Thesis: Color as Meaning in Kandinsky's Yellow, Red

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Color as Meaning in Kandinsky's Yellow, Red, Blue

In one of his earliest essays on art, 1899's "Secession," Wassily Kandinsky bemoaned the trend he had noticed in painting to depict fog and muted colors almost to the exclusion of everything else. "The matter has come to the point," he claimed, "where some of the most exceptional artists have come to look at the sun through the dusky prism." Kandinsky's work can be viewed almost in its entirety as a rejection of this foggy movement; the vibrancy and sharp contrasts of his work imbue them with a life that would have to be considered impossible in a more muted world. In addition, his interest in non-literal and hidden meanings, which included a fascination with symbology, hugely informed his work and its interpretation.

Kandinsky's obsession with color and intuitive expression did not fade as time wore on, but rather appear to have increased. His style of geometrical abstraction often suggests certain real objects or figures, but these could just as easily be figments of the viewer's imagination as they could be intentional creations on Kandinsky's part. Meaning in a Kandisnky painting, then, cannot be determined from a realist perspective. And although shape is imminently important in Kandinsky's work, it too is not the true representation of meaning. Instead, color -- and the contrast between the different colors -- is what truly establishes the significance of a Kandinsky work, especially as his art progressed. In his 1925 work Yellow-Red-Blue, the title of the work reflects the importance that the colors play in the field of the painting. The varying shades and the mixture of soft transitions with sharp contrasts suggest a world where order is joyfully descending into chaos; through color, Kandinsky is able to create a mood and meaning without explicit revelation, but by working on the inner mind.

For Kandinsky, it was impossible to separate intellectual theory from artistic expression. Luckily for the world of art critics and theoreticians, "Kandinsky was one of the most articulate of twentieth-century artists, producing a recurrent discourse which accompanied his own artistic evolution." This makes an interpretation of his abstract works far easier -- though perhaps more restrictive -- than for many artists who did not leave written or even oral records of their thought processes during the formulative and creative phases of their art. In fact, it has been suggested that Kandinsky's intellectual and theoretical thoughts about art and the formal aspects of its creation were more profound than his talent and technical skill allowed him to express. This makes honest and accurate criticism of his work a far simpler task, as there is much direct evidence from the mind of the creator regarding the intent and purpose of his creations.

On the other hand, Kandinsky's own analysis -- or pre-analysis, as might be more accurate considering the formulation of his ideas before he began a painting -- of his work can be limiting; art, after all, does not speak until it is viewed, and at that point the only meaning that can take place is that which occurs in the mind and eye of the viewer. As much as Kandinsky might have hoped for the opposite, meaning is the result of a dialogue between the artistic object and its viewer, and the artist has no real place in this dialogue. Still, his own thoughts on art are clearly rendered in Yellow-Red-Blue, and an analysis of his own opinions regarding art in general is essential to the understanding of this masterpiece of geometrical abstraction.

Kandinsky believed, both philosophically in general and in regards to art specifically, that true meaning -- and even truth itself -- cannot be understood in literal ways, but rather that the "truths of the higher world...could best be understood by indirect and vague means." Though vague might not be the best term to describe the vibrant and very clearly delineated images of Yellow-Red-Blue, the painting is certainly indirect. Not only is there no completely recognizable figure or object, but there is not even a focus in the painting. The image must be absorbed as a whole unit, rather than in pieces. The blend of colors, concrete lines and indistinct shading betrays any attempt to bring the eye in on only one element or section of the painting. It is as though Kandinsky were expressing at once the unity and the chaos of the universe.

This interpretation is borne out by the paintings indistinct division into two halves. These halves can, very loosely, be defined as yellow and blue, with the former on the left side and the latter on the right. Neither of these "halves" are consistent in their color and shading; there are elements of blue, red, and yellow throughout the entire painting. But yellow definitely dominates the left half of the painting, whereas blues and purples reign supreme on the right-hand side. In no way should this division be considered mere happenstance or artistic whim; Kandinsky "considered himself as a great teacher...heralding the emergence of a new consciousness," which included defining such things as "which colour most resembles a canary song" and "the most appropriate colours for the square, triangle, and circle." Clearly, Kandinsky's division of the painting into the two halves of color is intentional, but the question of exactly what that intent is still remains.

Though he sought answers to such questions as the most "appropriate" or representative colors, Kandinsky never fully arrived at definite conclusions in these areas, or at least he was never known to have expounded such conclusions. Common interpretation of color symbolism and overall mood must be applied to this painting in order to develop an understanding of it, then. Yellow is the color of sunshine, and therefore often happiness, brightness, and openness. It is interesting, then, that this side of the painting is also the more ordered of the two, especially given Kandinsky's insistence on a "renewed trust in instinct." The order present in the left side of the painting, though still highly abstract and irregular, nevertheless seems to reject pure instinct in favor of an orderly and clearly defined exuberance.

The right side is sharply contrasted; not only is the color quite different, but the value is also much darker and the lines far more chaotic and less ordered. This seems especially odd for Kandinsky given his earlier rejection of and warning against an "insufficient coherency of tone" often apparent with the use of bright colors. The tonal split of this painting, then, must have some purposeful value. The mixture of the more somber colors -- or at least those that have a darker value -- with irregular abstract elements juxtaposed to the ordered brightness on the other side of the painting -- seems to echo Kandinsky's noting twenty years earlier of a less abstract similarity in which "the purity and intensity of colors stare out shyly even in overcast weather." Of course, the shyness here is gone; both brightness and "overcastness" declare themselves boldly.

Though Kandinsky was speaking of an earlier school of painting and referring to literal landscapes in the above statement, an interpretation of this painting in terms of natural phenomena is not entirely specious. The juxtaposition and contrast of colors in the painting, especially with the correspondent differences in light and dark and the lighter shades of blue that serve as a background to the entire painting, is highly suggestive of a night-and-day split, with the sun represented by the yellows on the left and the moon appearing as a large dark purple circle on the right hand side. Of course, it is impossible to make this claim with any certainty, as Kandinsky insisted that "representationalism had to be minimized if the work was to suggest spirituality." However the colors -- as well as certain vague aspects of the geometric forms with which the colors are associated in this painting -- make the night-day split quite likely.

This is just one of the many juxtapositions tat can be noted in this painting, yet the overall meaning of such contrasts is still elusive. An examination of the points covered thus far might help to elucidate the overall and cohesive meaning of the painting. First, there is the basic contrast of color previously mentioned; the division of the painting into the yellow left half and the blue right half. There is the corresponding, though less total, contrast of order with elements of chaos, and of day to night. In addition to these physically observable elements of Yellow-Red-Blue, we know from Kandinsky's own writings that his art, especially during this period, attempted to reflect spiritual rather than physical realities, and that he believed that meaning could not be rendered literally, but rather through an indistinct symbolism.

Taking these elements together, we must admit that it is impossible to develop a definitive interpretation of the meaning of Yellow-Red-Blue, yet it is clear that Kandinsky wished to say something about the dichotomy of nature and the universe. The mixture of elements… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Color as Meaning in Kandinsky's Yellow, Red.  (2009, February 22).  Retrieved August 18, 2019, from

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"Color as Meaning in Kandinsky's Yellow, Red."  22 February 2009.  Web.  18 August 2019. <>.

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"Color as Meaning in Kandinsky's Yellow, Red."  February 22, 2009.  Accessed August 18, 2019.