What Is Art: Kandinsky (excerpt from Ignoring Beauty)

And from the first declension of the flesh

I learnt man’s tongue, to twist the shapes of thoughts

Into the stony idiom of the brain,

To shade and knit anew the patch of words

Left by the dead who, in their moonless acre,

Need no word’s warmth.

~Dylan Thomas

I have previously defined art as a basic form of human communication. I was not sure if that adequately covers it, so I added—and design is a plan. Every semester when introducing the students’ research paper assignments I warn the students not to run to the dictionary for their definitions of words like Art and Beauty. I want them instead to be creative and think of their own “working” definitions. Years ago when I was on the debate team in High School we used to use a cop-out when it came to defining terms in our proposals. We used to say “our terms will be operationally defined.” In other words, when we explain our plan the meaning of our terms will be obvious. A working definition is one that demonstrates the meaning of the word includes an approximate definition and can change and become more complete as one goes along. To say that art is a basic form of human communication and design is a plan, says nothing about skill, craft or artifice as a dictionary might (e.g. New Century Dictionary 74). Skill, craft and artifice are all judgments about art, not art.

Since I did not re-shelve my stacks of Art History and Humanities books (now sitting on the floor in four stacks instead of two) we might consult the experts to see if we can find a more complete or a better definition of Art. I also retrieved another book I overlooked in my previous discussion of the Norman Conquest. The Humanities Through the Arts was written by F. David Martin and Lee A. Jacobus in 1974. Martin was a Professor of Philosophy (he retired in 1983) and Jacobus was an English Professor (I don’t know when he retired, but he’s listed in the University of Connecticut’s Emeritus Directory). They wrote:

Three of the most widely accepted criteria for determining whether or not something is a work of art are (1) that the object or event is made by an artist, (2) that the object or event is intended to be a work of art by its maker, (3) that important or recognized experts agree that it is a work of art. (19)

Obviously I have problems with each of these three criteria. The first begs the question. How do we know who is and is not an artist? The second also begs the question because we still do not know what art is, so how can a maker intend his or her work to be art? The third criteria begs the question and adds another conundrum, how do we know which experts are “important” or “recognized.” In fact, outside of their fields and their book notwithstanding I do not recall Martin and Jacobus being recognized as important or recognized experts on art. Furthermore what exactly do they mean by “important”? My Master’s degree says that I am a “recognized” expert in the Humanities, but does it mean that I am “important”? We simply do not know and Martin and Jacobus are not telling us anything useful about what art is. [They do not even mention the Bayeux tapestry or the Norman Conquest, by the way.]

Hartt begins his Introduction with the same question that heads this chapter, “What is Art?” He begins by saying that the answer was different in “every epoch of history” (2nd ed.10). He too alludes to the fact that art need not be beautiful to be art (10). He concludes: “It is this ability to embrace human experience of all sorts and transmit it to the observer that distinguishes the work of art” (12). That is about as close as Hartt comes to giving an actual definition of art. Hartt relies on his reader’s ability to synthesize a definition from his two pages of discussion, for him or herself.

In her first chapter, Adams wrote, “…art is a window on human thought and emotion” (14).  A bit later she is more to the point: “‘Is it art?’ is a familiar question, which expresses the difficulty of finding a universal definition of ‘art’ and of recognizing the esthetic value of an object” (17). Both Adams and Hartt are a bit vague in their discussions but Adams gives us the reason that most discussions of what art is are so vague.

Bersson discusses various definitions of art at various times by various people; he sets art in the context of the cultures that produced it; and then he gives-up: “From this array of possibilities, you yourself will ultimately determine, like an aesthetician, your definition or concept of art” (4). It seems to me that Bersson is giving people permission to say things like “well, I don’t know much about art; but I know what I like.” There must be some sort of objective, universal criteria that we can use to determine what is and is not art.

Fiero does not define art in her text Landmarks in Humanities; or if she does I could not find it.  Also, someone at McGraw-Hill should have noticed that the book does not have a blurb about who the author is and her credentials. She holds a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities from the University of Florida.

