Abstraction of end-time spheres – Wassily Kandinsky's Apocalypse

An Essay by Jule Zeitnitz

Apocalypse, abstract painting and the early 20th century
At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was facing a unique situation, reflected in the interests and worldview of the population. New technical and scientific developments such as radio waves and x-rays, as well as the emerging Theosophy Movement, characterized this period. The First World War brought with it an unprecedented level of devastation. Not necessarily in the number of casualties, as the plague had left its mark in European memory, but in the extend of the threat of total destruction in relatively short time due to newly developed war techniques. The use of poison gas for example expanded the apocalyptic image catalogue.

Art is and has always been one of the most valuable sources for approaching the inner world; the values, contemporary dreams, desires and concerns of societies. Despite the great influence of the performing arts and literature, the focus of this essay will be on the visual arts, primarily painting.

Styles such as Impressionism are an expression of the desire to bring a more subjective perception to the canvas. Expressionism went one step further and aimed to bring this subjective perception, combined with inner, personal and emotional processes, to the outside world. Abstraction presents another step towards detachment from the material, mimetically reproduced world, opening up new spheres that had previously not been visible in this way. In the early 20th century, both new worlds and new catastrophic scenarios were opening up. To what extent did the inner world of European artists, formed by these circumstances, of manifest itself in painting? One possible answer to this lies in the various works of art with sometimes more, sometimes less explicit apocalyptic pictorial themes. Due to the increasingly subjective possibilities of representation, there were no longer any formal limits as to what the end times should look like and abstraction in particular paved the way for a multi-layered contemplation of the apocalypse.

One of the most famous representatives not only of abstraction and early 20th century painting in general, but also of the artistic representation of eschatology, is Wassily Kandinsky. He can serve as a prime example for the artistic processing of such themes, as he not only created visual art, but also left behind a large number of writings and publications in which he explored his understanding of abstraction, space, time and eschatological ideas.

Wassily Kandinsky's apocalyptic painting of dissolved dimensions

In this essay, I would like to argue that Kandinsky found a deeply personal approach to apocalyptic representations in his progressive development of an abstract painting style, breaking away from the physical and temporal boundaries of the material world and the painting that imitated it. Works of art that deal with the apocalypse have always existed, but the aim here is to show that Kandinsky created his own, innovative iconography for his version of it, in which he worked with the dissolution of spatial and temporal dimensions.
The research of Professor Rose-Carol Washton Long is fundamental to the thesis, above all her publication „Kandinsky's Abstract Style: The Veiling of Apocalyptic Folk Imagery“, dated 1975, as well as Professor Juliet Simpson‘s lecture „Time Beyond Time: Revelatory Worlds - Imagining the Eschaton in Object, Image and Word, 1919-1933“ as part of the 2023 lecture series „Apocalyptic Space and Time“ organized by the Käte Hamburger Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies (CAPAS). Finally, the aforementioned publications by Kandinsky himself not only provide a generous insight into the artist's theories, his engagement with apocalyptic themes and his artistic and ideological ideas, but also act as a mirror of the art world and society of the early 20th century.


The circumstances, prerequisites and creation

The world of the early 20th century
It is no exaggeration to say that reality was shaken at the beginning of the 20th century (Friedel et al. 2017). X-rays, radio waves and Einstein's theory of relativity called any previously irrefutable space-time assumptions into question. Nothing in the world seemed to be certain any more, at any time a new invention or discovery could throw the former generally accepted knowledge overboard, at any time a new conflict or widespread war could disrupt the structure of an entire continent. An all-encompassing end of the world as we had known therefore no longer seemed like a terrifying vision to help us to live a God-fearing life, but all too realistic.

Looking ahead
In such circumstances, we naturally look towards the future and the now completely new, unexplored spheres that seemed to be on the horizon. The Theosophy Movement, led in Germany by Rudolf Steiner (although it is worthwhile noting that the movement and the person are subject to criticism of racism and occultism) devoted itself to those spheres and higher powers that now no longer seemed to be completely out of thin air. Parts of the art world in particular were absorbed into this movement. A popular example for an artist greatly influenced by Theosophy is Hilma af Klint, who was steadfast in her believe in ten mystical entities guiding her brush when she painted. Due to the thematical proximity of theosophical teachings and the apocalypse, it is plausible that artistic interest then turned to apocalyptic visions.

