Abstract Art: the Symphony played on Canvas

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”

— Wassily Kandinsky

I love playing instruments,  listening to concerts and watching theatre and drama. I used to draw the music and plays I love, but these drawings were tangible. During a textile drawing workshop, I had a spark to combine fine art, music, and textile into one work, which is abstract.

Thinking about music and art, Wassily Kandinsky is the first artist came to my mind, however, when I study his background and how he was influenced by other artists, I found more artists,  musicians, and philosophers who were discovering art and music.

In 19th, artists were keeping changing the way how they see art, the impressionism removed the details and focus on the change of light, fauvism emphasized the colors, Cubism observe objects from different angles. It won’t be too hard to guess that one day all details would be removed but became abstract, it was the trend of the development of art. 

Looking at philosophy,  Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher in 19th, claimed that human desiring, ‘willing’, and craving cause suffering or pain. A temporary way to escape this pain is through aesthetic contemplation, because ‘one can thus no longer separate the perceiver from the perception’. For Schopenhauer, music was the purest form of art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the will itself. He deemed music a timeless, universal language comprehended everywhere, that can imbue global enthusiasm. 

Schopenhauer’s aesthetics influenced the German composer Richard Wagner, who was well known for his operas. He used the term “Gesamtkunstwerk”  in his aesthetic ideals, searching for a comprehension to embrace all forms of art, which brought the soul into his work.

When Wassily Kandinsky watched Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, he started to ‘see’ things from his music, in his autobiography, he said, “Violins, deep basses and especially the wind instruments represented for me the full force of the twilight hour; in my mind I saw all my colors, they were all there, in my mind’s eye. Wild, almost crazy lines, were being painted in front of me.”

At the same year, Kandinsky saw the Frech Impressionism artist Monet’ painting, the Haystacks, which changed his understanding of art. As what Kandinsky said “……Lohengrin at the Court theatre in Moscow and the painting of Monet: the Haystacks….that stamped my life and shook me to the depths of my being.”

So, at the age of 30, Kandinsky decided to leave Russia and study art in Germany, he was influenced by Impressionism, post-impressionism, Fauvism. He did his first painting which is a combination of Monet and Van Gogh in 1901. Several years later, his style is near to Fauvism, with vivid colors and simple shapes, in his work in 1909, it’s harder to figure out the shapes and meaning.

He painted a series of work named Improvisation, to visualize the inner visions, ideations, and imaginations, which made the audience to hear the Inward Nature. These works showed his path towards abstraction, to Kandinsky, “abstraction meant a sustained effort to conceal and encode representational content in order to convey spiritual ideas in physical form by unfolding their ‘Inner Harmony.’ “

428Improvisation 4, Oil on Canvas, 108.5 × 159.7cm, 1909, Wassily Kandinsky

The turning point of Kandinsky’s art is another concert, in 1911, he went to the concert of Viena composer Arnold Schoenberg, based on this concert, Kandinsky painted the Impression III Concert, which is much more abstract. Schoenberg encouraged Kandinsky to created something like Dissonance in music, like unmatched colors and brushes to awake audience’s will. 

170Impression III Concert,1911, Wassily Kandinsky

“Picture with a Circle” is considered the first abstract painting in Kandinsky’s career and the first abstract painting in the world. You can’t find any familiar elements that Kandinsky always used in his previous paintings.

432Picture with a Circle, Oil on Canvas, 100 × 150 cm, 1911, Wassily Kandinsky

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” This is how Kandinsky described his art and music in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art

After establishing the Blue Rider Group, Kandinsky created his most important series — Composition. The Composition IV showed what Kandinsky cared about, human and myth, heaven and earth, good and evil, war and peace.

114Composition IV, Oil on Canvas, 159.5 × 250.5 cm, 1911, Wassily Kandinsky

2 years later, Kandinsky painted Composition VII, which was the top of his art career, to create a painting like a symphony, abstraction is his key. Looking at this painting, you can’t read the meaning from eyes, but to hear this painting, like music around ears.

36Composition VII, Oil on Canvas, 200.0 × 300.0 cm, 1913, Wassily Kandinsky

At the same time, some other artists were influenced by music and moving into abstract art too. Robert Delaunay painted Le Premier Disque, to discover harmony and tone in one work. He was also a pioneer of Orphism, which named after the Greece Poet and Musician Orpheus.

Robert_Delaunay,_1913,_Premier_Disque,_134_cm,_52.7_inches,_Private_collectionLe Premier Disque, 1912-1913, oil on canvas, 134 x 52.7 inches

Looking at these abstract paintings, different from random or casual paintings, the composition, shapes, fluency, colors, and brush made the abstract paintings more complicated to understand, it’s like a mysterious. But it also has harmony and tones on the canvas, like the symphony.

Keywords to take away: 

  • Gesamtkunstwerk
  • universal language
  • global enthusiasm
  • symphony 
  • Harmony and Dissonance



Royal College of Art, London


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