Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button


by Donald Kuspit
Chapter 2, Part 2
Spiritualism and Nihilism: The Second Decade

Just as Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 made Matisse's Portrait of Mme Matisse of 1905 seem passé, so Kandinsky's First Abstract Watercolor of 1910 made Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon seem outmoded.

What was innovative and unique just a few years earlier -- the trend-setting last word in advanced art -- instantly became an old idea of art, indeed, that fatally ironic thing, a cliché of radicalism. Kandinsky's First Abstract Watercolor was much more daring and imaginative than Matisse's bold use of a green gesture to define the line of his wife's nose -- it made her face radiantly fresh -- and Picasso's schematized abstract figures and African masks, with their own peculiar kind of freshness and "greenness." Both were strident, triumphant invasions of barbarism into high art -- the brutal take-over of civilized culture by uncivilized expression. But Kandinsky's First Abstract Watercolor was not simply another avant-garde shock administered to a reluctant public, another deliberate production of avant-garde difference, another mischievous manipulation of the known: It was an artistic leap into the unknown, inviting the public to a new kind of experience. (Whether made in 1910 or 1913, as some scholars think, it carries Kandinsky's ideas about art to a consummate extreme.)

It was not so much yet another avant-garde novelty within an established mode of picture making but a new departure for art. Indeed, Kandinsky's watercolor is not strictly speaking a picture: It does not depict anything, but offers what seems like a playful accumulation of abstract elements. They serve no discernible descriptive purpose, but rather seem to express directly that "purposiveness without purpose" that Immanuel Kant thought was the gist of esthetic disinterestedness. They did more than add a certain dissonance to what was otherwise a conventionally composed picture, which is what Matisse and Picasso did: Kandinsky's watercolor seems uncomposed, or "decomposed" -- seems to lack formal unity and coherence, even as it suggests a new kind of harmony -- a rhapsodic consonance of abstract elements. Each seems to embody a unique sense experience; orchestrated together, they become almost overwhelming in their sensuous, expressive impact. Each is a kind of sensuous leitmotif, their apparent disarray a complex dance across the surface of the work. Kandinsky's watercolor seems delirious compared to Matisse's and Picasso's paintings, and endlessly fresh and alive with sensation and feeling in a way that makes their effect seem limited. Kandinsky's abstraction is much more authentically Dionysian than Matisse's Fauvism or Picasso's kind of savagery. There is an excitement about Kandinsky's watercolor that makes Matisse's and Picasso's paintings seem reserved, for all their intensity.

Kandinsky's watercolor was an act of faith in abstract art, not simply the latest negation of representation. What makes it extraordinary -- as distinct from merely novel -- is its structurelessness. It is important not only because it is totally abstract -- as distinct from rendering familiar appearances in an abstract way, distorting them so they become unfamiliar and thus fresh, which was what Matisse and Picasso did with the figure, landscape and still life -- but because it seems formless and unfinished.

There is no binding gestalt that subsumes the details, and they themselves seem inarticulate. On both macro and micro level Kandinsky's watercolor defies expectations. It is about as removed from the classical ideals of clarity, cohesiveness and comprehension as it seems possible to be. It is an uncanny visual experience, full of unexpected sensations evoking unnamable feelings.

If one studies the First Abstract Watercolor carefully, one realizes that there is little or no continuity between its forms -- if bits and pieces of line and color, sometimes interacting, sometimes isolated, can be called "forms." Instead, what one has is a discontinuous panorama of amorphous elements, each charged with energy and movement. There is no center to the watercolor, but a large number of competing elements, all of which seem to be going off in all directions at once. Each is engaging in its own right, all the more so because it seems fleeting. There is a sense of unbounded flow -- indeed, some of the elements appear to flow right off the surface of the work into the space beyond -- and relentless force. The abandonment of subject matter is a prelude to what seems like a loss of control and containment.      

Nothing in Kandinsky's watercolor is predictable -- every color, line and shape seems spontaneously made. There are dense, opaque passages, usually of black, and thinner, more transparent passages, more typical of watercolor, each equally haphazard in appearance. Patterns do emerge, but they are primitive, and seem provisional: lines and gestures -- some merge into squiggles -- eccentrically repeat, and are bunched together, and there are recurrent reds and greens -- the former bright, the latter more subdued -- as well as a sprinkling of blue. These colors are of course characteristic of nature, but they do not clearly refer to it. If the work is a landscape it is one that has become apocalyptic: color has separated from line, and shape has become molten. The terrain is disjointed, alarming and ecstatic all at once.

