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Wassily Kandinsky | The movement of the Triangle

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1910

Many grievous obstacles along this road must be conquered, so as to arrive at the first stage; and even then an evil, unseeing hand may toss more obstacles in the way, so that this road sometimes appears to be totally impassable, as all landmarks vanish.
It is then that there unfailingly arises some human being, no different from the rest of humanity but for a secret power of "Vision" within him.
He sees and points the way. Sometimes he would prefer to lay aside his power, as it is a heavy cross to bear; but he cannot do so. Though scorned and hated, he never lets go but drags the cartload of protesting humanity after him, ever forcing it forward and upward, over all obstacles in his way.

Yet frequently, long after his disappearance from this earth, when no vestiges of his bodily "I" remain, many seek to retain the form of his futile body in various ways, often in gigantic scales in marble, iron, bronze, or stone, as if there had been any intrinsic value in the embodiment of these divine servants of humanity and martyrs, who so decidedly despised the material, and only served spiritual aims. At any rate, this last resorting to the marble effigy shows that many, by now, have reached that high pinnacle, where he, whom they at last strive to honor, once stood so utterly alone.

A large acute triangle divided into unequal segments, the narrowest one pointing upwards, is a schematically correct representation of spiritual life. The lower the segment the larger, wider, higher, and more embracing will be the other parts of the triangle.
The entire triangle moves slowly, almost invisible, forward and upward and where the apex was "today", the second segment is going to be "tomorrow",*1) that is to say, that which today can be understood only by the apex, and which to the rest of the triangle seems an incomprehensible gibberish, tomorrow forms the true and sensitive life of the second segment.

At the apex of the top segment, sometimes one man stands entirely alone.
His joyous vision corresponds to a vast Inner sorrow, and even those, who are closest to him, do not comprehend him. Angrily, they may call him a knave or a fool. So it was with Beethoven, who at his very highest peak also stood alone *2).

How many years had to pass until a greater segment of the triangle reached the spot where once he stood?
Despite statues erected to him now, are there really men who have risen to this level*3)?
Artists are to be found in every segment of this imaginary triangle. Each one of these artists, who can see beyond the limits of his present stage, in this segment of spiritual evolution is a prophet to those surrounding him and helps to move forward the ever obstinate carload of humanity. However, one of
those not possessed by such vision, or misusing it for base purposes and reasons, when he closes the triangle may be easily understood by his fellow men and even acclaimed. The larger the segment (that is, the lower it lies in the triangle), the greater is the number of people to comprehend the words of the artist. In spite of it and correspondingly every group consciously or unconsciously hungers for spiritual food.
This food is offered by its artists to the next following segment which will be stretching out its hand tomorrow.


This schematical presentation, however, does not express the spiritual life. Among other things, it does not show the shadowside, a large deadly black spot. However, it happens too often that a low level of spiritual nourishment satisfied some, who are already in a higher segment. Even food becomes poisonous, and in smaller quantities affects their soul in its higher segment, gradually lowering it to a lower section; while talcen in larger quantities this poison casts the falling soul into ever lower spheres.
In one of his novels Siemkiewicz compares spiritual life with swimming; whoever fails to work untiringly and does not continuously fight against sinking, will surely go under. Here, a man's gift, "The Talents", - again used in the sense of the Gospel can become a curse, not only to him, but to all those, who partake of this poisonous intake.
Such an artist uses his strength to feed his lower needs; ostensibly garbing it in artistic forms, he presents the impure; attracting weak elements to himself, he constantly mixes them with evil; he induces others to betray them-selves while convincing all, to quench their thirst from the pure spring of spirituality. This impedes the movement, drags back those, who strive onward and contaminates all around them.

Of course, there are periods, when art lacks a high champion altogether, when there is no spiritual nourishment. These are times of retrogression in the spiritual world. Ceaselessly, souls fall from the higher to the lower segments, and the entire triangle appears to be motionless. It even seems to move down and backwards. During these dumb, blind periods, men lay special and exclusive stress on outward success. They are only interested in material possessions and welcome any technical advancement, which only helps man's body, proclaiming this servitude as an achievement of major magnitude, while spiritual forces are neglected, if not completely ignored.

