Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Considering Kandinsky's Circles:
A Painter's Adventure of the Mind

David Wiley
Visuals selected by Lissa Tyler Renaud



Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series

When the topic of discussion is Kandinsky, it is usually the art historian’s voice we hear, or the more or less informed enthusiast. But we don’t usually hear Kandinsky’s poetry discussed by poets, or his plays discussed by playwrights. By the same token, we rarely hear Kandinsky’s paintings talked about by a painter—and a painter who can write—and that is what we have here with painter-poet David Wiley.

Wiley’s path to understanding a painting is informed by deep knowledge of art theory and art history. And yet, he writes here about looking at Kandinsky’s works: “It didn’t help to stare at the paintings and try to analyze them. What they were telling me had little to do with analysis.” What a pleasure it is, then, to listen in on a painter’s inquiry and insights into the circle in Kandinsky’s paintings, and to follow along with his delightful, intuitive thought process.

It certainly takes a deeply intuitive person to connect Kandinsky, circles, and—well, I will not give away the punchline to Wiley’s story. But in the spirit of his own associative process, his story suggests to me a story that was hidden until not that long ago: In 1914, when WWI began, Kandinsky was ejected from Germany as an enemy alien after a longtime residency there. He returned to Russia. In 1917, the 50-year-old Kandinsky married the 17-year-old Nina Andreyevskaya, and they had a son later that year—Vsevolod, or “Lodya.” But like countless children during the Civil War in Russia, their child did not survive the malnourishment and diseases that were rampant; he died in 1920, just shy of three years old.

The Kandinskys, themselves enduring enormous privations, buried the child there in Moscow. They left for Berlin not long after, with an agreement never to mention their child abroad. Their colleagues in Germany never knew that the Kandinskys’ disappearances were for trips to visit their child’s grave. Indeed, scholars also never knew of, or never mentioned, the child. As a result, when I began formally to study Kandinsky in the early 1980s, this important part of Kandinsky’s life in wartime Russia was invisible, and could not offer the poignant, personal context for his artworks after 1920.

Even with the information available now—with the Iron Curtain open, and Nina gone—the death of Kandinsky’s son doesn’t seem to figure in discussion of his paintings. I wonder if the death of that child plays a role, in a mysterious way, in David Wiley’s intuitions.




Considering Kandinsky's Circles:
A Painter's Adventure of the Mind
by David Wiley

There is often a good deal of serendipity involved in adventures of the mind. When a series of mental events leading to a possibly meaningful conclusion occurs, it is not unusual for this conclusion to be dependent upon something unintended and unforeseen, just as the "accident" that happens in a painting may point the artist in a new and more fruitful direction. It was Aristotle's notion that genius is the rapid perception of the relationships between things. Although it seems incomplete, I have always liked this definition of genius. The practice of art is certainly a process of finding the relationships between things, physical and abstract, and using these relationships in a significant and moving way. The challenge for the artist is to harmonize and compose the parts.

During a trip to New York City, I spent a few hours in the Guggenheim, mostly looking at the exhibition of Kandinsky paintings from his Paris period. As I gazed rapturously at these paintings, some of which I had never seen, my thoughts turned to earlier Kandinsky paintings. As I looked at the paintings, trying to regard them without prejudgment of any kind, they began to speak to me, they began trying to tell me something that I didn’t understand and needed to understand. It was a fairly urgent message, it seemed to me, but one I simply could not decipher. Plato’s saying that all knowledge is but remembrance came to mind. It was something I knew somewhere in my being, and I was trying to drag it up through the smoke and mirrors and chaos of the subconscious. It didn’t help to stare at the paintings and try to analyze them. What they were telling me had little to do with analysis. The more I tried to figure out what the voice was saying, the fainter it became.


Kandinsky, “Circles Within a Circle,” 1923

Kandinsky, “Accent on Rose,” 1926

As we left New York the next day, I was still scouring my mind for an answer. It was annoying, like forgetting a familiar word or name. Shortly after we arrived in California I met up with my niece Gabey, who was nine months pregnant, and I remarked to her that she reminded me a little of Kandinsky, with her semispherical belly. This observation did not produce an answer to the question that had been nagging me persistently, but, as it turned out, the sight of Gabey’s belly was a stepping stone, a station along the way in my mental treasure hunt.