Lamm’s text provides us with a variety of definitions from a variety of famous people like Aristotle, “Art is a higher type of knowledge than experience”; Jean Anouilh, “The object of art is to give life a shape”; and Oscar Wilde, “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known” (5). What his discussion boils down to is that artists experience the world differently than we do, and they communicate these different perceptions through their art (5-6). These are all statements about art but they are not definitions of art.

In their preface, Perry, Baker and Hollinger imply that art is a “visual” interpretation of a culture (xiv). They obviously mean to say that the plastic arts are a visual interpretation of culture.  Obviously not all art is visual. This is the kind of “little thing” that slips past editors and fact checkers. I know from experience that it is very difficult to edit one’s own work; it’s relatively easy to edit someone else’s. An editor who is perhaps an expert with words but who does not specialize in the Humanities might look at the sentence: “The art sections reveal how people in each era interpreted their culture visually” (xiv) and not think there is anything wrong with it. In addition to the above correction, I would think that culture should be plural to agree with people.

Cunningham and Reich discuss in their introduction, “How to Look at Art”, “For What Was This Piece of Art Made?”, “What if Anything, Does This Piece of Art Hope to Communicate?”, and so forth; but they do not discuss what art is (XXIV-XXV).

Stockstad, in Art a Brief History in a section called “Starter Kit” quotes Suzanne Langer “Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human feeling” (11). And Georgia O’Keeffe, “I found that I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way—things that I had no words for (11).  She concludes “in basic nonphilosophical [sic] terms” that “art has two components: FORM and CONTENT” (11). Of all of the definitions we have surveyed thus far, these seem to be the most satisfying; and coincidentally, closest to my own definition.

We probably do not need to go through all four stacks. Instead, we probably should take some time to discuss form and content. The content of a piece is “what” and the form is “how.” We have already visited matters of form in our chapter on the elements and principles of design. So some discussion of content is in order. Content for representational pieces is easy to determine. The content of abstract art is not quite so readily available to us. As we will see, what the artist intends is often very idealistic or even out of touch with the reality we perceive. [Something tells me that I’m about to get very academic…. Don’t worry, if I get too boring, I’ll throw in some more pictures.] The artist’s intentions, theories and the broader context of the society he or she lives in are all a part of the content of the work he or she produces.

Wassily Kandinsky, in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (written in 1910 and published in 1912) offers a complicated explanation of the effects of color and shape on the human psyche. The origins of many of his ideas about the nature of art and the effects that he chronicles in some detail are obscure or uncertain. When Kandinsky turns to authority for his arguments, he refers to a physician, a pathologist, a composer, a philosopher, or a “scientist”; in 19th century Europe, all of these experts might have concerned themselves with similar issues and theories. Colors, sounds, shapes and words were all thought to be possessed of quasi-mystical properties, that when apprehended by the senses, rendered them capable of moving the emotions. Most of Kandinsky’s conclusions are arrived at through logic, personal experience and reflection. We must remember that in 1910 Freud’s ideas were still unseasoned and though widely disseminated, not understood for their implications. Carl Jung was only beginning to develop the controversial theories that marked much of his career. Cezanne had been dead only four years and his paintings were not yet fully appreciated. The Impressionists had succeeded only to the extent that they had replaced the older “academic” sensibilities of what painting could be, with a new “divisionism” in temperament and a dominant, newly struck aesthetic. The members of this new school were to become yet another old guard against which still newer voices would arise in protest.  As Kandinsky wrote:

There are…aestheticians who write about an art which was condemned yesterday. In these books they remove the barriers over which art has most recently stepped and they set up new ones. They do not notice that they are erecting barriers not in front of art, but behind it. If they do, they write fresh books and hastily set the barriers a little further on. This process will go on until it is realized that the most advanced principle of aesthetics can never be of value to the future, but only to the past. No theory can be laid down for those things that lie in the realm of the immaterial…. That which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realized in feeling, and the talent of the artist is the only road to feeling. (31)

