Vasily Kandinsky Research Project

Vasily Kandinsky, Several Circles, January–February, 1926

Vasily Kandinsky, Several Circles, January–February, 1926. Oil on canvas, 55 1/4 x 55 3/8 inches (140.3 x 140.7 cm). Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, by Gift 41.283. Vasily Kandinsky © 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

While much research has been undertaken that focuses on the themes of Vasily Kandinsky’s oeuvre, very little research has been focused on the materials and techniques he used to achieve his revolutionary work. Gillian McMillan, Senior Conservator, Collections, worked with Vanessa Kowalski, the Samuel H. Kress Fellow, recently on a pilot study of the materials and techniques used by Kandinsky on a group of six significant paintings in the museum’s collection. The findings of this study will be included in the catalogue, which is to be published for a major Kandinsky exhibition to be shown at the Guggenheim for the museum’s 50th anniversary in 2009.

The paintings were examined and documented using ultraviolet and infrared light and X-radiography and the conservators took carefully selected samples from these six paintings and had them analyzed to determine the materials Kandinsky employed, including the grounds, the pigments, the binding media, and the supports. X-radiography is often undertaken in painting conservation to “see through the painting” and investigate possible layers below the visible paint surface or any changes made to the composition; it also gives insight to the artist’s technique and choice of materials.

Vasily Kandinsky, Several Circles taken in UV showing the typical greenish/yellow fluorescence of natural resin present in the large black circle just above left of center, which suggests selective varnishing

Several Circles taken in UV showing the typical greenish/yellow fluorescence of a natural resin present in the large black circle just above left of center, which suggests selective varnishing

X-rays have been taken of paintings with surface textures that could indicate changes or that exhibited an unusual paint surface in macro examination, or that revealed interesting details during infrared and ultra-violet light examination. It is planned that this research project will be continued and expanded, with the help of additional funding, in order to enhance our understanding of the museum's extraordinary Kandinsky holdings.

The Guggenheim owns 67 paintings and several hundred works on paper by Kandinsky. The artist worked in a wide range of materials and painted on canvas, board, wood, plywood, glass, compressed board, canvas-board, and in media of his own making. Kandinsky’s choice of vivid colors and pigments is legendary. He employed oil, watercolor, gouache, tempera, and possibly mixtures of these media. The entire group of paintings would be examined and documented, and cross-sections would be made, where appropriate, in order to understand the layer structure of Kandinsky’s paintings. This would allow us to gain insight into the working methods of one of the Guggenheim Museum’s most significant artists.

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