Anne Regina Grasselli (University of Edinburgh)


Anne Regina Grasselli is a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh, where she studies Wassily Kandinsky and principles in visual perception with Professor Christian Weikop, Professor Neil Cox (now based at The Met), and Dr. Kamini Vellodi. She currently holds a Leverhulme Trust research fellowship at the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte München, and she co-convenes the Research Forum for German Visual Culture.

Kandinsky’s Early Notebooks on Optics and their Relationship to Abstraction

It is widely accepted that abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was devoted to understanding concepts related to spirituality and unconscious thought processes as they pertained to non-objective art, especially in his first seminal treatise Über das Geistige in der Kunst, originally published in December 1911. Indeed, these ideas were largely perpetuated by the artist in his book, and he maintained that art held spiritual properties beyond the realm of reality whilst simultaneously expressing an overt mistrust for positivist sciences, seemingly pitting one against the other. This has led to confusion regarding Kandinsky’s engagement with science in his development towards abstraction, and it was only in relation to his second book, Punkt und Linie zu Fläche, published in 1926 whilst he was working at the Bauhaus, that such scholars as Paul Overy and Peg Weiss have viewed his art through the lens of spatial aesthetics and optics. However, I have discovered at the Centre Pompidou in Paris a collection of Kandinsky’s unpublished notebooks, sketches, and drawings on optical diagrams from as early as 1897 that reveal his interest in scientific systemizations and experimentations from the very beginning of his artistic career. That he returned to these subjects in his notes from the 1910s—around the same time as when he published his first book—and as he began to establish his more fully abstract style speaks to how critical these notions became for him. It is perhaps due to these scientific studies that Kandinsky was able to work through, justify, and legitimize his own non-objective pictures from this time, tying together ideas related to abstraction, spirituality, and perception. I therefore contend that science was not only imperative to Kandinsky’s experimentations with non-objective imagery, but that studies in optics, mathematics, and geometry became foundational to his early abstractions.