Let’s take a fresh look at Kandinsky’s works, forgetting the standard spiritual reading of them which has become de rigueur, while not denying that his early works bespeak what he himself called an "inner mood" of "decline," in which "desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose" prevail, even as they also convey the manic excitement that defends against this mood and which has been misread as spiritual aspiration. Wieland Schmied has called Kandinsky’s pre-World War I paintings "apocalyptic landscapes," arguing that they are informed with apocalyptic destructiveness, but also the elated expectation of post-apocalyptic redemption. The intense colors on which Kandinsky placed so much esthetic and expressive hope have redemptive power, even as their brightness is sometimes streaked with painful shadow. The forceful black lines, sometimes stylized squiggles and typically at odds with each other, awkwardly frame the eccentric patches of color, but also create an effect of what Kandinsky called "dissonance," suggesting apocalyptic destructiveness.
The apocalypse is a kind of breakdown -- the apocalyptic mentality involves what Donald Winnicott called the fear of breakdown, masking annihilation anxiety or fear of death (sudden and unexpected), often leading to the feeling that one is slowly going mad, that is, disintegrating, along with the world around one -- while post-apocalyptic redemption brings with it a fresh sense of structured self and a fresh start for the world, that is, a wonderful new world and a self happily living in it as though in a heavenly paradise.
But self-and-world breakdown and self-and-world redemption -- the rendering of falling to pieces and of coming together in glorious new form -- tend to be in uneasy artistic balance in modern as well as traditional representations of the apocalypse. Violent destruction tends to be rendered with more artistic conviction -- esthetic vividness and expressive intensity -- than redemption. The difference between The Woman Clothed with the Sun and The Dragon -- symbolizing the spiritual rebirth that is redemption--in The Silos Apocalypse (ca. 1091-1109) suggests as much. Similarly, in Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (ca. 1805), the terrifying male dragon is more esthetically fascinating and emotionally arousing than the golden woman, perhaps because of the sexual implications of the work -- a monstrously ugly satyr about to rape a beautiful virginal woman, suggesting the triumph of the forces of devilish darkness over the forces of light and innocence. Redemptive beauty and the destructive beast seem about to embrace -- note the woman’s arms raised in alarm yet also in perverse welcome -- even as they remain dramatically at odds.
And that’s the point: destruction is more dramatic than redemption -- the dragon is more dramatic than the woman clothed with the sun, however much the sun’s rays dramatically inform her hair, making it stand on end like a golden crown. Similarly, Redon’s Death on a Pale Horse, from his series of 12 lithographs of The Apocalypse of St. John (1899) -- the image is based on Dürer’s woodcut of St. Michael Spearing the Dragon (1498) from his Apocalypse -- is much more dramatic than Redon’s Woman Clothed with the Sun, however dramatic the contrast between the pure light and pitch black darkness that surround her. The same difference is evident in Dürer’s The Woman of the Apocalypse and the Seven-Headed Dragon (1498), one of the series of 15 woodcuts that form the most esthetically masterful -- exquisitely complex -- and famous illustration of the Apocalipsis Cu[m] Figuris (the title of the 1511 edition) ever produced.
I increasingly think of Kandinsky’s abstract apocalyptic landscapes (some with a sprinkling of "sacred" figures) as a clumsy entropic reprise of Dürer’s figurative apocalyptic scenes, which are as ingeniously abstract as they are eloquently spiritual. "Clumsy" not only because there is a complete breakdown of pictorial order, but because they lack redemptive grace -- the grace signaled by the woman clothed with the sun. In Ludwig Meidner’s contemporary Apocalypic Landscape (1912) there is a disruption rather than collapse of pictorial order: it doesn’t completely fall to pieces -- so that the picture doesn’t disappear (or one doesn’t "get the picture," which thus fails the viewer, or else becomes a picture puzzle in which the viewer has to pick up the pieces and construe the picture) -- as Kandinsky’s apocalyptic landscapes do. Nor does pictorial order collapse into irreversible disorder in Stanley William Hayter’s six engravings of L’Apocalypse (1932), with their abstract figures, Frans Masereel’s three drawings of The Apocalypse of Our Time (1940-44), with its wartime realism, or Edouard Goerg’s surreal L’Apocalypse (1945), with the fantastically evil Beast that Ascendeth Out of the Bottomless Pit [and] Shall Make War Against Them, and Shall Overcome Them, and Kill Them. In killing the figure, whether a surreal beast or beautiful woman or the apocalypse’s victims, caught between them, Kandinsky killed art, if art means the esthetic creation of a pictorial order, whether realistic or abstract, self-evident or subliminal.
