Posts Tagged ‘Kandinski’

When he was in his thirties, Kandinsky got serious about art. He abandoned his law background and went to Paris to study art. It was 1900 and the arts were popping, all of them, in all forms. In literature, music and painting new forms were being invented, radically new ways of thinking about art were discussed in the cafes. I mentioned some artists and writers in the previous post. In science, too, let’s not forget, radically new ways of thinking about time and space were under discussion. Einstein published his theory in 1905.
This is the beginning of our modernism, which was not at all entertaining, but deadly serious about leading humanity into a new consciousness. The moderns wanted nothing less than to invent a new man. One of their ambitions was to intensify our perception of the world by fusing the senses. So that, for example, sound would be seen and paintings would be heard like music.
Schopenhauer, already in the early 19th century, had said that all art aspires to the conditions of music. This is not hard to understand. Think about it for a minute: music does not imitate anything; it is sound that is non-representational, is freely invented; the sounds we hear in nature come from birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind and doors creaking, but music doesn’t duplicate those sounds. The composer/musician makes things up. Music is pure form. It’s abstract. It’s also the most moving of the arts. Grabs us, makes us cry, makes us dance.
Here are some quotes from Kandinsky ‘s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) to show how he thought about the relationship between music and painting and the necessity of free invention:
p. 19 Despite, or perhaps thanks to, the differences between them (the arts), there has never been a time when the arts approached each other more nearly than they do today, in this later phase of spiritual development.
In each manifestation is the seed of a striving towards the abstract, the non-material. Consciously or unconsciously they are obeying Socrates’ command—Know thyself. Consciously or unconsciously artists are studying and proving their material, setting in the balance the spiritual value of those elements, with which it is their several privilege to work.
And the natural result of this striving is that the various arts are drawing together. They are finding in Music the best teacher. With few exceptions music has been for some centuries the art which has devoted itself not to the reproduction of natural phenomena, but rather to the expression of the artist’s soul, in musical sound.
P33 The adaptability of forms, their organic but inward variations, their motion in the picture, their inclination to material or abstract, their mutual relations, either individually or as parts of a whole; further, the concord or discord of the various elements of a picture, the handling of groups, the combinations of veiled and openly expressed appeals, the use of rhythmical or unrhythmical, of geometrical or non-geometrical forms, their contiguity or separation—all these things are the material for counterpoint in painting.
P32 There is no “must” in art, because art is free.
P19 (The painter) naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results that modern desire for rhythm on painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion.
P53 The work of art is born of the artist in a mysterious and secret way…It exists and has power to create spiritual atmosphere; and from this inner standpoint one judges whether it is a good work of art or a bad one…A picture is not necessarily “well painted” if it possesses the “values of which French so constantly speak. It is only well painted if its spiritual value is complete and satisfying. “Good drawing” is drawing that cannot be altered without destruction of this inner value, quite irrespective of its correctness as anatomy, botany, or any other science. There is no question of a violation natural form, but only of the need of the artist for such form. Similarly colors are used not because they are true to nature, but because they are necessary to the particular picture. In fact, the artist is not only justified in using, but it is his duty to use only those forms which fulfill his own need. Absolute freedom, whether from anatomy or anything of the kind, must be given the artist in his choice of material Such spiritual freedom is as necessary in art at it is in life.

Kandinsky repeatedly expresses his optimism about the possibility of inventing a new way of being human. He is not alone. This is before the cataclysm of the 1914 World War. He shares his vision of a future with some contemporaries, including the theosophists. He quotes Madame Blavatsky’s book The Key to Theosophy, 1889: “The earth will be a heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with what it is now.” P 14 (Alas, that didn’t happen. The 20th century was the bloodiest in history.)
P57 …in my opinion, we are fast approaching the time of reasoned and conscious composition, when the painter will be proud to declare his work constructive. This will be in contrast to the claim of the Impressionists that they could explain nothing, that their art came upon them by inspiration. We have before us the age of conscious creation, and this new spirit in painting is going hand in hand with the spirit of thought towards an epoch of great spiritual leaders.
P54 Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul.
P31 We may be present at the conception of a new epoch, or we may see the opportunity squandered in aimless extravagance.
P12 That which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realized in feeling, and to this feeling the talent of the artist is the only road.

For excellent reproductions of some of Kandinsky’s paintings, see http://www.wassily-kandinsky.org/wassily-kandinsky-paintings.jsp Click the image for enlargement to study.

Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788-1860

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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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

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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