Memoir I: A General of the Brigade called Abstract Art

Before I saw my first art piece, art as a concept was a foreign territory. If you said art, my very first thought would be something like “The Mona Lisa”. I mean it makes sense, the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci is iconic. Even to this day, it’s influences on pop culture is timeless. Even after my time on earth, children of this planet will know about the painting But I digress.

As a child I grew up with my mother in North West London, in an area called Neasden. For a period of my childhood I lived with my mum and my aunt. My aunt came from Cameroon to London to pursue a better life. After spending 3 years in London, she permanently moved to Canada. Moreover, while she was here she studied. I would definitely say my aunt as a person is interesting. My mum calls her the reincarnation of my late grandma, in terms of physical features and personality. In the words of my mum, “grandma was a strict woman, she wanted things to be done in a specific way, by a specific time. If you didn’t, you would be in trouble”. Now, if you’re a West African or in fact Afro Caribbean, you can probably allude to what trouble is referring to. As I was growing up, I too did not want to face that “trouble”.

I vividly remember the days, I would be alone in the house by myself and the house would be in a state. From plates unclean to the carpet being dirty. The moment my aunt’s key would pierce the keyhole, I would quickly tidy the house. As the footprint of her shoe entered the house, I would run to the front door and greet her. If I failed to tidy the house in those precious seconds, I would go to the front door and begin to distract her. Ask her mundane questions like “How was your day?” or “Did you hear about this celebrity couple on the tv?” or “Mum asked you to do this.”. So, that was the daily routine between me and my aunt.

However, on one particular day, things were different. This time she entered the house, with an A2 size thin brown case and it had two pieces of art. The first one (I’ll be honest with you guys) was very forgettable. But, the second one on the other hand. Well, it is the reason why this memoir exists, and it is the reason why it is the first one. Because, at the time I did not fully comprehend or appreciate, that my aunt had donean artistic interpretation to Wassily Kandinsky’s Transverse line (painted 1923).

Wassily Kandinsky Transverse line

Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow, Russia 1866. He was a man of great intelligence, before he discovered his calling for art. He did what the majority of us do when we reach the end of college/sixth form, go to university. So, he did this and studied law. The years passed, and he became a professor of law.

However, Kandinsky felt unsatisfied and embarked on a tour of Russia. During his travels he encountered many things such as Russian folk art that captured his curiosity. However, the biggest turning point, was when he saw an exhibition that exhibited art from Claude Monet.

Side note: During the 19th century art was taking a turn. A turn in the right direction With the invention of the camera, artists stopped trying to capture what the human eye saw. What was birthed in that wake, was impressionism. So, Kandinsky saw Monet’s work and I will paraphrase, what he asked himself.  Kandinsky said, “why is the painting not finished?”. The question dawned upon him, especially when he saw Monet’s Haystacks series (painted 1888-1891). It was through seeing Monet’s work, Kandinsky quit his profession and pursued a career in art. Kandinsky went off to Munich, Germany to pursue his art career.

As Kandinsky ventured into his art career he started to develop ideas on what art should be, they were so revolutionary in 1910, he wrote a book called “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”. To add to that, he got invited to teach about his ideas at “The Bauhaus”. The Bauhaus was a place where innovative designs were birthed. This was a space were all forms of art were allowed to reign and bring forth ground breaking ideas that impacted not only Germany, but Europe.

During world war II, Kandinsky’s life takes a massive blow. He is now a German citizen. It is at this point Hitler is in total domination of Germany; he immediately closes The Bauhaus; he labels Kandinsky’s art as “degenerate”. In fact, Hitler even goes so far, and has a public exhibition of all the art he deems “degenerate”. Pieces are hung at an angle and are placed behind graffiti. On the other hand, it is one of Germany’s biggest cultural event of the time. One must ask themselves, did those that came to view the exhibition come to mock the art or come one last time to look, food for thought

So, Kandinsky flees Germany and moves to France. But even then, Kandinsky could not escape the wrath of Nazi Germany. By 1940, Hitler invades France and at this point Kandinsky’s art is not selling as much as before. As months pass by, his work rate declines too. Kandinsky dies in 1944 and sadly, he dies in obscurity.

If you look at Kandinsky’s work, you can see he had three distinct periods. His first period has a strong post impressionism influence. In the early 20th century Kandinsky begins to experiment with colours in his pieces. If we look at Murnau Street with Women (painted 1908), you notice the sky’s colour varies from light blue to turquoise to green. The same can be said for the tree, a mixture of green and indigo. In fact, if you look at the people in the picture, their faces are a mixture of pink and yellow. In my opinion the painting has a psychedelic touch to it.

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It is later into his artistic career, Kandinsky becomes more influenced by sound. Kandinsky was known for liking music by Wilhelm Wagner. Around 1913, Kandinsky enters his second period, he gradually leaves that post-impressionism realm and embarks on his voyage into the abstract. At this point Kandinsky is connecting art with sound, he is also linking art with spirituality. Kandinsky was influenced so much by music, he even named pieces after musical terms. For example, Kandinsky had a series of paintings that had titles starting with composition. Composition VII (painted 1913) took him about 3 days to finish. If you look at the painting and it’s intricacy, it is truly a testimony to the time he spent creating the piece. By this point it can be said that Kandinsky is essentially creating the visual equivalent of sound.

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If we fast forward to 1916, after having a telephone conversation with his second wife called Nina. Kandinsky goes on to create, “To the unknown voice” (painted 1916). This piece is said to be the visual equivalent of Nina’s voice, for it was her voice that made him fall in love with her.

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By the 1920s, Kandinsky enters his final period, and this is it. The man is fully entrenched in the realm of abstract. His paintings are incorporating geometry and shapes so effortlessly. This is evident on paintings such as Transverse Line, he is creating a dialogue with the observer using mathematical terms, he is challenging you to think differently about your perception of reality. He is breaking down what reality essentially is, random geometry and shapes that interact with each other, to give a pattern which becomes recognisable to the human eye. It is this chaotic beauty that touched my soul when I was 7 and still touches my soul, even now.

Overall, if we look at Kandinsky’s life it can be debated and some psychologists of today would agree that Kandinsky had synesthesia. Synesthesia is a harmless condition in which a person experiences a stimulation in 2 senses. For example, a person with synesthesia would see a colour upon hearing a sound.  This notion can be argued by analysing his book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”. Kandinsky states “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.” So, who knows?

Wassily Kandinsky, is definitely one of the founding fathers of abstract art. If a “Mount Rushmore” for the founders of abstract art were ever to be built, I could confidently bet my entire student finance, one of the four faces would be his. He was a poised and distinguished individual, always known to wear a suit, even when painting. His studio was impeccable; his ideas of linking art and spirituality were known by his contemporaries.

If my aunt did not show me her interpretation of Transverse Line. I think my fascination for abstract art would not have existed at such an early age.

I will end this memoir with one last quote from Wassily Kandinsky and I think it beautifully sums up his attitude he had to his work. “The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”

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