Kandinsky’s Avatar: The Horse & Rider

December 26, 2009

The twitter essence about Kandinsky’s fame would be: Lead art zeitgeist beyond abstraction into nonrepresentational painting activating “inner necessity” emotions, transcendence and spirit.

The gorgeous and sweeping retrospective of painter Wassily Kandinsky at the Guggenheim Museum in NY http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view-now/kandinsky on view until January 17th is a feast for the eyes, and as Kandinsky himself would hope, for the soul. In this show we see three major shifts in his work corresponding to changes in response to world events and his own psychological development. If you didn’t know it, you might not even think it was the same artist – particularly the first two phases.

Throughout his life, there was one iconic image to which Kandinsky ascribed a magical transformative quality: the horse and rider. We could say the horse and rider was Kandinsky’s Avatar, an alter ego or symbolized part of himself that catalyzed and steered him through life transitions, and served as a psychic compass. The horse and rider is everywhere for Kandinsky: in his autobiography, in paintings, as the name of his major art movement, The Blue Rider, and in the very last painting he created before passing on.

Read more: what Kandinsky said about the horse and rider and how it became his Avatar…

“Like all children, I passionately loved to ride horseback,” wrote Wassily Kandinsky in his autobiography (1945) referring to his toy stick horse. He remembers the experience itself sensually: “…the ivory colored wood of the stick horse made me want to lick it.” When Kandinsky saw a similar toy horse as an adult in Munich, it triggered sentimental memories of his beloved “Mother Moscow,” where he spent the “happiest days of early childhood.”

Repeatedly in Kandinsky’s writings the horse and rider motif emerges as a central organizing theme in relation to reconstructing his childhood, conceptualizing his talent and naming his art organization The Blue Rider. The references to the horse and rider symbolism dominate the first phase of his art career. This period coincided with a life transition when, at the age of 30, Kandinsky renounced his career in law and economics and turned to art. It is no coincidence that the horse and rider archetype functioned as his Avatar, being central to his childhood memories, it carried Kandinsky’s artistic leap out of law into art and abstraction. It’s also not a coincidence that the horse and rider symbol returns in Kandinsky’s last painting, Tempered Elan, painted shortly before his death. Kandinsky loved circles, and this was a loop completed in the lifecycle, and in his art.

The horse and rider archetype was a consciously selected avatar for Kandinsky, one that he brought along from childhood and used creatively until he died. I like the word avatar although it is true that psychologists have explored this phenomenon in depth using another name, transitional object or transitional phenomenon. Although we move into a somewhat esoteric vocabulary of psychoanalysis and Jungian theory, if you’re interested here’s how it could be applied to Kandinsky.

Psychological analysis

The horse as a transitional object, and Kandinsky’s early play as a rider was both creative and comforting. According to Winnocott (1953,1960), in childhood the transitional object is a bridge between the encompassing emotional attachment to the mother and the need to function autonomously in the real world, separate from the mother. Here’s the difference:  For Kandinsky, the horse and rider symbol in adulthood recapitulated separation issues, but in reverse: he left a successful, bourgeois lifestyle and career characterized by “logic” to connect with previously abandoned sensual and feeling experiences which found their way into art making. In asserting that artistic expression was the “mother of feeling,” Kandinsky became father to “abstract expressionism,” a major movement in twentieth century art. In a slow evolution of the horse and rider motif over a period of years, Kandinsky removed references to external reality from paintings. He replaced the representational object, i.e., the horse, with images that expressed his feelings about the horse–what he called “inner necessity.” Just as the child gradually abandons the transitional object as reality is incorporated into inner life, the horse lost its literal representation as inner life (i.e. intense feeling) was gradually incorporated in the reality of art making. If you see the exhibit you will see this transition.

Traditional psychoanalysts like to talk about artistic symbolization process a regression in service of the ego (Kris, 1952). But I believe in Kandinsky’s case it was more a progression into adult individuality (Erikson, 1963; Jung, 1933). Traditional psychoanalysis talks about symbolization in dreams as a mental process occurring at the unconscious level, driven by unresolved conflicts and wish fullfillment. Art symbolization may share initial unconscious impetus, but subsequently the trajectories diverge from dreams:

  • Unlike the dream, art symbolization involves conscious perception and reworking based on feedback of the “work as object” to the “artist as creator.”
  • The specific iconography adopted is personal and shaped by cultural press, unlike the dream which knows no concept of “personal style.”  Here’s where the avator comes in.
  • The life-cycle of a symbolic motif can engage the artist for years. This was the case with Kandinsky, where over the period of a decade, variations on the horse and rider motif actualized an enriched inner life (intrapsychic), served as a vehicle for personal change (developmental), and added a new chapter to the history of modern art (cultural).

The shift from transitional object to avatar during the lifespan

Adult development is riddled with ambiguous, conflicting and abstract dilemmas, requiring life experience and maturity to resolve creatively. The mid-life “crisis” can activate a renaissance, but ironically, not without some mourning. Use of transitional objects in action such as art making form a bridge during periods of transition, both on a personal and cultural/organizational level. When this happens, we can talk about a consciously selected avatar to embody the catalyst of that change.


For Kandinsky, mid-life identity was transformed through artistic laboring. The resurrection of the horse and rider transitional object, and adopted as an avatar brought back to life the sensual, spiritual, and feeling-toned experiences that were lost and forgotten in the compromises of his early childhood through socialization.


What do you think about avatars? Do they potentiate something creative for a person, create a place to hide, or simply serve security purposes on the internet? Leave a comment.


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