Valeriy Sterligov

Kandinsky and Music

Published in: 28. The Reefs of Conflict

Correspondent: In your opinion, how difficult is the lack of a story in modern dance for an unprepared audience? Is it necessary to provide a detailed translation from the language of dance into human language, or is understanding possible without words, without preparation?

D. Vishneva: The spectator, of course, needs help. We work very hard, executing each turn of the head to try and make everything clear to him. And the more work, values, information, invested feelings, the more talented the dancer, the more he can enrich the dance with his experience and emotional resources, and so the more the spectator understands. Very much can be told even to a completely unprepared person. …

At the same time, a person himself must be open, must want to understand — without this it is impossible. The more open he is, the less needs to be explained. The more a person looks, the more he can understand — through himself, through his experience, his life, his emotional world.


Diana Vishneva: The artist must be in opposition to his time (in Russian)




I really love Kandinsky; he is one of my favorite artists. I love his paintings, he has many works that cause feelings of pleasure which I want to return to. But just feeling emotional satisfaction is not enough for me. Someone from the greats said that emotion should switch on the mind. Why do I like this picture and not like the other? What is the hidden reason? What is the principle behind this thought? Simple and natural, but very fundamental questions…

You often hear that art is not a science, analysis is unusual for it, and its perception is limited only to sensual and emotional content.

And if you ask yourself the question — where is the boundary between sensory perception and analysis? Can it be drawn? Let’s say, I listen to music and identify a certain melody, then I recognize it in repetition, hear how it is transposed, how it shifts, and then changes in some other way. Is this an analysis? Yes, but at the same time, I emotionally evaluate the result.

If I listen to Bach’s five-voice fugue and distinguish at least three of these voices, do I carry out an analysis? Yes, definitely. But the process of perception does not stop there! Hearing these voices, presenting them in my mind, I already hear this music differently. I see a musical ensemble from a new point of view, and now, after the stage of analysis, a stage of a new, more conscious, emotionally colored, and holistic representation of the image of the work arises. Maybe the next time I listen to this fugue, at the stage of that very first analysis, I will recognize its five voices and my emotional perception of the performance as a whole will become more adequate, fuller, brighter, emotionally colored?

There can be further steps to approaching content. For instance, in a concert with a performance of music you have known for a long time, when suddenly you discover some fragments that you have never noticed, but which always were there, only you listened to them but didn’t hear. They did not take their place in your internal, holistic image of the work.

But in addition to such a conscious process, perception can occur completely without analysis. Like getting immersed in the noise of a waterfall, or the rustle of leaves under a faint summer breeze, which both cause a very positive, purely emotional reaction. Is it possible to perceive a work of art in this way? No doubt, yes. Say, for me personally, the many works of D.P. da Palestrina create a feeling of complete immersion, in a kind of structureless space filled with a self-luminous transparent medium, a kind of luminous ether. An unusually comfortable, positive feeling… On the one hand, I understand that this feeling is produced by a complex, masterfully constructed polyphony, but, on the other hand, such a strong emotional reaction paralyzes any attempts of its analysis…

The perception of a picture, like a piece of music, goes through the same stages. At the first moment – it is a wholesome interaction, purely emotional. But in the next instant you begin to see the details, the individual components, whose ensemble, relationships, composition, graphics, colors, build the content of the picture. Where does emotion end and analysis begin? Is there a border between them? Or do they mingle and intertwine to create an undivided, holistic understanding of a work of art? Such a process is very individual, not only at the first stage of invoking personal associations, but also at the moment when moving from the first, purely emotional injection, to the stage of a holistic, conscious vision of a work of art.

Interestingly, Kandinsky a hundred years ago responded to the question of analyzing a work of art:

“Understanding develops the viewer to the point of view of the artist” (V. Kandinsky, “On the spiritual in art”).

“An analysis of artistic elements, in addition to the scientific value associated with an accurate assessment of the individual elements, builds a bridge to the inner pulsation of the work. To this day, the assertion that ‘decomposing’ art is dangerous, since this ‘decomposition’ will inevitably lead to the death of art, occurs out of ignorance that underestimates the value of liberated elements and their original strength.” (Kandinsky V.V. “Point and Line on the Plane”).

