Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Art History

Major Professor

Riccardo Marchi, Ph.D.


Music, Abstraction, Painting, Structure, Theory


In this study, I clarify the relationship between Wassily Kandinsky's move towards abstraction in painting and his encounters with the music and theory of Arnold Schoenberg. Prior studies have concentrated on the similarities in their theories, but I examine Kandinsky [sic] idiosyncratic understanding of Schoenbergian concepts and the evolution of his engagement with music theory over the period of 1909 to 1914. I identify dissonance as the aspect of Schoenberg's music and theory that Kandinsky found most relevant to his own developing compositional theory for abstract painting. In music, dissonance is commonly considered to be combinations of tones that sound harsh or discordant. Schoenberg denied the traditional opposition between consonance (conventionally pleasing sounds) and dissonance and advocated, at this stage of his career, for the use of any combination or progression of notes as long as it served the needs of a specific composition.

Similarly, Kandinsky described his compositional strategies for abstract painting as the arrangement of colors and forms in the specific context of an individual work, with the "principle of dissonance" as a guide. Kandinsky's "principle of dissonance" was a compositional structure consisting of a multitude of oppositions and contrasts of colors and forms, producing disorienting and conflicting effects, that Kandinsky held in dynamic tension across the whole painting to produce a unifying equilibrium. This "principle of dissonance" was not completely congruent, in its specific compositional procedures, with the meaning and use of dissonance in either the conventional music theory of the period or in Schoenberg's alternate conception of dissonance.

However, Schoenberg's arguments for the acceptability of unresolved dissonances and what Kandinsky perceived as an "antilogical" compositional structure bolstered Kandinsky's assertions that these principles could support legitimate compositional strategies for his abstract painting. Finally, I analyze Kandinsky's account of the creation of his 1913 Composition VI and how his description bears the traces of his engagement with Schoenberg. Kandinsky details a structure for Composition VI that, comparable to his understanding of Schoenberg's work, is not immediately obvious, but in which any combination of forms can be juxtaposed to create a unifying whole in the context of the specific work.