Looking back
In the face of an uncertain future, however, people's view not only turned to the future but also to the past, to the known, the familiar. Wassily Kandinsky had always been inspired by Russian folk art, especially so-called lubki popular broadsheets. His choice of motifs was also often rooted in folkloric Russian myths and fairy tales. The reason for this was not only the desire to create a sense of recognition for the viewer, but also to maintain a personal connection to his roots, to ground himself in the face of an otherwise prophetic view of the future. In addition to the fairytale-like depictions in folk aesthetics, the painter approached a subject that often has fascinated artists: the Last Judgement, the Christian apocalypse. Although Wassily Kandinsky was interested in general theosophy, he approached depictions of the Last Days primarily from a Christian perspective. The origins of the Theosophy movement were closely linked to biblical concepts of the end times as well. In 1908, Rudolph Steiner held a twelve-part series of lectures in Nuremberg entitled „The Apocalypse of John“ („Die Apokalypse des Johannes“, Steiner 1908), in which he spoke explicitly about the Revelation of John and its connection to anthroposophy and theosophy. It is known that Kandinsky actively followed these lectures. Kandinsky not only sought proximity to the eschatological motif due to his general interest, which one could say was due to the trend of the time and the art world. He also turned back to folk and popular art, which is primarily located in the past and where Christian representations have a firm place. A look both forwards and backwards can therefore be seen; a dual, parallel flow of time emerges on closer inspection.

Kandinsky‘s abstraction

The period in which Kandinsky created the majority of his apocalyptic works, 1911 to 1913 (Washton Long 1975), falls into what is called his "genius period" (Ruhrberg 2014) in academic literature. The artist made his most daring attempts to date to move further away from the representational and figurative. In 1911, he painted what he described as "the first abstract picture ever painted in our time" (Rosenberg and Hollein 2007). Today we know that this is not correct, as many other artists, such as František Kupka, have already been painting entirely abstract at this time in Europe, not to mention the countless non-European abstract-painting artists, although this does little to detract from Kandinsky's pioneering work. The goals he sought to achieve through abstraction are well documented thanks to his many notes on the subject. They tie in with his conviction of a coming and all-encompassing age for which art must prepare people. A prophetic, almost messianic tone always resonates in his writings. It was precisely this message that had to be conveyed. However, Kandinsky was concerned that his art would not be understood by viewers (Washton Long 1980). He therefore attempted to use familiar motifs in order to help the audience understand, and then simultaneously alienate these motifs again, to „veil“ them („verschleiern“, Washton Long 1980) as he called it. By that, he meant the unexpected placement of an object, its simplification and reduction as well as integration into surrounding colors and shapes, rather than a direct representation of the material world. „Emotional overtones“ („emotionale Zwischentöne“, Smithgall 2001) should emerge from the image, which is, according to Kandinsky, the only way to convey such an important message.

Kandinsky‘s apocalypse

It is important to mention that the term „Apocalypse“ has a different connotation in recent times than it had during Kandinsky's creative period. Nowadays, we associate it with the irretrievable end of the world, with death, horror, catastrophe, extinction, in short something purely negative, while what Kandinskyand many others in the art scene of that time prophecized was more ambivalent. Although the familiar world would end, the view was more Christian in character than the modern one (Meier 2023) and thus brought with it the beginning of something new in the same breath as the end of the old. The new age brought with it enlightenment, knowledge and redemption. In Kandinsky's eyes, for example, this was redemption from the material world. One of his preparations for the apocalypse was to herald this in his paintings by working in an increasingly non-figurative manner. His apocalyptic paintings are not nightmarish images of horror, as he did not consider the apocalypse something to be afraid of.

Despite all the abstraction in Kandinsky's paintings, typical motifs of the eschatological pictorial vocabulary can still be found. Motifs such as the trumpet, often blown by an angel, the walled city and the boat can be found again and again. They all allude to the Book of Revelation. The artist makes use of a classical iconographic canon of motifs. He refers to well-known past works of art in its design and placement, for example „The Fall of the Rebel Angels“ from Pieter Bruegel the Elder or the lubok "The Image of the Lord's Terrible Judgement“ (Washton Long 1975). Sometimes the motifs are more clearly recognizable, sometimes they are more altered, so that only a figurative echo remains in the picture. However, the title often provides information about the subject. Despite his aversion to materialism, the artist had not yet completely severed his connection to figurative painting at that, by Kandinsky scholars so called “time of genius". The apocalypse was not something that would only concern him personally; it was imminent for all of humanity and should therefore be communicated to the whole. The abstraction itself functioned as a “veil” that the painter threw over the eschatology. He used the image of abstraction as a veil in many of his writings as well as the verb: “to veil”. In those cases, he meant to obscure his message of the apocalypse just enough for people to understand it on a subconscious level. Thus the arrangement of line, form and color is in part determined by Kandinsky's personal ability of synesthesia, but the comprehensible communication of his inner visions and emotions regarding the coming age was always in the foreground. 

Beyond material space

Three-dimensional, material space is dissolved in Kandinsky's painting through the means of abstraction. Realistic perspective only exists to a very limited extent, and in some pictures such as "Picture with White Border", it does not exist at all. Neither color nor aerial point or central perspective, overlapping or differences in size provide information about any form of tangible space. The motifs seem to hang in the open air, even physical laws such as gravity appear to be suspended. There is hardly any plasticity or materiality to the figures and objects. There is no question that Kandinsky, who had a formal-academic training in painting and who painted in perspective and realistically in his early works, was theoretically capable of reproducing realistic painings. The dissolution of material space is about the dissolution of materialism itself, an important part of his vision for the new age.

