Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version)

What would this painting sound like? Yes, you read that right—this canvas blurs the lines between senses.

Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version), 1912, oil on canvas, 111.4 x 162.1 cm (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. We’re looking at a painting by Vasily Kandinsky. This is “Improvisation 28 (second version).” It’s interesting to start off by thinking about that title because it’s not the title of something that’s being represented. It’s the kind of notation that a composer uses.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:26] Normally in art history we have paintings with titles of stories from the Bible or from history or from mythology or landscapes that have the name of a place, but here we have “Improvisation,” which is the name of a musical composition. The immediate question is why is Kandinsky doing that?

Dr. Zucker: [0:46] Well, because he’s composing here. He’s composing with form, but this is still rooted in the stories of the Bible and of his particular historical moment.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] He’s clearly trying to associate painting with music, to suggest that, like music, painting can signify. It can mean things. It can take us places without representing anything concrete.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] Actually, he would go further than that and say that you could hear color, that you could see music. This idea, which is called synesthesia, is something that Kandinsky was very interested in, the idea that there could be a crossing of the senses.

Dr. Harris: [1:24] Looking at this, he may have wanted us to actually hear something. In fact, we know that Kandinsky was very influenced by Arnold Schoenberg, a turn-of-the-century composer who was jettisoning the familiar Western harmonies to create a new kind of difficult atonal music for the beginning of the 20th century. I see something atonal. I see something difficult here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:49] What would this painting sound like? For me, it would sound like a cacophony. It would sound like chaos. It would sound like a very dangerous but also brilliant moment.

Dr. Harris: [2:00] We have brilliant color, a hazy atmosphere through which that color pops. We have these black diagonal lines that crisscross with each other that almost feel like weapons moving through space.

Dr. Zucker: [2:16] It’s appropriate that the analogy that you’re drawing is one of war. This is 1912. It’s just two years before the First World War begins, and early 20th-century Russian history is filled with political chaos.

Dr. Harris: [2:27] We’re clearly on the verge of abstraction. In fact, when we first look at this painting, it looks entirely abstract, that is, we don’t immediately recognize the things of the world, but this isn’t what we would call a completely abstract painting.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] Right. One might not call this painting an abstract painting but call it an abstracted painting.

Dr. Harris: [2:48] Therefore, we should still be able to recognize some elements of the natural world.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] Kandinsky was concerned that if we could recognize things too clearly, that our conscious minds would take over the interpretation and we would close off our emotional ability to respond to the pure color and form.

Dr. Harris: [3:06] On the upper right, I seem to see a mountain with some buildings on it, maybe with chimney stacks, or perhaps a church on a hill, an ideal city, a kind of heavenly Jerusalem.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] Kandinsky was deeply influenced by biblical imagery, and so even though this is a tremendously modern painting, it is still rooted in this ancient tradition of representing Christian stories.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] It makes sense that we have a battlefield, forces at war.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] In fact, art historians have looked at these paintings as a representation of an apocalypse, of a moment when the sins of the world are going to be washed away. In the lower left, you have a great flood, you have a wave, this idea of the way in which God in the Old Testament had wiped man from the earth except for Noah and his family.

Dr. Harris: [3:49] Just above that wave, cannon are being fired. The atmospheric effect almost reads like the smoke on a battlefield.

Dr. Zucker: [3:57] Down at the bottom, art historians sometimes recognize the manes and the arcs of the necks of horses. We know that Kandinsky was really interested throughout his career in the idea of the horse and rider symbolizing a number of different things, having overlapping meanings, referencing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse but also the idea of redemption.

[4:17] This was also utopian, the idea that we could wash away the old world, a world that was about to be destroyed not only by the Russian Revolution but also by the First World War. Kandinsky at this moment was convinced that he could help lead that, at least in the visual realm.

Dr. Harris: [4:32] Many artists at this time, in the early 20th century, had a sense that the artist could play an important role in the new civilization that was going to emerge in the 20th century.

Dr. Zucker: [4:43] Here we have a painting that is using color in a radically new way. This is color for its own sake, not to mimic, not to describe. We have line that is being used for its own sake, lines that are abstractly moving across the surface to create a sense of rhythm, to create a sense of staccato. Musicality in this painting was absolutely new.

[5:03] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation 28 (second version)," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024,