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Slide 1

So, this is Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky. He painted it in 1923.

Slide 2

Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866. His parents were Lidia Ticheeva and Vasily Silvestrovich
Kandinsky; both were musically inclined, but his father was a tea merchant by profession. His
parents divorced when young Wassily was five years old; the rest of his childhood, he was raised by
his aunt – Elizabeth Ticheeva – who would read him Russian and German folk tales. He attended a
grammar school where he became proficient at piano and cello, as well as studying drawing.

Slide 3

Despite his artistic talent, Wassily’s parents wished for him to go into something a bit more reliable,
so he enrolled at the University of Moscow in 1886 to study law, and after the hard graft, graduated
with honours. He married in 1892 – when this sort of incest was socially okay – to his cousin, Anna
Chimiakina. Just when everything looked hunky-dory with Wassily’s successful law career and his
settling home life, in 1895, the lawyer’s mind was blown.

Slide 4

Kandinsky went along to an exhibition of the work of the French impressionists, including Claude
Monet. This painting – Haystacks at Giverny – showed Kandinsky the growing trend for
impressionism rather than realism on the art scene. Kandinsky was enraptured by the way Monet
managed to capture ideas of light and colour rather than tried-and-tested realism.

Slide 5

With the first seeds of inspiration sown, Kandinsky attended a performance of Wagner’s opera
Lohengrin, the best known song from which is the wedding march. As in, the stereotypical song
played at every wedding ever. Anyway, the opera was a radical experience for Kandinsky, who is
believed to have had a condition known as synaesthesia, which basically means that the senses
overlap; Kandinsky could probably hear colours, and see sounds, which is likely to have been pretty
overwhelming, albeit in a euphoric way, at an opera as wild as Lohengrin.

Slide 6

He said about the performance that he ‘saw all [his] colours in spirit, before [his] eyes. Wild, almost
crazy lines were sketched out in front of [him].’ He also said that the sound of the cello was strongly

(Ward, 2006)

Slide 7

Armed with revolutionary ideas of incorporating sound into visual art, Kandinsky moved to Munich
in 1896 to devote his time to painting at the Munich Academy. He organised artist’s associations to
promote exhibitions, and through that channel, Kandinsky was exposed to further Impressionist
pieces, as well as Symbolist pieces.
Slide 8

Kandinsky wrote a book entitled ‘On The Spiritual in Art’, published 1911, in which he spoke more
about his synaesthesia (among other things). That year, he also split from his wife.

Slide 9

After writing his book, Kandinsky went back to Russia, which was full of political turmoil in
anticipation for the Russian revolution of 1917.

Slide 10

The Bolshevik party – led by Lenin – was committed to Marxian ideology which we all know about
from Carl. Basically, the Russian Tsar was overthrown in February, nobody wanted to fight any more,
and Lenin promised the golden trio of peace, bread and land to the Russian people.

Slide 11

So Kandinsky did what anybody would do; he remarried, then left for Berlin, never to return to
Russia. In Berlin, Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus, a school of art and design, from 1922-1933 when
it was closed by the Nazis who condemned the artwork as ‘degenerate’. But we’re getting ahead of
ourselves. He hasn’t painted the painting yet. Composition VIII was painted in 1923 and heavily
influenced by

Slide 12

A fellow Russian named John Malkovich –

Slide 13

- sorry, Kazimir Malevich – who had emerged on the art scene with his geometric forms, unnerving
abstraction, and ideas of Suprematism (which emphasised the importance of pure artistic feeling
using basic geometric forms rather than visual depiction of objects) and Constructivism, which
switched art’s emphasis from composition (the expression of beauty using base materials) to
construction (where the art is dictated by the functions of materials like wood and glass, with the
intention of using art to design functional objects). Kandinsky adopted these ideas with a pinch of
salt as he firmly believed in the potential of abstract expressionism; his work was more emotionally
driven than some of his Russian colleagues.


Slide 14

So. Composition VIII. Called a composition because of Kandinsky’s blending of music and visual art.
Kandinsky himself believed this painting to be the pinnacle of his early Bauhaus period, as it is much
more visually quiet and subtle than his previous emotive compositions.

Slide 15

Composition VIII seems much more purposeful than the bright, swirling abstraction of composition
VII. This work is reflective of Kandinsky’s desire to create non-objective art by exploring the
interactions of simple geometric shapes. Form is prioritised over colour, with few highlights of bright
red balancing with swathes of gentle azure blue, bringing balance to the painting; no one element,
shape or colour is dominant. Duchting states that the ‘geometrical vocabulary is limited to a few
elements such as circle, semi-circle, angles, and straight and curved lines.’ (Duchting, 2000) This
creates a fascinating interaction between geometric forms, all of which deviate from normal
representation – they’re either sliced like the blue circle at the bottom, or haloed like the yellow
circle on the left. The main focal point seems to be the large circle group in the top left, which
strongly resembles a vinyl record, nailing home the link to music. Positioning this above the glowing
orange circle seems to suggest a romantic idea that music is bigger and more powerful than the sun.
It’s interesting to speculate the significance of the lonely grid on the right hand side; although the
rest of the composition may look chaotic, at least it is interacting, and full of dynamism and
movement. The grid is perhaps a visual metaphor for the predictable monotony of a non-artistic life.

All of this is conjecture, but arguably, that’s what Kandinsky wanted – his intention with the painting
was to provoke emotional responses in the viewer, and with me, that was pretty effective. I look at
that painting and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue starts playing in my mind, because the slanted grid
looks like a skyscraper, and the simultaneous order and chaos come together to hint at a familiar
musical piece. Everyone who looks at this painting will notice something different. And that was
kinda Kandinsky’s whole deal.

(The Art Story, 2017) (wassilykandinsky.net, 2017) (guggenheim.org, 2017) (wassily-kandinsky.org,

2011) (Farthing, 2011) (Faerna, 1996) (Guerman, 2004)

Duchting, H., 2000. Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944: A Revolution In Painting. Cologne: Taschen.

Faerna, J. M., 1996. Kandinsky: Great Modern Masters. s.l.:Harry N Abrams Inc.

Farthing, S., 2011. 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. 2nd ed. London: Quintessence
Editions Ltd.

Guerman, M., 2004. Vasily Kandinsky. Kent: Grange Books.

guggenheim.org, 2017. Vasily Kandinsky Composition 8. [Online]

Available at: www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/vasily-kandinsky-composition-8
[Accessed 16th May 2017].

The Art Story, 2017. The Art Story: Wassily Kandinsky. [Online]
Available at: www.theartstory.org/artist-kandinsky-wassily-artworks.htm
[Accessed 16th May 2017].

Ward, O., 2006. The Telegraph Online. [Online]

Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3653012/The-man-who-heard-his-paintbox-
[Accessed 16 May 2017].

wassilykandinsky.net, 2017. Kandinsky Composition VIII. [Online]

Available at: www.wassilykandinsky.net/work-50.php
[Accessed 16th May 2017].

wassily-kandinsky.org, 2011. Composition VIII, 1923 by Wassily Kandinsky. [Online]

Available at: www.wassily-kandinsky.org/Composition-VIII.jsp
[Accessed 16th May 2017].