Helen Mirren’s Favorite Painter and the Concept of Sprezzatura : Notes on Kandinsky

Kandinsky, “Improvisation №30 (Cannons),” 1913. Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection. Copy of image in public domain via Art Institute of Chicago. CCO.

My new favorite film featuring the star Helen Mirren is a Museum of Modern Art video. In it, Mirren speaks of her love of paintings, how she often leans in too close to canvases to get a good look.

“The guards always get rather nervous when I’m in a gallery,” Mirren says with a laugh. “I want to experience the painting as the painter did… And now I’m in his or her space, and I’m experiencing the way they did that.”

In this video, Mirren makes an apt observation about abstract works done by her favorite painter, Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944).

“When I first saw Kandinsky, I assumed that it was just improvisation. It was just instinctive improvisation, and wild and of the moment. I loved it for that reason. “

Then Mirren saw a retrospective show of Kandinsky’s art and realized how his style evolved, allowing him to paint abstract works with such a sense of freedom.

“It’s far from improvisation,” Mirren said. “It’s a very thought-about constructed image.”

Listening to Mirren speak about Kandinsky brings to mind the Italian word sprezzatura. Renaissance-era writer Baldassare Castiglione commonly gets the credit for this word, sprezzatura, meaning the impression of effortlessness.

Kandinsky worked for years to perfect his craft. That’s why we have the lasting joy of his abstract paintings, which Mirren perfectly describes as seeming “wild and of the moment.”

Below are a few more images of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings and then a short recap of how he experimented with different styles in his early career. Also, there’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography on my research on European artists. The bibliography has a link to the Museum of Modern Art video. Many thanks to the Art Institute of Chicago and Munich’s Lenbachhaus for offering unrestricted use of images from their collections of Kandinsky paintings that already are in the public domain. I wish more museums would do that.

Kandinsky, “Painting with Green Center,” 1913. Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection. Image in public domain, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. CCO Public Domain.
Anonymous photo of Kandinsky. c 1913., via Wikimedia.

Kandinsky was born in 1866 to a well-off Russian family. He studied law, but loved art. He believed that colors had mysterious lives of their own. Around the age of 30, Kandinsky gave up a law career and and dedicated his life to painting. He studied in Germany and traveled in more rural regions of his native Russia, where folk art traditions impressed him.

Below are examples of different kinds of painting Kandinsky tried on his path toward developing the abstract style, for which he is best known.

Please tell me in comments if you see a resemblance to other artists’ work in these Kandinsky paintings. As much as I love Kandinsky’s abstract works, I’m also completely charmed by his paintings with Fauve and Art Nouveau vibes.

Kandinsky, “Die Braut,” 1903. Image in public domain courtesy of Lenbachhaus, Munich. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, Gabriele Münter Stiftung 1957. CCO 1.0
Kandinsky, “Lied (Chanson),” 1906. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Image in public domain via Centre Pompidou. Photo credits : © Service de la documentation photographique du MNAM — Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP
Kandinsky, “Reitendes Paar (Riding Couple),” 1906–7. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München, Gabriele Münter Stiftung 1957. Image in public domain courtesy of Lenbachhaus, Munich. CCO 1.0
Kandinsky, “Interieur (Mein Esszimmer) (My Dining Room),” 1909. Image in public domain courtesy of Lenbachhaus, Munich. CC0 1.0

There’s an entry for Kandinsky in my bibliography for essays on European artists. It has links for the video and works cited here. Highly recommended the MOMA interview with Helen Mirren. It’s a treat. If the link to my bibliography doesn’t work, please look for it on www.dooleyyoung.com.

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