Art Criticism

The Blue Rider

The Blue Rider, Wassily Kandinsky, 1903

A small figure in a blue-hooded cloak gallops through a green meadow on a white horse like a character escaping from a Romantic opera. The Blue Rider is one of Kandinsky’s most important early expressionist paintings, a painting that gave its name to a whole art movement. The horse has a red bridle and the rider seems to be cradling something in his arms. Perhaps a child. The blue of his cloak is reflected in the shadows on the hillside.  In the distance it occurs again between the fringe of trees to suggest depth and mystery. In German folklore the forest traditionally stood for the unconscious. As the trees are golden it is, probably, autumn. The white trunks suggest silver birch. It is an enigmatic painting open to a myriad interpretations.

Born in Moscow, the son of a rich tea merchant, Kandinsky spent most of his childhood in Odessa, subsequently studying law at Moscow University. As an artist he was influenced by the writings of the controversial Russian spiritualist Helena Blavatsky (1831-91), co-founder of the Theosophical Society, a quasi-religious sect that claims all creation is a geometrical progression expressed by a series of circles, triangles and squares. Kandinsky was fascinated by colour, saying that his childhood memories of Moscow were of the sun melting “into a single patch of colour: pistachio-green, flame-red house, churches – each colour a song in its own right”. These ‘patches’ recur time and again in his work. Kandinsky painted The Blue Rider before he turned fully to abstraction but it already indicates mood and movement through the use of colour rather than precise details. He wrote that he wanted to: “dissolved objects … so that they might not all be recognised at once and so that emotional overtones might thus be experienced gradually by the spectator”.

Blue, for Kandinsky, as for his fellow painter Franz Marc, was the colour of spirituality, just as it had been for medieval painters to whom it had represented heaven. The denser the blue, the more it awakened a desire for the eternal, according to his 1911 writings On the Spiritual in Art.  “Every work of art is the child of its time”, he wrote, and “pure” artists wanted, above all, to capture “the inner essence of things”. In this painting the rider appears to be escaping the autumnal landscape – the past – carrying the infant into a new and uncertain future on a horse that represents power, freedom and pleasure. As the Austrian critic and writer on Expressionism, Herman Bahr, wrote in 1914: “All that we experience is but the strenuous battle between the soul and the machine for the possession of man. We no longer live, we are lived, we have no freedom left, we may not decide for ourselves, we are finished.” The Blue Rider might, therefore, be read as a metaphor for a different sort of creativity, a symbol of the artist traveling beyond realistic representation towards a cultural rebirth.

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