The Hissing Paintbox – Painter Vasily Kandinsky

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Music, in performance, is a type of sculpture. The air in performance is sculpted into something. – Frank Zappa

Music is abstract, immaterial, and intangible, and yet it can move us to tears, bring back memories, and cause thousands of strangers to move in rhythm at a concert.

What if you could capture the transcendent qualities of music in a painting? What if generations of people looked at that painting and had the same ethereal experience as listening to music? Russian-born Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) wanted to paint music.

Painting brush and palette knife

Art and music had always been a part of his life. He learned to play the piano and cello. As a child, when he mixed the colors in his watercolor paint box, they began to hiss.

Wagner, Lohengrin
Listen to the prelude –

Years later, as a law student, Kandinsky attended a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in Moscow. The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments. . . . I saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

Kandinsky had synesthesia, a rare, genetic neurological condition in which one sense, like hearing, simultaneously and involuntarily triggers another sense, such as sight. Unlike hallucinations, the colors, sounds, and images that synesthetes experience don’t compromise their ability to see; it’s been described as “a presence in the back of their mind”. (Other synesthetes include Leonard Bernstein, Mary J. Blige, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Lady Gaga, David Hockney, Franz Liszt, Vladimir Nabokov, and Stevie Wonder.)

Binz on Rügen, 1901

At the turn of the century, he stopped practicing law and graduated from art school in Munich.

As he developed as an artist, he travelled extensively. The experimental choices that other artists were making left a profound impression upon him.

In Binz on Rügen (1901), a rare and early work, Kandinsky squeezed thick paint directly from the paint tube to fill the canvas with color. He then used an artist’s knife to spread the paint in heavy, textured strokes.

While in Paris, he attended an exhibition of twenty-five paintings by Claude Monet, all harvested stacks of wheat at different times of day across the seasons in many types of weather. Kandinsky was so confused that he had to read the catalog to understand that he was looking at haystacks.

Instead of using color to realistically represent haystacks, Monet’s colors expressed momentary flickering changes in light and mood. “I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. … Deep within me, the first doubt arose about the importance of the object as a necessary element in a picture.”

Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Maurice de Vlaminck (known as Les Fauves, French for “wild beasts”) freed color from the necessity of describing objects.

André Derain; Portrait of Henri Matisse, 1905; Philadelphia Museum of Art
André Derain; Portrait of Henri Matisse, 1905; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Wild colors and loose individual brushstrokes placed rhythmically side by side act like stepping stones for viewers to enter into the artist’s imagined world and emotions.

In response, Kandinsky began to experiment. Forms wave and drift across the picture. Suggestions of rational space and scale begin to shift.

Left: A village street in Murnau, Germany ca. 1908; photo taken by Kandinsky / Right: Murnau – Street with Women, 1908; collection of Estée Lauder

Child Labor 1905Life at the turn of the century was unsettling. Darwin’s published theories about evolution made it harder to believe that the world was created in six days. Nietzsche proclaimed that God was dead. Freud’s methods of psychoanalysis were uncovering the hidden processes of personality. Einstein’s theories about space and time suggested ideas about the universe that most people could not understand. The rapid industrialization of urban areas resulted in slums that grew at a startling rate. Workers organized and European colonies rebelled. Many worried that another, even more violent upheaval was in the making; Lenin later referred to this time as “The Great Dress Rehearsal”. Suddenly thick walls crumbled. Everything was soft, uncertain, vacillating,” wrote Kandinsky.

A séance
A Séance

Spiritualism, occultism, and mysticism rose in popularity. Pablo Picasso read tarot cards while smoking opium, Amedeo Modigliani used Ouija boards and attended séances, W. B. Yeats experimented with palmistry, astrology, and magic. Composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, writers Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire, and painter Georges Seurat were immersed in the esoteric circles that were thriving in Paris at the time.

Kandinsky, now one of the leaders of Munich’s art community, passionately believed that humanity stood on brink of new spiritual era and declared that art should help usher in a new age. His philosophical ideas were a mix of:

Edvard Munch; The Scream, 1893; National Gallery, Oslo
Edvard Munch; The Scream, 1893; National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

Symbolism (art should depict a state of mind rather than an external reality),

Piet Mondrian; Composition in Black and Gray, 1919; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Piet Mondrian; Composition in Black and Gray, 1919; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Theosophy (a type of philosophical mysticism that seeks to reveal the concealed essences of reality; this optical illusion suggests stars flickering in the night sky),

Arthur Schopenhauer, 1852
Arthur Schopenhauer, 1852

the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (“the abstract qualities of art and music release humans from their distorted views that conceal the most profound truths in a language his reason cannot understand”),


Scriabin keyboard

the ideas of Russian composer and fellow synesthete, Aleksandr Scriabin (“the linking of music, poetry and dance can envelop the listener in a state of ecstasy”); Scriabin’s color keyboard.