Not only is the pictorial space formally dissolved, but the motifs themselves also elude precise spatial localization due to their different origins. This will be explained further in the example of one of the recurring motifs, St. George.

The apocalypse, or post-apocalypse, will also take place in an undefined space, for is it really still our known world if something so fundamentally unique takes place? According to Kandinsky's utopian-prophetic visions, the post-apocalypse, the future world, the new age, which has now been mentioned so often, is supposed to be an anti-material sphere and thus contrary to the otherwise prevailing concept of space. 

Beyond continuous time

In Wassily Kandinsky's works, time does not progress in a linear fashion; this is due to his work process and the different meanings and origins of the symbols and motifs used. From 1913 onwards, Kandinsky increasingly worked with a large number of sketches and drafts before he was satisfied with a painting. Time was distorted by such a long working process, as the artist repeatedly referred back to previous sketches, adopting or omitting changes from this or that design from different phases of the process. The finished painting thus ultimately consisted of a conglomerate of temporary snippets of an alinear or respectively multilinear working process.

The motifs, symbols and formal language are of biblical, and thus ancient, origin, and at the same time strongly influenced by the contemporary Theosophy movement as well as Kandinsky's synaesthesia and thus, from his point of view, by something current.

Example: St. George

In order to grasp the new conception of space and time, or rather the absence of these two components, one of the most important motifs of Kandinsky's personal iconography will be considered here as an example. The motif in question is St. George. Like the trumpets and other explicitly apocalyptic motifs, this knight refers to a biblical story. He is supposed to bring salvation by defeating a dragon, symbolizing the old world and, in Kandinsky's eyes above all, materialism. He is the patron saint of both Moscow, Kandinsky's birthplace, and Murnau, Kandinsky's adopted home in Bavaria where he spent most of the time in which  eschatological depictions predominated in his art.

Again he mixes time and space.

Spatially, the depiction evokes at least two places in different countries through the saint's affiliation with Moscow and Murnau. The connecting factor is personal, in this case the theme of home, and the reference to a coming apocalypse. But the reference also remains vague enough to create a kind of fictitious, indeterminate space in the picture. It is neither explicitly Moscow nor Murnau or even the city of Silena, where the story of the martyr George is set in the Legenda Aurea.

Time is also deformed according to a similar principle. Through formal aspects, meaning the artist painted the George motif in an abstract manner; a still quite young, avant-garde style. At the same time, however, the depiction was also inspired by folk art, which in contrast has existed for a long time already. This can be seen in several glass paintings and woodcuts, including the title page of the first almanac of the "Blauer Reiter", which shows Kandinsky's typical depiction of the knight. This style is therefore both new and old at the same time, in addition to the even older biblical, meaning temporally distant location of the motif.




Wassily Kandinsky was not someone who shunned social and intellectual exchange, as can be seen from his intensive involvement in artists' groups (primarily Blauer Reiter and later Bauhaus) and extensive network of artists, authors and philosophers, as well as from his sometimes almost prophetic publications such as "On the Spiritual in Art", dated to 1912. He was therefore very much involved in the art world's generally prevailing interest in apocalyptic themes, in the „shared vision of apocalypse“ (Simpson 2023). And yet, despite all the mutual, sometimes conscious, sometimes subconscious influence and inspiration, Kandinsky's eschatological art remains highly personal; for example, his motifs are influenced by his own biography or go along with his unique abilities and imagination.

From the moment reality, the material world, which is generally recognized and shared, dissolves - one is moving into the realm of the subjective. By blurring space and time, Kandinsky is heading towards this precisely.

The artist creates apocalyptic images that exist beyond space and time through the fusion of symbols, motifs and working processes, personal and contemporary historical influences and the use of abstraction as the predominant painting style.


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Pieter Brügel the Elder, Fall of the Rebel Angel, 1562, Oil on Wood, 117 x 162 cm, Musée d'Art Ancien, Brussels. Wikimedia Commons.

Wassily Kandinsky: Painting with white Border, 1913, Oil on canvas, 140,3 x 200,3 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Wassily Kandinsky: Improvisation Flood, 1913, Oil on canvas, 95,8 x 150,3 cm, Lenbachhaus, Munich. Wikimedia Commons.

Infobox Autorin

This essay was written as a student essay for the CAPAS lecture series of summer semester 2023 building on the lecture of CAPAS fellow Juliet Simpson. The author, Jule Zeitnitz studies European Art History and Ethnology at the University of Heidelberg. Besides that, she is interested in Film- and Media History and works at the Kurpfälzisches Museum.