The two key ideas that are of primary concern for the present examination are first, that “the most advanced principle of aesthetics” is of value only to understand the past; and second, that the “talent of the artist is the only road to feeling”; feeling is the agency whereby the “spirit of the future” is to be “realized”. An artistic break from the past is for Kandinsky an alignment with hidden continuities, unperceived by and imperceptible to all except the sensitive, spiritual artist. These continuities cannot be contained by theory but are communicated from the artist to the spectator who is willing to receive them. Furthermore, these continuities are resident (as content) in art of every age and form, what is for Kandinsky a tradition of persistent essences that transcend particular moments or “movements” of a “popular”, “mechanical”, or “materialistic” art. These latter adjectives refer to a type of art (plastic or performance) which may only be a pale and transitory expression of the far greater “moment” of the “pure” and “spiritual” in art. [I warned you it was complicated; and it’s only going to get worse; but not tonight.]

Kandinsky’s work was relatively unknown in France in 1910, and his first “non-figurative” painting dates from the same year. Throughout much of his career many critics received his work coolly, skeptically and from the distance afforded them, by a perpetual sneer. Kandinsky was well known in Russia; in Germany he was known among the intelligentsia; he was also discussed by certain members of the French Avant-Garde (Le Targat 13). As a teacher of art, a theorist and as a practitioner of non-representational art, Kandinsky’s influence was most keenly felt by the younger and emerging artists: Leger, Marc, Klee, Delauney, and Gleizes are examples. Apollinaire set the tone in 1913,

I have often spoken of the works of Kandinsky, on the occasion of his exhibition in Paris. And I am only too pleased to take this opportunity of expressing my very high opinion of this painter whose art seems to me to be as serious as it is important. (Quoted in Le Targat 13)

As Francois Le Targat points out, however, many German critics “were dismissing the same art as ‘idiocy’” (13).  [I do not know, and Le Targat is silent on the subject of whether or not these “German critics” were “important”.]

The first Blaue Reiter exhibition and the Almanac of the same name, expressly announced the intentions of its founders, as portrayed in the words written by Franz Marc:

We are going to found an almanac which we intend to make the organ of all the worthwhile ideas of out age. Painting, music, theatre, etc…. Its main purpose will be to explain a great many things with the help of comparative documents…. We are hoping to gain such salutary, stimulating benefits from it—both in the way of elucidating ideas and of direct utility to our own work—that it has become our all-absorbing dream. (Quoted in Le Targat 14)

Bruce Altschuler, writing in The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, credits Kandinsky with the origin of the project (46). The name, Blaue Reiter, was arrived at due to a mutual interest in horses and riding, as well as a fortuitous association with St. George; the color blue was chosen because both men attributed to it an association with spirituality (46). Altshuler also points out that Kandinsky had already formed a new school of artists called “the Phalanx,” in 1901 (42). This followed only five years after his arrival in Munich, having left his “promising legal career in Moscow” (42). Altshuler reminds his reader that Munich was second only to Paris as a cosmopolitan center of the arts and especially of the Avant-Garde (42). Six years later Kandinsky and Alexie Jawlensky would be instrumental in making the second exhibit of the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen—the NKVM [not even the Germans know how to pronounce this—they just clear their throats several times and pretend to be otherwise occupied] the New Artists’ Association of Munich—September 1910, “one of the first large group shows of the European avant-garde, prefiguring the 1912 Cologne Sonderbund and the 1913 Armory Show in New York” (45). Franz Marc joined the group the following February (1911). Altshuler’s accounts of Kandinsky’s success and recognition seem at odds with Kandinsky’s own statements concerning the role of the artist as disliked and spurned by society. On the other hand commentators like Le Targat seem to apply to Kandinsky his conceit of the artist as struggling outcast.

