Today I am going to tell you about a Russian painter who while relatively unknown, changed the way art and design courses were taught in the 20s. These changes made a huge impact on the design world and even now modern art schools teach basic design principles based on his lectures.
Wassily Kandinsky (Vasiliy Kandinskiy) was born in Moscow in 1866. He spent his childhood in Moscow where he graduated from Grekov Odessa Art school before enrolling at the University of Moscow to study law and economics, where he went on to have a successful career teaching at the University of Dorpat.
Later on in life he would recall being fascinated by colour as a child. This fascination with colour symbolism and psychology continued as he grew. Kandinsky is now known for likening painting to composing music, writing “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
At the age of 30 Kandinsky began his painting studies, giving up a successful law career in the process. He attended the Academy of the Fine Arts before moving back to Moscow after the outbreak of World War 1. Eventually he invited to teach at the Bauhaus School of Art and Architecture.
Staatliches Bauhaus, commonly known as just Bauhaus was a German art school operational from 1919 to 1933 that combined crafts and the fine arts. It became famous for its approach to design that it publicised and taught. Despite Bauhaus literally meaning “School of Building” it did not have an architectural department during its first years of existence. However it was founded on the idea that it would create a “total work of art”, in which all arts, including architecture, would be brought together.
The Bauhaus went on to have a major impact on art and architecture trends in the decades following its demise. It also had a significant impact on design education. The Bauhaus Vorkurs (preliminary course) integrated theory and practical applications. First year students learned basic elements and principles of design and colour theory, and experimented with a range of materials and art processes.
Modern art schools across the world still use this same structure, all students being with a foundation year where they learn basic principles before choosing to specialise in one area of art and design.
Kandinsky started teaching at the Bauhaus in 1922, in which he headed up the Bauhaus workshop of painting. He read a number of classes. Analytical drawing in which he taught students to understand abstraction and see the essence of things. The basics of art and design which was really just the theory of design.
But his most famous class was on colour. In this he created a radically different approach to teaching the subject, based on the analysis of individual elements: a point, a line and a plane and examining their relationships. The results of this analysis eventually became the work Point and Line to Plane.
POINT AND LINE TO PLANE
In his writings, Kandinsky analysed the geometrical elements which make up a painting – the point and the line. He called the surface the artist worked on the plane. A point is a bit of colour on the plane, it doesn’t take the form of just a dot, it can be a square, a star or something more complicated. But according to the position of the point on the plane it can resonate or create tension with other points or lines.
The line is an extension of force applied to the plane – applied with pencil or paintbrush. This form can take many shapes. The straight line, angular line or curved line. Again these forms can create tension or show space in their relation to other points and lines.
To a design student these terms may be familiar. It’s not uncommon to hear lecturers talk about dot, line and shape. Three simple elements which form the very basis of design.
DOT, LINE AND SHAPE
When it comes to elements in design we have two basic elements to work with. Positive form and negative space. The most basic concrete form is the dot, from which everything else is formed. Many dots in a row become a line. A dot which has been increased in size can turn into a shape.
Similar to Kandinsky’s theory about points, dots create a reference point in relation to the space around it. Changing the size and position of a dot this can actively influence the composition.
Now a line is all about movement. It leads somewhere, this causes the eye to move along it. The line can direct you towards and move you away from a point.
These two forms are the starting point for design, they can create contrast and visual hierarchy, composition and balance. Four elements which are essential in good design.
There is a fantastic documentary which continues this idea of dot, line and shape. It’s called Teaching To See and is about the teaching methods of Inge Druckery. Her method is very similar to those set out by Kandinsky in the 20s, in basic terms she is trying to teach students how see the relationship between shapes. You can create tension between two objects by changing the size and distance between the two. The whole point of these exercises being to learn how to see simple forms, the skills which become essential when working in design.
What I’m trying to show is that in modern art terms Wassily Kandinsky is a relatively unknown name. Most people only know him in the terms of the ‘poor damaged artist’, furthering the stereotype that talented artists had some sort of mental illness.
Yes, Kandinsky did have some slightly unusual beliefs about art, he thought there was a link between colour and music. This isn’t so unusual when you learn he had synesthesia, something not at all that uncommon these days. The fact is that Wassily Kandinsky is only remembered for his ‘mental illness’ when in reality he played a huge role in the creation of the modern art school and his ideas about the fundamentals of design are taught to new students every year.