Kandinsky pleasantly surprised me with his discovery of abstract art. Indeed, a discovery, although he was probably not the first to use non-figurative objects in his works. It is interesting that Kandinsky nonetheless reacted indirectly to this possibility: “The danger of ornamentation was clear to me; the deceitful life of stylized forms was disgusting to me”. But his idea of detaching from figurativeness is, indeed, a new word in art. Why do I say that, why am I convinced of this?

In my encounters with artists, as a rule, when they’re asked: “What does this picture mean? This element, that character in it?” one often hears the author answer: “I already said what I wanted to say in my picture. Figure it out for yourself! “

With Kandinsky the situation is different. In addition to creating wonderful paintings, he wrote a number of books in which he described in great detail how one should view and understand the painting’s components. The main principles are set forth in his already mentioned book, “Point and Line on the Plane.”

The book is not very popular, although the information in it is so fundamental that it should be studied in school, from an elementary level. He teaches in such great detail, explaining with numerous illustrations what needs to be seen in the picture and how its basic elements work. He also explains how the artist uses these components in order to change their size, shape, and relative positions and interactions. This achieves completely different and diverse effects, and through them it builds and conveys the content of the picture. Moreover, this description is not given in the language of formal, scientific analysis, but using a poetic and intuitively transparent, figurative language.

I understood even before that every element, point, and line does not exist in the space its own, but they are all related and connected together in a complex ensemble. I understood, and tried to the greatest extent possible to hear the music of this ensemble. Their interaction with each other can be very complex, with reflections, refractions, vibrations; rhythms, graphics, colors, and the variations between them. Kandinsky names these interactions with the musical term “counterpoint principle.” Therefore, the process of contemplation at the initial stage should lead to an understanding of this principle, what the artist wanted to convey with his creation, his message to the viewer. If you do not shy away from your mental work, but you penetrate the content of the picture, both the pictorial and the substantial, you will understand the “counterpoint principle”.

An extremely important factor for the visual arts in general is described and illustrated in detail in “Point and Line on the Plane”. This factor concerns the inner life of all the elements of the picture, how the “principle of counterpoint” is realized in the picture. Kandinsky takes the most elementary element, a pictorial atom — a point on the surface of the canvas — and begins to analyze it. It can have different sizes or can grow to be a spot of color, but also can have different locations relative to other elements of the picture. And he shows how by changing the point’s location, it is possible to express different feelings, moods, attitudes. Additionally, one can realize either stable or unstable local compositions, fixed or dynamic. From elementary letters Kandinsky designs pictorial syllables. Furthermore, in order to perceive, feel, see all this, it is absolutely not necessary to imagine irrelevant, far-fetched associations. Everything is much simpler, and the basic elements are plainly visible to everyone quite easily. All that matters is to see, understand and catch them…

This information, this science of understanding, is not an explanation of what and how to see exactly in Kandinsky’s paintings. It is universal and applicable to almost all objects of fine arts, from the Russian icon to abstract art and even cinema. This is the fundamental alphabet of how to look at and read a picture — a picture namely as an artwork that deviates from its figurative plot. After all, it is a painting that determines the artistic level of the work. This is very clearly seen in iconography. The number of their possible stories is limited and they are canonized. How many “Crucifixes,” “Trinities” and “Entombments” are known? All the storylines are determined, but how different are their pictorial incarnations, from immortal masterpieces to handicraft imitations! What’s the difference? Here, despite the presence of historically steady figures, it is in the skill and mastery of the non-figurative, in their “abstract” content!

This is how the inner life of a work of art arises: abstract and non-figurative, since these elements cannot be directly connected to any real objects. And they already live and interact, and this interaction can be very complex, very rich, and this is exactly what is so attractive in such a work.

Another point of internal content is the interaction of the discussed pictorial content, and in the case of a non-abstract, realistic picture, the figurative plot. Both of these components, pictorial and figurative, also very actively coexist.  They mutually reinforce each other or interact with each other in a more complex way.

