic student-expedition with two intentions: to study Russian peasant criminal law, and to collect the remnants of Pagan religion that had been preserved by the local peasantry.  

Vologda Oblast, which lies 400 kilometres east of St Petersburg, was at the time still largely untouched by modernisation. On his travels, Kandinsky saw a world that had maintained its core essence and roots that dated back centuries.

In his memoir, Looks to the Past, Kandinsky describes the “unending forests between, brightly hued hills” of the Vologda Oblast’s landscape as something from “another planet”.

The inhabitants of the Vologda Oblast themselves arguably had the most profound impression on Kandinsky, with their “contrasting appearance,” “white faces, red-painted cheeks and black hair,” they presented themselves “like brightly-coloured living pictures on two legs”, as is described in his memoir.

When observing the daily objects of the Russian peasantry, from their wooden tools to their clothing, one can begin to develop an understanding of the particular patterns and colour schemes that played such a major role in Kandinsky’s aesthetic development.

The wooden izbas in which the peasants lived, were also uniquely carved and decorated on the exterior. Kandinsky refers to the these homes and their brightly coloured surfaces as wonder houses. Inside the homes, Kandinsky saw the Slavic mythology folk art, which he describes in his memoir as “painted folk songs” coupled with the Orthodox icons placed in the “holy corners”. Immersed in the synthesis of vivid colour and pagan symbolism, Kandinsky likens the experience to crossing a physical threshold and stepping into a painting.

Taking the aesthetic principles of the Russian peasantry, and infusing them with themes taken from Slavic mythology and Russian fables, Kandinsky’s so-called Russian paintings serve as a visual representations of the rich and idiosyncratically Russian folkloric world.

Kandinsky was not the first Russian artist to reincarnate the world of Russian peasant mythology. Others, including the 20th century illustrator Ivan Bilibin, and 19th century artists Ilya Repin and Viktor Vasnetsov also depicted motifs from Slavic lore. He was, however, one of the few to capture the world solely by its essence, and later mould this essence into artwork that is incredibly unique and was previously unimaginable. The vividness of colours, and the spirituality with which Kandinsky engaged the artistic realm remains fundamental to all of his artistic epochs.

Can you pick a Kandinsky out of a Kan’tdinsky? Test your knowledge with our quiz.


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