In fact, it is more of what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls an "inscape" than a landscape. It has the urgency of prereflective experience rather than the detachment necessary for accurate observation. There is something unguarded about Kandinsky's inscape that makes Matisse's Fauvist landscapes and Picasso's Cubist landscapes seem cautious in comparison. No doubt one can find the remnants of a landscape in Kandinsky's watercolor: The mind cannot help seeing the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar, interpreting what it sees in terms of its assumptions of what it should see. But what is important is not the afterimage of reality that seems to exist in Kandinsky's watercolor, but his attempt to eradicate it. It is the tension between what seems familiar but is in fact unfamiliar that is in part responsible for the "spiritual" effect of his works. But it is only when one discovers an alternative reality in the dregs of hallucinated reality -- when what seems like an insubstantial illusion is experienced as an autonomous realm of abstract elements -- that the work becomes truly spiritual.

For Kandinsky, the abstract elements are in and of themselves spiritual -- a separate spiritual substance that, however fluid and formless, is the bedrock of observed physical reality, which only seems solid, and finalized in its form. It is this paradox that one experiences when one "finds" a disintegrated landscape in Kandinsky's dynamic abstraction. It is Kandinsky who made it clear that art is not a substitution for reality, but a reality in its own right. Nonetheless, one invariably imagines the familiar -- or at least emotionally familiar -- in the abstraction, as though it was a Rorschach test. And in a sense it is. As I hope to show, it was so even for Kandinsky, who projected his emotions into it. It is as though the abstract elements are congealed emotions. Just as physical reality was an expression of spiritual reality, so abstract art was an expression of unconscious feeling.

It is not only the outer frame or boundary of the "picture" that is shattered or overrun, but the inner frame that is usually composed of the boundaries between things. Kandinsky's abstract elements in fact lack clear boundaries -- although there are eccentric circles, they are often unclosed, as though unraveling -- adding to the sense of the limitlessness of the space. All the elements seem isolated from one another, even as they randomly interact. Thus, because the work lacks obvious organization, there is no way of orienting oneself in it, no clear path leading one through it. There is also no ideal coign of vantage from which to view it -- no perspective leading one's eye into its distance and giving it coherence. Indeed, there is no clear way of deciding which element is near, which is far, which is approaching, which is receding. Is the yellow blur in the lower right hand corner or the blue squiggle in the upper left hand corner closer? Both seem to swim on the surface, finessing its flatness with their own. The Albertian eye has lost its anchor, or rather no longer anchors the picture: It has been destroyed. It was apex of the pyramid of perspective, which crumbles without it. One is left with a sense of vertigo. It is as though we are in a huge centrifuge, spinning out of control, scattering its contents. They are strewn through infinite space like stepping stones to nowhere.

It is because there is no perspective to ground and organize the abstract elements that they seem to float in the infinite. With the dissolution of perspective -- the loss of belief in its power to rationalize space into a sequence of objective elements -- the first all-over painting, as Greenberg calls it, became possible. Kandinsky is a great artist not only because he restored art to the spiritual function it had in a more religious world than the modern one -- indeed, created a spiritual effect with purely esthetic means, rather than traditional iconographic means -- but because he realized that the collapse of perspective meant the collapse of pictorial space. It became a sublime field in which the elements of art could exist in their own sensuous and expressive right, uncontrolled and unassembled into some image. The picture became an open system of abstract elements, each with an idiosyncratic edge of its own, rather than a closed system of representation in which every idiosyncratic detail found its proper place in a preordained whole. It was the beginning of a new indeterminacy in art, and a new sense of immediacy. It was the beginning of a new sense of presence, a new sense of energy and emotional release. In short, liberation from the control of perspective ended the necessity of representation. The feelings that had been associated with objects could now be freely expressed.

More crucially, the loss of all imposed controls meant that the so-called picture became a groundless space in which the basic elements of visuality seemed to be randomly thrown. It is as though Kandinsky's watercolor illustrates, in visual rather than verbal terms, Stéphane Mallarmé's famous poem A dice-throw never even cast in eternal circumstances from the depth of a shipwreck (ca. 1897). The poem itself looks shipwrecked: Its phrases drift across the page, forming a variety of tentative constellations in its cosmic emptiness. Thus the poem illustrates itself. Kandinsky's watercolor also has as much absence as presence. Its positive space -- the eccentric constellations of abstract elements -- also activates its negative space, the cosmic emptiness of its surface. Like Mallarmé's phrases, they also seem to be in free fall. But what looks like free fall is what Kant called "the free and unimpeded interplay of imagination and understanding."

