The Color of Sound: The Art of Wassily Kandinksy

Pioneer abstract artist, Wassily Kandinsky (1866 – 1944)

The pioneer Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) dedicated nineteen years of his life to ten paintings which he titled Compositions I through X. These works were executed between 1910 and 1939, and for him, each of them was a canvas to connect colors and forms with music. I highlight three works below to provide a glimpse of the mind of a modern master.

Composition VII, 1913, oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Kandinsky believed that the “inner sound” of the picture was crucial to its success and the key to its understanding. His attempt to pictorially express the sound of colors can be seen in Composition VII (1913) where Kandinsky used overlapping imagery, motifs and color to create a work with an incredibly complex rhythmic structure resonant of the dissonant music of his friend, the Austrian expressionist composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951).

Between 1915 to 1921, Kandinsky distanced from the expressionistic elements of his prewar Compositions toward a cooler, more geometric, abstract idiom. This is evident in his 1923 work, Composition VIII which is characterized by a balanced arrangements of geometric forms in dynamic relationships, giving greater room for forms, and not just color to express their musicality.


Composition VIII, 1923, oil on canvas, 140.3 x 200.7 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection.

Composition X, painted between December 1938 and January 1939, completes the series. Here, we see Kandinsky experimenting with a new vocabulary of free forms and positive-negative relationships, while returning to the emotional intensity of his earlier works.


Composition X, 1939, oil on canvas, 130 x 195 cm, Dusseldorf. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.

In this large canvas, multicolored forms, which recall Russian folk-art paper cut-outs, interact dynamically while floating in an infinite space. The painting’s striking black background lends special brilliance to the colors and makes both form and colors vibrate. Although Kandinsky disliked black, characterizing it as the “inner sound of nothingness,” he used it to create a mood and to provide a relief for the colors and forms placed against it. Composition X was Kandinsky’s last major artistic statement, and is a work that embodied his pictorial and spiritual ambitions of the time, while bringing his creative life full circle.

Video: What is the Color of Sound?

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