Kandinsky, Wassili - VM - Irena Tippett
Wassily Kandinsky: All Saints Day II
A Joy Unspeakable
by Irena Tippett
Wassily Kandinsky is widely known for his pure abstract art, for his theorizing about colour, shape and line, and for what seems to be a completely analytical view of painting. What is not known as widely is the deeply personal and biblical call upon which his life and art were built. This call began with a powerful dream in early childhood and it is this dream which led Kandinsky ultimately to paint the visionary All Saints II pictured above.
Observed by Christians around the world, All Saints Day is a feast celebrating faithful believers from days past. Traditional All Saints paintings are rather static compositions, comprised of rows of canonical saints. By contrast, All Saints II is teaming with figures in motion. By 1911 Kandinsky began in earnest to choose abstract expression through colour and the dynamics of line and shape. The lines and colours leap and flow and bang together. There is noise and joy and victory and struggle. The composition of the painting is complex, a culmination of his many iterations of the All Saints theme, with added thematic overlays from other biblical subjects. The result is this theologically rich meditation on All Saints Day.
Recurring motifs among these iterations help us find our way into the painting. The figure of St. John, the visionary writer of the Book of Revelation, stands on the right-hand side. At his feet there is a blue heart-like shape which we can interpret as an open Bible. Upon this book we see biblical figures, most obviously John the Baptist holding his severed head. The three figures standing with arms gesturing to the right are almost certainly Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, all of whom visited the empty tomb on Easter morning. Before them stands a lamb (Cf. John 1:29). Identification is more difficult for other figures. Who is the woman in yellow who stands in front? By the gesture of her right hand, she seems to be with child. Is this Mary, the mother of Jesus? Or does she represent all of the faithful women from the line of the Saviour? Beyond the borders of the Bible motif, we see saints from the history of the church, some identifiable, some not. In the centre of the painting there is a cluster of figures that look like candles with the figure of Mary standing protectively over them. These are the baptized and they represent all the saints—biblical, historical, young, old, male, and female—whom we celebrate on All Saints Day. Everyone who has been baptized into Christ is a saint.
In a painting that celebrates the victorious saints, is it not surprising to see what looks like a giant carnivorous fish, angry waves and jarring zig-zag lines? A look at Kandinsky’s other works, particularly The Flood (1913) and The Great Resurrection, (1913), will help us recognize in these elements the serpent-dragon, the story of the flood and a great storm. In the upper centre of the painting above the baptized we see the City of Man about to collapse. Here, the theology of All Saints Day is enriched by the remembrance that the walk of faith takes place in a crucible, that suffering and evil exist in our world and that judgement is necessary for salvation to be complete.
There are so many contributing themes which one could follow in this painting but we cannot miss the main symphonic theme, that is, the assured and glorious destination of the saints in heaven. This heavenly hope energizes the entire composition, recalling Kandinsky’s dream from early childhood. He writes, “I saw heaven in a dream; even as a memory that dream still moves me with a force that has not lost its impact.” The intent upward gaze of St. John, the angels with trumpets, the wind blowing, the dynamic lines that swirl and gather, the upward straining of arms: all sing the triumphant song. The reds in this painting lead to the climax where the holy King victoriously lifts high the cross of Christ and the holy Church with it. Behind the cross blazes the sun, a glowing representation of Christ’s resurrection. We catch sight of Elijah triumphantly transported to heaven in his chariot of fire, pulled by horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11).
All Saints II is a symphonic composition built on the dynamic of faith which leads at last, in a great crescendo, to the great and final resurrection. It presents for us a vision of the universal church, the assured triumph of good over evil, and the future joy of our heavenly home, when time will be folded into eternity. Thanks be to God!
Wassily Kandinsky, All Saints II, 1911, oil on canvas, 86x99 cm. (33 1/8 x39 in.), Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.
Wassily Kandinsky was a Russian artist. Often considered the father of abstract art, Kandinsky is credited with early forays into abstraction and unique explorations in colour, form, and line. He was born in 1866 in Moscow. His father was a successful businessman who later moved the family to Odessa, where he ran a tea company. Kandinsky showed an early talent for music (piano and cello) as well as drawing. In 1886, intending a career in law, he enrolled at the University of Moscow. Upon graduation in 1893, he was offered a Professor of Law position at a university in Estonia. However, in 1896, he gave up his teaching career to pursue painting full-time. With an early penchant for landscapes rendered in Post-Impressionist style, Kandinsky's later work became increasingly abstract and non-representational, often inspired by music, geometry, and colour theory. His work with the Bauhaus school of art in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s and his writings about abstract art cemented his reputation as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Kandinsky's book Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910) is still readily available.
Irena Tippett has a Master's degree in Art History from the University of Toronto. It was during summer courses at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C. that she discovered the beauty of her field in relation to her faith. Over the years, most of her energy has been spent in women’s Bible ministry at St. John's Anglican Church in Vancouver, B.C. Canada, and with her large family, but she continues to find opportunities to serve God through her passion for art. She has contributed a number of visual meditations to ArtWay since 2011.
ArtWay Visual Meditation 5 November 2023