This painting’s vibrant colors almost obscure its subject. At lower right an archer on horseback leaps through a radiant landscape of towering trees and rock formations. Men in Russian dress stand in the left foreground; behind them is a group of buildings with onion-shaped domes. This folkloric scene evokes Kandinsky’s native Russia, and it also bears the influence of Murnau, the southern German town where the artist lived when he made this work: the black outlines enclosing bright colors recall reverse glass painting, a local craft. “Color,” Kandinsky wrote a year later, “is a power which directly influences the soul.”
Gallery label from 2019
Kandinsky studied law and economics and cultivated an interest in ethnography before fully committing himself to his art at the age of thirty. His academic pursuits brought him to Russia’s remote northwestern regions, where he became immersed in the folk art traditions of his homeland. There he encountered Siberian shamans who used wooden horses, often fashioned from birch branches carved to resemble a horse’s head, to transcend time and space and travel to other worlds.
In Picture with an Archer, an ocher horse leaps into a sumptuous chorus of colors. Its rider twists to point his bow at some threat beyond the frame, gazing back while galloping forward into a sweeping landscape of viridians, blues, and crimson reds. To the left, figures process from a distant cluster of buildings, whose forms resonate with the trees and strange rock formations that appear in this dreamlike scene.
For Kandinsky, the motif of the horse and rider alluded to shamanism as well as to medieval knights and religious icons. It also came to represent spiritual triumph over materialism, aligning with his belief that color and form possessed their own affective power that acted on the viewer independently of images and objects. While still discernible, Kandinsky’s archer charges into a realm where recognizable imagery dissolves into planes of color, and line flows freely. Four years later, in 1913, he would produce his first truly abstract works.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)