Object Lesson: Sketch for Several Circles by Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944), Sketch for Several Circles, 1926, Oil on canvas, 27 5/8 x 27 5/8 in., Gift of Mrs. Edgar B. Stern, 64.31

Russian-born, German-trained, Wassily Kandinsky was the initial practitioner of non-objective art and a  founder of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), the second expressionist group movement in Germany beginning in the early 1910s. The movement was an abstract counterpart to Die Brücke, a seminal group of artists founded in 1905 whose work was defined by emotionally agitated paintings of city streets and sexually charged events in country settings.

Sketch for Several Circles is a study for Kandinsky’s large painting Several Circles, now in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum, New York. It was made in Dessau when Kandinsky, influenced by the Bauhaus, where he was working and teaching, began experimenting with geometric figures superimposed on dark backgrounds. In Kandinsky’s work colored backgrounds became increasingly opaque in the middle of the 1920s as line surrendered to the explicit configuration of the circle. Halos around the circles, a feature of Kandinsky’s paintings in the middle of the 1920s, serve to separate the circles from the background. The halos lend a spatial quality to the composition, a quality enhanced by the cloud-like effects of the background and the transparency of the intersecting circles. From 1923 through 1929 the circle was the single motif which the artist explored exhaustively in ten major paintings.

Sketch for Several Circles supports and forms the basis for Kandinsky’s own statement of of October 12, 1930, in which he describes his fascination with the circle and its relation to the cosmos: “…Of the three primary forms…the circle points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”

This Object Lesson, written by Joan G. Caldwell, is adapted from the New Orleans Museum of Art Handbook, available for purchase in the Museum Shop. Sketch for Several Circles is on view in the second-floor modern art galleries. When NOMA+, a mobile museum on wheels debuted in 2018, the Chevy Tahoe used to transport the roving studio was vinyl-wrapped in Kandinsky’s circles.

The Chevy Tahoe that pulls NOMA+ is decorated with circular patterns found in a Wassily Kandinsky painting from NOMA’s permanent collection.

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