Wassily Kandinsky was one of the pioneers of abstract painting who sought to free art from its traditional bonds to material reality. With his creative practice and theoretical work he attempted to bring together the spiritual idea of art with the aesthetic idea of art. "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" is a text that revolutionized twentieth-century painting and continues to influence artists up to the present day. "More than any other single factor, this book helped disseminate and foster acceptance of the new principles upon which much of modern art developed."
In a consumer age like ours is -where art is characterized by commodification and business tactics- "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" (first published in 1911) still holds its ground: it opposes prevailing materialist attitudes and "demands" an art that is an expression of an "inner need". The "inner need" is built up of three "mystical" elements: the personality/idiosyncrasy of the artist, the "spirit" of the age (the current styles/trends) and "pure artistry" (the "eternal" aspect of art).
Influenced by the Theosophical movement (which sees life as an evolutionary process, a kind of geometric progression divided into different stages), Kandinsky suggests that society can be represented in diagram as a triangle. The base of the triangle represents the majority of people -the masses- who have no interest in promoting spiritual issues; moving towards the peak of the triangle there is a rise of spiritual awareness (and a subsequent drop in the number of people). In Kandinsky's opinion, the artist (or other charismatic people such as the philosopher) stands alone at the peak of the triangle- a kind of misunderstood genius whose task is to promote cultural and spiritual growth. For Kandinsky, "art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul."
The relationship between music and painting is of central importance to the text -it is no coincidence that Kandinsky names his spontaneous paintings "improvisations" and his carefully planned ones "compositions". Kandinsky proposes that the "language" of painting should be abstract/non-objective and analogous to that of music (eg. rhythm, mathematical/ abstract construction, repetition of colour-tones, compositional structure of forms etc.). He also investigates the effect of colours on the viewer (as "vibrations of the soul") and assigns each colour a spiritual quality which he illustrates with musical examples.
Kandinsky emphasizes the importance of colour, which he describes as " a power that directly influences the soul". He divides colours into light and dark, warm and cold and analyzes their combinations and psychological effects; he suggests that they either have a physical effect on the viewer (a superficial impression which is not long lasting) or a psychic effect (a "corresponding spiritual vibration" which leaves a long lasting impact on the viewer's psyche). Examples are mentioned in which colours produce "synaesthetic" effects (a kind of blending of the senses where one possibly tastes/ smells/ hears/ feels a colour).
Kandinsky also analyzes the connection between colour and form. In his opinion, colour cannot stand alone as "it cannot dispense with boundaries of some kind". Form can stand alone "as representing an object...or as a purely abstract limit" -it has both an "outer meaning" (as a kind of dividing line which seperates surfaces of colour) and the power of "inner suggestion" (an "inner meaning" which has a psychological effect on the viewer). Therefore, Kandinsky says, form is the "outward expression of inner meaning" and emphasizes that "mastery over form is not (the artist's) goal but rather the adapting of form to its inner meaning."