1913; Oil on canvas, 145 x 119.7cm (57 x 47 in); National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. 1978.48.1 (2725)
Neither Marc nor Macke were abstract painters. It was Kandinsky who found that the ``interior necessity'', which alone could inspire true art, was forcing him to leave behind the representational image. He was a Russian who had first trained as a lawyer. He was a brilliant and persuasive man. Then, when already in his thirties, he decided to go to Munich in 1897 to study art. By the time Der Blaue Reiter was established, he was already ``abstracting'' from the image, using it as a creative springboard for his pioneering art. Seeing a painting of his own, lying on its side on the easel one evening, he had been struck by its beauty, a beauty beyond what he saw when he set it upright. It was the liberated color, the formal independence, that so entranced him.
Kandinsky, a determined and sensitive man, was a good prophet to receive this vision. He preached it by word and by example, and even those who were suspicious of this new freedom were frequently convinced by his paintings. Improvisation 31 has a less generalized title, Sea Battle, and by taking this hint we can indeed see how he has used the image of two tall ships shooting cannonballs at each other, and abstracted these specifics down into the glorious commotion of the picture. Though it does not show a sea battle, it makes us experience one, with its confusion, courage, excitement, and furious motion.
Kandinsky says all this mainly with the color, which bounces and balloons over the center of the picture, roughly curtailed at the upper corners, and ominously smudged at the bottom right. There are also smears, whether of paint or of blood. The action is held tightly within two strong ascending diagonals, creating a central triangle that rises ever higher. This rising accent gives a heroic feel to the violence.
These free, wild raptures are not the only form abstraction can take, and in his later, sadder years, Kandinsky became much more severely constrained, all trace of his original inspiration lost in magnificent patternings. Accent in Pink (1926; 101 x 81 cm (39 1/2 x 31 3/4 in)) exists solely as an object in its own right: the ``pink'' and the ``accent'' are purely visual. The only meaning to be found lies in what the experience of the pictures provides, and that demands prolonged contemplation. What some find hard about abstract art is the very demanding, time-consuming labour that is implicitly required. Yet if we do not look long and with an open heart, we shall see nothing but superior wallpaper.