Kandinsky Plays the Music of the Soul

Artist Richard Chartier and Curator Elsa Smithgall discuss Kandinsky's Painting with White Border. Photo: Evelyn Gardett

Artist Richard Chartier recently participated in a public talk on Kandinsky’s Painting with White Border with Curator Elsa Smithgall. Here he reflects on the experience and shares his meditations on the painting. Learn more about Richard on his website

When I first agreed to do an artist talk/conversation in connection with the Kandinsky exhibition I was unsure. I didn’t feel I had much connection to his early work.

Having said that, when I arrived and actually saw the painting I was to discuss, Painting with the White Border, in person I was astounded. There is a certain magic to this work.

Kandinsky created so many sketches and preparatory works for this one painting, and it shows. He spoke frequently of his desire to “paint the color of sound.” His initial drawings gave me the impression of graphic scores a contemporary composer might create for a piece of music. He thought of these shapes and colors and forms as elements in a symphony. It truly is a work that pulls you in and moves you around in a continuous swirl.

After talking with the curator Elsa Smithgall for almost two hours preparing our discussion, I went to see the Rothko Room. I spent some contemplative time there and then returned to sit in front of Painting with the White Border. I found myself having distinctly different but similar synaesthetic reactions. In both the Rothko paintings and this swirl of a painting by Kandinsky I found myself being pulled in and thinking about sound. Whereas the Rothkos were sumptuous understated drones, the Kandinsky was a musical tempest, a wild symphony for the eyes. The color, the density, the vibrant interactions make the surface of the painting almost uniform in its movement, but the one thing that keeps your eye moving back into the painting is that fascinating, almost undulating, white border.

Kandinsky wrote: “Color is the keyboard, the eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.” This painting knows exactly how to play the soul.

–Richard Chartier, artist