This particular essay is quite special to me. It marks the moment that I truly fell in love with modern art and abstraction. Important to notice here is that at the time I wrote this (during the second year of my undergraduate degree), I had no idea that the female artist Hilma af Klint (1862 – 1944) had produced several canvases of large-scale non-representational paintings that predates Kandinsky’s famous ‘first abstract watercolour’ from 1910. Her undeserved place in relative obscurity would most likely have been due to the reluctance of the art historical community to include her in mainstream narratives regarding artistic innovation (which is a travesty). As such, I highly recommend you take a look at her art.
*An edited version of this article was published in the Undergraduate academic magazine SCOPE (summer 2014 edition), part of the University College Student Association (UCSA) of Utrecht University.
The Search for the New Man and the Emergence of Abstract Art
Wassily Kandinsky’s oeuvre may seem beset by a natural evolution of style. However, there is as much diversity in his work as there is purpose. It is undeniable that “his paintings offer a triple challenge of interpretation: as pure painting, as painting with veiled subject matter, and as documentation of the unconscious.” [i] By looking at the painting Composition VII, I will explore the underlying thematic of Kandinsky’s spiritual affinity and the resounding influence by which his theosophical beliefs permeated his artistic life and oeuvre. Though the two fairly distinct artists Mondrian and Malevich both arrived at wholly unseen forms of abstraction at roughly the same time as Kandinsky, in their extreme differences they all find common ground. This was the belief that art may convey a level of communication through abstraction in a manner never before seen or experienced. Through the contextualisation of Kandinsky’s influences and spirituality, this discussion will aim at reconciling the artist’s search for the ‘New Man’ through theosophy and the eventual emergence of abstract art as an outcome of this.
An Era of Change
Wassily Kandinsky was born in Moscow, Russia in 1866. As one of the most imperative pioneers of abstract art, the highly educated Russian left an established career within academia for the vertiginous study of painting in Munich. It was perhaps here, in the German capital, that Kandinsky found his niche. From his arrival in 1896 to the establishment of the enigmatic association of painters, Der Blaue Reiter in 1911 and his work at the Bauhaus, he composed and developed an artistic presence that rightly transcended its time. The name itself reflected his search to move beyond realistic representation. The “blue rider” was indeed a symbol of this, remaining a prominent motif in his and his co-founder Franz Marc’s works. In particular, the symbolic depiction of rebirth seems fundamental in Kandinsky and Marc’s artistic lives. Their works were borne in the reflection of the time they were created. Indeed, the impending doom and societal struggle that was so common a theme, found its devastating pinnacle at the outbreak of World War One, August 1914. Der Blaue Reiter was dissolved, and Franz Marc was killed in action.
Preceding his German metamorphosis, Kandinsky himself had found inspiration in his native country. From his upbringing in orthodox Russia and academia, he developed a penchant for the artistic. In addition to being a published poet and art theoretician in his own right, he sought out the artistic from a plethora of areas. In later years, he would even seek to discover the mathematical in art. However, he was particularly struck by the work of the French impressionist Edouard Manet. Being a prolific writer on art theory, he used the word “bezpredmetnyi” (without object) in 1910 to describe Manet’s work. With this, his definite move towards abstraction began. He did not reject direct representation, but rather held that the ‘pure’ artist should seek to express ‘inner’ feelings and ignore the restrictively superficial. Known as a lover of music, much of his earlier influences were said to have come from what he maintained to be the crux of emotive expressions, melody and sound in the form of masterful music. Many of his works were thereby aptly named ‘composition’, ‘improvisation’ and ‘impression’. In his mind, art had the means to be as captivatingly universal and individual as that of a musical experience. When listening to a particular piece, the individual would himself bring a wealth of personal experience, culminating in a singularly unique (and in many ways profound) experience. He questioned therefore, how long it would take before colour and line in and of themselves would be recognized as similarly unique in its conveyance of beauty and power. Indeed, his move towards abstraction was rooted inherently in his study of the nature of art. His association with theosophy and mysticism would eventually culminate in the creation of an oeuvre marked by the presence of spiritual narratives.
Described as the pinnacle of Kandinsky’s pre-World War One artistic achievements, the creation of the immense piece involved a staggering thirty preparatory drawings, watercolours and oil studies. Befittingly, the execution of the final painting was made in an astounding four days. Throughout the preparatory works and in the final piece itself, the central motif (an oval form, intersected by an irregular triangle) was maintained. The oval appears the centre of an astounding compositional hurricane, in a way “the eye of the storm”, surrounded by seemingly chaotic masses of colour and form. In this piece, Kandinsky had seemingly annihilated pictorial representation. The piece is large, immersive and innovative.
