Wassily Kandinsky: how a lawyer became the father of abstract art

Wassily Kandinsky is a pioneer of abstract art. He took Monet’s use of colour and light and merged it with Cezanne’s approach of form and composition to create art so disruptive that the Nazi’s thought it would corrupt the youth. Yes, the Nazi’s destroyed Kandinsky’s paintings and made him flee Germany in 1937.

But Kandinsky’s story is weird. At the age of 30, he quit as a lawyer and decided to become a painter. Before then, he hadn’t even held a paint brush in his hand!

Why did he decide to quit his flourishing legal career? What made him focus on art? And what drove him to push the boundaries of art so far that today he is known as the father of abstract art?

Listening to the colours

Kandinsky was 5 years old when he started learning how to play the piano and the cello. And instantly, he realized that he was different from other kids. Because you see, he could see colours when he played music! He had synesthesia. His brain made him perceive colours as having specific sound and emotion!

Synesthesia confused Kandinsky. He constantly thought about his place in the world. His purpose in life. Why was he different? He excelled in studies and became a lawyer. But he kept questioning why he was unique.

On his path to self-discovery, he came across a Dresden doctor that changed how he viewed himself. One of the doctor’s patients had synesthesia. Her taste signals made her experience colour. Sauce tasted blue to her. The doctor concluded that a person had to be spiritually unusually highly developed to experience taste as colour!

This gave Kandinsky so much solace! The idea that he was spiritually more advanced grabbed him. And he started on a quest to elevate his spirituality even further. 

That’s when he came across the work of an occultist.

From discovery to desperation

Kandinsky stumbled upon the ideas of Helena Blavatsky. The founder of theosophy. She posited that there exists a secret doctrine that is known to Plato and Jesus and Moses and the Hindu and Buddhist sages. It holds the key to understanding miracles and paranormal powers and the afterlife. Only someone with high spiritual awakenings could access the secrets!

Kandinsky found his link to synesthesia and spirituality in theosophy! He started believing what seems like obvious mumbo-jumbo: that the material world would soon end and only a select band of highly spiritual folks would be left behind to communicate via thought forms. 

To become one of these select folks, Kandinsky gave up his legal career and took up the paint brush! Because only the most advanced art could awaken the emotions that cannot be put in words!

He had this deep desire to become the most spiritually awakened person on earth! Which meant he had to become the most advanced artist! “Colour is power that directly influences the soul!”

Kandinsky started studying various artists and art styles! He enrolled in the Munich Academy to study art. And became quite adept. But it wasn’t until he saw a Monet painting with his own eyes that things changed for him!

Desperation to inspiration

Kandinsky got an opportunity to see Monet’s “Haystacks” painting and it gripped him! The colours were independent of the objects! It was surprising. It was confusing. And Kandinsky decided he too wanted to become that good. He started experimenting with impressionism.

But the next big step in his journey towards creating his own unique style happened accidentally. He came home one day and could not fathom one of the paintings on the wall. After staring at it for a few minutes, he realized it was his own painting. It was just hung upside down!

Kandinsky realized the power of abstraction. Of how emotions can be moved even if the painting didn’t mean anything.

The final step came when he embraced his own uniqueness. He tried to imagine what music would look like when painted. Music is abstract, yet it’s harmony can express the feelings of the soul. That was the goal: of using geometry and colours in a way that it could resonate with the soul – even if it were abstract!

“We change ourselves for one of two reasons: desperation or inspiration.” – Jim Rohn

Hunger, growth, ambition arises either from desperation or from inspiration. Those are the two ingredients that will push you to get out of your comfort zone and embrace change!

Desperation is a feeling of despair. It comes from being faced with huge challenges. It comes from feeling a hole in your heart, from feeling that something is lacking from your life. It creates urgency.

On the other hand, inspiration comes from a sense of awe and joy. It comes from looking up to what is possible. It creates excellence.

Even though he had no natural ability, and started very late in life, Kandinsky channelized both desperation and inspiration to create a new art form and become one of the greatest artists we’ve seen! 

Action Summary:

  • Focus on your sense of lacking, on the great problems in your life. Desperation is an essential fuel to drive you forward.
  • Read stories of grand achievement. That’s the greatest source of inspiration. 
An abstract Kandinsky painting