Another observation that Kandinsky wrote in his autobiographical book “Steps” is about time in a painting or time in a picture. On one hand, it does not seem to exist; the picture seems complete, holistic and finished in every moment of its existence. It is not music; it does not change over time (we are not talking about the natural aging of dyes). However, when the spectator stands in front of the painting, in his perception there is a time of their life together, himself and the image. Their contact, which lasts several seconds, maybe minutes, hours or even more, when the image of the picture is imprinted in memory and the viewer envisions it, even if the picture itself is not anymore in front of him.

I say “spectator,” although, in fact, to be a spectator is a process. It begins with a person first becoming a simple viewer of a picture, looking at it, and gradually, if he thinks, works, then penetrates it, he becomes the beholder. He, if his work is creative and successful, will see what the artist put in the picture, what the artist wanted to convey. And for this, five seconds of time is completely insufficient. Sometimes an hour is not enough… In other words, the focus of the eyes, and with it the internal focus of the viewer’s attention, travels through the space of the picture.  He realizes and identifies its elements and reconstructs, trying to understand their interaction with each other.

A point, which is the result of a spot compressed to its limit, “is the shortest temporary form” according to Kandinsky’s definition.  A point can be transformed into a line; and a line can act as a trail of a moving point — another factor that introduces the category of time into the space of a picture! In turn, the lines live, interacting with each other and with points. The interaction can be very diverse, forming harmonious chords or, conversely, dissonances.

The picture can be presented as a complex two-dimensional, or even three-dimensional novel, in which many picturesque lines develop simultaneously in different directions. This is like a book in which pages can be turned both from left to right, and from right to left, and from top to bottom, and from bottom to top, as well as from and towards yourself, in a direction perpendicular to its plane. It’s me, the spectator, the reader of this book; I choose where I should move, in which direction I should “read”. When you return to this picture and your path begins again through its space, it almost always turns out to be novel, and the gaze and inner focus do not repeat from the previous route. It turns out that although the picture has not changed, you see in it something else, the constructed image turns out to be changed, different, and therefore it is interesting to come back and over and over again, opening up new facets of its content. And only after reading this multilayered, diverse, multidimensional book, repeatedly traveling in many possible directions, can we understand what the author wrote. Or, you may open two random pages, not understand, and say that all this is garbage…

More about the spectator’s time, the time that passes when I look at such a picture. The first impression is an integral and holistic one, with the picture as a living organism with its coloristic, compositional and graphic content. The next step: I see some centers of conflict, local tension, and musical leitmotifs become distinguishable in the overall sound of the picture (remember, Kandinsky greatly loved Wagner?). What, and who, creates these keynotes? And how do they interact with each other? Do they appear once or several times? How do they change, how do they evolve? Have I seen them before, maybe in other paintings? What are chamber and maybe even symphonic ensembles do they form with other elements of the picture?

There is a fundamental difference between a musical performance and a pictorial work: time flows in music, but it is determined by the process of performance; although its duration may vary from performance to performance, the variability is quite limited.

And when looking at the picture, the duration of this process, my trajectory, is not limited by anything, only by my desire, well, and also the time when the museum is open or a reproduction is available. The ways of moving my focus are limited only by my ability to recognize picturesque “melodies” and build meaningful ensembles from them, penetrate their content, and try to interpret them. And the focus can repeat trajectories many times, each time finding new content.

An amazingly fascinating process, during which you can perceive a lot, and understand what the artist wanted to express and convey to you!

W. Kandinsky. Composition VIII. Oil on canvas. 1923.


How can all of the above be illustrated in a specific Kandinsky painting? Take, for example, “Composition VIII,” painted in 1923 in the Bauhaus. At first glance — a chaotic set of geometric elements sketched without a visible order or organization. Despite all of this randomness and visible disorder, the composition of his work is deeply thought out. This is evidenced by a significant number of preparatory sketches and their evolution. There is no chaos here.

In the central part of the canvas there is a very rhythmic motif, a melody of four semicircles, which are stably resting on a horizontal base-line, as if on the horizon. This is like a presentation of the melody. But this is only its first appearance, look, the same four semicircles, shifted from one straight line, could not resist, collapsing without the support of the horizon line. But this is not all, the same structure, melody, in the upper part of the canvas is carried away into the distance, melting away.

