The Spaces of Spirituality and Absolute
Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930
Suprematist Painting, 1917-18
Painting #201, 1914
Three artists, from the Netherlands
and Russia, arrive at extreme levels of abstraction at almost the same
time (either just before or during World War I). Their paintings
look utterly different from one another and their goals are, likewise,
entirely different, but certain beliefs about the communicative properties
of abstraction underlie the work of all three.
Composition VII, 1913
Uspensky and the challenge of the
The Russian philosopher Uspensky's
writing was dominated by a belief in the evolution of consciousness, an
evolution which would lead to the ability to comprehend the fourth dimension.
He did not "invent" the 4th dimension but he did contribute to its currency
in the contemporary discourse about relativity and space. According
to Uspensky, our consciousness of infinity was the awareness of endless
illogicality. This paradox existed because in the fourth dimension, everything
from the third dimension was reversed. The real and the unreal of the third
dimension changed places in the fourth. Further, in the fourth dimension,
time and motion are recognized as illusions. Consequently, the fourth
dimension required not only a new logic but also a new language.
It is for this reason that the radically unfamiliar artistic languages
of Kandinsky, on one hand, and Malevich's suprematism, on the other, can
be seen to be direct responses to philosophies of the fourth dimension,
and the attempt to depict a gravity free, directionless space. Another
fourth dimension concept, with overtones of theosophy, is that of monism.
Monism and the evolution of consciousness were linked. Monism referred
to the unity of all things, and in particular, to a spiritual and material
unity which could be explained in the fourth dimension and only in the
fourth dimension, because in the third dimension, dualities and separations
remained. Of the three artists above, theosophical monism may have
been most important to Mondrian, but it was part of the belief system of
Kandinsky and Malevich as well.
concepts of the 4th dimension:
infinity = endless illogicality
the reversal of reality and unreality
the illusion of time and motion
monism: the unity of all things
Helena Blavatsky and theosophy;
Rudolph Steiner and anthroposopy
Theosophy was an alternative way of
thinking about spirituality and art. Theosophy postulated that the
universe originally contained atoms and a vacuum. The vacuum was a latent
force, a latent deity, which could become organized into a willful force.
In other words, the will emerges out of nothingness. Duality became a positive
concept for theosophy because it represented the union of the latent, which
could not be known, and a living force or spirit, which could be known.
The connection to art was made in at least two ways: one was through the
belief that color had a vibrating spiritual property which would awaken
the dormant spirituality within a person. Another was the belief
that art should begin in nature and that the apocalypse would lead to the
future new world.
Anthroposophy was Rudolph Steiner's
version of theosophy. Steiner gave more attention to the symbolic
and synesthetic* properties of color. Kandinsky was probably more
closely acquainted with this version of theosophy because of the time he
spent in Germany. All three of the "pioneering abstractionists" (Kandinsky,
Malevich and Mondrian) shared an interest in theosophy and in the 4th dimension,
less as a mathematical idea than as a spiritual/philosophical idea.
The most singular difference for these three artists was their relation
to the symbolist movement: Mondrian and Malevich largely rejected symbolism
(as a movement); Kandinsky did not.
Many other artists who approached
extreme abstraction were also interested in these ideas, although in some
cases, purely as an aesthetic phenomenon and less as a spiritual or philosophical
one. Thus, the interest in exploring the properties of light and
color in paintings about light and color, or the desire to experiment with
new forms in space, characterized the work of many artists in the early
20th century whether or not they shared these beliefs about the 4th dimension
*(synesthetic = uniting different
sensations-- n.b.: not to be confused with "synthetic")
The interest in color undoubtedly
influenced the next three works (Severini, Delaunay and Kupka); the works
by El Lissitsky and Gabo demonstrate attempts to make art which manifests
an understanding or experience of the 4th dimension.
Spherical Expansion of Light, 1913-14
Cosmic Spring, 1911-20
Proun 99, ca 1923-5
Translucent Variation on a Spheric theme, 1951 (after original made in
1937; plastic, 22x17x17")
By the end of the 19th century,
Kandinsky and other artists associated representational painting with materialistic
values, and they associated abstraction with spiritual values. Yet, they
also recognized the fact that most people would not understand abstraction.