But it was an evening in January 1911 when he attended a performance of Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 ( by Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg that had the greatest impact on Kandinsky. A music critic said it sounded like the score must’ve smeared when the ink was still wet.” Kandinsky, however, was thrilled.


Schoenberg’s abandonment of tonal and harmonic conventions in his compositions was analogous to Kandinsky’s rejection of recognizable figures and objects in favor of shapes, lines, and discordant colors. A long, stormy, friendship began. Schoenberg’s approach has been one of the most influential of 20th-century musical thought.

“It took a long time before this question ‘What should replace the object?’ received a proper answer from within me.” – Kandinsky

Understanding that the increasingly abstract aspects of his paintings would be difficult for viewers to understand, Kandinsky published a manifesto, On the Spiritual in Art, in 1911.

Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art

The first part of the book calls for a spiritual revolution that will let artists express their own inner lives in abstract, non-material ways. Just as musicians do not depend upon the material world to create music, neither should painters. The second part discusses the psychology of colors, the language of art and form, and the responsibilities of the artist to improve society. “Painting is like a thundering collision of different worlds that are destined in and through conflict to create that new world called the work.” Inspired by the relationship between music and painting, he saw shapes, lines, and colors as carriers of spontaneous emotional and spiritual expression.

Kandinsky Color Theory
Chart of Kandinsky’s Color Theory

Kandinsky began to give music-related titles to his paintings. Like music, they have rhythms, patterns and harmonies. They ask the viewer to spend time with them to let them unfold. Scientists found that our favorite moments in music are just before out favorite part, the “anticipatory phase”. If it’s too predictable, the music is boring. Therefore, composers introduce the tonic note in the beginning and then avoid it until the end. The longer the listener is denied the expected pattern, the greater the emotional release when it returns.  Consider Samuel Barber’s beloved work, Adagio for Strings:

Like music, Kandinsky’s paintings ask for your time.

Improvisations were spontaneous expressions of a mood or feeling –

Little Painting with Yellow (Improvisation), 1914; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Little Painting with Yellow (Improvisation), 1914; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Kandinsky created this painting in Munich just before the outbreak of World War I, which forced him to return to Russia. Affected by the increasingly unstable political environment and his belief in the imminence of the Apocalypse, he painted a whirlwind of explosive lines and colors that suggest both the terror of catastrophe and the elation of rebirth.

Impressions were observations of the natural world –

Impression III (Concert); The Städtische Galerie, Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich
Impression III (Concert), 1911; The Städtische Galerie, Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich. Kandinsky painted this the day after attending Schoenberg’s concert. Bright yellow envelopes a black triangle-like piano and rounded lines, suggesting an audience dissolving into the abstraction of color and sound.

Compositions were less spontaneous than either of the other two categories because they were shaped and worked out in a series of studies over a long period of time. Their meticulous planning and intricate structure made them analogous to a symphony.

Composition V; 1911; MoMA, NYC
Composition V; 1911; MoMA, NYC. The theme of this painting is ‘resurrection of the dead’. When compared to motifs Kandinsky used in his more representational works at the time, it becomes possible to perceive several angels blowing their trumpets in upper portion of canvas and a strong black line crossing from right to left as the blowing of the trumpets. Above this line, towers of a walled-in city are visible. Below the line, layers of thinly applied luminescent paint convey a sense of infinity through the absence of identifiable three-dimensional space. Out of this void, the dead rise.

These are all complicated works, but the best advice about experiencing them was written by Kandinsky:  Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to ‘walk about’ into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?

Vasily Kandinsky; Improvisation No. 29 (The Swan),1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Vasily Kandinsky; Improvisation No. 29 (The Swan),1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Which musical accompaniments suits you?

Kandinsky heard the sounds of colors so clearly that he associated each note with an exact hue. When he heard a flute, he saw light blue. The sound of the cello darkened the blue, although it’s deepest notes were red. Organs created the darkest blue. Perhaps this painting might sound like this composition, which is written for cello and organ:

Kandinsky; Blue, 1927; MoMA, NYC
Vasily Kandinsky; Blue, 1927; MoMA, NYC


“Even when Kandinsky’s idea is universally understood there may be many who are not moved by his melody. For my part, something within me answered to Kandinsky’s art the first time I met with it. There was no question of looking for representation; a harmony had been set up, and that was enough.” – Michael Sadler, Kandinsky Scholar

– Meighan Maley



  1. So fascinating!! Meighan thank you so much for all the research and work you put into this blog. I’m really enjoying it and find it so enriching.


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