Around the Circle (Autour du cercle), May–August 1940
Oil and enamel on canvas
96.8 x 146 cm
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection
© VEGAP, Bilbao, 2016
“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposely, to cause vibrations in the soul.” 
Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky spent his early childhood in Odessa. In 1933 Kandinsky was forced to leave Germany due to political pressures; yet, despite the turmoil, his move to Paris ushered in a highly creative period. Freed from teaching and administrative responsibilities, he devoted himself entirely to his art. His late works are marked by a general lightening of his palette with the addition of pastel and acidic colors and the introduction of organic imagery. They also express the inventiveness, cheerfulness, and humor of an older artist working peacefully in his studio at home. Breaking away from the rigidity of Bauhaus geometry, he turned to softer, more malleable shapes that often display a whimsical, playful quality.
Although Cubism and Surrealism were fashionable in Paris, Kandinsky continued to paint abstractions and defend this style through his writings in art journals. He painted and drew prolifically, putting together an important body of work inspired by images from biology, creating forms that resembled embryos, larvae, and invertebrates, a world of minuscule living organisms.
Kandinsky’s use of biomorphic forms attests to his fascination with the organic sciences, particularly embryology, zoology, and botany. During his Bauhaus years, Kandinsky had clipped and saved illustrations of microscopic organisms, insects, and embryos. He also owned several important scientific books and encyclopedias, from which he derived abstracted depictions of minute creatures as exemplified in Around the Circle (Autour du cercle), May–August 1940.
Kandinsky combined these science-derived forms with primary geometric shapes, energetic lines, a lively pastel palette, and a set of steps leading nowhere, resulting in free-associative meanings for the viewer. These buoyant, biomorphic images can be read as signs of an optimistic vision of a peaceful future and hope for social rebirth and regeneration. The artist considered this painting to be one of his most important works of this time.
Through both his paintings and written theories on art and abstraction, Kandinsky continued to proclaim that abstraction could communicate spiritual ideas. Kandinsky died in Paris, in 1944 at age 78.
- Vasily Kandinsky, The Effect of Color, 1911
Are there aspects of this work that seem to refer to things in the observable world? Are there parts that seem to be completely invented by the artist, or does it seem to be a combination of these two realms? Explain your perceptions. Around the circle combines geometric, abstract, and figurative forms. Ask the class to find evidence of all of these types.
Describe the way that Kandinsky has used color in this work. Does it convey a particular mood, feeling, sensation, or sense of place? Do you have any personal associations with this palette or combination of colors?
Kandinsky uses a variety of shapes, lines, and colors to create this painting. List the steps and tools the artist might have used to create this work.
Kandinsky titled this work Around the circle. Discuss if this is an appropriate title for the work. Why or why not? Do students have alternative titles that they would suggest?
Many people have a favorite color, but fewer have a favorite palette. Experiment with assembling a palette of five or six colors that work harmoniously together. The class can mix these colors from paints or use color samples from a local paint store. Do students have any associations with the palette they chose? Does the selection suggest a particular environment or emotion? Now try this exercise again, with them choosing a palette of colors that they dislike. Discuss which palette was easier to formulate and why.
Kandinsky collected books on biology, zoology, embryology, and botany as well as specimens including a fish embryo, a salamander embryo, insects, marine invertebrates, jellyfish, and amoeba. In addition to his interest in their structures, it is believed that Kandinsky also saw spiritual meaning in these specimens as manifestations of regeneration and the common origin of all life. Use a biological specimen as the basis for a work of art. The motif can be as simple as a seed, pod, or leaf. In books, on the Internet, or using a microscope, the class can also look at cellular specimens. The Encyclopedia of Life Web site provides an excellent resource for this project.
Kandinsky believed that art should express the inner character of things, not their surface appearance. His work seeks to reveal this essence through shape, line, and color. Provide each student with four small sheets of drawing paper and drawing materials that include color (color pencils, Craypas, or crayons are fine). Ask students to create non-objective compositions to express these words through the use of line, shape, and color only.
Display the completed works and discuss. What are the similarities and differences between how different students interpreted the same word? What are they? Are there unique responses as well? As you view the students’ work, are there conclusions that can be drawn about how people respond to certain colors, shapes, and lines?
Create a nonobjective painting that expresses the essence of a familiar place.
Kandinsky’s long life spanned great social, political, and technological changes; two world wars; and several dislocations and relocations. Although he was largely apolitical, the major world events listed below had a direct impact on his life. Research the following events and their influence on world history:
• 1914: World War I begins.
• 1917: The Bolshevik Revolution occurs.
• 1933: The Nazis close the Bauhaus.
• 1940: The Germans begin occupying France.