And in the upper left part of the canvas is one of the favorite elements of Kandinsky’s pictorial alphabet: a straight line around which a wavy line curls, intersecting it — you can imagine that it arose from a combination of reflections and stretches of the same melody of four semicircles. This melody disappears under the powerful blow of a heavy arc-like element above it. And this is all just one of the “fugues” of this wonderful work.

Here’s another melody: three almost parallel lines, whose introduction twice intersects two appearances of four semicircles. Here they lie very tightly, like a trill. But a little further, higher and to the right, a complex variation has arisen from them: these lines have turned into sharp peaks and merged with their perpendicular reflection. Their intersections were dramatically filled with color in order to calm the balanced rectangular structure on the right side of the canvas.

An acute angle is introduced in this fragment, and a variation of structures based on it repeatedly appears in this masterpiece, in different ensembles. You can see many interactions and novels, if you will, as well as relationships in the triangular and circular structures.

But all these are not dry geometric structures. Kandinsky characterizes them emotionally: the horizontal sounds “cold and minor”; verticals — “warm and high”; sharp corners — “warm, sharp, active and yellow”; straight lines — “cold, restrained and red.”

A completely separate topic to consider and enjoy is the art of composition, graphic composition. Kandinsky is always exquisite with it, and this is the reason why even black and white reproductions of his works are also very interesting and immersize. Here, notice how elegant the small brown square is with double short punch lines in the lower right corner. How wonderful it is here, how confidently it keeps the overall composition of the picture, opposing the heavy red-black-violet circle in the upper left corner!

Let’s pay attention to the composition of the circular elements. Of course, the most powerful and heavy of them is this red-black-violet circle in the upper left corner. But it is not just heavy and black — in the center of it is a smaller purple circle, which lightens it, adds both “air” and content: it corresponds and interacts with a circle of a similar color but a smaller size from the group in the lower right corner. By the way, reproducing this purple circle within the black one is a very difficult task in printing a reproduction of this picture; it can often just disappear… But back to the black circle at the top left — for additional relief it is surrounded by a pink-red halo, and partially supported by an orange-red circle with a yellow halo that it overlaps. Completing the balance of the composition of this area is a light yellow circle with a blue glow, located on the left, almost at the bottom of the picture.

This group of circular elements on the left, in turn, is perfectly balanced with a similar group on the right, resembling the constellation of Orion: a subgroup of four circles at the top right, a blue circle below it and two circles at the bottom right, purple and green, combined with a yellow triangle and a brown square. One can even see the displaced Orion belt of three complex circular elements in the center of the right side.

Another elegant element of the composition: the lower right violet circle is intersected by an upward sloping line, which uniquely connects it to the rightmost semicircle from the group of four semicircles which I mentioned above. The intersecting horizontal line again responds with a decaying trill, by repeating it below, also strung on this ascending line. These two horizontal lines are reflected, like in a mirror, in the vertical line located not along the geometric, but the compositional center of the picture, and the two lines are noticeably closer. What does this mean? This could happen if this construction does not lie in a two-dimensional plane, if all these elements are located in three-dimensional space, in volume, i.e. this pair of lines is simply farther, deeper than their partner to the right of the mirror line.

Here I also wanted to note that the colors of the elements I write about may not exactly match the colors of the original of “Composition VIII”.  I don’t have it right in front of me, I designate them based on the colors of its reproductions, but they are inaccurate and obviously differ from case to case.

What I wrote about can be expanded on; many complex relationships between different, heterogeneous, or similar elements can be recognized. “The principle of counterpoint” allows you to see and realize a lot of connections and interactions. There are many of things here…

Besides the graphic composition, its color schemes are also form an object of musical enjoyment on their own.

Although everyone sees the picture in their own way, it internally manifests differently for everyone, based on their experiences, preferences, and knowledge, as well as their emotional and hormonal prints of their history and experience. What I wrote is because it is visible to everyone, there is not a single invented element. By the way, the situation with music is quite similar: in concert halls everyone hears the same sounds, but then how they understand, analyze and interpret what they hear is already the internal work of each listener or spectator.

