|Mondrian: Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, 1930||Malevich: Suprematist Painting, 1917-18||Kandinsky: 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. Kandinsky’s achievements
are probably the most critical to the abstract expressionists and other
developments in the later 20th century. Malevich is least known of
the three, in large part because he was a member of the Russian avant-garde,
and Mondrian, whose work is known and was significant, was probably of
greater significance to the minimalists, the abstraction which followed
the abstract expressionists. What all three share is a belief in
the spiritual properties of abstraction, a belief they arrive at through
their interest in theories of the 4th dimension and theosophy. Of the three
artists, Kandinsky was the only one who did not reject a relationship to
the symbolist movement.
|Kandinsky: Composition VII, 1913|
Anthroposophy was Rudolph Steiner's version of theosophy. Steiner gave more attention to the symbolic and synesthetic properties of color (synesthetic refers to the unity of several senses; this concept has been in the news recently in interviews with people who "see" sounds or "hear" colors). Kandinsky was probably more closely acquainted with this version of theosophy because of the time he spent in Germany. As noted, 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.
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.
Theosophy and the interest in color
influenced two of the next three works by Severini, Delaunay and Kupka.
It is not clear that Delaunay himself was influenced by theosophy, given
his interest in theories of vision, but theosophy did attract a large number
of artists in the early 20th century. The works by El Lissitsky and Gabo
demonstrate attempts to make art which manifests an understanding or experience
of the 4th dimension.
|Severini: Spherical Expansion of Light, 1913-13||Delaunay: Windows, 1912|
|Kupka: Cosmic Spring, 1911-20|
|El Lissitsky: Proun 99, ca 1923-5||Naum Gabo: 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 (capitalist) values, and they associated abstraction with spiritual values. Yet, there was also a recognition by these artists 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. In the 19th century, symbolism and synthetism had been an attempt to do this but although some of these artists had arrived at a decorative art which might be thought to show the way to increasing abstraction, they did not really achieve this.
|Kandinsky: Small Pleasures, 1913 (painted on glass)|
In the following very condensed outline of Kandinsky's work, I've used a division which is based on subject matter and chronology. Changes in his subject matter do lead to change in style, but some of the more radical stylistic changes occur for artistic reasons, rather than subject. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of continuity in the themes of Kandinsky's work and the ability to recognize that continuity is important to an understanding of his goals and the meanings of his work.
It was this experience which enabled
him to understand the system of two religions or “duoverie” which the northerners
lived (devotion to both Christianity and their earlier pagan belief) and
it was this experience in which he encountered art as a total environment:
“I shall never forget the great wooden houses covered with carving: They taught me to move within the picture, to live in the picture. I still remember how I entered the living room for th first time and stood rooted to the spot before the unexpected scene. Every object was covered with brightly coloured, elaborate ornaments...The ‘red’ corner, thickly, completely covered with painted and printed pictures of the saints...I felt surrounded on all sides by the painting, into which I had thus penetrated.”1
|Kandinsky: A Motley Life, 1907||Kandinsky: Study for Composition 2, 1910|
Many of Kandinsky's early paintings deal with the “two-religion” theme; although the visual images of these paintings imply the presence of confrontation between two belief systems, the particular symbols chosen are symbols which generally reflect healing or renewal and which may have ties to both pagan belief and Christian. These symbols are not always recognized although the paintings are still figural. The decorative qualities often override the figural, a factor which upset Kandinsky but was also his goal as he spoke of his wish that people would feel the content of the paintings, arrive at the content, through the resonance or sound of the colors and forms of the whole painting.
A 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 and a palette which has more in common with Russian fairy tales and folk art (a dual belief in avant-garde precepts of art and ethnological or folk origins).
Kandinsky wrote about his work and he tells us that Composition 2 was based on Motley Life. In the Study for Composition 2, we can identify 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.
|Kandinsky: Street in Murnau, 1908||Kandinsky: 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 realm
of the naturalistic and descriptive, and begins to assume an independent
importance in the painting as color. These early landscapes demonstrate
a commitment to bright colors, used in dabs and streaks, with the background
often sharper and more coherent than the foreground. Figures which are
up close may be obscured -- color and the tipping of the ground plane tend
to confuse foreground and background space. As color become more important,
he moves away from the post-impressionist landscapes and begins his series
of impressions, improvisations and compositions.
|Kandinsky: Impression III (Concert), 1911|
In Impression 3 of 1911, we see a painting of a concert: a grand piano and an audience contained in a large yellow area. Yellow was an important color for Kandinsky. In his book, On the Spiritual in Art, he wrote that yellow gave off spiritual warmth by reaching toward spectators and stimulating them. Kandinsky's belief in the properties of colors were shared and supported by the theosophists he met in Germany.
In 1909, Kandinsky began the category of paintings which he called improvisations (note that even though this is a later development than the impressions, he continued to make paintings of both types). With these paintings, we find a stronger role given to symbolist ideas in that the landscape source becomes weaker and the inner impulse for the painting becomes stronger. Generally the improvisations consist of simple forms with some retention of landscape, but representation is not as important as the creation of ambiguous forms and the exploration of color. Forms tend to be outlined, but colors change within outlines. The colors are not rooted in reality -- there is a magical sense of color. By 1910, line and color start to separate, lines become more prominent and dramatic; slashing black lines will frequently appear.
