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