Google adorned its homepage today with a Doodle commemorating the 148th birthday of Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian-born painter known for creating one of the first truly abstract paintings and for revolutionizing the way people think about art.
But this titanic shift almost never occurred. As the son of a well-off tea merchant, Mr. Kandinsky studied law and finance at the University of Moscow. After graduation, he became a law professor and nearly sealed his fate as a successful but likely forgettable faculty member.
At age 30, everything changed. Kandinsky tossed aside his job; moved to Munich, Germany; enrolled in art school; and became one of the most important modern painters.
What explains this sudden career change? Looking back, Kandinsky wrote that two events set him on this reckless but ultimately crucial path.
The first moment occurred in 1895, a year before his big transformation. While wandering through an exhibition of French impressionists in Moscow, Kandinsky grew infatuated with Claude Monet's "Haystacks." The painting is part of a series in which Mr. Monet captured stacks of hay at different points throughout the year – a rather mundane subject, to be sure – but Monet infused the series with thick brushstrokes of rich, embellished color: summery greens, snowy blues, and early-morning oranges. The painting baffled Kandinsky.
"That it was a haystack the catalogue informed me," he later wrote. "I could not recognize it. This non-recognition was painful to me. I considered that the painter had no right to paint indistinctly. I dully felt that the object of the painting was missing. And I noticed with surprise and confusion that the picture not only gripped me, but impressed itself ineradicably on my memory. Painting took on a fairy-tale power and splendor."
His second influence came from a very different art form: opera. During a performance of Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin," Kandinsky experienced synesthesia, a phenomenon in which multiple senses can overlap. Some people diagnosed with synesthesia say that they can hear colors or taste sounds.
Kandinsky wrote that, during the opera, "I saw all my colors in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me." Later, he added, "It became absolutely clear to me that art in general was much more powerful than I had thought, and that, on the other hand, painting was capable of developing powers akin to those of music."
Swept off his feet by these two experiences, Kandinsky reevaluated his life. He abandoned his success in Russia to pursue art.
As his artwork turned abstract, a style captured well in the Google Doodle, his paintings became more musical. After all, sheet music is as an interesting example of abstract art – it turns sounds and time into notes and lines. Kandinsky wanted to do the same thing for visual art. He captured the visual world in colors and marks – symbols that do not exist in the real world, but can still evoke true emotions.