The incoherence of Kandinsky’s apocalyptic landscapes -- the messiness left after a so-called emotional storm, a destructive tornado that suddenly appears, an angel of death who comes out of the blue, that is, a horseman of the apocalypse (which is what Kandinsky’s and Marc’s "Blue Rider" is [he has been associated with St. George who killed the dragon, but he quickly changes from a graceful realistic rider in an early representation to a demonic abstract rider in a later representation] -- is the expression of the disintegrative terror and traumatic horror of the apocalypse. They convey the psychic truth that one has lost control of one’s consciousness and has no control of the world and thus become helpless.
I suggest that Kandinsky’s apocalyptic landscapes are deeply personal (after all, he said that his art was based on inner or subjective necessity): the nihilistic breakdown of representation in his abstraction -- or at least the crisis of representation signaled by his abstract assault on it -- is the artistic objective correlative of a so-called psychotic crisis, involving what Wilfred Bion calls "catastrophic change, characterized by violence," often explosive, and "subversion of order," meant to be provocative. I am arguing that Kandinsky -- and through him art -- suffered not simply an identity crisis, but the insanity of a complete breakdown, and that his apocalyptic landscapes are its abstract expression. Abstraction is not only the apocalypse of representation, but of sanity -- not simply the ordinary sanity of the false self, with its compliance to conventional perception, but the mature sanity of the true self, capable of what Winnicott calls the creative apperception that alone makes life worth living.
It is not self-evident that Kandinsky’s abstraction involves creative apperception, for if, as Winnicott says, in creative apperception the self and the world become real, in Kandinsky’s abstraction art alone is real -- almost, for it is not clear that his apparent focus on its so-called formal factors (color and line) was a matter of creative apperception or realization and recognition of them or an artifact and byproduct of his apocalyptic annihilation of the pictorial order and the representation of external reality. It may be that Kandinsky is what Bion calls a "mystic genius," and as such "creative and nihilistic" at once -- destructive of "certain laws or conventions," and with that "disruptive" of "coherence" and "promoting [revolutionary] change," overthrowing the existing order to create a new order after passing through an apocalyptic period of disorder (thus the old order of representational art, decadent because it has exhausted its creative possibilities and nerve, is to be replaced by the adventurous new order of abstract art, in which new creative apperceptions become possible) -- but it also seems clear that he is stuck in apocalyptic disorder, or, to be polite, apocalyptic idiosyncracy. I will argue that he never came out of it, but rather reified and ritualized it by giving it geometrical form, or if one wants, ordering it geometrically. The dynamic gestures of the early abstractions become geometricized mannerisms in the later Bauhaus-influenced work, that is, they lose their flashiness -- their exciting flash-in-the-expressive-pan look -- and become static forms, which is why they no longer cut to the expressive quick but are emotionally superficial. Kandinsky was able to impose geometrical order on his gestural disorder, which brings it under superficial control without changing it. The late geometrical works are abortive attempts to create a clear and distinct abstract picture rather than a sort of creative apperception -- or at least introspective awareness -- of his own breakdown.
