Lot 6
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WASSILY KANDINSKY | Improvisation auf Mahagoni (Improvisation on Mahogany)

15,000,000 - 20,000,000 USD
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  • Wassily Kandinsky
  • Improvisation auf Mahagoni (Improvisation on Mahogany)
  • Signed Kandinsky (lower left)
  • Oil on mahogany panel
  • 25 by 39 1/2 in.
  • 63.5 by 100.2 cm
  • Painted in 1910.


Nina Kandinsky, Paris (until at least 1963)

Galerie Beyeler, Basel

Acquired from the above on June 15, 1972


Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum & The Hague, Gemeente Museum, Kandinsky, 1947-48, no. 15

Munich, Haus der Kunst, Der Blaue Reiter, 1949, no. 54

Basel, Kunsthalle, Der Blaue Reiter, 1950, no. 164

Paris, Galerie Maeght, Kandinsky 1900-1910, 1951, no. 52 

Hamburg, Kunsthalle und Kunstverein; Cologne, Galerie Ferdinand Möller; Stuttgart, Württembergischer Kunstverein; Munich, Haus der Kunst; Mannheim, Städtische Kunsthalle; Berlin, Charlottenburger Schloss; Dortmund, Museum am Ostwall & Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Wassily Kandinsky: Arbeiten aus den Jahren 1912-1942, 1953-54, no. 9, illustrated in the catalogue

Bern, Kunsthalle, Gesamtausstellung Wassily Kandinsky, 1955, no. 20

Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst, Wassily Kandinsky, 1957, no. 14

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Wassily Kandinsky, Gemälde und Aquarelle, 1958, no. 10

New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne; The Hague, Gemeente Museum & Basel, Kunsthalle, Vassily Kandinsky: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1963, no. 15, illustrated in the catalogue (titled Improvisation

Stockholm, Moderna Museet, Kandinsky, 1965, no. 20

Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Kandinsky. Centenaire, 1966, no. 15 (titled Improvisation)

Florence, Commune di Firenze, Kandinsky, 1967, no. 147

Baden-Baden, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Wassily Kandinsky, 1970, no. 27, illustrated in the catalogue

Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Wassily Kandinsky, 1972, no. 11

Southampton, Southampton Art Gallery, Sounds of Colour, 1982, no. 2

Bern, Kunstmuseum, Der Blaue Reiter, 1986-87, no. 40, illustrated in color in the catalogue

Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Fondation Maeght, Vassily Kandinsky. Rétrospective, 2001, no. 32, illustrated in color in the catalogue

London, The Courtauld Gallery, 2002-18 (on loan)


The artist’s handlist II, no. 93a

Derrière le miroir, no. 42, Paris, November-December 1951, no. 52, illustrated n.p.

Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Life and Work, London, 1959, no. 93a, listed p. 331, illustrated in color p. 71

Erika Hanfstaengl, Wassily Kandinsky, Zeichnungen und Aquarelle im Lenbachhaus München, Munich, 1974, mentioned p. 165

Hans K. Roethel & Jean K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil-Paintings, 1900-1915, vol. I, New York, 1982, no. 328, illustrated p. 307

Judi Freeman, The Fridart Collection: Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century Modern Masterworks, London, 1998, illustrated in color p. 117

The Courtauld Institute of Art, ed., The 20th Century at the Courtauld Institute Gallery, London, 2002, illustrated in color p. 54

