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Archive for August, 2014

Kandinski3
This extensive exhibit of Kandinsky’s work is well worth the hour-and-a-half drive to Milwaukee’s Calatrava by the Lake. Word has gotten out that the show closes Sept 1st and if you’ll go in the next three days, you’ll have to share the gallery with a large, rather elegant crowd.

I was there two days ago and heard a women say, “he was arrogant.” Well, consider this: you’re meeting a 19th century Russian aristocrat who gave up law to study art in Paris, convinced that the avant-garde’s mission was to elevate human consciousness from lowly realism to a lofty, spiritual, transforming art.
About “spiritual.” Kandinsky’s short, pity book Über das Geistige in der Kunst , 1911, appeared in English in 1914 as The Art of Spiritual Harmony. The title was later changed to Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a more literal translation of the original German, but still, there’s that troublesome word “spiritual.” In New Age parlance “spiritual” is used to mean “good, feeling, non-thinking, non-analytical … inclusive, us.” Geistig in German doesn’t mean any of that, however.
In German Geist means ghost + spirit + intellect. So, at universities you can study a Naturwissenschaft or a Geisteswissenschaft. Wissen = to know, Wissenschaft = science, knowledge. So, Naturwissenschaft = natural science, that’s easy to see. Geisteswissenschaft means “Humanities.” Here you’re studying the mind: philosophy, art, history, literature, et al. It’s definitely intellectual. You can see that this doesn’t at all remind you of crystals, pyramids, and holding hands around a bonfire at the winter solstice.
Around 1900, when Kandinskiystudied art in Paris and Munich, his mind was spinning in the explosions of all the arts, the Geisteswissenschaften. The achievements of the Renaissance had exhausted themselves—there’s just so far you can go with anatomy, perspective and mixing oil paint to create the illusion of flesh tones. The revolt against Renaissance principles that we see in Cézanne, Braque and Picasso (just naming a few) went hand in hand with an anti-hierarchical social & political consciousness. Renaissance art was seen to glorify wealth, power, status—what Kandinsky calls “the nightmare of materialism.” To negate all that, where did artists turn for inspiration? They were inspired by and identified with the uncivilized, with African and Oceanic art. Kandinsky felt a spiritual (geistig) relationship to “primitives,” who, he writes “sought to express in their work only internal truths.”
You can see that “internal” is a synonym of geistig. And you can see that this verbal analysis is getting tedious and self-referential. In his book, Kandinsky tries to get at his feeling for art—and it is about feeling, despite the categorizations and definitions—but it’s only when we see the analogy between painting and music, where words fail, that we get what he’s getting at. (We’ll do that in the next post.)
Here’s Kandinsky, from Concerning the Spiritual in Art:
“The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality. This doubt, and the still harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy, divide our soul sharply from that of the Primitives. Our soul rings cracked when we seek to play upon it, as does a costly vase, long buried in the earth, which is found to have a flaw when it is dug up once more. For this reason, the Primitive phase, through which we are now passing, with its temporary similarity of form, can only be of short duration.
These two possible resemblances between the art forms of today and those of the past will be at once recognized as diametrically opposed to one another. The first, being purely external, has no future. The second, being internal, contains the seed of the future within itself. After the period of materialistic effort, which held the soul in check until it was shaken off as evil, the soil is emerging, purged by trials and sufferings. Shapeless emotions such as fear, joy, grief, etc., which belonged to this time of effort, will no longer greatly attract the artist. He will endeavor to awake subtler emotions, as yet unnamed. Living himself a complicated and comparatively subtle life, his work will give to those observers capable of feeling them lofty emotions beyond the reach of words.”
Arrogant? Try courageous.
He was not alone in his energy and courage. Think of the courage it took to be Woolfe, Joyce, Ravel, Stravinsky, Mahler, Strauss, Rilke, Kafka, Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Kokoschka, et al. Think of all the censors, ridicules, accusations of insanity and immorality, and all those vegetables and rotten eggs thrown at the stage. Nobody knew if modernism would survive.

Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944

“Impression III (Concert),” 1911, oil on canvas

Quote from “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” translated by M.T.H. Sadler, 1914

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