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.
Purchased 1913 from the artist by Joseph Müller [d. 1977], Solothurn, Switzerland; purchased 1978 from Müller's estate through (Galerie Beyeler, Basel) by NGA.
- Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon [1st German Autumn Salon], Galerie Der Sturm, Berlin, 1913, no. 183.
- [exhibition], Kunsthalle Basel, 1945, no. 2.
- Der Blaue Reiter: München und die Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1908-1914, Haus der Kunst, Munich, 1949, no. 68, with incorrect dimensions.
- Der Blaue Reiter 1908-14: Wegbereiter und Zeitgenossen, Kunsthalle Basel, 1950, no. 177.
- [exhibition], Kunsthalle Bern, 1955, no. 33.
- Der Blaue Reiter und sein Kreis, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, 1961, no. 17.
- Retrospective Exhibition, Kunsthalle Basel, 1963, no. 93 (or no. 95?).
- Kandinsky: The Improvisations, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1981, unnumbered brochure, repro.
- Kandinsky, Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984-1985, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- German Art in the 20th Century, Royal Academy of Arts, London; Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, 1985-1986, no. 31, repro.
- Kandinsky/Mondrian: Dos caminos hacia la abstracción [Two Roads to Abstraction], Sala de Exposiciones de la Fundación "la Caixa", Madrid, 1994, no. 29, repro. (not shown at second venue, Centre Cultural de la Fondation "la Caixa", Barcelona).
- Kunst über Grenzen: Die Klassische Moderne von Cézanne bis Tinguely und die Weltkunst - aus der Schweiz gesehen, Haus der Kunst, Munich, 1999, no. 90, repro.
- Geniuses and Masterpieces II. Sea Battles: Veronese, Turner, Kandinsky, Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest, 2006, no cat.
- Kandinsky, Städtische Galerie im Lembachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich; Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2008-2010, no. 37 and repro. (English translation of German cat.), unnumbered catalogue with repro. (French cat.), no. 33 and repro. (English cat.).
- Kandinsky and the Harmony of Silence: Painting with White Border, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011 - 2012, unnumbered catalogue, pl. 34 (shown only in Washington).
- Vasily Kandinsky: From Blaue Reiter to the Bauhaus, 1910-1925, Neue Galerie New York, 2013-2014, no. 46, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 610-611, no. 946, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 213, repro.
- Strick, Jeremy. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture: Selections for the Tenth Anniversary of the East Building. Washington, D.C., 1989: 30, repro. 31.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 256, repro.
- Kirsh, Andrea, and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. Materials and Meaning in the Fine Arts 1. New Haven, 2000: 264.
- Southgate, M. Therese. The Art of JAMA II: Covers and Essays from The Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago, 2001: 52-53, 209, color repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 419, no. 350, color repro.
- Cooper, Harry. The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2009: 12, repro. 13.
This painting has not been conserved in any way.