PRINT February 1967

Kandinsky’s Paintings on Glass

AN OPPURTUNITY TO RE-EXAMINE THE ORIGIN and meaning of Vasily Kandinsky’s pioneering excursions into abstract painting is offered by the Guggenheim Museum’s presentation of a little-known but preciously beautiful aspect of Kandinsky’s work—the paintings on glass, “hinterglasmalerei.” Primarily from 1910-1913, the later part of the Munich period, these small jewel like works reveal an unemphasized aspect of Kandinsky’s personality and art—his fascination with a universal religious symbolism.

All of the known glass paintings (with the exception of the nine works in Moscow and Leningrad) including the four from the collection of the artist’s widow and the vast holdings of the Stadtische Galerie in Munich,1 are exhibited in this country for the first time. Also included in the exhibition are the Bavarian “hinterglasmalerei” from Kandinsky’s own collection, and samples of his paintings, prints, and watercolors which relate to the works on glass. The director of the Stadtische Galerie, Dr. Hans Konrad Rothel, selected the exhibition and wrote the comprehensive catalog.

Kandinsky’s interest in glass painting was stimulated by his contact during the summer of 1909 with the few families in the small Bavarian village of Murnau who continued to practice the 18th-century tradition of painting their favorite saints or religious scenes on glass.2 Like his contemporaries, Picasso and Kirchner, Kandinsky had an affinity for the “primitivistic” qualities of folk art.3 His works on glass, especially the ones of 1910 and 1911, share with the Bavarian “hinterglasmalerei” the use of bright colors, flat patterns, and an attempt at a naive mode of expression. Santa Francisca, for example, is very closely related, even in composition, to a Tyrolean painting on glass that Kandinsky owned. St. Vladimir, a depiction of one of the patron saints of Russia, on the other hand, shows a striking resemblance both in motif and composition to a Russian icon. In all of his paintings in this medium, Kandinsky learned from the Bavarian craftsmen to apply details first and then, after backing them with flat colors, to finish with a final coating, often of silver or quicksilver. Since the painted side would be turned away from the spectator, the composition, like a print, had to be executed in reverse.

Equating naturalism in painting with materialism in thinking, Kandinsky regarded folk painting, the drawings of children, African and Oceanic wood carvings, and Gothic sculpture and prints as one alternative to the conventional academicism of his age. A certain element of Rousseauian thinking and Pan-Slavonic mysticism is evident in his view of the “primitives” as “pure,” uninfected with the practical and the expedient to which he believed the official schools of art had succumbed. In Concerning The Spiritual In Art, published early in 1912, Kandinsky explained his attraction to “the work of primitives” as arising out of a “similarity of inner direction,” adding that the logical consequence of “a similarity of inner mood between one period and another [would] be a revival of the external forms which served to express those insights in an earlier age.”4 But he maintained: “The primitive phase through which we are passing in its present derivative form must be short lived.”5 Believing that each period of culture produced an “art of its own, which cannot be repeated,”6 Kandinsky could not be completely satisfied with his glass paintings. Envisioning abstraction as the art form of the future, he painted few works on glass after 1913.7 He treasured them, nonetheless, surrounding his studio both in Munich and in Murnau with his works on glass, and those of the Bavarians.

Kandinsky’s interest in glass painting coincides with his struggle to develop an abstract approach to painting. As a believer in an absolute, in a universal cosmic force underlying the world of appearance, Kandinsky wished to veil the external, material aspect of form. Equating abstraction with an almost messianic concept of “spirituality,” he did not feel, however, that the world was ready for paintings of pure color and form without descriptive references until late in 1913. In his autobiography, he warned that “the erasure of an object in art makes very great demands on the inner experience of the purely painterly form.” “Therefore,” he concluded, “an evolution of the observer in this direction is absolutely necessary and can in no way be avoided.”8 To provide a key to the spectator and to prevent meaningless decoration, Kandinsky advocated balancing abstract forms with tangible ones, “emerging unnoticed from the canvas and meant for the soul rather than the eye.”9 Encouraged in this development by the esthetic theories of the Symbolist dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, Kandinsky believed that objects, like words, when stripped of their obvious connection with external reality, could be evocative without being directly associative. Most of Kandinsky’s works through 1914, including ones previously considered to be “abstract,” are based on this principle. Significantly, the glass paintings form not only a structural but an iconographic link with many of them.

