Blog — 5 Mar 2013 — Maurice Rummens

Painting with Houses (1909) by Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is one of the most colorful paintings in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum. It is also one of the most remarkable; this painting makes the sensation of Kandinsky’s first steps in his pioneering search for a freer, abstract painting almost palpable. After centuries in which painting was primarily the art of representation, what inspired Kandinsky – as one of the first – to strive for abstract, non-representational, art? He himself had several explanations.

In 1912, he described how he once entered his studio at twilight and, from the corner of his eye, glimpsed an unfamiliar, mysterious burst of color. As he drew closer, he saw that it was actually one of his own paintings, but placed on its side. The fact that a picture he at first failed to recognize held greater fascination for him proved, he felt, that realistic representation detracted from the independent action of the formal elements such as color, line, composition, and texture.

Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with Houses (Bild mit Häusern), 1909, oil on canvas, 98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Wassily Kandinsky, Painting with Houses (Bild mit Häusern), 1909, oil on canvas, 98 x 133 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge, (Kochel – Die Brücke) 1902, oil on canvas, 30 x 45 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge, (Kochel – Die Brücke) 1902, oil on canvas, 30 x 45 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge, rotated 90 degrees to the right.
Wassily Kandinsky, Kochel – The Bridge, rotated 90 degrees to the right.

Expressing spirituality

Kandinsky believed that his task was to express spirituality through visual means. This aim correlated with his conviction that mankind was evolving to a higher spiritual level that would eventually overcome the materialism that dominated the 19th century. In many of his works, such as Watercolor No. 2 (1911-1912), Kandinsky used outlines or silhouettes of saints, trumpets, and horsemen that, without prior knowledge, are difficult or impossible to recognize. In the literature about Kandinsky, these are generally considered apocalyptic elements. Kandinsky repeatedly pointed to the decline of the “soulless material life of the 19th century,” in contrast to the “emergence of the spiritual-intellectual life of the 20th century” and the role of art in it. Encouraged by the spiritualist idea that the visible world is merely an external phenomenon, Kandinsky strove to make the invisible, visible.

Wassily Kandinsky, Watercolor No. 2 (Aquarell No. 2), 1911-1912, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 31,6 x 47,6 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Wassily Kandinsky, Watercolor No. 2 (Aquarell No. 2), 1911-1912, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 31,6 x 47,6 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Watercolor No. 2 has been associated with the ascension of Elijah. The blue undulating shape on the lower left is sometimes referred to as the water of the Jordan River, which parts to grant passage to the prophet Elijah. In the upper right-hand corner, Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot pulled by three horses.

Art as an expression of the era

Initially, only colleagues and critics sympathetic to innovation took heed of Kandinsky’s work and theories. No wonder he doubted whether it was possible to create abstract artworks that were more than simply meaningless ornamentation. In 1912, Kandinsky wrote, “If, even today, we were to begin to dissolve completely the tie that binds us to nature […] we would create Works […] which would – to put it crudely – be like a tie, or a carpet.” Artists probably continued to pursue their experiments in the field of abstraction at least partly because of the feeling that they were charged with expressing the spirit of the times – a belief that originated in the theories of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

Hegel´s philosophy accelerated the emergence of non-representational art. Hegel’s ideas about the spirit of the times became anchored in the thinking of progressive artists and their advocates. In connection with this zeitgeist, Kandinsky spoke of “inner necessity.” He was a proponent of the belief that the art of a certain era represents the primary expression of that era. This view sparked the notion that art is subject to inevitable change, and any criticism of it is clearly pointless. Furthermore, this belief in the spirit of the times implied an irrevocable notion of progress.

Musical art

Music was the inspiration for Kandinsky’s visual language. Drawing on the prestige music enjoyed as abstract art due to its inherent immateriality, attention could be focused on the purely visual side of art, at the expense of the narrative element. The appeal of music lay in the ecstatic melodies, which painting could approximate by striving for the correct harmonic proportions. In his book On the Spiritual in Art (Über das Geistige in der Kunst) of 1912, the earliest comprehensive publication on abstraction in painting, Kandinsky offered his initial thoughts on systemization with a musical comparison: “Color (or form) is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” The word “Improvisation” in the title of Improvisation 33 (Orient I) refers to a spontaneous musical expression.

