Really interesting but you need to be a massive Kandinsky fan to buy this as it's instructive rather than having examples of his work - I love it as I'm entranced by his work and theory but like I say, it's purely a book to read, not to look at!
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."
There are few books written by the Master Artists themselves and so a book containing essays written by Wassily Kandinsky was eagerly received. I have always wanted to know more about his gift of synaesthesia. Although at times I found the artistic language difficult to follow, I must say that personally, there were points of view which did inspire me enormously and still have bearing on attitudes within the art world today but that is the essence of this book; he was a visionary.
Kandinsky considered art closely paralleled music in its development and argues his theory in a series of short,but readable essays.He also includes an interesting chapter on personal abstract expressionism,from which he derives the title to this unabridged enlightening book .This gives further insight into the mind of perhaps the most 'intriguing' artist of the 20th century.
Not too full of impenetrable art twoddle, short and an easy read, this book is.a very useful insight into the artist's mind. Well worth a read and will no doubt provide good a good source for art history students.
This is a fantastic short book. I am amazed I hadn't heard of it before. It only came to my attention recently when one of my students, Nic Green, used it as a basis for her essay at the Centre for Human Ecology: the student teaching the teacher.
Kandinsky, who was one of the founders of modern art, sets out to confront the crass materialism of his era. In this, he stands in the tradition of Russian art that sees "Art as service" - and specifically, as service of that which has the sacred at its core.
He understands "spirituality" as being the interiority of things, their inner source of meaning and life. This leads to his attack on artistic narcissism, saying, "This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colours, this vain squandering of artistic power is called 'art for art's sake'." (p. 3). It needs to be understood that the cultural backdrop to this was that Russian intellectual life had been split by half a century of "positivism" coming in from the West - the materialistic idea that only "facts" matter, "the triumph of the fact", and that there is, as the positivists would have it, no God, therefore no soul, thus their nihilism.
Just as writers at the time such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy attacked positivism in their novels, so a number of late 19th century Russian painters did so in their art - see From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925: from Moscow and St Petersburg. One of the most influential, Ivan Kramskoi, was an initiator of The Wanderers (or Itinerants) circle, in Russian, the Peredvizhniki. As he put it, "What is a real atheist? He is a person who draws strength only from himself" (ibid. p. 164). In other words, a person with only their ego to ground their being in; thus the narcissism.
Kandinsky was therefore not unique in his views. He was part of a wider movement of pre-WW1 art, an era resonant with the observation that "Attention to religion is always heightened in Russian art during times of cataclysm" (ibid. p. 167).
What is special about Kandinsky's thoughts on the matter is that he has left us this book, translated into English, in which the need for art to be spiritually grounded is very clearly expressed.
Consistent with his Russian Orthodox background he says, "We are seeking today for the road which is to lead us away from the outer to the inner basis. The spirit, like the body, can be strengthened and developed by frequent exercise. Just as the body, if neglected, grows weaker and finally impotent, so the spirit perishes if untended. And for this reason it is necessary for the artist to know the starting point for the exercise of his spirit. The starting point is the study of colour and its effects on men." (pp. 35-6).
And I love his honesty in a footnote where he says, of his colour schema, "These statements have no scientific basis, but are founded purely on spiritual experience." (p. 37). Too often people who see spiritual qualities confuse these with scientific ones and therefore, in philosophical terms, make a category error which results in a sense of "misplaced concreteness" that, ultimately, profanes the spiritual. Kandinsky's honesty avoids this ... at least, he does so in the footnote though as we shall see, he may have been less successful in his conclusion.
Art's function is therefore to reveal the spiritual. It "must learn from music that every harmony and every discord which springs from the inner spirit is beautiful, but that it is essential that they spring from the inner spirit and from that alone." (p. 51).
This has a social function, for "each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated" (p. 1). As such, "Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul." (p. 54).
Ultimately, "If the artist be priest of beauty", then s/he has, Kandinsky spells out, "a triple responsibility to the non-artist: (1) He must repay the talent which he has; (2) his deeds, feelings, and thoughts, as those of every man, create a spiritual atmosphere which is either pure or poisonous. (3) These deeds and thoughts are materials for his creations, which themselves exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere. The artist is not only as king, as Peladan says, because he has great power, but also because he has great duties." (pp. 54-55).