Their challenge, then, was to reconcile anti-materialist goals with a style
that could be understood by the public. Symbolism (and to some degree,
art nouveau) had been an attempt in this direction. Those movements
arrived at a decorative art which might be thought to show the way to increasing
abstraction, although they had not achieved an extreme level of abstraction
Small Pleasures, 1913 (painted on glass)
Early influences on Kandinsky's style:
his first view of Monet's paintings
hearing Wagner's opera Lohengrin
and coming to believe that music had the ability to express color
his ethnographic travels in Vologda
where he felt the sense of living within a work of art when he stood before
the icon corner in the living room of a peasant's house, and where he began
to understand the system of dual faith (duoverie)
traveling to Paris and and seeing the
works of the fauvist exhibition
traveling to Munich and studying anthroposophy/theosophy
hearing a performance of Schoenberg's
Quartet #2 while in Munich (Schoenberg, in contrast to Wagner, was experimenting
with new approaches to tonality and was therefore a more "abstract" composer
than Wagner, who was a romantic)
1. Paintings on Russian themes:
A Motley Life, 1907
Study for Composition 2, 1910
Motley Life pictures a carnival-like
setting at a location in northern Russia. The shaman (the old man with
the green beard), the holy mother and child, and other figures in this
painting related to both shamanistic beliefs and Christian, making this
painting an attempt to picture the "duoverie" system. Kandinsky does
this in another way as well: through his union of a post-impressionistic
style with a palette which has more in common with Russian fairy tales
and folk art.
Kandinsky himself tells us that
2 was based on Motley Life. In the study we can identify
more abstracted versions of many of the figures from Motley Life,
making this study a good example of the way Kandinsky moved from more figural
paintings to more abstract.
2. Landscapes, fauvism, and impressions:
Street in Murnau, 1908
Painting with Houses, 1909
After a visit to Paris and his exposure
to fauvism, Kandinsky went through a phase of painting fauvist-inspired
landscapes in which his use of color rapidly moves away from the naturalistic
and descriptive and he begins to use color for expressive, and often non-naturalistic,
reasons. As color become more important, he ceased to paint post-impressionist
landscapes and begins his series of impressions, improvisations and compositions.
Impression III (Concert), 1911
Kandinsky's titles for his paintings
reflect the influence of music on his thinking about art. Music had
long been important to him because it was an art form with supremely abstract
content. He felt that art had the means to be this abstract and questioned
how long it would be before color and line in and of themselves would be
recognized as containing unlimited beauty and power.
impressions: direct impressions
of 'external nature' expressed in a drawing/painting form
improvisations: those paintings
which were inspired by 'events of the spiritual type'
compositions: works which
were less spontaneous than either of the other two categories because they
were shaped and worked out in a series of studies over a long period of
3. Improvisations and compositions
The paintings called impressions and
improvisations were generated more from the impression of nature and spiritual
beliefs; the paintings called "compositions" reflected the greatest degree
of input from the conscious mind. If you're familiar with music or
play any instruments, the analogy to music works very nicely as an explanation
of the differences between the three types of paintings.
Although Kandinsky seemed to develop
these types as an evolution (and his explanations of them also suggest
development over time), he continued to do all three interchangeably.
This means that there will often be an improvisation and a composition
on the same subject or theme; knowing this is part of what enables the
viewer to "read" the hidden images in his more complex paintings.
Improvisation #9, 1910
Improvisation #27 (Garden of Love 2), 1912
Composition VI, 1913
Improvisation Deluge, 1913
Composition 6 and Improvisation
Deluge are related to the same theme--one which persisted in many of
Kandinsky’s paintings. Although Improvisation Deluge remains
closer to the landscape imagery of a deluge, Composition 6, with
its greater contrast between dark and light space, creates a stronger sense
of a new world arising from the apocalypse of the old.
Improvisation 30 (below)
appears to be related to these, although it depicts a land battle, rather
than a sea battle. Yet another improvisation from the same year (#31)
more clearly reveals two boats in combat with clouds of smoke and fire
arising around them, showing us how Kandinsky revisited themes from his
paintings and how he retained symbolic content in most of his paintings,
sometimes hiding it and at other times making it more manifest and visible.
For Kandinsky, the power of the painting to conceal its meaning was itself
an important part of the meaning of all of his paintings.
Improvisation #30 (Warlike Theme)
4. Kandinsky's change in style
from the period before WWI to after WWI
Composition VIII, 1923
Composition IX, 1936
The biggest change in the post-war
compositions is the greater emphasis given to "blank" space, the influence
of more geometric and regular forms, and in some cases, the influence of
forms which resemble microbes or biological organisms. Yet, the underlying
themes and the belief that the viewer can and should unravel the mystery
of the painting remain constant.
Kandinsky and the gesamtkunstwerk:
painting as the total work of art
Kandinsky was very attracted by the
ideas of the gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art. He
believed that painting could in fact be this total work of art, if the
painting were to involve the viewer in deciphering hidden images, because
such an act conceptually involved the viewer in the creation of the art
work. Another motive for hidden images was the belief that Kandinsky shared
with his contemporaries that reality was a state of confusion, and that
the only way to reflect this confusion in painting would be through hidden
On the Spiritual in Art (published
in Germany in 1913; translated into English in 1914)
"the pyramid of inner necessity":
3. the compulsion to help the
cause of art--"purposeful creation"
2. the spirit of the age, more
or less equal to style
1. the personality of the artist
[Good sources on Kandinsky for
Jelena Hahl-Koch: Kandinsky.
NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993.
Peg Weiss. Kandinsky and
Old Russia. Yale Univ Press, 1995.]