The Spaces of Spirituality and Absolute Abstraction: Kandinsky

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

Uspensky and the challenge of the 4th dimension

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.  Challenges to Euclidean geometry suggested the existence of curved space, rather than linear, and the possibility of change in the shape of forms as they moved through space.  These challenges, along with the rise of science fiction, opened the way for philosophical considerations of the idea of the fourth dimension. Continue reading the web site summary of 4th dimension concepts for a brief discussion.

Helena Blavatsky and theosophy; Rudolph Steiner and anthroposopy

Theosophy was an alternative way of thinking about spirituality and art. According to theosophy, 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, so out of nothingness, eventually the will would emerge. 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 (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.

Vasily Kandinsky

Kandinsky: Small Pleasures, 1913 (painted on glass)

Formative influences on Kandinsky's work:

Note that in the above list, only two might be called the influence of artistic movements, and three have to do with music.

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.

1. Paintings on Russian themes

Like Malevich, but unlike Mondrian, Kandinsky turned to ethnographic sources, which in his case were based on life experience.  Before becoming an artist, he traveled for the purpose of ethnographic research to northern Russia to see peasant houses and wooden Russian churches.  These journeys taught him, he said, to “move in the painting, to live in the picture.”

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.

2. Landscapes, fauvism, and impressions:

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

3. Improvisations and compositions

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 all 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. I should point out that not only did Kandinsky write about his own paintings; he also wrote about painting: the elements of art, how they acquire meaning, and the goals of the artist. Read him in his own words (which have been translated into English).

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

4.  Changes in his art from pre-war to post-war

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 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 (one of the ways in which Wagner's operas influenced him). He believed that painting could in fact be this total work of art, if the painting succeeded in involving the viewer in deciphering hidden images. Such an act, he believed, 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 in a state of confusion, and that the only way to reflect this confusion in painting would be through hidden imagery.

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.

On the Spiritual in Art (published in Germany in 1913; translated into English in 1914)

"the pyramid of inner necessity":

3. the inner compulsion of the art work 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


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).