Modern Art and Spirituality: Kandinsky

The Russian-born Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky came late to art. In 1896, at age 30, he gave up a legal career to take up painting inspired by Monet’s Haystacks. His first works such as Der Blaue Reiter shows Monet’s influence on Kandinsky. Similar to the artists we considered earlier, Kandinsky’s work increased in abstraction as he matured. Indeed, many credit Kandinsky with being the first abstract artist. In a change of pace, we will focus on Kandinsky’s writing which is his main contribution to modern art and spirituality. His two most famous works are Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910) (Kandinsky, 1977) and Point and Line to Plane (1926) (Kandinsky, 1979). Before turning to the former of these works, a word on Kandinsky’s main spiritual influences.

Whereas the previous artists we looked at did not ascribe to a particular religious view, Kandinsky committed at various stages to Orthodox Christianity, Theosophy, and the scientist/visionary Emanuel Swedenborg. Theosophy contributed two main ideas to Kandinsky’s work (Ringbom, 1966). First, creation expanded from a singularity through geometric forms. Second, the essential oneness of religions and esoteric knowledge.

If Dadaism drew on Nietzsche, abstract art drew on Swedenborg (Soriente, 2010; Walker, 2014). For Swedenborg, the material world hid a divine language decipherable by the gifted. Today, one finds similar impulses with those who long to live according to nature or those insisting creation hides secret cures. The problem with such Arcadian views of naturalism remains, what to do with nature’s cruelty (Meillassoux, 1997)? This question is, however, not within the scope of the current concern.

Having explored Kandinsky’s influences, we turn to one of his influential art-theory tracts, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. The tract is a goldmine for spirituality, but here we will focus on two aspects: art’s progress and atmosphere. When Kandinsky describes art’s progression in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, his fascination with Theosophical geometry is on full display (Abadi & Keshavarz, 2016). The spiritual growth of art is, for example, explained with a standard Theosophical geometrical metaphor, the triangle.

Flushed with ideas from the high art of yesteryear, the triangle moves ever upward. Few artists ascend to the pinnacle of the triangle. Rather, most take refuge in the cosy interior of the known, the safe. The happy tortured few who reach the triangle’s dizzy precipice peer into the future. For them, the base is a distant memory. Nothing, however, guarantees an artistic visionary’s ideas will disseminate throughout the triangle. As the triangle moves ever upward, lofty gems congregate on the triangle’s floor. These pearls become the base, the new banal.

Similar to many modern artists, Kandinsky wanted to create synesthetic atmospheres with his art. He often spoke in Concerning the Spiritual in Art of art in musical terms and collaborated with Felix Klee and Modest Mussorgsky on Bilder einer Ausstellung [Pictures at an Exhibition]. Before one ridicules Kandinsky’s synesthetic ambition, consider the well-known Bouba-Kiki test (Köhler, 1947). Participants viewed the following two shapes and were asked to identify Bouba and Kiki.

The rough one, of course, is Kiki and the round one Bouba. A recent study suggests such synesthesia holds across cultures(Bremer, Caparos, Davidoff, de Fockert, Linnell & Spence, 2013). Although cultures differ in which shapes correspond to which sounds. Turns out humans are synesthetic. We associate particular sounds with shapes. No wonder, then, art moves us. An art masterpiece sweeps us into its synesthetic current.

Yet, how do Kandinsky’s ideas of art’s progress and atmospheres relate to spirituality today? Two things come to mind:

  1. Kandinsky started a movement hoping to articulate the inner spiritual experience of painting. Yet, for Kandinsky, the impulse to articulate one’s internal state for public appreciation was not unique to the painter. His fascination with synesthesia is more than enough prove that Kandinsky posits every sentient or even non-sentient object express something spiritual. Here, of course, he echoes sentiments once put forward by Hegel (Abadi & Keshavarz, 2016). The Zeitgeist guides history and the Master articulates the Zeitgeist’s guidance. The artist, for Kandinsky, is such a Master articulating and embodying the Zeitgeist. Yet, such a statement hides a profound contradiction worthy of explication.
  2. The contradiction Kandinsky faces is one common to all art and to all who externalise any internal idea. The more one disavows external influence, the more one forgets its memory. Indeed, as Bernard Stiegler (Stiegler, 1998) points out, the whole of philosophy has ignored the question of externalised memory. Externalised memory was disregarded as a sophistic tool, not worthy of the formative exercises philosophy and theology offer. With such forgetfulness theology and philosophy disavows the very material circumstances of their existence, while also leaving these technics—as in craft—open for exploitation. Returning to Kandinsky’s contradiction. Kandinsky’s one-sided exploration of art as an externalisation of the inner world forgot the externalisation is also formative of the internal. Hence, for example, a Kandinsky selling for millions of dollars at an auction today remains tragic. The externalised value of the art object is now overdetermined by its quantification. It is quantified and popularised to the point of non-influence even obscurity.

Then again, if Kandinsky’s art project wanted to externalise inner spirituality, it may be the most faithful to the 20th Century. That is if Paul Virilio’s (Lotringer & Virilio, 2005) suggestion that 20th Century art abstracted because the World Wars fractured reality through bombs. Kandinsky’s work then succeeds not because it exposes a prophetic inner state on the pinnacle of a historic triangle. No, the opposite, because he articulated the apocalyptic spiritual Zeitgeist of bodies blowing up around him.

References

Abadi, Z.H. & Keshavarz, R. 2016. The Effect of Hegel’s Philosophy of Art on Kandinsky in the Essay A Concerning the Spiritual in Art”. The Social Sciences. 11(12):3082–3087.
Bremer, A.J., Caparos, S., Davidoff, J., de Fockert, J., Linnell, K.J. & Spence, C. 2013. “‘Bouba’” and “‘Kiki’” in Namibia? a Remote Culture Make Similar Shape–Sound Matches, but Different Shape–Taste Matches to Westerner. Cognition. 126(2):165–172.
Kandinsky, W. 1977. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Kandinsky, W. 1979. Point and Line to Plane. New York, NY: Dover Publications.
Köhler, W. 1947. Gestalt Psychology. New York, NY: Liveright.
Lotringer, S. & Virilio, P. 2005. The Accident of Art. New York, NY: Semiotext(e).
Meillassoux, Q. 1997. L’inexistence divine. Paris 1.
Ringbom, S. 1966. Art in “The Epoch of the Great Spiritual”: Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting. Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 29:386–418. [Source]
Soriente, S.J. 2010. Divine Abstractions: Spiritual Expressions in Art. Sheldon Museum of Art Catalogues and Publications. [Online], Available: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/sheldonpubs/25.
Stiegler, B. 1998. Technics and Time: The Fault of Epimetheus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press,.
Walker, C. 2014. The Language of Form and Color: Traces of Swedenborg’s Doctrine of Correspondences in Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art . The New Philosophy.

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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