Russian father of Abstract painting Wassily Kandinsky produced many artworks worthy of being deemed “masterpiece” – the man, after all, is credited with creating the first purely abstract painting. A key aspect of his work Kandinsky often noted was the process itself which brought him to the final product – rigorous studying, experimentation and reflecting on the spiritual were his key tenets. The same analysis can be applied to his career and the stages of his paintings, with important oil paintings at various stages of his life serving as signposts to the artist’s progression and development. One such work, the 1908 colour-charged Expressionist composition Weisser Klang (White Sound), is one such valuable example. It sold recently for USD $8,930,500 at the November Sotheby’s auction of Impressionist and Modern Art, providing us with a timely opportunity to examine the Kandinsky painting.
Firstly, a bit of background. The painting is generally considered to be an illustration of German symbolist poet Stefan George’s Weisser Gesang (White Song), which reads: “If I could envision the white dream for her.../It would seem to me in the castle that bitter rays permeated/And pale blossom-trees only embraced/So the dream could run away with two children’s early daydreams.” Next stanza: “Each of them seeming to embrace a slender bouquet/Brightly flickering like a gentle quaking aspen/A silver sash as a pennant/Would swing high above their weak foreheads”. Stanza three goes one: “And both would come slowly to the pond/Sometimes swaying on the broad marble steps/Until at the beat of the nearby herons’ wings/Their arm’s soft burden heavily swaying”. The final stanza: “Scented mists swirling in from cool naiads/With whom the united ones became lighter and lighter/Floating upwards towards higher realms – Until they were one with the pure ether-down.”
Kandinsky often looked to literal work to ignite the spiritual creative core, and the words from the George poem provide great insight into the colourful palette choice Kandinsky chose for the painting. The choice of figures and placement also suggest the impact of the Fauvists had on him – in the previous two years Kandinsky had lived in Paris, where he was influenced by the likes of Derain, Matisse and Braque. The Fauvists approach to colour and form confirmed Kandinsky’s own ideas at the time – he was, of course, sure of the fact that bright colours had spiritual values, and that Fauvist style matched traditional Russian folk art that he also drew inspiration from.
White Sound was also an early predecessor to the importance Kandinsky would place when geometrically extracting and producing his themes. He believed paintings were coordinated through colour and forms much the same way songs were coordinated through rhythm and tones. According to Kandinsky expert Peg Weiss, in her 1975 work Kandinsky in Munich, the artist believed the studied geometrical opus and the subtle colour synchronizations conveyed the effect of a musical chord or Klang, a word the artist used to describe the effect by which the victorious artwork communicates its inner meaning. Weiss said: “the work of art, he said, must klingen, or resonate, so that the soul of the viewer vibrates with the same resonance” (ibid p.51) We think Kandinsky certainly struck many right and pleasant sounding chords.