Art scholars ascertained though his writings and less abstract preparatory works, that Composition VII presents to us the themes of The Resurrection, The Last Judgement, The Deluge and The Garden of Love all-encompassed in a marvellous outburst of pure painting. He completed several works in line with this theme of destruction, most notably Composition VI and Improvisation Deluge of the same year.
“Composition VII” 1913
oil on canvas, (6 x 10)
Imperatively, one must note that this collection of works include a sense of overarching motifs. The deluge, the last judgement and the garden of love exist in his paintings side by side. Composition VII in particular, grapples with a near profuse amount of narratives, taking on so many themes that it encapsulates in itself the chaos and confusion of life. The rapturous configuration of destruction, dark and light, negative and positive seem to come together to perform to the audience an almost musical composition of movement from apocalypse to salvation. It was indeed this “Interrelatedness of many diverse and even contradictory positions that is itself the very basis of Kandinsky’s oeuvre.”[ii] Crudely, this consonance of biblical narratives could arguably serve as Kandinsky’s subtle social commentary in the prelude to the First World War. Needless to say, rising tensions in Russia and particularly Germany were at an all time high. Art proved to be Kandinsky’s inalienable method of emotive expression. Poignantly, “for him, art produced emotions too subtle to be expressed in words.”[iii] Painted in 1913, a year before the First World War, it is doubtless that Kandinsky was playing with ideas of an arising apocalypse. The world is at the precipice of chaos, and we, in the eye of the storm. The piece rightly reflects the poignantly turbulent atmosphere of the time.
Much in the same way that his Viennese artist friend Schoenberg created dark, melodic compositions encompassing the intense atmosphere of ominousness in the years leading up to the War, so too did Kandinsky use the inherent abstraction of music. Schoenberg’s music held an abstraction in its lack of a certain narrative. It was rather linked to mood and the evoking of raw emotion. Its tones were not obviously harmonious, likewise Composition VII seems at first glance everything but harmonious in form. Modernism thereby seeks for the disruption of the strictly harmonious, instead seeking the evocation of a moment. In this sense, we are plunged into the fight between harmony and dissonance. Aesthetic experience is connected to the senses; taste, smell, sound and vision, culminating in a provocative involvement of the spectator.
Theosophy and the New Man
The spiritual realms from whence Kandinsky drew his inspiration might seem inconspicuous to the novice spectator; yet, it is present in most of his works. By the end of the 19th century, artists related representational painting with the materialistic. Abstraction thus became associative to the spiritual. The reconciliation of anti-materialist goals with a style that could be comprehended by the public was where the challenge then lied. Symbolism (and art nouveau to some degree) had been valid attempts at such a merge. These movements were arguably decorative, providing a means towards increasing abstraction, yet devoid of the total abstraction that was to come from the likes of Kandinsky.
At its core, theosophy was a way of thinking about spirituality. It presupposes that there exists a latent deity and a wilful force. This duality became a prominent concept within theosophy, between the latent (which could not be known) and the spirit (which could be known). Interestingly this “tension between the opposite”[iv] became distinctive in Kandinsky’s work. In relation to art, it was believed that colour retained the ability to awaken spirituality. Similarly, that art was intrinsically linked to nature and in order to reach a higher plane of spiritual awakening, one must achieve a higher human virtue through art and in life. The symbolic and synesthetic properties of colour were indeed a fundamental aspect of Kandinsky’s theosophical notions. Kandinsky and his work were certainly deeply influenced by his study of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy and theosophy. In several of his works, he fascinates and captivates with the portrayal of auras. In many ways, they are seen as second bodies, representative of the spiritual, and the existence of the higher deity. The aura maintained a spiritual phenomenon and indeed the biblical and the search for a higher man, a “new man” was expertly articulated throughout his oeuvre.
As in Composition VII, the continuous connection to birth, chaos and resurrection inevitably pierces through his works. Indeed, the spiritual and the natural exist as tools for man to emerge, to achieve a higher purpose. As if in a natural cycle of creation, existence and destruction, his works are influenced by and (in beautiful reciprocal fashion), influences the spectator in return. Art was thereby both a product of this quest for a new man, and a means of perpetuating this spiritual illumination. As he stated in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky felt that an authentic artist creating art formed an “internal necessity”. Inner necessity was, for Kandinsky, the principle of art, the foundation of forms and the harmony of colours; the contact between form and the human soul. At the centre of this was the belief in the emergence of a ‘higher man’, a ‘new man’. Indeed, the reference in Composition VII to the biblical and even the Book of Revelation suggests that his paintings worked in unison to convey and bring forth a sophisticated man.
