Art as an Emotive Experience

Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian painter and art theorist. However, he initially was educated to become a teacher of law, ethnography and economics. He studied these subjects at the University of Moscow and taught for a few years before going to art school. He was one of the first people to experiment with abstract art and was influenced by the works of Monet and other impressionist painters. He studied art in both Russia and Munich, eventually developing a unique style. As Kandinsky worked through his style and further developed his art, he developed a theory of art. Some of this theory is expressed in “On the Spiritual in Art” where he discusses the difficulty in expressing emotion and feeling in art. He writes that some ‘pure’ artists are able to put spirituality in their art and communicate feelings through their art. To Kandinsky, this is the ultimate goal of art, it should be able to “intensify the observer’s sentimental mood and purify it”. He writes that the observer should recognize this as the meaning of art and devote significant time to the study of art and not browse through paintings casually, remarking on them as being ‘nice’ or ‘splendid’ ((Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, 1946)).

Kandinsky’s influence on art was widespread, becoming one of the inspirations behind the field of Abstract Expressionism. He influenced many later artists, such as Jackson Pollack, with his theories on the expressive qualities of art, and how it should impact the viewer through all of the senses.

Early Kandinsky, The Blue Rider

Early Kandinsky, The Blue Rider, 1903.

Later Kandinsky, Composition 6, 1913.

Later Kandinsky, Composition 6, 1913.

Kandinsky introduced a new way of looking at art, how did this impact the middle class? Did this make the general populace more appreciative of art? Or did the introduction of abstract art distance the general public from art?

Progress Rooted in Past Art

"Peasants Dancing" Goncharova (1911)

“Peasants Dancing” Goncharova (1911)

The end of the nineteenth century ushered in new movements in Russian poetry, art, dance, and music, which continued to grow throughout the early twentieth century. The movement sought to unify all forms of art and promoted collaboration amongst artists. Companies such as the Ballets Russes merged artists of all disciplines, from painters to musicians, in their shows. As this new wave of Russian art progressed, the past was often rejected in favor of a belief in progress through the unification of the Russian people. Though the past was often rejected, once the Russian Socialist Revolution occurred, Bolshevik politicians such as Lenin and Lunacharskii failed to recognize the value of the past in the proletariat movement.

In The Proletariat and Art, Alexander Bogdanov stated the important role of art in the organization and unification of a strong proletariat. (( However, he argued that the proletariat should critique past art rather than reject it in its entirety. Instead, traditional Russian art provided an opportunity for the working class to find new interpretations of the artworks in order to learn from it through a proletarian lens. According to Bogdanov, if the proletariat could find new meaning in these pieces of art to advance their own agenda of unity and collectivization, then past artwork would work as a tool to strengthen the proletariat. Further, critiquing traditional artwork would allow the proletariat to understand the past and ensure that it would not repeat itself.

In contrast to Bogdanov’s work, Lenin and Lunacharskii completely rejected artworks and effigies of the Tsarist regime in The Monuments Policy. (( The document maintains that the removal of monuments built under the Tsarist regime was necessary because they were of no artistic value. The statement that these monuments had no artistic value ignored Boganov’s idea that they had a potential purpose in the overall progress of the proletariat.

Elements of the past were often present in Russian art, such is in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and in Goncharova’s Primitivist paintings. (( ; These artists believed in the progress of a unified Russian society, but they used symbols of the past in their works to demonstrate its role in inciting this progress. Though the music of “Rite of Spring” employs modern techniques, it is juxtaposed with traditional tribal dancing and costumes in the ballet. Further, Goncharova’s Primitivism was a modern art technique, but it focused on artistic styles and methods of the past. Lenin and the Bolsheviks failed to recognize the importance of the past in art and in a successful proletariat society as a whole.

Kandinsky’s Push Against Materialist Culture


In the introduction to his book, “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) contradicts contemporary middle class values through a verbal assault on materialist culture, and more specifically, artwork. During this phase of his life, Kandinsky lived in pre-WWI Germany. Originally a scholar in law and economics, he only started studying art at age thirty.[1] It was likely his background in law and economics that enabled him to understand better the relationship between art and consumerism.