Altshuler implies that the break with the NKVM was precipitated by Kandinsky and Marc, purposely staged by the latter two, to gain momentum for their joint endeavors concerning the Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky deliberately submitted a painting that exceeded the size specifications set by the jury for the exhibit, (Composition V, 1911. Oil on canvas, 74 ¾ x 108 ¼ in. Private collection). The first Blaue Reiter exhibit was installed, although in adjacent rooms, in the same gallery provided by Thannhauser for the NKVM exhibit; and the two shows ran concurrently. Altshuler also relates that Herwarth Walden, the “avant-garde impresario of pre-war Germany”, mounted Kandinsky’s first one man show in October of 1912, which he then toured throughout Eastern and Western Europe for the next several years. Once again, this seems to diminish the characterization by Le Targat and by Kandinsky himself, of the artist as a despised outsider.

The Blaue Reiter exhibit and the Almanac were conceived as complimentary artistic endeavors, mutually beneficial and interdependent by design. Marc looked to create an aesthetic “organ” capable of “explaining” if not uniting the plastic and performing arts under the aegis of “all the worthwhile ideas of our age.” How the worth of an idea was to be determined was not set down by Marc, nor was it specifically defined by Kandinsky. At best, the pronouncements concerning the characteristics of colors and shapes offered by Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, offer anecdotal evidence; examples drawn from experience are relied upon frequently as “proofs” for Kandinsky’s arguments. Kandinsky appeals to “common sense”, he bases his assertions of these carefully selected observations, and a wide variety of “representative samples”: his conclusions are orchestrated to support his eclectic themes. The selections from his writings by Herschel Chipp are telling.

Chipp excerpts passages from Concerning the Spiritual in Art and from an article in Der Blaue Reiter , “On the Problem of Form” (152, 155). Kandinsky gives as examples in the first selection, the observation of colors straight from the tube, as in the artist’s studio: “Some colors appear soft (madder-lake), others hard (cobalt green, blue-green oxide), so that fresh from the tube they seem to be ‘dry’” ( Chipp 154). He refers also to “chromotherapy” the tenets of which espouse the belief that “colored light can influence the whole body”, the practice of which attempts to “treat various nervous ailments. Red light” he continues “stimulates and excites the heart, while blue light can cause temporary paralysis” (154). He adds “it is unquestionable that color can exercise enormous influence upon the whole body as a physical organism” (154). His conclusion, however, betrays a virulent fallacy: “Generally speaking, color directly influences the soul.” While we may be convinced that the influence of color on the physical body is reasonable, given the examples he cites from documented, clinical experimentation, his leap to the realm of soul is unfounded and improbable. Kandinsky continues, using his conclusion as a premise for yet another conclusion, one that he claims to be central to his “principles of internal necessity”; those principles must fall under suspicion as well: “It is evident therefore that color harmony must rest ultimately on purposive playing upon the human soul….” (His emphasis. Chipp 155). This statement remains unproven and is perhaps not provable.

While most reasonable people might be willing to accept an emotional designation for the color blue as “cool” and red as “warm”, even black as mournful or somber, it seems less likely that most would immediately understand the values Kandinsky attaches to acute angles, squares and circles, as anything other than axiomatic. It seems too, following from the previous discussion that spectators cannot be counted upon to be sensitive to the “inner” truths expressed by Marc or Kandinsky, any more than they might be expected to immediately apprehend the subtle complexities of Kandinsky’s compositions that are based on his “higher ideals”.

To try to summarize a general theory of color from Kandinsky’s writings is difficult. He has written not only about the characteristics of individual colors, but also about the attributes and effects of colors in combination. Consider the following:

Generally speaking warmth or coolness in a color means an approach to yellow or blue. This distinction occurs on one level so to speak: i.e., the color preserves its basic quality, but this quality is, now more, now less earthy. It represents a horizontal movement, the warm colors approaching the spectator, the cool ones retreating from it. (57)

