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: 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.  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:

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 or theosophy.

*(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.

Severini: Spherical Expansion of Light, 1913-14 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 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 themselves.

Vasily Kandinsky

Kandinsky: Small Pleasures, 1913 (painted on glass)

Early influences on Kandinsky's style:

1. Paintings on Russian themes:

Kandinsky: A Motley Life, 1907 Kandinsky: 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 Composition 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:

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 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.

Kandinsky: 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 time

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.

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) 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.

Kandinsky: Improvisation #30 (Warlike Theme)

4.  Kandinsky's change in style from the period before WWI to after WWI

Composition VII, 1913 Kandinsky: Composition VIII, 1923
Kandinsky: 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 imagery.

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 further reading:
Jelena Hahl-Koch: Kandinsky. NY: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993.
Peg Weiss. Kandinsky and Old Russia. Yale Univ Press, 1995.]