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 33 (Orient I), 1913, oil on canvas, 88,5 x 100,5 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 33 (Orient I), 1913, oil on canvas, 88,5 x 100,5 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

The position of Painting with Houses within Kandinsky’s oeuvre

There is a striking contrast between Painting with Houses and Kandinsky’s early work. Prior to 1909, the spatial effect in his paintings was always natural, with one viewpoint and a vanishing point perspective, as seen in Kochel – The Bridge (1902). In Painting with Houses, however, the left side of the image seems to fold forward, while the squatting figure with the red robe in the foreground is shown frontally. It is difficult to interpret the lower right-hand section as a wholly frontal rendering. It is impossible to say whether a number of passages in this section, which most closely resembles a terraced hillside (a motif that Kandinsky frequently used), depicts visible reality. In the past, this had always been the case in Kandinsky’s work. Here, color is used more generously, more vibrantly, and there are fewer attempts to mimic nature than in early Kandinskys. Painting with Houses is one of a series of landscapes with human, often fairytale-like figures. In this series it is one of the first with pronounced distortions and near-abstract elements.

In 1911, Kandinsky started making pairs in which the abstraction process spectacularly unfolds. These are works in which Christian motifs, such as the four horsemen and angels with trumpets of the apocalypse are continually pared down to outlines and silhouettes. The results shimmer, as in Watercolor No. 2 and Improvisation 33 (Orient I), but here the abstraction almost seems to follow a set procedure. In this respect, the reference to a musical improvisation in the title of the latter painting is a little misleading. In contrast, in Painting with Houses, the tilted, primitive looking row of houses and abstract color fields suddenly appear, apparently unplanned, their only preparation a preliminary sketch. The piece seems more closely related to the excitement of the painting on its side than to the pairs of 1911 and thereafter. Nonetheless, the motif and composition of Painting with Houses did not appear out of thin air.

In Study for Painting with Houses we see three figures in long robes – two of them squatting left and right and one standing in the middle –much more recognizable than in the painting.

Wassily Kandinsky, Study for Painting with Houses (Entwurf für Bild mit Häusern), 1909, brown ink and pencil on paper, 10,4 x 19,4 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich
Wassily Kandinsky, Study for Painting with Houses (Entwurf für Bild mit Häusern), 1909, brown ink and pencil on paper, 10,4 x 19,4 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich

The Influence of Folk Art

In 1913, when reflecting on his work, Kandinsky connected his pursuit of abstraction and his early interest in decorative folk art. He described spending time in the outlying northern Russian province of Vologda in 1889 where he fell under the spell of the richly colorful peasant interiors, interiors which seemed to dissolve in a blaze of color. Even the occupants wandered about, dressed like decorated Christmas trees. That must have been spectacular because, as a Muscovite, Kandinsky was accustomed to decorative abundance.

Contemporary artists, such as the German expressionists with whom Kandinsky associated after immigrating to Munich in 1896, evoked memories of folk and non-Western or ancient art in their work. Complete with perspectival distortions.

An interesting feature of Painting with Houses is that the image can be traced to a precise source. The row of houses and streets was inspired by a votive painting (a work in honor of the Virgin Mary, who protected the donors against the plague) in a church in the southern German town of Murnau. In 1908 and 1909, Kandinsky spent quite some time in Murnau and, in 1912, reproduced this votive work in the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) almanac, a book that he and his fellow artist, Franz Marc, compiled. In this book, he praises the votive painting for its “remarkable quality of compositional form” which, he asserted, was based on “modifications, interferences” and “substitutions,” necessary to make the “inner sound” of the objects perceptible. In other words, nature must be transformed and veiled in order to achieve expression or convey emotion. In actuality, the perspective in Painting with Houses is more realistic than you might think, as revealed by a picture of Murnau from the collection of Gabriele Münter, Kandinsky’s girlfriend at the time.