What Kandinsky is trying to say is not intuitively obvious. Why for example, should there be any kind of shift from any color to any other color? What kind of shift is Kandinsky referring to?  Colors do not really have “qualities”, “earthy” or otherwise, other than the associations we make based on what we think or feel.  Some people like blue and do not like pink. Those who like blue may attach positive qualities to various shades of blue but those qualities do not inhere in blueness. [I find pink shirts and pink ties repulsive; pink nipples and pink lips, not so much! So pink does not have repulsive qualities that are inherently “pink”; except by the associations I make with or attach to it. By the way, I’m not playing as much in this chapter because I want the students and teachers reading this book, to have an example of academic writing, written in an academic tone with proper citations. I’m playing as much as I am, because even academics find academic writing to be rather dull. That and my date flaked tonight.] Kandinsky continues:

Yellow and blue have another movement which affects the first antithesis—an eccentric and concentric movement. If two circles are drawn and painted respectively yellow and blue, a brief contemplation will reveal in the yellow a spreading movement out from the center, and a noticeable approach to the spectator. The blue, on the other hand, moves into itself, like a snail retreating into its shell, and draws away from the spectator. The eye feels stung by the first circle while it is absorbed into the second. (57)

[“My mind is on fire and I can’t put it out! More blue! More blue! Shift! dammit, shift!”]

Kandinsky does not make his case any clearer. He attributes movement to the colors, as noted; when we consider the more specific case of the agency to which this movement is attributed, we are left once again, with more questions than answers. As we shall see, Kandinsky lacks physical “proof” for his conjectures, so in lieu of proof, he offers theory:

In the case of light and dark colors movement is emphasized. That of the yellow increases with an admixture of white, i.e., as it becomes lighter. That of the blue increases with an admixture of black, i.e., as it becomes darker. This fact has a greater importance if we note that yellow inclines to the light (white) to such an extent that there can be no very dark yellow. The relationship between white and yellow is as close as between black and blue for blue can be so dark as to border o black. Beside this physical relation, there is also a spiritual one (between yellow and white on one side, and blue and black on the other), which marks a strong separation between the two pairs. (57)

In fairness, Kandinsky’s note from this same page warns that “all these statements are the results of empirical feeling, and are not based on any exact science” (57). Kandinsky further contradicts the “empirical” nature of his inquiries with an allusion to the spiritual “relationship” between the two pairs of colors, which “marks a strong separation between the two pairs.” We may have intuitions about spirit, we may believe that spirit exists, but we cannot experience spirit “empirically”. To posit then, that colors exist somehow in a spiritual relationship to one another, even if in “separation” from each other, seems to be the height and depth of lunacy. Nonetheless, Kandinsky continues:

An attempt to make yellow colder produces a greenish tint and checks both horizontal and eccentric movement. The color becomes sickly and unreal, like an energetic man who has been checked in the use of his energy by external circumstances. The blue by its contrary movement acts as a brake on the yellow and is hindered in its own movement, and , if more blue is added, the contrary movements cancel each other and complete immobility ensues. The result is green. Similarly white, when mixed with black, loses permanence, and the result is gray, which is spiritually similar to green (57).

One hardly knows where to begin to break down these preposterous statements. Yellow and blue do make green, but some greens are pleasant and not at all “sickly” or “unreal”. [Although I still maintain that there are no good yellows!] The simile comparing the color green to an “energetic man” is pure nonsense as is the idea that colors are mobile or immobile. How or why or that green and gray could be “spiritually similar” is utterly incomprehensible. Still, if we are going to consider the “content” of Kandinsky’s work as co-equal to his theories, we need only to admit that these are his theories, not that they are true. Kandinsky is arguing for a “new art”. He offers a summary lament for the current state of society and the existence of “true” and “false” artists:

The artist seeks material rewards for his facility, inventiveness and sensitivity, his purpose becomes the satisfaction of ambition and greediness. In place of an intensive cooperation among artists, there is a battle for goods. There is excessive competition, over-production. Hatred, partisanship, cliques, jealousy, intrigues are the natural consequences of an aimless, materialist art.