What happens during a complete breakdown -- when one goes mad? One fragments, meaning the self and the world are reduced to a mess of entangled, indigestible, unmanageable impulses, feelings, sensations, avoiding total chaos (the irreversible disorganization that is the final madness) by agglomerating in what Kandinsky called "improvisations," where they exist in unstable, tentative, momentary relationship. Kandinsky’s improvisations are structureless inner worlds, bizarrely "informal" yet compulsively enacted. His so-called "compositions" struggle to bring structure into the "mad picture" -- impose enough structure to suggest that his informal "gestures" are consciously formed and calculated (one had to wait for the contrived geometrical compositions for that to occur) and thus not arbitrary and meaningless (an expressive storm signaling nothing) and carefully placed rather than randomly dispersed with pseudo-spontaneous freedom -- implying a certain esthetic and self-mastery. But one has the sense that his "gesturing" has become a kind of grasping at visual straws of structure, as though its shreds could lift him out of the abyss of total madness -- they do, for the illusory moment when they seem to cohere into a singular structure, or at least form a recognizable if incomplete pattern. Structure is attenuated and ramshackle in the compositions rather than the sign of a structured self and world. The centrifugal falling apart tendency in Composition VII (1913) is much greater than the centripetal coming together tendency -- the de-structuring, destabilizing, disintegrative effect overwhelms the re-structuring, stabilizing, integrative effect. There is no clear structure integrating all the fragments while allowing them their distinctiveness. They go their own random disordered separate ways, however much a few sometimes cluster, tentatively and without binding, in a "formal" order.
A pictorial order is a mature container in which raw impulses, feelings, sensations are coherently organized and made thinkable and comprehensible, and thus no longer the expressions of unthinkable, incomprehensible annihilation anxiety -- no longer evidence of disintegration, intimations of death. Such informal, primitive, psychosomatic phenomena have to be disturbing, for the inability to contain and store them in a formal order makes them intolerable and intimidating. They cannot be endured let alone reflected upon; the only way to survive them is to defensively expel them as soon as they occur, as Bion said. It is this process of instant expulsion that we see in Kandinsky’s apocalyptic landscapes -- psychically regressive however supposedly esthetically progressive works of art -- and that is responsible for their apparent intensity. It is the direct expression of his lack of inner control over them. The impulses, feelings, sensations flood the improvisations in the form of seemingly arbitrary, indeterminate gestures, marks, or traces. At their most intense, they seem to move beyond the physical limits of the canvas -- spill into our space, as though our own psychotic projections.
But formal containment gives them purpose -- they crystallize into meaningful concreteness, losing their meaningless flimsiness. They can be named and their psychic effect can be analyzed; thus Kandinsky’s discussion of the "Effects of Color" in On the Spiritual in Art. They become bearable, and one can think about them, hold them in one’s mind -- such holding is the beginning of mindfulness -- and finally contemplate them objectively, realizing that they are external to one, and thus link them together or creatively integrate them in a coherent composition. Are Kandinsky’s geometrical abstractions such thoughtful coherent compositions, offering colorful forms for reverential contemplation, as their iconic character suggests? I don’t think so. However geometrically shaped, memorialized, and refined the impulses, feelings, sensations -- however much geometrical order is imposed on them, in effect idealizing and rationalizing them -- the geometrical compositions are too stylized for their own expressive good, and remain as fragmented as the apocalyptic landscapes, but without their ruthless discharge of energy. Their dynamics has become routine and schematic, suggesting that Kandinsky has run out of creative ideas, even become creatively sterile, however geometrically inventive. His geometrical abstraction is more hygienic than his expressionistic abstraction, and with that more socially palatable, not to say emotionally comfortable. But to impulsively express feelings and sensations that seem incomprehensible because one can find no form that can contain and nail down them down -- fix them in place as though they were dead butterflies -- seems, after all, more creative than to reduce them to decorative fixtures. Without their swift flutter and unconscious shudder, Kandinsky’s abstractions become clever visual thinking. His geometrical abstractions are anti-climactic, and suggest that abstraction has lost its madness, and become as sane and conventional -- and pompous -- as the decadent representation it replaced.
"Kandinsky," Sept. 18, 2009-Jan. 13, 2010, at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 100128.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.