The work of art chosen for this essay is Circles in a Circle by Wassily Kandinsky. This oil on canvas painting was first exhibited in 1923. It has dimensions of 38 x 37 inches approximately, excluding the frame. The work is a fine specimen of Modern Art. As the explanatory note accompanying the exhibit says, the artist, by way of using rulers, compasses and optically perfect circles, opens up a new sensibility to the art form. Similar to fellow American artist Manierre Dawson, Kandinsky’s style and substance was “based on coordinates and curves suggested by parabolas, hyperbolas and circles so familiar to engineering students.” (Petroski 29) Although Kandinsky was never formally trained as an engineer, he seemed to have possessed an intuitive grasp of the subject. Far from being an one-off experimentation in the subject, the themes of geometry and precision are recurrent in his whole corpus of works. Starting from the 1920s, Kandinsky developed a unique style, whereby, he tried to reign in his artistic imagination within the structure of geometry. The stand out quality of this fashion of art is its obtuseness. Within the universe of simple and familiar geometric shapes is an endless scope for imagination.
The work has several features that were deemed novel upon their introduction, the most dominant being the usage of perfect geometric forms. Conventional aesthetic sense had it that mellifluous curves were the central grammatical element in visual arts. But what Kandinsky achieved was to open up a new idea of aesthetic. (Carol Strickland 2) Under this new sensibility, the precision of mathematics is shown to have a place in visual arts. When we search for analogies within the broader history of art, there are parallels to be found with the compositional technique of Johann Sebastian Bach. Experts widely accede to the mathematical element behind the composer’s technique. One could read Circles in a Circle as a veiled (perhaps even subconscious) tribute to the musical genius from the Baroque era. At once, it is also an experiment to test if an idea could be transposed across art forms. Given the rich legacy of appreciation that Kandinsky’s Circles has drawn over the centuries, it is fair to claim that the experimentation has been a success.
One could read rich philosophical connotation in the artistic style that produced Circles. For example, anyone even moderately acquainted with the history of art, the Circles is reminiscent of the Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The great Italian polymath set forth an intellectual tradition wherein science and art were seamlessly united. Kandinsky’s invocation of geometry into his two-dimensional art could be read as an acknowledgement of this connection. Circles is also strikingly representative of Nicholas Copernicus’ illustrations of the order of the Universe. That Kandinsky did not view painting as an exclusive art form is revealed in his own remarks. Commenting upon Circles, Kandinsky had said that he equates their perfection to that of the cosmos. (Williams 55)
In Circles, careful attention is paid to the choice of colors that fill up each circle. What adds wit is how an organic color mixing is shown in areas overlapped by two or more circles. For example, in one small patch, the convergence of shades of green and crimson gives rise to magenta. At another patch, a shade of blue is darkened by an overlapping larger circle of a similar shade. The juxtapositions of stark red circles with lighter-colored circles give interesting effects. As for the numerous straight lines that inhabit the painting, they either intersect or run parallel to one another. Through an apt use of perspective, Kandinsky produces an illusion that some of the pairs of lines run parallel ad infinitum. The element of infinity is particularly evident in the two large beams of light-brown and greenish-blue that runs through the whole of the backdrop. An element of majesty and seriousness is brought to the work by the large black circle that frames and contains other circles and lines. But as in any good art, the overall effect is much greater than the sum of the parts. No amount of detailed illustration of colors and shapes is ever a match for the abundant angles of thought that the painting provokes upon the viewer’s imagination. My own experience viewing it in the Philadelphia Art Gallery confirms this effect. I found Circles to be that rare work of art which skillfully mixes aesthetic pleasure with intellectual stimulation. It should also be noted that the emotional appeal of the painting is somewhat muted. The emphasis on themes of mathematics and science does not naturally give space for any emotional expression.
Circles is a significant painting in terms of the evolution of the painter’s style and subject matter. Until 1910 Kandinsky was still experimenting within the landscape genre, with a particular attraction to Russian country life, with “a Fauve-like use of bright colors and free lines, and the churches, hills and railroad trains of Bavaria, visible in such paintings as Troika (1906) or Landscape with Church (1909)”. (Carol Strickland, 1996) However, after 1910, having mastered this traditional genre, Kandinsky set upon a project of ‘improvisation’. Herein, “there was no recognizable object, a wild, swirling mass of colors without apparent shape, form, or object.” (Williams 56) He thus set in motion the primal seed of abstract art as it came to be termed in retrospect.
The essential breakthrough for Kandinsky came about in 1911, when he accidentally happened to view one of his paintings rotated 90 degrees. The Eureka Moment happened when he “discovered that, divorced from depicting recognizable objects, a painting ‘entirely composed of bright color patches’ could convey ‘incandescent loveliness’.” (Carol Strickland 2) Circles in a Circle (1923) came nearly a decade after this first moment of insight. Hence, one can view it as a well seasoned work, deriving the benefits of all the knowledge acquired in the early years of the genre’s development. Other notable works from this period of artistic maturity include White Line (1920), Chessboard (1921) and Arrow Forms (1923). Taking abstract art to new realms, these works help purely geometric shapes as building blocks of art. Behind this bold experimentation was the influence of Russian Constructivism. (Williams 56)
In terms of historicity, Kandinsky, along with Piet Mondrian, is widely regarded as a pioneer of abstract art. There was philosophical and theoretical congruence between the two great artists. In an important 1925 essay elucidating the theory of his art, Kandinsky noted that “painting must inevitably quit the materialist world-concept based on the Graeco-Roman tradition and move toward a spiritualized art facing the East.” (Von Wiegand 58) Kandinsky’s work had henceforth held scientific inquiry and advanced mathematics as subject matters in its own right. Circles is a great illustration of this conceptual understanding. Further, as a member of the Theosophical Society in Europe, Kandinsky sought to bring to union the Occidental and Oriental philosophies of art. But he found “no incongruity between science and metaphysics, for both were sustained by idealism, anti-materialism, and universalism.” (Von Wiegand 58)
In some ways, Kandinsky’s embrace of Oriental elements in his work is not surprising, giving the fact that he was born and raised in Russia – his ancestors hailed from the region bordering Siberia and China. Though formally educated as a political economist, Kandinsky retained his passion for painting through his early academic career. Though he took to painting seriously only at the age of 45, Kandinsky quickly established a reputation as “the first painter of stature and the only one whose influence has reached beyond Russia’s borders into Western Europe and the Americas.” (Von Wiegand 59)
- American Abstract Artists. The World of Abstract Art. New York: George Wittenborn, 1957. Print.
- Bolino, August C. From Depression to War: American Society in Transition–1939. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998. Print.
- Carol Strickland, Monitor. “The 20th Century’s Abstract Art: An Expression of the Inner Life in the Ultimate Art-History Text, Which Artists Will Have Major Chapters and Which Will Only Be Footnotes?” The Christian Science Monitor 1 Mar. 1996. Print.
- Petroski, Henry. “Drawing on Experience.” ASEE Prism Nov. 2008: 29. Print.
- Williams, Robert C. Russia Imagined: Art, Culture and National Identity, 1840-1995. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. Print.