Completed in 1913 by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, this work represents the Great Flood. However, this was not the title given to it by the author. He called it “Composition VI” – as if it were a musical score – and this was not a random choice
As a matter of fact, he wanted painting, like music, to arouse spiritual emotions without imitating reality. In his visual grammar, every colour has a specific emotional weight, as well as a sound and a form that exalts it. If music creates emotion with 7 notes, the painter does it by combining colours that are warm and cold, light and dark. The guiding colour of warmth is yellow, full of energy that tends to spread on the canvas (centrifugal force). Its sound is a trumpet blast and is best expressed in the triangle. The colour of cold is the blue that recalls the idea of something infinite, pushing our gaze into its abysses (centripetal force), arousing “nostalgia for purity and the supernatural”. It has the sound of the flute, enhancing the shape of the circle.
Kandinsky had made a version of this work (a 300 x 150 cm oil on canvas today kept in the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg) on glass some years before, in which the viewer could make out plants and animals. However, he was not satisfied. He wanted to represent the Great Flood. Instead, he had simply painted a flood. Albeit an exceptional event, it was an ordinary flood.
Kandinsky understood that these real forms hindered his work, dispelling spiritual emotion. When he finally managed to break free from the prison in which Western painting had forced artists into certain colours and shapes, condemned to imitate visible reality, Kandinsky would find his voice.
Let’s listen to the “Symphony VI”.
This sublime music is dominated by the primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Yellow spots come closer to our eyes, while blue spots push us deeper, and our eye dances, advances and recedes.
The Overture is in the upper left-hand corner. Here the colours tend towards black and the shapes barely stand out. This is the flood, the non-colour, the emptiness: “…all the springs of the great abyss erupted and the windows of heaven opened “. His wife, Nina, once wrote that the use of black distressed Kandinsky. In his writings he equates this colour to the final pause. Its silence is not that of the white, full of all the possibilities of the beginning. Black is the end of the execution and all that comes next is “a new world, because what was accomplished with this pause ended forever”.
Then the soft Pianissimo of brown begins, the colour of “imperceptible murmur” interrupted by white pauses. In contrast, curved lines that follow spiralling oblique paths suggest a downward movement, where there is a furious struggle among the colours. Matter reacts to its destruction and “explodes” into a Crescendo of warm and cold colours that alternate in the chaos of enveloping shapes – a cosmic conflagration in 3 Movements.
The First Movement is on the left, a warm explosion of yellow and red that fades into shades of pink. Here there is a trumpet blast of yellow, an energetic but superficial colour, receiving body and depth from the red, a dynamic but stable colour that has the imperious sound of the tuba. The contourless shapes are shaded as if enveloped by water vapour, creating a suspended effect. The drama of the work is resumed below by another explosion in shades of blue, this Second Movement underlined by divergent lines that push downwards.
Moving towards the centre in another Crescendo, we reach the Third Movement (top right), an explosion with a red-blue centre and sharp, cutting lines. The tension decreases as we move downwards. This is the Andante, where the colours are clear, stripped of their drama in un-crowded forms. Symmetrical counterweight to the drama and emotion is found in the opposite corner.
We are at the end. The music has come to close.
By removing the “figures”, the painter gave emotional power to the colours. Consequently, he freed them from reality, taking on a purer sound while also managing to represent the conflagration of the elements. This is not a picture of death, but rather, as Kandinsky says, “the hymn of a new creation after the disaster”, because only by destroying can there be a new beginning.
Kandinsky, by injecting music into colours, put the “spirituality” in our soul and made us witness the impossible: the sound of the Great Flood seen through the eyes of God.
Anna Maria Calabretta