W. Kandinsky. Improvisation 27 (Garden of Love II). Oil on canvas. 1912.


Is the analogy mentioned above between the perception of Kandinsky’s paintings and music accidental? Here’s something that once happened to me. I’m stand in front of a picture of Kandinsky “Improvisation 27” (“Garden of Love II,” 1912) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The work is remarkably complex and very informative. I enjoy traveling through its structures. Here comes a group of spectators led by a female guide who begins to talk about this picture. And in the course of her narrative she asks:

    — With which composer’s music would you compare this picture? Bach?
The audience is silent.

    — Haydn?

The audience is again in obvious confusion, silent, and the guide is disappointed with such passivity. I can’t stand it and say:

   — Mahler!

The guide’s face lights up!

   — Yes, yes, look, it really is!

Here’s the paradox: I have never seen this woman in my life, I didn’t know her before and will never see her again, and she won’t see me again, but the association, the “decryption” completely coincided for us!

Kandinsky’s masterpieces, and especially his abstract works, are extremely musical. What do I mean? When we listen to music, it very rarely realistically reproduces the familiar sounds of everyday life, the cries of animals, birdsong, or the creaking of a door. Music is rarely “figurative” in the pictorial sense; its main part is analogous to “abstract” painting. And, like abstract painting, the elements that combine into structures – such as notes combining into chords and musical content, the musical thoughts perceived by the listener are fundamentally individual. However, there are abundant — we won’t say “objective” but instead “shared by many” — evaluations of both composers and performers. Paradoxical, but a fact!

And nevertheless, the music is very rich, complex, and meaningful from the interaction of its constituent tones, chords, their organization in ensembles, and the temporary development and evolution of these structures.

Kandinsky throughout his life associated himself with music, playing the cello and harmonium. G. Münter painted his portrait at the latter. In the book “Steps” he writes about his vivid musical impressions, and in the book “Point and Line on the Plane”, he gives a fragment of notes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. This fragment illustrates the similarities between the melody and the line, between the point and the sound. His works also often mention Wagner, Debussy, Mussorgsky.

Kandinsky writes that the picture must first be examined closely, and then the eyes should relax and allow the sight to penetrate into the part of the mind that responds to music.

Kandinsky was very interested in the synergy of music and light in A.N. Scriabin’s symphonic poem “Prometheus.” The score’s well-known “Luce” line describes the part of light accompanying musical performance.

Kandinsky was personally familiar and intensively communicated with A. Schoenberg, actively corresponding for many years. Schoenberg was also interested in the connection between music and painting. In addition to composing music, he also painted. The counterpoint of visual and audio perception was discussed in Kandinsky’s correspondence with P. Klee and M.K. Čiurlionis. Interest in their synergy was the reason for Kandinsky’s communication with another pioneer in this field — V.D. Baranov-Rossine, who invented and constructed the light-musical instrument the optophone.*

What do I associate with the name Kandinsky? First of all, the invention of abstract painting. In his works, he realized the complexity, the development of communication, and ultimately a break, between figurativeness and picturesqueness in art. He clearly demonstrated the intrinsic value of the purely pictorial, abstract component of the picture.

His second most important contribution to world culture was the development of a theory on how to view a painting. This theory includes a description of its alphabet, mechanisms, various interactions, and harmonies and dissonances of the basic elements of the picture.

Kandinsky, being very sensitive to the perception of music, demonstrated the close connection, interpenetration and mutual influence of painting and music. It is interesting that he based this connection not on physiological, personalized relation, but on a higher, more substantial level of synergy, on the “principle of counterpoint” of musical and pictorial content. Moreover, his “Yellow Sound” is an illustration of the “counterpoint principle” of music and theatrical performance.

Kandinsky is a wonderful artist and musician …


The author is indebted to Deanna Martynenko for her valuable help in the translation of this text.


* Kandinsky realized his idea about the musical perception of color in the play “The Yellow Sound” (Der Gelbe Klang), with music composed by his friend T. Hartman. Here is a version of its staging.

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