Dean Farrell, Orcatek Photography


Kandinsky, “Fixed Points,” 1942

dwImage_6 dwImage_7

Kandinsky, “Heavy Circles,”

Two days later, as I was sitting in my studio thinking about Kandinsky again and trying in some way to resolve the matter that had been tormenting me for four days, my thoughts turned to another one of my favorite painters, Alexei Jawlensky, who, along with Kandinsky, Klee, and Feininger, was one of “The Blue Four.” Then my thoughts went back eight years to my miraculous discovery of a large exhibition of Jawlensky paintings in a small museum at the edge of a little medieval town on the Danube, about eighty miles from Vienna. My companion and I had taken a river excursion boat from a place called Krebs to the town at the end of the line. Here my memory failed me, not in the Platonic view, but in the normal, human sense. Determined to get the answer to this question, at least, I found my Vienna guidebook and turned to the page where there was a graphic of that stretch of the Danube we had covered. I scanned the irregular line of the river, stopping at some of the historic sites along its banks, the castle where Richard Lion Heart had been imprisoned, and so on. Just before coming to Melk, the town where we had serendipitously found the Jawlensky exhibit, the town whose name I had forgotten, my eye stopped at another ancient place along the river, the village of Willendorf, just above Melk. Here a wealth of Neolithic artifacts has been uncovered, including the famous Venus of Willendorf, a 24,000 year old limestone sculpture of a rotund, pregnant woman. I reflected that the Neolithic artists painted and sculpted according to what they understood was important. And one of the things that was very important to them was fertility. In the guide book there was a tiny drawing of the Venus, and as soon as I focused on it the proverbial light above my head turned on. All the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, as they say. What Kandinsky’s paintings had been trying to tell me was that they were about fertility. Cosmic fertility no less.


“Venus of Willendorf”

It wasn’t just the circles, which of course may represent many things, nor was it that the sphere is the most potent and fundamental of all symbols; it was the way Kandinsky’s circles and triangles and swirls and trapezoids and trapeziums all intermingle in a three dimensional way, creating an impression of cosmic intercourse. Geometric or not, Kandinsky’s highly symphonic compositions are bursting with energy and life.


Kandinsky, “Around the Circle,” 1940

The urgency of the message, I believe, had to do with the fact that I am a painter, and of late my work has been going in a Kandinskyish direction, for reasons unknown. This little adventure of the mind, resulting in the eventual apprehension of “cosmic fertility,” has given me a welcome concept to work with, the kind of concept that involves the simple, the obvious, the mysterious, and the complex.

As a coda to this business, perhaps a theatrical production could be created based on the story. It could have Neolithic people making art and other things, cosmic scenes and events, triangles of every possible kind, and all known shades of color, each one making a sound of its own and emitting a fragrance different from all others.


Kandinsky, stage set for “The Gnomes,”
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, 1928



*   *   *



David Wiley
Painter-poet: graduate of U. Kansas; studied at Mexico City College and with artist Ignacio Belen in Barcelona. Widely traveled, he exhibits throughout California and abroad. Wiley has published two volumes of poetry: Designs for a Utopian Zoo (1992) and The Face of Creation (1996). Since 2005, Wiley has received large mural commissions in Arizona, Mexico and California. Wiley is a longtime contributor to Scene4: paintings, poems, meditations on art, creative fiction and non-fiction.


Note: This article originally appeared in Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives,
ed. Lissa Tyler Renaud, for a special 2018 issue on Kandinsky, Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.

This article will be included in an easily accessible Index for the entire series.
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Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine

Lissa Tyler Renaud, lifelong actress, M.F.A. Directing, Ph.D. Dramatic Art (thesis [with Art History]: Kandinsky and the theatre), U.C. Berkeley, 1987; founded the Actors' Training Project studio for training based on Kandinsky's work. Since 2004, training actors, directors and scholars; lecturing, and publishing widely–as visiting professor, master teacher, invited speaker, actor-scholar, recitalist–around the U.S. and Asia; in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2019 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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