Theorist and painter in equal parts, Wassily Kandinsky must rank among the most important and radical artists of the last 200 years. His experiments with abstract art for which he is best known were the result of years of self-analysis, technical development, and close observation of the effects the colours and forms of his own paintings and those of his contemporaries had on his own sense of composition.
many of the Klänge woodcuts, such as this one, were titled 'Improvisation' to reiterate their nonrepresentational subjects
Kandinsky’s Klänge forms part of a trio of seminal works (including Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the famous Der Blaue Reiter Almanac) all published between 1911 and 1912, generally considered the beginning of Kandinsky's period of ‘creative genius’ which continued through to 1914 and the start of the First World War.
'I wanted to create nothing but sounds...' - (above) one of the suite's many abstracted riders, an important motif in Kandinsky's oeuvre symbolising artistic progression; (below) abstract organic forms in another 'Improvisation'
The word Klänge is German for ‘sounds’, and the work marks Kandinsky’s first exploration into the sensual, synaesthetic world of colour and music. How the visual and the aural senses interrelated was an area of interest which would become greatly influential amongst artists and composers, such as Alexander Scriabin and Olivier Messiaen, in the first half of the 20th century.
colour, form and composition combine in these two woodcuts to create powerful abstract images
The work itself is one of the more famous early examples of an ‘artist’s book’ or livre d'Artiste, in which Kandinsky combined short prose-poems with colour and black and white woodcuts designed to work in parallel with the writing. The forefather of Abstract Expressionist art, Kandinsky combines colour, form and the arrangement of space in ways which are at one time simple and figurative, at others complex and abstract.
(above) the figurative and the abstract meet in 'Orientalisches'; (below) a figurative Moses and Hebrew people make the crossing of an abstract Red Sea in 'Reiterweg'
The series revolves predominantly around the idea of spiritual ‘purity’ in art. Kandinsky noted that colour and music or speech can often been referred to with the same notions of quality: ‘harmony’, ‘tonality’, ‘sonority’ etc. are terms with which both elements of colour or form in art and those of musical composition could be described.
(above) Kandinsky's use of colour and flat shapes, more easily accomplished in the subtractive medium of the woodcut, would inform his later abstract paintings; (below) further black and white 'Improvisations'
Just as his art had begun to take on extreme abstraction and vibrancy in the pursuit of a ‘purity’, the poems which he wrote to accompany them in the suite followed a similar ‘abstraction’. Words are repeated to the point where they lose their meaning and become ‘pure’ sounds, quite removed from the world of logic and language:
Blue, Blue got up, got up and fell.
Sharp, Thin whistled and shoved, but didn't get through.
(above) three riders reduced to 'pure' forms; (below) Kandinsky's limited colour palette is lent variation by the natural grain and texture of woodblock on paper
Produced at a time of great change in the art world as the explosion of Post Impressionism saw the births of many short-lived artistic movements, the Klänge suite was heralded by many contemporary artists as a breakthrough work. For the Dada artist and abstract sculptor Hans Arp, the book remained a critical source of inspiration throughout his life:
Kandinsky has undertaken the rarest spiritual experiments in his poems. Out of 'pure existence' he has conjured beauties never previously heard in this world. In these poems, sequences of words and sentences surface in a way that has never happened before... [he] confronts the reader with a dying and transforming image, a dying and transforming phrase, a dying and self-transforming dream. In these poems we experience the cycle, the waxing and waning, the transformation of this world. Kandinsky's poems reveal the emptiness of appearances and of reason.
'Out of 'pure existence' he has conjured beauties never previously heard in this world...' - Hans Arp on Kandinsky's abstract Klänge woodcuts
By combining poetry and art, Kandinsky hoped to prove that the problem of art is not a problem of form but a problem of spiritual content and that in the abstract could be found 'the pure'. The resulting prints of the Klänge set resonate with rich colours and bold, organic forms to make symphonies of combined text and image that are a testament to Kandinsky's significance in the history of abstract and expressive art.