In this specific passage, Kandinsky targets the materialism of art that emerged with the rise of the middle class, towards the end of the nineteenth century. According to Kandinsky, this recent trend “oppressed and dominated the human soul” and disabled an individual’s ability to experience subtle emotions.[2] Moreover, Kandinsky bemoaned the remarks that individuals said regarding the art, such as “nice” or “splendid.” This contradicted the middle class value that images of beauty should be simple and to the point. Moreover, it pushed back, in a way, against free market capitalism in the sense that goods should be judged especially on their quality, and not on their quantity. To remedy this problem, Kandinsky argued that spirituality and subtlety should be placed back into art, or else it will not be remembered even into the next generation.

As the paintings in the links to images below indicate, Kandinsky did not paint pieces that would likely be placed above a fireplace. He painted artwork that made an individual think, even about the most subtle of ideas.,+Red,+Blue.jpg


[1] “Wassily Kandinsky.” Wikipedia. Accessed March 16, 2015.

[2] Kandinsky, Wassily. “On the Spiritual in Art : First Complete English Translation, with Four Full Colour Page Reproductions, Woodcuts and Half Tones.” On the Spiritual in Art : First Complete English Translation, with Four Full Colour Page Reproductions, Woodcuts and Half Tones. Accessed March 16, 2015.

Ivan Kramskoy: Life and Works

Ivan Kramskoy was born in 1837 in Ostrogozhsk, Voronezh Governorate, in the Russian Empire. He was born to a lower class family and did not begin painting until he was fifteen. At fifteen, he became an apprentice to a painter. In 1857, after he discovered his love for art, he got the opportunity to study at the Academy of Arts, in St. Petersburg. In 1863, Kramskoy went to St. Petersburg to be a part of the Team of Artists. This was a group that lived together and shared their works with one another. During his time in this household, he also taught at the School of the Society for Promoting of the Artists.

Kramskoy was famous for his portraits and often got commissioned for them. Russian society felt that his portraits captured the Russian history and culture of that time. After Kramskoy traveled around Europe, he created the Itinerants’ Society of Traveling Exhibitions. Kramskoy’s purpose of this society was to educate Russians with contemporary art, culminate a love for art in Russian society, and stimulate the economy for artists. One of Kramskoy’s most famous works is Christ in the Wilderness. He painted this masterpiece in 1872. The clarity of Kramskoy’s portraits brings realism to the subject, shedding light on Russian society. Kramskoy died at the easel in 1887.



1863,  Sophia Kramskaya Reading



1872,  Christ in the Wilderness


Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962) was born in Nagaevo, Russia.  Her great-grandfather was the famous poet Aleksandr Pushkin.  She enrolled in the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.  She and her lifelong partner, fellow painter Mikhail Larionov, helped found the Russian avant-garde movement.    Goncharova was best known for Primitivism, but she also painted in the Cubist, Cubo-Futurist, and Rayist styles.  Aside from painting, Goncharova also designed sets and illustrated books.  She finally married Larionov in 1955.  She died in Paris.

Painting “Electric Lamps” by Natalia Goncharova.

“The Avant- Garde” by Suzanne Massie

Arkhip Kuindzhi


Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi was born in January 1841 in Mariupol, which is now Ukraine, to a Greek shoemaker. Arkhip grew up in the city of Taganrog. When he was six, he was orphaned and raised cattle and worked construction to make a living. From 1860 to 1865 he worked in a photo studio and later attempted to own a studio himself, but this plan failed. So Arkhip moved to Saint Petersburg and began studying painting on his own until he joined the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1868. He also formed a realist artist group called Peredvizhniki, which later became known as the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions. Arkhip left the academy in 1872 to pursue a freelance career and was featured in several art galleries in Russia. He received the bronze medal at the 1874 International Art Exhibition in London. During this time frame he also focused his art on landscapes and panoramas. He experimented with color and illuminating nature as he matured as an artist and later lectured at the same academy he once attended. From 1892 to 1897, he was a professor at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and was fired for supporting student protests. Some of his students include Arkady Rylov Nicholas Roerich and Konstantin Bogaevsky. Arkhip founded an artists group called the Society of Artists in 1909 but it was renamed for him after his death in July 1910.


Arkhip Kuindzhi

Arkhip Kuindzhi