Collection Spotlight: Small Worlds III, Wassily Kandinsky

Title: Small Worlds III from the portfolio Kleine Welten (Small Worlds)

Artist: Wassily Kandinsky (French, born Russia, 1866 – 1944)

Year: 1922

Medium: Color lithograph on paper

Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 1985.136

Bringing together the wide-ranging fields of religion, music, color theory, and philosophy, the early-20th century painter and printmaker Wassily Kandinsky masterfully created some of the first purely-abstract works associated with modernism. To Kandinsky, color was not employed merely as an arbitrary means to an aesthetically pleasing end. Rather, color functioned as a primary element in the artist’s works, becoming a method of expression integral to the formal composition of his artworks. In his writings on color—of which Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) is perhaps the most insightful in terms of the artist’s view on color—Kandinsky delved deep into the sensations viewers experience when confronted with various hues. The artist conjectured that yellow produces a similar perception as hearing the middle “C” note on a trumpet, black signifies the finality of an experience, and the careful combination of colors can produce sounds that parallel musical chords. All of these theorized aspects of color are abundantly apparent in the colorfully explosive lithograph Small Worlds III (1922), part of a portfolio Kandinsky created during his time teaching at the Bauhaus in Germany.

An exciting burst of primary colors, this work is a testament to Kandinsky’s skill as both a color theorist and an abstract painter. Blues buttress up against greens, which overlap yellows and stand in opposition to greens. Concurrently, black forms mark out, highlight, and obstruct these rectangular, trapezoidal, and circular markings. Just as Kandinsky hypothesized colors have the capability to do, the viewer cannot help but feel the harshness of the crisscrossing black lines that overlay the sunny yellows, the harmony produced by the speckled permutation of blue and red in the upper-half the print, or even the joy of the confetti-esque geometric shapes that permeate the entire composition. And all of these sentiments are confined within the black expanse that surrounds this carefully constructed mishmash of shape and color providing closure to the overall work.  Small Worlds III offers a microcosm of conflicting human emotions, eliciting feelings of confusion and clarity in the very same breath.

— Contributed by Isaac Alpert (WCAS, 2014)

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences

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