The title "Improvisations" refers to a series of works that Kandinsky painted between 1909 and 1913 which was, according to the artist, "a largely unconscious, spontaneous expression of inner character, non-material nature." Although the amorphous shapes and colorful washes of paint in Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle) may at first appear entirely abstract, they form a number of recognizable images the artist invented to represent his often biblical subject matter.
The central motif of Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle) is a pair of sailing ships locked in combat, their tall masts appearing as slender black lines. Cannons blast as the ships are tossed upon turbulent waves, and, at the upper left, a city of white towers appears on the verge of toppling. Kandinsky's subject, found in a number of the Improvisations, was probably inspired by the apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Revelations.
Although this work was painted on the eve of the First World War, Kandinsky denied that his paintings referred to any specific war but rather to "a terrible struggle . . . going on in the spiritual atmosphere." Kandinsky, who fervently believed that humanity stood on the brink of a new spiritual era, avowed that art could help to sever human attachment to the material world and usher in the new age.