And the bottom line? "That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul." He concludes: "this property of the soul is the oil which facilitates the slow, scarcely visible but irresistible movement of [the human condition] onwards and upwards."
As will be apparent, this sense of spiritual progress is certainly premodern (consistent, for example, with the "modes of vision" of Richard of St Victor, a medieval Scottish scholastic theologian). And it may be modern thinking inasmuch as the idea of progress is pronounced. But it is decidedly not postmodern. How interesting, therefore, that Kandinsky is seen as a progenitor of "modern" art and its seamless, to my eye, drift into the inchoate abstractions of postmodernity so apparent in his own later work.
It is here that my criticism of Kandinsky must cut in. Kandinsky's mindset is, at the same time, premodern in its perception of the spiritual essence, but postmodernly deconstructive in the trend of its artistic expression. His work moves from the fairy-tale-like motifs of "Sunday: Old Russia" (1904) or "Song of the Volga" (1906), or Imatra (1917), into "First Abstraction" (1910) which is, well, pretty abstract, "Composition VII" (1913) which is also abstract but retains the richly iconic colouring for which he is famous, into the geometric near-nihilism of some of his later work - for example, "Descent" (1925) or "Development in Brown" (1933).
What might we see as having happened here? My theory is that it has to do with the distinction between transcendent and immanent spirituality. Transcendent spirituality is about the divine beyond this world. Immanent spirituality is about God present in the world, including in its suffering as the "suffering God" (Moltmann). Immanent spirituality does not deny the transcendent, but sees it as also being "incarnate" - or enfleshed in this world.
It seems to me judging from this little book that Kandinsky's views were transcendent. For example, he lacks the social realism of the Wanderers who sought to draw out the embodied beauty and integrity of the ordinary people. His aims are wonderful in seeking to make visible the spiritual as a prophetic action "towards the close of our already dying epoch" (p. 47). But the problem is with how he does this - by transcendence, thus an increasing abstraction and separation from the mundane world.
Here we must be fair to Kandinsky and acknowledge that immanent theologies, such as in liberation theology or what Jurgen Moltman developed out of his WW2 prison camp experience, and which has always been present in eastern religions, were not well developed in the early 20th century. The Wanderers might be seen as a push towards immanence as when Kramskoi was one of the leaders who led the "revolt of fourteen" art students out of the Academy of Fine Arts in protest at church and state control over what constituted art, but Kandinsky does not seem to have followed this people's grounding in his spirituality.
The result, in my view, is that such transcendent spirituality, abstracted from the immanent, progressively unhinges itself. It also has the unintended consequence of profaning the immanent, the material world, because incarnation no longer quickens it. Kandinsky calls this dematerialisation. He says, "The more abstract is form, the more clear and direct its appeal. In any composition the material side may be more or less omitted in proportion as the forms used are more or less material, and for them substituted pure abstractions, or largely dematerialised objects. The more an artist uses these abstracted forms, the deeper and more confidently will he advance into the kingdom of the abstract." (p. 32).
This becomes his obsession, his crusade, thus he says: "Taking the work of Henri Rousseau as a starting point, I go on to prove that the new naturalism will not only be equivalent to but even identical with abstraction." (p. 52). This culminates in the final paragraph of his text: "In my opinion, we are fast approaching the time of reasoned and conscious composition, when the painter will be proud to declare his work constructive. This will be in contrast to the claim of the Impressionists that they could explain nothing, that their art came upon them by inspiration. We have before us the age of conscious creation, and this new spirit in painting is going hand in hand with the spirit of thought towards an epoch of great spiritual leaders" (p. 57).
I cannot claim to be an authority on art, Russian art or Kandinsky. I have only read a few books and used my own eyes. But it does seem to me that here Kandinsky hits hubris. He has abstracted the spiritual, or so he thinks, but in the course of so doing, and doing so for all the right reasons, he has lost it. Lost connection with the "inspiration" that is of the essence of the Spirit, and instead, committed what is in technical theological language the idolatry of presuming to be in spiritual control ... complete with its "great leaders"!
Light is shed on some of these issues in their wonderful Preface (Richard Stratton) and Translator's Introduction (Michael Sadler) to the text. Sadler suggests that this extreme abandonment of representation of the real world is why, "The question most generally asked about Kandinsky's art is: 'What is he trying to do?'" As he says, "this book will do something towards answering the question. But it will not do everything." (p. xviii).