The public turns away from artists who have higher ideals, who find purpose in an art without purpose. (26)

Here Kandinsky launches the first part of a two-pronged attack. He focuses first on the causes of dissension and disagreement among artists themselves. He sees the struggle among artists as a competition that is rooted in “ambition and greed”.  These are both product and perpetual cause of a “materialist art” that is antithetical to the “higher ideal” of artistic cooperation. Competition and greed alienate the “public”, who then avoid artists who pursue an interest in art, only for the sake of art. The second point of attack for Kandinsky is the idea of “popular art”. He reasons that if “comprehension” is a matter of “educating the spectator to the point of view of the artist”, and that such an art is “a child of its time”, then an artist is only able to reiterate (in his or her own art) what is already “clearly realized by the contemporary”. Kandinsky insists that to say that an art is “only a child of the age” is at least the wrong metaphor; furthermore, as “only the child of its time”, “it is not germinative, and unable to become the mother of the future, it is a castrated art. It is transitory; it dies morally the moment the atmosphere that nourishes it alters [it]. “It” depending on our reading, may refer equally to ‘comprehension”, to an “art” that is a “child of its time”, or even to the “point of view of the artist”. As we read the elements of Kandinsky’s passage in context, we find that the most likely referent is to the “castrated art” whose relevance and coetaneous nature must be explained to the spectator:

“Comprehension” is educating the spectator to the point of view of the artist. It has been said that art is the child of its time. But such an art can only repeat artistically what is already clearly realized by the contemporary. Since it is not germinative, but only a child of the age, and unable to become a mother of the future, it is a castrated art. It is transitory; it dies morally the moment the atmosphere that nourished it alters. (26)

Kandinsky imposes his own system of values onto the very system of exchanges that he is describing. He feels that his is the morally superior position, so he finds no fault in himself for participating freely in the faults of another. Kandinsky sets out to do precisely what he eschews in the written polemics of his predecessors and contemporaries alike; as a consequence, a contradiction arises:

There is another art capable of further development, which also springs from contemporary feeling. Not only is it simultaneously its echo and mirror but it possesses also an awakening prophetic power which can have far reaching and profound effect.

The spiritual life to which art belongs, and of which it is one of the mightiest agents, is a complex but definite movement above and beyond, which can be translated into simplicity. This movement is that of cognition. Although it may take different forms, it holds basically to the same internal meaning and purpose. (26)

Within the space of a few paragraphs Kandinsky has succinctly distinguished between “Materialist” art and “Spiritual” art.

Kandinsky envisions a transformation that can be brought about by the artist, following a perceived “necessity to move forward and upward” and “through sweat, suffering, evil and torments” toward a realization of “another art”, “which also springs from contemporary feeling” (26). Contemporary art is for Kandinsky a spiritual battle between good and evil; “comprehension” is identified as the key to winning or losing the battle. Comprehension is likened to art as “transitory” he claims—by this reading—that both may die “morally the moment the atmosphere that nourished [them] alters”. If comprehension is taught to the spectator, and if comprehension is the key to winning or losing the battle; and further, if we assume (as Kandinsky does) that the battle is currently being waged and won by artists motivated by greed and selfishness who “educate” the “spectators” in their own avarice, what will induce these spectators to become disenchanted with their current teachers and to seek new instruction? One of the driving principles at the heart of his new art, is “inner necessity”, yet Kandinsky has not supplied an example of how this “inner necessity” is made manifest in this matter of “comprehension”.

Kandinsky holds that a “movement above and beyond” is accomplished through “cognition”; he insinuates that “spiritual art” is based on cognition, generally. Specifically, he argues that the spiritual artist cognitively applies the principles he is setting down as standards for all art (good and bad). The spiritual artist avoids the traps of a “transitory” and “castrated” materialist art simply by seeking “true” art. Kandinsky also holds that the spiritual artist does not expect the recognition or rewards of his materialist cousins, but “scorned and disliked, he drags the heavy weight of resisting humanity forward and upward” (26). Robert Hughes’ comment is on point as he says, regarding Kandinsky’s expressionism, that