The solitary seekers, the hungry of soul, the visionaries are derided or dubbed as spiritually abnormal. Those rare souls, however, who refuse to be lulled into lethargy and forever yearn, however vaguely, for spiritual life, advancement, and knowledge, sound disconsolate and lamentful amidst the coarse materialistic chorus of spiritual darkness. Agony surrounds these terrified souls and their followers. Sorely tormented by doubt and fear and losing strength, they often prefer creeping obliteration to this sudden leap Into darkness.
At such a period, when Art is basely degraded and only used for materialisfic purposes, it seeks its inspiration in material harshness, as it cannot imagine any finer aims. Objective reproduction, unalteringly boring, remains its perpetual goal.
The "what" in art disappears 'eo ipso'.
Only the "how", the manner of reproduction by the artist persists as a question of creed. The soul in art is lost.

Art goes still further in its pursuit of the objective "how". It begins to specialize, thus becoming comprehensible only to the artists, who complain of the public's indifference to their works. An artist, in such times, is not even expected to have a message but can attract attention through some particular "originality" or "eccentricity".
Consequently, being praised by a group of patrons and connoisseurs (usually resulting in material benefits), a large number of gifted and skilled people plunge into an art, which appears so easy to master. In each "artistic center", there are thousands of such artists, the majority of them merely looking for some new method, to produce millions of works utterly devoid of enthusiastic warmth of heart or the slightest stirring of the soul.

"Competition" grows. The wild battle for success renders the search increasingly superficial. Small groups of artists who, by chance, fought a way out of this artistic and spiritual chaos entrench themselves in small achievement. The public, which has been left behind, looks on in bewilderment, loses interest for such art, and quietly turns away from it.

Despite all this delusion, chaos, and wild hunt, the spiritual triangle continues, slowly but surely and with irrestible forces, to move ever forward and upward.

The invisible Moses descends from the mountain and sees the dance around the golden calf. Nevertheless, he brings to mankind wisdom's solace.

First realized by the artist, his language is inaudible to the masses. Subconsciously, the artist follows the call. That very question "how" contains a hidden seed of recovery. For even though this "how" remains essentially barren, a possibility still dwells in this "originality", this tendency (which some call "personality") of not only seeing the purely material side of an object, but also that which is condensed as differentiated from the objective of the realistic period, which meant to reproduce anything "just as it is", and "without employing any creative imagination" *4). If this "how" also engages the artist's emotional power and is capable of giving free scope to his finer feeling, it already pushes art to the crest of the road, where it will later unfailingly find its lost "what".

That "what" constitutes the spiritual food for the now beginning spiritual awakening. This no longer will be the material, objective "what" of former epochs but an artistic substance - the soul of art - without which its body (the "how") can never lead a completely sound existence, as is the case with individuals and entire peoples.
This "what" is the eternal truth embraced by art, and which only art can express by means essentially its own.

*1) This "today" and "tomorrow" is in its inner sense comparable to the biblical "day" of creation.
*2) Are not some memorials and statues a sorry answer to this question?
*3) Weber, the composer of "Der Freischueti" said of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, "Now the extravagances of this genius have reached the limit, Beethoven is completely ripe for the mad-house". Of the fascinating phrase at the beginning of the first bar on a reiterated E Abbe Stadler said to his neighbor on hearing it for the first time, "Always that E he just can't think of anything else, the talentless fellow!" (Beethoven by August Goellerich, see page I, series 'Die Musilc' published by R. Strauss).
*4) Frequently, use is made here of the terms "material" and "immaterial" and the interim phases which are terms "more or less". Is everything material? Is everything spiritual? Can the distinction, which we make between matter and spirit, be nothing but graduations of one or the other? Thought, which science terms the product of "spirit" is matter, a fine but not a coarse substance. Is whatever cannot be touched with the hand spiritual? It is not possible to discuss the subject further in this little book; it suffices if the boundaries drawn are not too definite.

Wassily Kandinsky | About General Aesthetic, 1910