When Kandinsky painted the music of a concert

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“On Monday, Jan. 2, 1911, at half past 7 in the evening, Wassily Kandinsky attended a concert at a hotel ballroom in Munich. The next day he painted it.”

The New York Times, March 2013

There is a precise scientific term that describes the rare ability of an individual to perceive sensory stimuli as impulses capable of soliciting a different sense from the initial one: Synesthesia. “Hearing the sound of colors, feeling the smell of words, perceiving the taste of forms.” It is said that a person put of 2000 has this particularity, sometimes lived as an uncontrollable sensation. There are musicians able to compose music as a direct consequence of what they see: Tori Amos, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel and Pharrell Williams are said to be among them. Kandinsky, on the other hand, saw the music. And in this way he invented the abstract painting.

There are several theories on the scientific explaination of Kandinsky’s synesthesia. For many it was a real sensory alteration, for others it’s a simple, innate aesthetic talent. The most romantics want to trust his own words, pronounced after another concert, Wagner’s Lohengrin: “I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” If Kandinsky were really able to see the sounds or not, it is a matter destined to remain within the legend, but on its ability to represent harmony on canvas, in a way that he perfectly mastered, there is no doubt: basing always on the legend, Composition VII, one of his most audacious works as well as one of the largest, three meters wide and two high, was painted in just three days.

Wassily Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913

That famous concert in Monaco on 1911 was the clear turn of Kandinsky’s art. At that time the painter was 45, not exactly a young novice, yet his aesthetic was far from consolidated: the vision, the inspiration of Schönberg’s music was the trigger for his most advanced avantgarde. His art began to live disconnected from reality, the objects lost the original forms and began to become abstract concepts. If it is true that Kandinsky is one of the first authors of purely abstract art, then the merit for the trigger goes to another visionary artist: Arnold Schönberg, Austrian, composer, musical theorist and painter.

That evening, the concert was quite articulated, but what mostly impressed Kandinsky was the Three Piano Pieces, Opus 11. A nervous work, restless, notes that seem to fight against each other in a continuous form of dissonance and pace change. Strong and sanguine, as the piano compositions can often be.

Schoenberg: Drei KlavierstĂĽcke, Op. 11 (Pollini)

Regardless of whether or not Kandinsky really saw the notes of that concert, the fact remains that its abstract phase began there. 1911 was the year of the foundation of Blue Rider, the avant-garde group that, besides Kandinsky, included Paul Klee, Franz Marc, August Macke and others. Blue is for Kandinsky the color of the spirit. That year he also published On the Spiritual in Art, where Kandinsky theorized the supreme role of art for the human being, a perspective that placed the artist on top of a pyramid-guide for men.

And 1911 is also the year when he painted Impression III (Concert). The painting that represented the concert in Monaco and the Three Piano Pieces. Bright colors and conceptual forms, behind which many see a big black piano and the audience attending the concert. Impressions, Compositions, Improvisations: this is how at some point Kandinsky started to title his own works. Using a language typical of musicians. Making explicit the strong dependence between his art and music.

Wassily Kandinsky, Impression III (Concert), 1911

From that year Kandinsky’s paintings became more and more daring, culminating in the series of ten abstract compositions that he completed in 1939. Series that actually began earlier, and was targeted by Nazism in one of the darkest moments of human history: the Third Reich was notoriously against modern art, and acquired the first three compositions for the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition. That event started the process of destruction of that aesthetic, culminating in 1942’s bonfire that destroyed an invaluable quantity of works from Picasso, Dali, Miró, Klee, Ernst and Kandinsky. What survived was enough to create the myth of abstraction from reality. Controversial, certainly subject to tastes and diversity of opinions, but able to stimulate the innate capacities of the human mind more than anything else.


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