Expressionism was, so to speak, a fossil of the ancient Judeo-Christian belief in a moral conflict between the world and the spirit. To rise above the material world, to subdue it by using its contents as emblems or abstractions, was to chalk up a victory for the spirit—even when the worship of God, the original stake in the battle, had been replaced by the cult of the imperious ego. (310)

Hughes does not really make the link for us but it seems implied in what he wrote, part of the content of Kandinsky’s work is Kandinsky’s ego. At the very least, we can feel safe in our conclusion that the content of abstract non-representative art is more than what is on the canvas or the plinth. Even though we have found fault with what he wrote, we must consider it as a key to understanding why he painted the way he painted. Kandinsky’s theories assert a cognitive basis for—we would call it psychological—the spectator’s responses to color, shape and line. These theories offer us a point of entry into Kandinsky’s paintings and into the works of those whom he influenced.

[Some material writes itself; this shit has been surgically extracted like wisdom teeth.]

I believe that we should view Kandinsky as a poet in both his writing and his painting. Jean Arp observed (about Kandinsky’s paintings) “through the poetry of Kandinsky we witness the eternal cycle, coming into being and disappearing, the transformation of this world. His poems make evident the absence, the nullity, of perception and reason” (Quoted in Le Targat 27). We should not be surprised then, if in his attempts to guide us through the subtle territories of his paintings, that the artist himself stumbles over “reason”, he has set for himself the task of describing that which may defy description. Kandinsky wrote:

The most modern musicians, like Debussey, create a spiritual impression, often taken from nature, but embodied in purely musical form. For this reason Debussey is often classed with the impressionist painters, on the ground that he resembles these painters in using natural phenomena for the purposes of art. Whatever truth there may be in this comparison merely accentuates the fact that the various arts of today learn from each other and often resemble each other. But it would be rash to say that this proposition is an exhaustive statement of Debussey’s significance. (35)

It would be a mistake to claim from Kandinsky more than a similarity between painting and music. Music and painting have an implicit correspondence that does not prevail as an exhaustive statement of worth or significance for either. “The various arts of today learn from each other” (my emphasis), not by virtue of their similarities as arts, but because they belong to the same age: “we recognize at once his [Debussey’s] work the flawed, vocal soul of the present, with all its harassing anxiety and jangled nerves” (35). With regard to rules that may apply to the arts, and especially to music, Kandinsky quotes Schoenberg: “Every combination of notes, every advance is possible, but I am beginning to feel that there are definite rules and conditions which incline me to the use of this or that dissonance” (Quoted in Kandinsky 35). Following Schoenberg’s insights concerning artistic freedom, Kandinsky concludes “that the greatest freedom of all, the freedom of an unfettered art, can never be absolute. Every age achieves a certain measure of freedom but beyond the boundaries of its freedom the mightiest genius can never go” (35-36).  Music, painting, poetry and art, as seen by Kandinsky, should not be a matter of the ear or of the eye but of the soul (36). Kandinsky began his analysis with a rejection of the external (“outer”), and its emphasis on the materiality of the world as it is received by the cognitive faculties (“inner”); then he perceives an elevation of this experience through interpretation and feeling “upward” to the “divine” and “inward” to the “spiritual”.

Kandinsky’s system of painting (after 1921) has been criticized as somewhat less than inspiring; as Hughes describes it:

In his effort to fix a symbolic language of shape and colour, which went beyond all depictive efforts in its attempt to show direct Symbolist correspondences between form and feeling, Kandinsky produced a mass of worthy but rather dry and solipsistic painting. There was no guarantee that a black-edged purple triangle on a sea-green ground could “represent” the same emotions for any spectator as it did for Kandinsky, and his zeal to cook up a universal grammar of form was like the enthusiasm with which Esperantists argued their case in Kandinsky’s day (301).

