Shock of the new

I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic.

— J. G. Ballard

Wassily Kandinsky

On January 2, 1911, German painter Franz Marc took his new friend Wassily Kandinsky to a concert by Arnold Schoenberg. On this fateful evening, the Viennese composer stunned the crowd with a strange new music in which tonality had been completely suspended. The crowd was confused if not dismayed, but Marc and Kandinsky – they were riveted. After the concert, the two painters relocated to a nearby café where they rambled until the wee hours of the morning about the fertile resonance between Schoenberg’s music and Kandinsky’s painting.

For the months leading up to this evening, Kandinsky had been sitting on the seed of a new art, but he hadn’t yet dared to take the leap. While he had already developed the philosophical foundations for abstract art, he remained hesitant to abandon representation. But the morning after the concert, he drafted several quick sketches of the performance. By summer of that same year, he was producing monumental paintings that almost entirely effaced referential content. Schoenberg’s atonal music had been a catalyst, a midwife at the birth of abstraction. “Since that time,” Kandinsky reflected, “I know what undreamed-of possibilities color conceals within itself,” – a revelation that “tore open before me the gates of the realm of absolute art.”

Text by:
More articles