Cezanne, Sadler remarks, "saw in a tree, a heap of apples, a human face, a group of bathing men or women, something more abiding than either photography or impressionist painting could present. He painted the 'treeness' of the tree.... But in everything he did he showed the architectural mind of the true Frenchman. His landscape studies were based on a profound sense of the structure of rocks and hills, and being structural, his art depends on reality.... The material of which his art was composed was drawn from the huge stores of actual nature." (p. xvii). In contrast, a flick through a book of Kandinsky's work (I have been using Kandinsky (The World's Greatest Art)) shows clearly his progressive dematerialisation, and with it, a looming nihilism.
Where does all this leave us today, in 2010, 99 years after first publication of Kandinsky's little book in German?
When I look at the nihilism of Britart, or the sheer inability to draw and express beauty in what seems to be coming out of some of our contemporary art schools (the students tell me they are discouraged by their tutors from trying to express beauty or to draw well), then it is clear that abstraction has become destructive. Like the postmodern deconstruction that I would see it as being cognate with, it is all very well to deconstruct, but what about the grace of reconstruction? Where the inspiration of Grace? Without it, abstraction is like the gardener who keeps pulling up the plant to see how the roots are doing. It is disincarnation, which is another word for death; a death in which the material and the spiritual wither alike because they lack mutual fecundation.
The art that we need for these our troubled times needs to be an apocalyptic art in the sense of being revelatory - revealing of the lived hope that is incarnation. This will be a new art of the sacred. And here is where we need a debate to start, and artistic action around that debate. One direction might be to look afresh at Kandinsky's wonderfully expressed spiritual ideas but in the context of the Wanderers, and of contemporary wanderers. For just as the Revolt of the Fourteen was a rejection of mainstream art school narrative of its times, perhaps we need a new Revolt, and a new Fourteen, for today.
In this I would urge the study by artists of a book by the theologian Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination - especially the Introduction on pp. 3 - 10. Wink argues that we must reject the dualistic idea of Heaven being separate from Earth. We need what he calls an "integral worldview", what is also sometimes called an incarnational spirituality. Here Heaven and Earth are interfused in a single reality (Christians can read Luke 17:20-21; Hindus the Bhagavad Gita; Taoists the Tao Te Ching, etc.).
What the world needs today to respond to the pressing issues of our times is an art that is able to "magnify" and "illuminate" the dynamics of an incarnational spirituality; ont that brings a new mind and a new heart, and gives fresh hope and vision to the world and its human condition.
Kandinsky's little book provides a crucial intellectual stepping stone. But at the end of the day one has to ask if he fell off and thus, the need for a retrospective.
We have lived through a century of dying and dead "modern" art. We cannot go on like that. It is time to call back the soul. I am interested in exploring that here in Govan - a hard pressed area of Glasgow - perhaps as a day conference held with local organisations and artists in 2011, the centenary of the first publication of this book. I would be interested to hear from people who might have suggestions to make about this - especially as I am not an art historian - I am a human ecologist who draws from other disciplines what is apposite to the human condition. I am also very aware that there may be people in the art colleges who are already thinking like this, marginal though such a perspective might currently be.
This book review is a preliminary manifesto in that direction. As John Stuart Blackie wrote in "The Advancement of Learning in Scotland" (1855), "We demand a scholarship with a large human soul, and a pregnant social significance." May the same be considered for art.
I purchase this book without knowing much about it - and I have been very pleased with it. I am on an art course that talks about the Bauhaus and Kandinsky taught there. I have always loved Kandinsky's work and now I have an opportunity to study his live as well. Avery intriguing book
I am not a great fan of Kandinsky's paintings, but this book blew me away! It's not often that the greats put pen to paper and reveal their views so eloquently and articulately, as it's very difficult to put down in words the spiritual/creative process, but in this Kandinsky succeeds; bringing to light what artists already feel and are interested in which they will instinctively connect to and understand in his writing. Every chapter of this book revealed a new and penetrating insight into art which greatly inspired me with my own art practice. It's only a shame that the illustrations and diagrams are not in colour which would have helped illustrate his points better, but nonetheless an absolute must read for any artist. I only wish I had read it a lot earlier!