Johannes Itten, a Swiss, was caught up in the intellectual and aesthetic ferment that involved many European artists before and during the First World War in far-reaching experiments about the nature and uses of representation.

The explorations of the Cubists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque contributed to a widespread opening up of ideas that helped liberate him from literal representation, while the complete abstraction found in musical form, in which he was equally and passionately interested, supplied an ideal that he could apply to colour and line.

This was a moment when all the traditional certainties of painting were being held up for scrutiny and re-evaluation, some artists seeking ways to marry observation of the external world with theories of formal design, or of the interrelationships of the components of the colour gamut, the spectrum.

Admired as pioneers of modernism, many of these artists never achieved the aesthetic resolution they were seeking and must be admitted to have tried and failed. But Itten’s mind was controlled by his musical sense and he was able to produce some of the most satisfying experiments in colour and form of a chaotic period.

He was a natural teacher, and in the year that this picture was painted set up his own art school in Vienna. Then in 1919, he joined Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus, in Weimar, where Paul Klee, another Swiss, was also a teacher, and it might be thought that they fitted snugly into the theoretical, didactic world of that famous art school. Klee’s father had taught music to the young Itten, who had already quite independently developed coherent ideas on colour.

His ideas as a teacher seem strikingly modern: his approach to creativity involved the whole body, and he instituted gymnastic classes to introduce sessions of painting or design. So concentrated was his thinking on the formal theories he had developed that he came to dislike what he came to consider the practical, industrial emphasis of Gropius’s school, broke away and continued his career as an independent art teacher.

He explained himself very lucidly when he wrote: “He who wants to become a master of colour must see, feel, and experience each individual colour in its many endless combinations with all other colours… Colours must have a mystical capacity for spiritual expression, without being tied to objects.”

This was an intense new relationship with colour, where individual hues took on personality in and of themselves, a personality entered into by the artist as though it were a living experience, quite divorced from any descriptive meaning. In this example of Itten’s work, we have a demonstration of the principle laid out equally clearly in paint.

The bold, elemental image pictured above has been seen as referring to (though not, of course, representing in any obvious sense) a stone spiral staircase. But it seems very plain that the artist was not thinking of anything architectural — though he was no doubt aware that architecture has been described as “frozen music”, and he was deeply conscious of what might be called the “architecture” of the painting itself.

His use of strong, varied and independent colour immediately banishes any representational suggestions, flattening out the potentially three-dimensional “spiral” and burying it in a uniform mosaic of competing chromatic assertions: red, yellow, black, grey, green and white.

For Itten, the excitement of this experiment becomes the “meaning” of a quintessentially entirely abstract work. 

Andrew Wilton was the first Curator of the Clore Gallery for the Turner Collection at Tate Britain and is the author of many works on the artist.