Hughes’ critical sneer is tempered (this time) with a good-natured wink at Kandinsky’s efforts to create a new language for art. We may conclude with Hughes that such an attempt was well meaning, however misguided or even naïve. We should not lose sight of the fact that ever since Gustav Courbet declared himself a “Courbetist”, artists have been similarly attempting the reinvention of art in their own oneirocritical images. [This time I’ll save you the trip because were finally on a roll: O-nI-rO-krit-ik-al—“pertaining to the interpretation of dreams” (New Century Dictionary 1185).] Kandinsky’s shapes may be seen as snatches of melody, mere phrases of song or poetry that are only half-remembered, amid a background of noise that substitutes for certainty. This certainty is a “known” commodity that is encroached upon by a “field” of the unknown and uncreated. Lines allude to form, without describing or becoming it.

In a note to his excerpt from Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger’s book, Cubism, (1912) Chipp urges us to remember that Suerat also made blanket statements concerning color, line and tone in relation to the emotions that they call up in the spectator. “Compare [Metzinger’s statement] with Suerat’s theory that colors could be considered on a scale of cool to warm, lines on a scale of passivity to activity, and tones from light to dark, and that these were evocative of moods from sad to gay” (213).

Kandinsky is most profound and convincing in his discussion of black and white. “White” he says, “is a symbol of a world from which all colors as a material attributes have disappeared. This world is too far above us for its structure to touch our souls” (59). Here Kandinsky leans on the edge of the mystical, as if to peer up into the distant spiritual realm he longs to participate in through his art. He continues, “there comes a great silence which materially represented is like a cold, indestructible wall going on into the infinite” (59-60). We realize that the wall he is describing is not at all some vague supernatural wall; it is the same wall that Kandinsky described in the notes to his manuscript:

Van Gogh, in his letters, asks whether he may not paint a white wall dead white. This question offers no difficulty to the non-representational artist, who is concerned only with the inner harmony of color. But to the impressionist-realist it appears a bold liberty to take. Van Gogh’s question marks a transition from impressionism to an art of spiritual harmony. (59, n.19)

Kandinsky returns to his comparison of painting with music and color with sound, in this case “white… acts upon our psyche as a great absolute silence, like the pauses in music that temporarily break the melody. This is not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities (60). White is generative and beguiling, it holds our attention, it “has the appeal of nothingness that is before birth, of the world in the ice age” (60).

We return to Hughes for his interpretation of Kandinsky’s Black Lines, No. 189, 1913, (Oil on canvas 51×51 ¼ in., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.):

By the end of 1913, however, Kandinsky’s more Expressionist abstractions defied most efforts to find an allegorical content in them. One can see three scratchy black peaks, which may be mountains, in the top half …but these hardly count as a subject. What does count is the sense of well-being, springlike joy, induced by the bloom and transparency of its primary color patches—red, blue, yellow, white—softly expanding towards the eye like halation-patterns in fog. Such works represent Kandinsky at his best, and their conviction as painting rises above the eager fatuities of Kandinsky’s own philosophizing. (301)

What Hughes does not see is that analysis must end where these Black Lines begin. Black lines, No. 189, might be seen as a color poem, full of visual skips, lapses in the continuity of the “pure form” that had been established by the poet through his use of reason, color and sound, on his way to some “forward” and “upward” spiritual dimension that is beyond the life and death imagery of a literal interpretation. Black Lines forgets its author’s intentions, until “content” itself is forsaken, not in favor of pleasant patches of color as Hughes suggests, but as indolent scribes struggle to recall passages from scripture. Pure fields of color eventually succeeded in establishing the “truth” of Kandinsky’s paintings and (to an extent) his theories about art. Other artists found new ways of reading the poems that Kandinsky crafted. In the action paintings of Jackson Pollock, the silent color fields of Mark Rothko, one can still hear rumors of Kandinsky’s successes and failures, as an artist, as a teacher of art and as a theoretician, philosopher and poet.



Works Cited:


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Black Lines, no. 189. Wassily Kandinsky. 04 December, 2006. Available <http://www.usc.edu/schools/annenberg/asc/projects/comm544/library/images/688_html>.

Chipp, Herschel B., Peter Selz and Joshua C. Taylor.  Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

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