Kandinsky’s progression can be clearly seen in the glass paintings themselves. In the All Saints Day series, the religious motifs the angel with trumpet, the crucified Christ, the bird of paradise, the ascension of Elijah, the Kremlin-like architecture—are easily identified. In the Large Resurrection many of these motifs—are simplified into black outlines but are still recognizable. In the glass painting, Last Judgement, of 1912, however, the black curving lines of the upper left hand corner could be hardly under stood as an angel without comparing them to the forms in All Saints Day II. In many of the oil paintings, these same motifs are almost totally veiled by color and ambiguous shapes. To identify the symbolism in Study For Composition 7, one of the major works of the pre World War I years, the glass paintings must be used as a reference point. Without juxtaposing the Study to its twin in formal arrangement—the glass work, Last Judgement, the three blue lines over the orange oval in the upper right could not be recognized as Elijah in his chariot, the red and green curving lines in the upper left could not be identified as the Last Judgement angel, and the maroon and orange outlined shapes in the middle could not be specified as the crumbling towers of the Kremlin-like walled city. An entire range of apocalyptic imagery can be found in most of the other oil paintings with the works on glass providing the key.

Often, contrasting religious symbols are presented together in one painting. The work on glass, Fantastic Bird And Black Panther, and two oil paintings, Study For Composition II, (1910), and Little Pleasures, (1913), both in the Guggenheim collection, reveal a clear portrayal of opposing forces. The same dichotomy is distinctly presented in the glass painting, Small Pleasures. Color in addition to symbolic motifs is used to suggest this opposition. On the right side, dominated by dark colors and black, the figurative motifs are ones traditionally associated with the theme of the Deluge: waves, a whale, three figures in a boat, a black cloud hovering over a walled city. On the left where lighter pastel colors predominate, a large blue sun (blue was a symbol of “spirituality” for Kandinsky) fills the upper corner. In the lower right a couple stands at an angle, and in the middle three horsemen ride toward the sun. The entire scheme becomes much more subtle in the oil. The color oppositions are less direct than in the glass painting and the motifs are much more veiled. Nonetheless, the retention of the composition and all the motifs in the oil painting force one to the obvious conclusion that a “message,” a “symbolic content,” is meant.

Influenced by the Theosophicalideas of Rudolf Steiner and Mme. Blavatsky, Kandinsky viewed the 20th century as the beginning of a great epoch of spiritual life for mankind. In the belief that he could advance this development through a revolution in the arts, he established with Franz Marc the Blaue Reiter group in 1911 hoping to create through their work a suitable symbol for the “coming spiritual religion.”10 Fundamental to the Theosophical notion of a new epoch was its emergence out of chaos and catastrophe. Not only does Kandinsky attest to this belief in his essays, writing “out of the most effective destruction sounds a living praise, like a hymn to the new creation, which follows the destruction,”11 but in a certain sense his paintings such as Little Pleasures and Composition II with their division into darker and lighter sides, their contrast of elements from the Deluge and Last Judgement with motifs from the Resurrection and Paradise, suggest an almost literal application of this idea. The long standing cult of “non-objectivity” and its insistence on neither object nor subject matter has tended to obscure the religious motivation behind Kandinsky’s early incursions into abstract painting. The existence of the glass paintings makes it impossible for us to ignore these implications any longer.

Rose-Carol Washton


1. In 1957 the Stadtische Galerie received a major portion of Kandinsky’s work of the pre-World War I period from his former pupil and companion, Gabriele Munter, with whom Kandinsky had left almost his entire oeuvre when he was forced to leave Germany at the outbreak of World War I.

2. Gabriele Munter was the first of Kandinsky’s group to experiment with the Bavarian technique of painting on glass. Her charming renditions have recently been exhibited in New York at the Leonard Hutton Galleries.

3. Kandinsky traces his interest in folk art hack to his student days in Russia when he made an ethnological expedition to the Vologda provinces.

4. Vasily Kandinsky, Concerning The Spiritual In Art, New York, Witlenhorn, Schultz, Inc., 1947, p. 23.

5. Ibid., p. 24.

6. Ibid., p. 23.

7. Kandinsky did nine glass paintings upon his return to Russia in 1917.

8. Vasily Kandinsky, “Ruckblicke,” Kandinsky 1901-1913, Berlin, Der Sturm, 1913, p. XXVI.

9. Kandinsky, Concerning The Spiritual In Art, p. 73.

10. Franz Marc, “Die wilden Deutschlands,” Der Blaue Reiter Almanach, Munich, R. Piper & Co., 1912, p. 7. Eberhard Roter has pointed out that the image of the horse and rider adorning the cover of the Blaue Reiter Almanach and meant as a herald of the art which would “shape the future,” was drawn from Kandinsky’s own glass painting of St. George and the Bavarian version of St. Martin in Kandinsky’s collection. See “Wassily Kandinsky and die Gestalt des Rlauen Reiters” in Jahrb. D. Berliner Museen, V., 1963, pp. 201-226.

11. Vasily Kandinsky, “Notizen Komposition 6,” Kandinsky 1901-1913, Berlin, Der Sturm, 1913. p. XXXVIII.