The Kandinsky exhibition at Tate Modern until 1 October is subtitled ‘The Path to Abstraction’. As he stripped his work down, Kandinsky believed he was removing obstacles on the way to deeper experience. To look for goals beyond those defined by his Fauvish landscapes of the early 1900s was as much an intellectual decision as an aesthetic one. A new sensibility that communicated emotions and spiritual truths through form and colour alone would take the place of narrative content. Theosophy, folk art and folk traditions, children’s paintings and a specifically Russian take on the renewal of society, which had its roots in political as well as religious ideas, would all contribute to it.

Kandinsky believed that colour had its own language, and his intense and precise responses to colour suggest a degree of synaesthesia. Francis Galton, describing the phenomenon in 1883, writes that ‘they are never satisfied, for instance, with saying “blue”, but will take a great deal of trouble to express or to match the particular blue they mean’ but he also says that ‘no two people agree, or hardly ever do so, as to the colour they associate with the same sound.’ It seems possible that Kandinsky’s belief in a language of the spirit, spoken in colour, was a reflection, even a misunderstanding, of a personal ability.

On the other hand, the broader notion that there are contexts in which colour and form have powers of their own was well established by the time Kandinsky decided (he was already 30) to devote his life to art. The crucial moment came in front of one of Monet’s Haystacks. Here was a picture the interest of which had nothing to do with the things it represented. Following that insight he took a zig-zag path that kept him in touch both with his Russian origins (and what he believed was an identifiable Russian spirituality) and the Modernism of the Western capitals of art. This mix of primitive and traditional sources and modern theory found fertile ground in Germany when, in 1896, he turned down a university job (he had written a PhD dissertation on the legality of labourers’ wages) and went to Munich to study art.

There, in 1902, he met Gabriele Münter, 11 years younger than him, first his student, later his mistress. His best work dates from the years when he and Münter lived and worked together. When the outbreak of the First World War forced his return to Russia he had already painted totally abstract pictures. In 1911 he and Franz Marc had founded a group of avant-garde artists, Der Blaue Reiter. The ‘almanac’ they published in May 1912 reproduced tribal art, peasant art and children’s drawings as well as work by Delaunay, Rousseau and Van Gogh. Kandinsky contributed articles. Münter kept his pictures from this period, despite legal attempts to wrest them from her, even after his return to Germany in 1921 (from 1922 he taught at the Bauhaus). The catalogue emphasises the importance of the connection without making it clear where her influence can be seen.* It has been suggested that her sequestration of his early work cut him off from his own roots.

Few Modernists were as influenced as he was by the look and subject-matter of illustrations and illustration-like images. Everything from modern Russian fairytale illustrations, traditional prints and Bavarian glass paintings to religious icons provides comparisons with, if not necessarily sources for, the riders, Cossacks, onion domes and angels which appear (attenuated and transformed) even in near-abstracts. In the early 1900s he painted a number of illustration-like pictures in gouache on dark grounds in which the blobs of bright colour, which describe figures and objects, cut away the background to leave woodcut-like lines. In the small landscapes of Murnau (where Münter had a house) similar black outlines separate areas of bright colour; blue and black shadows contrast with bright, often yellow walls. The colour effects are both intense and thunderous.

In the pictures he called ‘improvisations’, too, patches of colour are bordered with black. Although less clearly houses, trees, mountains or clouds, the elements are pretty legible. In Composition IV (in the catalogue but not exhibited), figures, buildings and a rainbow occupy outlined areas like provinces on a map. A study for this painting, drawn with a brush in Indian ink, shows how the black lines grew from confident but delicate calligraphic marks. In Black Spot I of 1912 you can still have a shot at identifying elements, but you can’t be certain that this is a scene with a top and a bottom. In Painting with White Form of 1913 the black lines are more likely to have lives of their own. As you follow these changes you come to realise how eagerly the eye searches for structure – top/bottom, near/far, object/ground. Horizontal and vertical have their place too. The 1916 painting Moscow, Red Square is packed with recognisable things – birds, buildings, onion domes and so on – but the elements shoot out centrifugally and the eye scrambles round the canvas looking for a place to stop and then to go on from.

It may be that even Kandinsky found the scramble exhausting. His work from the 1920s and later, which lies outside the timeline of this exhibition, is entirely abstract, more firmly geometrical (lots of circles, many concentric, and triangles) and altogether tidier. It has little of the whizzy, inventive shape-making, the banded and graded fans of colour, the very possible but not certain representations of people, boats, mountains, sunsets and water which make the improvisations seem like notes from a planet which is not our own but not entirely alien either.

In those pictures the juxtapositions of colour are so multitudinous that whole schools of abstract painting could be derived from fragments of them. A picture like Improvisation 35 demands a serious expenditure of time: serious at any rate in terms of the very few minutes even conscientious lookers usually give individual pictures. It is one of the paintings Bruno Haas sets about explicating in his catalogue essay. His analysis is precise but opaque: ‘If we let our gaze follow the yellow border that bounds the field to the upper left, we soon discover a pink glow that emerges between the yellow and the green, which appears to be a strange colour, albeit in a very different way from the vermilion.’ This quality of strangeness is defined obliquely: ‘It is difficult to describe the effects of colour accurately; let it suffice to say that the vermilion looks strange beside the yellow-violet border for it is a colour of an entirely different nature and source.’ It is quite possible that such investigations of effect take him close to the experience Kandinsky wished the picture to have. But even non-synaesthetic viewers may have personal responses to colours. Kandinsky’s gift to us was an art which dazzles the brain, subverting the mental structures we normally use to interpret the physical world. But he failed to demonstrate the possibility of a language of form and colour which reliably tells us more than any butterfly’s wing can – that coloured patterns are wonderfully pleasing – or shows us more than we already know from caricature, that fewer lines can be stronger than many.

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