The Harmonised Whole: Wassily Kandinsky and Principles in Visual Perception

Barber Lecture Theatre
Wednesday 20 March 2024 (16:15-17:30)

This event is free but booking is required.


Anne Regina Grasselli, University of Edinburgh

The preoccupation of Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) with theories in visual perception and the role those ideas played in his development of non-objective art are long-accepted facts. Indeed, connections between the writings from 1912 onwards of the first Gestalt psychologists—Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886–1941)—and the ideas expressed by Kandinsky in his publications and art whilst he was working at the Bauhaus from 1922 to 1933 have become well established.

Between 1896 and 1914, however, Kandinsky’s encounters with the works of earlier experimental psychologists, especially Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920), Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894), and Theodor Lipps (1851–1914), during his first years in Munich laid an important foundation for some of his early formation as an artist and his ongoing development thereafter.

Comparisons between Kandinsky’s writings and texts by Wundt, Helmholtz, and Lipps, as well as diagrams they all used, prove that the psychologists’ theories served as the starting point for many of Kandinsky’s ideas regarding visual perception, geometric-optical relationships, and the emotional and intellectual responses evoked by combinations of colours and lines.

A collection of Kandinsky’s unpublished notebooks, sketches, and drawings on optical diagrams from as early as 1897, for example, reveal his interest in scientific systemizations and experimentations from the very beginning of his artistic career. That he repeatedly returned to these subjects in his notes through 1914––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. Presenting these archival materials alongside a selection of Kandinsky’s early works, this talk offers a new understanding of the psychological foundations underlying Kandinsky’s experimentations with non-objectivity from 1896 until 1914.

Anne Regina Grasselli is a doctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh, where she studies with Professor Christian Weikop, Professor Neil Cox, and Dr. Kamini Vellodi. Her thesis, ‘The Harmonised Whole: Wassily Kandinsky and Principles in Visual Perception from Jugendstil through der Blaue Reiter’ presents a new interpretation of Kandinsky’s early artworks from 1896 until 1914, connecting his theories in perception from this period with those of experimental psychologists Theodor Lipps, Wilhelm Wundt, and Hermann von Helmholtz. Her work has been supported by DAAD and Leverhulme fellowships, as well as research grants from the Association for Art History and the Edinburgh College of Art. Anne also co-convenes the Research Forum for German Visual Culture online seminar series


Wassily Kandinsky, Mit dem schwarzen Bogen, 1912, oil on canvas, 189 x 198 cm, Centre Pompidou, Paris. © Hélène Mauri - Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP.