Wassily Kandinsky was a man of many talents and ‘artist’ was just one of he roles that he played during the course of his life, albeit the most significant one and the reason that we’re writing about him today. Unlike so many other famous painters who were emerging at the time, the Abstract Expressionist didn’t grow up in an artistic environment, nor did he attend an art school or Academy in his teens, and there are no Kandinsky oil paintings that emerged when he was in his twenties. In fact Kandinsky was somewhat of a late bloomer artistically speaking, and it wasn’t until he was 30 years of age that he formally began to study painting, training in life drawing, sketching and anatomy.

Kandinsky was born in Moscow in 1866, the son of a successful Russian tea merchant. He grew up in a musical household, learning to play the piano and the cello, and it’s possible that he was unwittingly developing his artistic talents as he played. Much of the analysis of his compositions and colour selections concludes that his work is ‘synaesthetic’, meaning that he was able to convey sense of integration between colours and sounds. Kandinsky later spoke extensively about the role that music played in the creation of his art and, although it is impossible to prove or disprove, some have theorised that he suffered from neurological synaesthesia, which meant that his two senses, sight and sound, overlapped and that he quite literally heard colours and saw sounds.

Regardless of whether or not he actually possessed this unique ability, Kandinsky’s life was to continue in a non-traditional direction considering his eventual artistic destination. In 1886 he studied law and economics at Moscow University, graduating with honours and going on become an Associate Professor, teaching as part of the Faculty of Law. While he was lecturing he also wrote extensively on spiritual matters, which would be another great influence on the art that he would eventually create. At some point during this period he also worked as the managing director of a Moscow based printing and publishing firm. Why not?

It was in 1895 that an event occurred that would change Kandinsky. He was partly inspired by seeing Claude Monet’s Haystacks at an exhibition of French Impressionists in Moscow in 1895, about which he would later write, “That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me. I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendour.”

Also in 1895 he saw Richard Wagner’s romantic opera Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre, which Kandinsky felt pushed the boundaries of music and melody beyond lyricism. And thirdly he was spiritually inspired by the writings of Helena Petrovna Balvatsky, an early proponent of the philosophical movement Theosophy. This trifecta of influences eventually propelled a 30 year old Kandinsky away from a career in law, and by 1896 he had enrolled in art school in Munich.