Picture with Circle by Wassily Kandinsky

In 1935 Wassily Kandinsky wrote to his art dealer J.B. Nauman:

At the time I was dissatisfied with the picture (Picture with a Circle, 1911) and therefore did not number it, did not inscribe it or the back, as I otherwise always used to do and did not even note it in my handlist. But when I saw it again after years I was very pleased with it. It is a very large painting, almost square, with very agitated forms and a large circle-like form at the upper right corner.

The painting in question (click on the detail to see the full image) probably looks like any abstract painting you’ve seen. Lines, colors, shapes are arranged in space and while at first the composition doesn’t seem to stand out in any specific way, what you’re in fact looking at is what art historians consider to be the very first non-objective or abstract painting of the 20th century.

Arguably, this is the work that forever changed the course of art, how artists conceive it and how we view it. Wassily Kandinsky began his journey towards pure abstraction several years before completing this painting, during the time he worked on his Impressions, Improvisations and Compositions. This transition towards abstract forms and shapes is best illustrated in Kandinsky’s Study for Composition #8, 1909, a turning point in the artist’s vision, where recognizable forms – people, church towers, cupolas and hills co-exist with abstract shapes and pure fields of color.

Christie’s recently wrote this about Kandinsky’s objective in reaching towards pure abstraction in painting: “The path to non-objective painting, in compositions that did not seek to describe or refer to real things, in which painting was “absolute” and created through purely painterly means, was found by way of a slow, but steady and-as we are inclined to view with hindsight–a seemingly inexorable process toward an inevitable conclusion.”

And here is another curious tidbit about Kandinsky. As art historians concluded while working on a Catalogue Raisonee of Kandinsky’s paintings, drawings and watercolors, the artist quite often did not sign his work right away. In one particular case the painting was signed years after a collector purchased the work.

Picture with circle is in the collection of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.

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