From Object to Non-Object and Life in Art
What remains clear from his writings is his constant search for what he called the purity in painterly composition. Rooted in the notion of non-object based art, an artist should express himself on canvas through the use of colour and emotion, rather than needlessly relying upon a specified object, that “The less precise the object, the more intense the “purely painterly composition”.[v] Indeed, never had the spectator become as involved. Perhaps this explains why he ultimately decided to remove the “obvious”, so as to allow for the spectators themselves to experience an internal discussion. It was indeed a “belief in a painting devoid of objects.”[vi] The spectator would gradually recognize and savour the piece.
Kandinsky himself criticized the term abstract as inherently misunderstood. Abstract, in the term “abstracted from an object” was not preferred, rather it was non-objective, that which “creates its own elements” that he sought to embody in his paintings.[vii] In 1912, art “dramatically completed its substantive shift into modernity.”[viii] Through the study of previous efforts, artists had begun to realise their rights in producing and refashioning the external world into pictorial universes. He went so far as to describe “the true work of art” as originating “from out of the artist” before assuming “its own independent life”, creating its own humanity, becoming “a self-sufficient, spiritually breathing subject that also leads to a real material life: it is a being”.[ix] Whilst seeking to capture the essence of the raw, spiritual emotion, he endeavoured into the use of geometrical forms in later years. This was spurred on by his theosophical knowledge and his belief that art itself had naturally gone through a process of evolution, from simple to complex, primal to sophisticated.
Artists of the time, especially those using abstraction, sought to investigate hidden structures and processes of nature. This was often done by the study of new methods for visual representation and exploration that had been developed in the natural sciences. Organic growth was used as “a metaphor for the creative process”[x] and indeed Kandinsky suggested that, “each painting, from blank canvas to finished artwork, follows precisely the evolutionary model”.[xi] He was strikingly aware of scientific developments and its contribution to radically new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. Comparatively, he writes of the “naturally arising need in art and other aspects of life to reach back to elementary forms and structure”[xii]. With regards to his Bauhaus years, he endeavoured into other types of modernist art. Again, with spiritual vigour, “the contact between the acute angle of a triangle and a circle has no less effect than that of God’s finger touching Adam’s in Michelangelo.”[xiii] Similarly to the way music was thought to possess an underlying order, Kandinsky sought to find the same with art through artistic forms and numbers. Natural forms, mathematical structures and patterns and their relation became central to his ambition for the higher art form. Spirituality and the cosmic and natural are conveyed in relation to the individual and the universal.
Though Kandinsky’s oeuvre went through seemingly constant metamorphoses, the purpose and inspiration remained the same. From his crowded, chaotic composition arose the “blank” space, which gave way for the influence of the geometric and microbial. This connection to the spiritual and the naturally evolving becomes evidently clear. As an artist, he strived to exceed the merely decorative and excelled in the profoundly evocative. In stylistic terms, one could say that modernism emerged from Edouard Manet’s ‘unfinished’ canvases in the eighteenth century. However, it is with Kandinsky’s first acknowledged work of complete abstraction, that the concept had truly arrived. Beautifully rendered, theosophy and Kandinsky himself would state that out of disorder comes order, and out of apocalypse, salvation. This connection to the spiritual and the naturally evolving thereby becomes startlingly obvious, and a picture of Kandinsky himself, and what he strove to be and convey begins to fall into place.
Barnett, V. E. (1992). Kandinsky Watercolours: Catalogue Raisonné. Vol.1 (1900-1921). Milano. Electa.
Behr, S. (2006). Kandinsky: The path to abstraction. H. Fischer, & S. Rainbird (Eds.). Tate Publishing.
Crowther, P., & Wnnsche, I. (Eds.). (2012). Meanings of Abstract Art: Between Nature and Theory (Vol. 2). Routledge.
Kandinsky, W. (1982). Complete Writings on Art:(1901-1921). K. C. Lindsay, & P. Vergo (Eds.). Faber.
Kandinsky, W. (2012). Concerning the spiritual in art. Courier Dover Publications.
Kandinsky, W. (1947). Point and line to plane. Courier Dover Publications.
Meecham, P. and Sheldon, J. (2004). Modern Art: A Critical Introduction, London/New York (second edition)
Short, C. (2009). “The” Art Theory of Wassily Kandinsky, 1909-1928: The Quest for Synthesis. Peter Lang.
[i] Lindsay & Vergo, Kandinsky: Complete writings on Art Vol. 1, p. 21.
[ii] Peter Lang, p. 1.
[iii]Lindsay & vergo, p. 12
[iv]Crowther & wunche, p.25
[v] Lindsay & Vergo, p. 20
[vi]Catalogue Raisonné, p. 17.
[vii]Lindsay & Vergo, p. 21
[viii]Lindsay & Vergo, p. 22
[ix] Crowther & Wunche, p. 12
[x] Crowther & Wunche, p. 11
[xi] Crowther & Wunche, p. 78
[xii] Crowther & Wunche, p. 71
[xiii] Crowther & Wunche, p. 69