Here are two paintings from different stages in the career of Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the Russian-born painter considered a pioneer of abstract art. He is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Most striking about the paintings, when juxtaposed, is the difference in the quality of mimesis. The viewer can see, in the later painting, Kandinsky’s imminent departure from an aesthetic that prized representation over abstraction. But maybe of more significance is the recurrence of the horse as a subject and a symbol – in other words, Kandinsky’s thematic consistency as opposed to his changing aesthetic. Notice how the blue wings on the horse in ‘Lyrical’ recall the blue cloak of the rider in ‘Der Blaue Reiter,’ and how the momentum of the horses in both paintings suggests urgency and purpose.
In ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art,’ his treatise on form and color, Kandinsky associated the color blue with interiority and spiritual longing, describing it as “the typical heavenly color” and as possessing the “power of profound meaning.” In this sense – that his conception of symbolic values tended toward the absolute – the shifts in Kandinsky’s aesthetic were secondary to the constancy of his vision; they were manifestations of a restlessness that was technical rather than essential.