There are, then, no continuities, no priority of elements, no foreground, middleground or background, only a certain sense of aliveness and momentum -- a certain magnificent restlessness. There's a kind of beat, a peculiar rhythm, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but never consistent. It's as though we are looking at magma that has erupted from some temperamental depth. Some of it seems to be cooling, some of it remains hot, some of it looks like smoke or ash. Kandinsky has not only given us the first all-over painting, but the first process painting, or action painting, as Harold Rosenberg called it. It is a process and action with no beginning and end. Fire and smoke are entangled, as the red that surrounds several black patches, like an aura, suggests. They are the fire and smoke of Kandinsky's alchemy: The First Abstract Watercolor transforms the prima materia of representation into the ultima materia of abstraction, refines the dross of reality into the gold of transcendence.

The creation of the First Abstract Watercolor -- abstraction was blessed by beginning with a consummate work -- is a truly momentous event in the history of 20th century, even more momentous than the creation of Matisse's Portrait of Mme Matisse and Picasso's Les Demoiselles d¹Avignon. For Kandinsky's work decisively breaks with tradition in a way that Matisse's and Picasso's works do not, however untraditional they are. At the time of its making, Kandinsky's work was more inconceivable than any work Matisse and Picasso had made. Pure abstraction was a threat to them -- Picasso denied that it was actually possible -- perhaps because it implied that however much they developed and refined their art, it belonged to an obsolescent tradition, and thus could never be absolutely original, as Kandinsky's watercolor seemed to be. If abstract art quintessentialized art -- revealed art at its most uncompromising and pure, purging it of everything that was not art (Matisse's dramatized likeness, Picasso's storytelling) -- neither Matisse nor Picasso was the quintessential 20th century artist. Kandinsky was, along with Kasimir Malevich and Mondrian. Their innovative art makes radical sense in a century full of radical innovations.

But is Kandinsky's art completely unprecedented -- entirely unconditioned by the past?  No, but its heritage is as much literary as visual. It can be understood as the final stage in the liberation of the personal gesture from the impersonal representation. This began with Delacroix and Manet, accelerated in Impressionism, and was almost achieved in van Gogh, where the expressive gesture seems to jump out of the representation and stand on its own, as though it was an independent mood. From being an accent in a representation, and then its dynamic substance, it became an abstract end in itself in Kandinsky. But his own explanation of his move toward abstraction makes it clear that much more is involved than a consciousness of painterly precedents. Four events converged to influence him: the experience of music, especially Wagner's Lohengrin; the revelation that "objects were discredited as an essential element within the picture," which he had realized when he first saw a Haystack by Monet, which also taught him "the unsuspected power of the palette"; "a scientific event. . . the collapse of the atom," which he "equated. . . with the collapse of the whole world," which suddenly became "uncertain, precarious and insubstantial"; and recognition of the power of inner necessity as distinct from the inevitabilities of external reality. (All the quotations are from Reminiscences/Three Paintings [1913].) It is as though Kandinsky had come under the spell of Walter Pater without knowing it.

Let me make my point -- that Kandinsky's abstraction is rooted in the so-called decadent estheticism of Pater -- by quoting Kandinsky on his musical experience, and then quoting Pater's famous words on music. Hearing Wagner, Kandinsky "saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me. . . . It became. . . quite clear to me. . . that painting could develop such powers as music possesses." Here is Pater, in his essay on The School of Giorgione (1877) in The Renaissance: "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it. . . . It is the art of music which most completely realizes this artistic ideal, this perfect identification of matter and form." For Kandinsky, abstract art is quintessentially musical: The colors and crazy lines he saw in his mind's eye are so many notes of a music spontaneously composing itself.