Votive painting, paint on panel, St. Nikolaus Church, Murnau
Votive painting, paint on panel, St. Nikolaus Church, Murnau
Murnau, 1909. Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich
Murnau, 1909. Gabriele Münter- und Johannes Eichner-Stiftung, Munich

The Blaue Reiter was the first publication to devote equal attention to contemporary art and art from different parts of the world and different eras; the works were all illustrated and described according to what they expressed. The book set the trend for juxtaposing contemporary art with traditional folk art and non-Western art in art books and exhibitions. It was a convention that was eagerly picked up on. Also by former Stedelijk director Willem Sandberg, who linked it to expression, and thus complemented the stunning collection of expressionist works he acquired for the museum. Similarly distorted figures and heads with staring eyes in both expressionist art and ancient, non-Western, and folk art contributed to the idea that they appeal to us intuitively, that we instinctively understand them.

Psychology of expression and perception

However, the problem with expression is that an intense, immediate reaction does not guarantee communication. On the basis of perceptual psychology theory the art historian E. H. Gombrich has convincingly demonstrated that we should not consider the expressive qualities of colors or lines as absolute properties; our experience of them is subjective. If we interpret the composition lines in Painting with Houses as working to create a macabre atmosphere, we may no longer think so after seeing the votive painting that inspired it. When compared to this work, we will be unable to see Painting with Houses as macabre. Lines and colors can only correspond to a particular spectrum of feelings once they have been ascribed to a certain spectrum of possibilities. The artist can only convey a particular feeling or personal message if the viewer knows the possibilities available to the artist. In all other instances, the artist’s experience remains subjective and can only be felt by the artist. Transmission, however closely entwined with emotion, is ultimately based on knowledge. Nevertheless, there is no denying that much of that knowledge of drawing comparisons in painting is fairly obvious. Colors and lines can easily be compared in terms of scales ranging from cool to hot, sad to happy, and so on, thus infusing visual elements with a quasi-autonomous emotional value.

Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter, Munich 1912, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, Der Blaue Reiter, Munich 1912, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

Meaning

Thanks to our familiarity with works like Painting with Houses, in which expressiveness has a central role, we have learned to appreciate many of the expressive potentials of color and shape. Painting with Houses is both a rich composition of color fields and lines, and a fascinating cityscape with fairytale characters. The cityscape and the figures, along with the title chosen by the artist, guide our interpretation of this painting.

On display?

Painting with Houses and Improvisation 33 (Oriënt I) are displayed in STEDELIJK BASE. Come and see it for yourself!

Learn more?

The Painting Restoration Department of the Stedelijk is currently examining Painting with Houses, along with the other expressionist paintings from the collection. The study includes examining any possible underpaintings and verso sides. Any new art historical information brought to light will be presented here.

Maurice Rummens is member of the Research Staff at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.


– Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, insbesondere in der Malerei, Bern 2009 (Munich 1912)
– id. en Franz Marc (eds.), Der Blaue Reiter; dokumentarische Neuausgabe von Klaus Lankheit, Munich 2006 (1912)
– Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, Oxford [1980]
– Peg Weiss, Kandinsky in Munich: The Formative Jugendstil Years, New Haven/London 1979
– id., Kandinsky and Old Russia: The Artist as Ethnographer and Shaman, New Haven/London 1995
– E.H. Gombrich, Kunst und Fortschritt. Wirkung und Wandlung einer Idee, Cologne 1978
– id., Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art, London/New York 1978 (London 1963)
– id., The Preference for the Primitive: Episodes in the History of Western Taste and Art, London 2002
– Willem Sandberg and Hans Jaffé, exh. cat. Moderne kunst nieuw + oud, Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum), 1955
– Maurice Rummens, “Kandinsky’s ‘Painting with Houses’ and a votive panel at Murnau,” The Burlington Magazine 129 (1987) 1011, pp. 394-396.