At the end of 1922, only several months after Wassily Kandinsky had taken up a teaching position at the Bauhaus in Weimar, he published a portfolio of twelve prints entitled Small worlds. This portfolio is a seminal work that shows the momentous changes taking place in his art between 1919 and 1923 when he moved towards an increasingly geometric form of abstraction. Kandinsky had returned to Russia at the outbreak of war in 1914 where, over the ensuing seven years, he had come into direct contact with the avant-garde developments of Suprematism and Constructivism. Influenced by the paintings of Malevich, Rodchenko and others, Kandinsky began to introduce elementary geometric forms in his art from 1919. However, his work remained resolutely his own with geometric forms being freely combined with idiosyncratic shapes and abstracted motifs.

The Small worlds prints are the most advanced works Kandinsky produced in this transitional period in which he combined motifs from his earlier work with geometric forms to create complex compositions in which the picture’s content is expressed in purely formal terms. In Small worlds VII, the linear arabesques in the lower left are the horse and rider, Kandinsky’s signature motif, here reduced to curved lines, and these serve to lead the eye to the cluster of quasi-geometrical forms and linear cross-hatchings in the upper composition. A pen-and-ink study for this print reveals that Kandinsky had first conceived of these forms as a series of jagged mountains that he had often used in earlier paintings of his Munich period. These he replaced in the final print with circles, triangles, an arc and a semi-circle, as well as the checkerboard patterning on the left which was adopted from the work of Rodchenko. The set of parallel lines on the right of the composition was to become a motif that Kandinsky often used in later Bauhaus years when his art became more strictly geometric.

The Small worlds portfolio also reflects the investigations Kandinsky was pursuing in this period into the intrinsic elements of art. Such studies had already engaged him in Munich, but they became more systematic in his Russian and Bauhaus years, as he formulated the codes of non-objective painting through his teachings and writings. In this print different manifestations can be seen of the basic elements of the point and line that Kandinsky had described in articles of 1919 and further codified in his treatise Point and Line to Plane (1926). The single dot and the larger circles and semi-circle, as well as the arabesques, parallel and intersecting lines, triangles, rectangles and ascending and descending bars seen here were all envisaged in the artist’s theories where they were ascribed differing characters. Underpinning all of Kandinsky’s work was the belief that form was the material expression of an inner content and that art’s mission was to enable this inner element (the pure spirit) to sound forth. Small worlds VII is a complex and dynamic print that enables the NGV to represent the early Bauhaus work of Wassily Kandinsky, one of the great pioneers of abstraction in the twentieth century.

Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator, Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).