Definitions of his "types" of paintings:
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 time
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.
All the same, the differences between the three types are not easily perceived.
This difficulty is complicated by the fact that 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.2
|Kandinsky: Improvisation #9, 1910||Kandinsky: Improvisation #27 (Garden of Love 2), 1912|
|Kandinsky: Composition VI, 1913||Kandinsky: 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,
also below; look in Artstor for a better reproduction, I hope!) 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. In #31, we see
smoke in yellow and grey, and black zigzagging lines to depict waves.
At the top of the painting we can make out a walled city with tall white
towers. One of the two figures who cannot be seen clearly may represent
St. John.3 Not all scholars agree with
this interpretation but the notion of hidden imagery is one that Kandinsky
himself expressed. In addition, later paintings of his use a similar
triangular composition but with more clearly defined forms representing
the churches and towers at the top of the painting and replacing the ships
of Sea Battle. The point would seem to be the idea of turmoil
and warfare, whether the turmoil of an explosive city or an explosive ocean.
The use of red in the upper right and lower left corners of Improvisation
31 creates the sense of flames underneath the surface of the painting
which will soon ignite and explode.
|Kandinsky: Improvisation #30 (Warlike Theme), 1913||Improvisation #31 (Sea Battle), 1913|
|Composition VII, 1913||Kandinsky: Composition VIII, 1923|
|Kandinsky: Composition IX, 1936|
The last of his pre-war compositions, Composition 7 is also his largest painting (6 x 10'). Motifs relating to earlier paintings such as the deluge, the last judgement, the garden of love, can be found; in fact, so many can be found that they seem to cancel each other out. If anything, this painting seems to be about the apocalypse as the promise of a better world (a theme which would associate Kandinsky with other expressionists). A key change in the post-war works is the increased role given to “silence” in the painting; his interest in a proliferation of shapes continues although the shapes become more informed by science and geometry. This change is influenced by his encounter with Malevich’s suprematist white paintings and with the constructivists' seemingly rationalized explorations of space and form. The space of Kandinsky’s paintings continues to be an enveloping space, although it becomes, at the same time, a space which exists apart from the viewer. Rather than enfolding the viewer in it, it reaches out to the viewer and continues to suggest the existence of an infinite space, which now lies behind and in front, rather than within.
In Kandinsky’s writing, the space or world of the painting is an equivalent space or world to that of nature. His continued interest in this natural world is one of the links he retains to the nineteenth century, just as his belief in music as the supreme art form continues to tie him to the nineteenth century. At the same time, his complete liberation of color from line and his creation of a form of space which rejects perspective and rejects the materiality of the real world places his work in the position of being central and formative to the great abstractions of the mid-20th century.4
Kandinsky's assessment of reality
as confusion was derived from first, his loss of faith in the scientific
method, and subsequently, in the ability of rational thought to comprehend
reality, and second, with the disintegration of the atom by scientists,
Kandinsky was led to believe that art must also be dematerialized if it
is to express truth. But while Kandinsky arrived at the rejection
of the representation of objects in painting, he did not arrive at a belief
that the formal properties of the painting were more important than content.
Kandinsky never lost the belief that a painting should have content; the issue was how to express this content -- through a "great realism," which was primitive and childlike, or through a "great abstraction" or a non-objective form of art? And working from these premises, Kandinsky arrived at the position of believing that in essence, realism and abstraction were equal. How could this be? In utter realism, the removal of the abstract (or the artistic) leaves the essence of the object, its soul. In abstraction, the removal of the object, the real, again leaves its "inner resonance." Thus, the greatest external difference turns into the greatest internal equality because both realism and abstraction, in Kandinsky’s argument, could serve to convey the ultimate content of painting: the life of the spirit, embodied by a triangular materiality and pulsating with the spiritual vibrations of colors. Kandinsky later wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art that the purpose of art was the “expression of mystery in terms of mystery,” and the goal of the artist was to create works that have a life of their own as “purely pictorial beings.”5 These pictorial beings, because they were spiritual beings, would then lead the viewer to a higher plane of spirituality in his or her life.
1. Kandinsky, quoted in Peg Weiss, Kandinsky and Old Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 82-3. See also p. 36 in her essay, "Kandinsky in Munich," in Kandinsky in Munich, 1876-1914 (NY: Guggenheim Museum, 1982). My understanding of the "duoverie" system in Kandinsky's work comes from Weiss's discussion of this theme in her book.
2. Rose-Carol Washton-Long, Kandinsky (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980) is the writer who has most fully developed the theme of hidden imagery in Kandinsky's work. Not all writers agree with her -- Jelena Hahl-Koch, Kandinsky (NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993), for example, does not -- but Long's position continues to dominate much of the Kandinsky literature. Long has also established the sources of Kandinsky's interest in theosophy.
3. Washton-Long, Kandinsky, p. 100.
4. John Golding, Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko and Still (Princteon: Princeton University Press, 2000), considers the development of "absolute" abstraction in the work of Kandinsky and the other artists mentioned in the title of his book.
5. There are several translations and editions of Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art available. One can also consult the useful collection of his writings edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982).