Catalogue Note

Improvisation auf Mahagoni (Improvisation on Mahogany) of 1910 is a powerful and eloquent expression of Wassily Kandinsky's journey toward abstraction. The composition achieves an exquisite balance between color and form, displaying a joyous assembly of purple, blue, red and yellow tones applied in sweeping shapes and staccato brushstrokes. This ground-breaking work represents Kandinsky’s achievement of a nearly entirely abstract idiom which he conceived in 1909-10 alongside the completion of his text On the Spiritual in Art. Other works from this crucial period still possess specific figurative elements. These early works are particularly vital to understanding Kandinsky's concept of abstraction. Will Grohmann writes: “The landscapes Kandinsky called ‘Improvisations’ occupy a special place in his works of the transitional period 1910-1912. They come closest to the ideas he developed in On the Spiritual in Art. The strict canon of the human figure is less amenable to new conceptions than the landscape which can be treated with greater freedom….  All the forms are of equal value and interrelated, without regard for meaning" (W. Grohmann, op. cit., p. 116).This monumental work belongs to a group of sequentially numbered oils and a few unnumbered paintings all entitled Improvisation, which contain a few pertinent figurative elements such as the horse and rider in Improvisation 9, or the dog in Improvisation 11. Kandinsky considered his Improvisations to be among his most important experimental works, in which his development and mastery of Abstraction is fully evident. “Between 1909 and 1914, Kandinsky produced thirty-five sequentially numbered Improvisations as well as some unnumbered Improvisations, but with a marker of some kind in the title. In his text Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky describes the Improvisations as "chiefly unconscious, for the most part, suddenly arising expressions of events of an inner character, hence impressions of 'internal nature.'" This group of works can be seen as the successors to the colored drawings, in the sense that they have similar motifs—genre scenes, historical and fairy-tale themes—enriched by architectural and landscape elements. The iconography is difficult to interpret, even intentionally mysterious, although individual motifs such as the rider or the town on a hill can be seen in numerous paintings. Kandinsky himself felt that the inner sound of a work of art can only unfold and take effect when conventional meaning no longer applies; it seems this is exactly what he was aiming at” (R. Zimmermann in Kandinsky. The Path to Abstraction (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London, 2006, p. 33). 

From an early stage in his artistic career, Kandinsky was aware that his pursuit of his own form of expression was leading him toward an entirely new visual idiom. In a letter to Gabriele Münter written on April 2, 1904 Kandinsky wrote: “Without exaggerating, I can say that, should I succeed in this task, I will be showing [a] new, beautiful path for painting susceptible to infinite development. I am on a new track, which some masters, just here and there, suspected, and which will be recognized, sooner or later." As predicted, in the years that followed Kandinsky traveled further towards abstraction than any painter previously, and as Will Grohmann observes in his celebrated monograph on the artist, it was 1910 that marked Kandinsky’s "epoch-making breakthrough to the abstract"(W. Grohmann, op. cit., p. 62).

Kandinsky’s first major breakthrough was his discovery that color, when disassociated from representational concerns, could become the principal subject of a painting. Taking his cue from musical composition, Kandinsky determined that every color corresponded with a particular emotion or "sound." “Color becomes increasingly crucial. [... They] transport the subject to the sphere of dream and legend. This was the direction of development. The painter distributes and links the colors, combines them and differentiates them as if they were beings of a specific character and special significance. As in music, the materials now come to the fore, and in this respect Kandinsky stands between Mussorgsky and Scriabin. The language of color—just as in those composers—calls for depth, for fantasy” (ibid., pp. 60-61).

This revelation was due in part to the journey the artist took to Paris in 1906 and his acquaintance with Fauve paintings by Derain, Delaunay and Vlaminck, as well as his appreciation of Cézanne’s brushwork in his late works. Though, as Hans Roethel writes: “when Kandinsky returned to Munich, ideologically and practically, the ground was well prepared for abstract painting and yet it needed a final spark to come into being” (H. K. Roethel & J. K. Benjamin, Kandinsky, London, 1979, p. 25). It was his visits to Murnau and the surrounding landscape and artistic milieu that provided this spark.

Through constant experimentation and extensive preparatory work Kandinsky’s artistic means developed from an essentially figurative Fauve style to pure abstraction. By 1910 he had found the language he sought, with sweeping lines, beautiful iridescent patches of color and kaleidoscopic compositions. This is exemplified in the present work with hints of the figurative element but with a composition that is radically altered and colors that have taken on a new vibrancy and autonomy. “In general appearance, this Improvisation recalls elements of Kandinsky’s Murnau landscapes…. Kandinsky has given up the palette knife in favor of short-haired brushes and larger, unprimed boards. He has worked directly on a mahogany panel, at times revealing the wooden ground, so as to evoke the ‘raw’ appearance of painted folk art carvings. However, while the amphitheater of the Bavarian setting is retained, the versatile brush technique and variegated facture undermine the solidity of the objects and figures. The spectator is drawn instead to explore the surfaces and exotic colorism—a dominance of warm reds through to pink and ochre—that compellingly resist visual resolution” (S. Behr in The 20th Century at the Courtauld Institute Gallery, op. cit., p. 54). In Improvisation auf Mahagoni (Improvisation on Mahogany) Kandinsky achieves a delicate balance between subtle figuration and almost total abstraction. It is a powerful illustration of Kandinsky’s pioneering pictorial language and his unique and important contribution to the history of twentieth-century art.