Fugue (1914) makes the point decisively: A fugue is a polyphonic composition in which one or more melodic lines or themes (motifs) are stated successively and developed contrapuntally, finally harmonizing without losing their individuality. The counterpoint in Fugue is visual rather than aural, although, as The Yellow Sound, the "stage composition" that appeared in the 1912 Blue Rider Almanac, indicates, Kandinsky thought they could be reconciled (he was apparently a synesthete, as his Lohengrin experience suggests). The hatches are one kind of visual motif, the curves another, the atmospheric squiggles yet another, the little triangles and circular fragments still other "melodic lines." Their polyphonic interplay is transparent: Parallel hatches of different colors form curves, there is a white crosshatching near the center of the painting, and a crosshatching of the complementary colors red and green in the upper right corner. It seems a pale ghost of the counterpoint of the more prominent red and green curves seemingly far below it -- a transcendental reflection of a solid reality, as it were. But there is little that is solid in Kandinsky's Fugue: All seems molten -- highly malleable and indeterminate. Every motif seems to be in the process of metamorphosizing into some other motif, with none dominant and most unfamiliar, unnamable.

Kandinsky's painting is what he himself called a "chorus of colors," and while some color shapes seem to derive from landscape and others converge in a still life, there is no clearly identifiable scene, only an unstable, ceaselessly moving atmosphere. The Postimpressionist Paul Gauguin had already stated that "art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, and think more of the creation which will result than of nature" (1888). Fugue is the next step: It seems to be derived from nature -- seems to be a mystic's dream of nature -- but it is an abstraction created independently of nature. Nature is not its point of departure -- no longer the benchmark of art -- but rather art itself: Kandinsky's work signals the autonomy of art, that is, art's reflection on its own musical nature. It is not only art that has "rid [itself] of its responsibilities to its subject or material" and "become a matter of pure perception," as Pater said, but art that has become a meditation on the essentials of art, and a deification of them.

What makes Kandinsky's painterly Fugue different from the usual musical fugue is that the motifs appear all at once rather than successively, so that there is no sense of any narrative development, however much the motifs seem to be engaged in an abstract drama. Paul Gauguin thought this was an advantage -- thought that it made painting superior to music. He had already formulated the idea of musical painting in his Notes Synthetiques (ca. 1888)--of painting that, "like music, . . . acts on the soul through the intermediary of the senses: harmonious colors correspond to the harmonies of sound." He added: "But in painting a unity is obtained which is not possible in music, where the accords follow one another, so that the judgment experiences a continuous fatigue if it wants to reunite the end with the beginning. The ear is actually a sense inferior to the eye. The hearing can only grasp a single sound at a time, whereas the sight takes in everything and simultaneously simplifies it at will." Before Kandinsky, Gauguin already thought of colors as "vibrating tones," whose "combinations are unlimited," and like Kandinsky, he sought to integrate line, which seems to give form, and color, which seems formless.

Kandinsky regarded his abstract paintings not only as musical compositions, but as poems -- tone poems, as it were. According to Pater, after music, poetry and painting are "the ideal examples" in which "form and matter, in their union or identity, present one single effect to the 'imaginative reason', that complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born with its sensible analogue or symbol." For Kandinsky, it was all one: The rhythms of music and poetry, and the colorful feelings they evoked -- like Gauguin, Kandinsky associated each color with a particular feeling -- were fused and distilled in abstract painting. He in fact wrote poetry, and in 1912 published an album called Sounds with 38 prose poems (1909-11) and 12 color as well as 23 black-and-white woodcuts (1907-12). He thought of Sounds as a "musical" publication; The juxtaposition of woodcuts and poems supposedly formed a 'synthetic' unity. It didn't exactly work, as Kenneth Lindsay and Peter Vergo note, but the album was unusual for its time, and had enormous influence.

Kandinsky was fascinated "with the sounds of words and the gulf between sounds and sense. . . . He also uses frequent repetition to divorce words from their meanings. . . . Layout, typography and punctuation, as well as more specifically poetic devices like assonance and ellipsis, are all exploited in quite unconventional ways." Crucially, the poems were greeted enthusiastically by the Dadaists. Hugo Ball was a friend of Kandinsky, and read extracts from Sounds at the Cabaret Voltaire. One poem was published in the only issue of the cabaret's review (June 1916). Arp thought that "Kandinsky's poetry lays bare the vacuousness of phenomena and of reason," exposing "the pulse, the becoming and decay, the transformation of this world." In both poems and woodcuts "anthropomorphic shapes dissolve into teasing phantasms," inspiring those Arp produced.

In other words, for the Dadaists, Kandinsky's forms were not simply esthetically fundamental, but dream products of the unconscious, and as such doubly alienated from nature.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here