This article was written on 18 Nov 2012, and is filled under Essay, Reviews.

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Wassily Kandinsky: Abstract Art as Psychological Grammar

by Stavros Pavlides

Improvisation 28 (second version) (Improvisation 28 [zweite Fassung]), Copyright 2012 Artists Rights Society.

Improvisation 28 (second version) (Improvisation 28 [zweite Fassung]), Copyright 2012 Artists Rights Society.

Der Blaue Reiter, unlike the homonymous painting of the same artist, is a period in Kandinsky’s career of momentous importance and innovation. Utterly forgoing any ties to description and representation, Kandinsky’s ‘blue rider’ period signifies a total deconstruction of painting forms and a huge leap forward in terms of the expressive capabilities therein.

The Blaue Reiter work, on display at the Guggenheim Museum, features art by not only Kandinksy but contemporaries Franz Marc and Robert Delaunay as well. While Wassily is clearly the mastermind of the aesthetic, being less indebted than Delaunay to the ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ coloring aesthetic of the fauvists and far looser formally than the cubism-influenced Marc, all three artists in this period demonstrate an appreciation of the strength of color and line over description and fidelity. Works like Composition VII and Blue Horses are not translations of other worlds. They are their own self-contained arena, the contours and colors being autonomous elements that describe an emotional state. Thus, the yellow accents of Bright Picture imply an urgent gaiety, and the jagged shapes of Deer in the Woods may suggest claustrophobia and anxiety.

Wassily Kandinsky. Bright Picture. 1913

Wassily Kandinsky. Bright Picture. 1913


This was very much a deliberate effort, and the endlessly inquisitive Kandinsky would later crystallize his theories and practice into his comprehensive treatise Point and line to Plane. In these writings, he analyzes the basic geometric elements in every painting, the point and the line. The point can be a bit of color placed on a surface, of any shape, that takes on a distinct tonality depending on its placement on that surface and interplay with other points and lines. The line is the application of force made visible, and again, depending on its orientation (vertical, horizontal), direction, breadth, and placement, takes on a certain tonality and emotional resonance. He then continues to detail the effect of varying applications of point and line. What Kandinsky has done with Point and Line is recognize and define the communicative/linguistic potential of non-representational marks, a truly seminal endeavor, and in doing so has created a new form of “proto-writing”.

Cuneiform tablet featuring a tally of sheep and goats, from Tello in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Credit Gianni Dagli OrtiCorbis

Cuneiform tablet featuring a tally of sheep and goats, from Tello in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). Credit Gianni Dagli OrtiCorbis


The written word itself evolved from the attempt to capture the graphic likeness of a physical object. In a word, it evolved from drawing objects. Thus, the first pictograms and mnemonic glyphs, which were representations of objects and symbols respectively, evolved into Cuneiform, one of the first written languages. Cuneiform was used widely by the Sumerians and surrounding cultures, and as society advanced, so too did the symbols become more simplified and abstract, moving away from representation and into signification. It is estimated that over the course of the Bronze Age, the Cuneiform characters were reduced from 1000 to about 400. Pictograms were a form of proto-writing, where communication depended on context and the non-fixed representational skills of the author. Cuneiform on the other hand, and all subsequent written languages, constitute “True-Writing”, where all communication is encoded into symbols that can be reproduced with a fair degree of accuracy.

Although letters and numbers have since become abstract symbols, their communicative ability is entirely different from that of abstract art such as that of Der Blaue Reiter. Written language necessitates quick and easy reproduction of its elements, which inevitably leads to simplification and codification. Thus, though no longer descriptive, written language is rigid, formally. This fact of communication and reproduction being inextricably linked prevents the visual grammar described and employed by Kandinsky from ever becoming  “true-writing”.

Symbols that can take on any hue (a subjective quality in and of itself), that lack specificity, and that have no distinct form are intrinsically impossible to codify. Hence, the visual vocabulary dissected in Point and Line to Plane cannot be employed in that regard. Rather, what paintings such as Composition VII can do is construct a psychological grammar. Kandinsky himself held an abiding interest in psychology, and in connecting the dots between the expressive force of music, most abstract of forms, and painting. First of all, nothing that can be perceived is entirely abstract. To exist is to create relationship and meaning, and while this may sound like a philosophical tautology, no mark can be made without an association, a context, and a representational quality of some kind.

Kandinsky - Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane

Kandinsky – Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane


Therefore, certain aspects of painting can indeed be codified. There are the elements already detailed by Kandinsky. Then, there is the effect color, saturation, value, etc can have on the viewer. It is very possible, through scientific experiments, to form general guidelines of what lines and points elicit emotional and cognitive reactions. While these cannot be universal, a framework could be created whereby visual “proto-writing” can transpire. Some of the breadth of possible interpretations of an artwork might be lost at the altar of communication, yet even words can be stringed together abstractly in poetry to create rich and nebulous responses, and so too can codified graphic elements.

It is my belief that the pursuit of forming a psychological visual grammar and vocabulary would expand our aesthetic appreciation and ability. Our communicative tools would be much enriched, and with it our ability for thought, which is fundamentally abstract to begin with. Such an emphasis on abstract imagery as language would lead to advancement in that form. Evolutionary strides are not merely the province of intuitive thinking, but often arise from the synthesis of reason, experimentation, and intuition. Therefore, endeavors such as those made by Wassily Kandinsky are of the highest value, and a continuation of his efforts an invaluable cause.



Stavros Pavlides is a New York-based artist and writer.  In addition to writing for Art-Rated, Stavros is also a contributing writer for ArtWrit.

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