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Wassily Kandinsky | VII - Painting Theory


Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1910
Part II: About painting

From the nature of modern harmony, it results that never has there been a time when it was more difficult than it is today to formulate a complete theory, or to lay down a firm artistic basis.
All attempts to do so would have one result, namely, that already cited in the case of Leonardo and his system of little spoons. It would, however, be precipitate to say that there are no basic principles nor firm rules in painting, or that a search for them leads inevitably to academism. Even music has a grammar, which, although modified from time to time, is of continual help and value as a kind of dictionary.


Painting is, however, in a different position. The revolt from dependence on nature is only just beginning. Any realization of the inner working of colour and form is so far unconscious. The subjection of composition to some geometrical form is no new idea (cf. the art of the Persians). Construction on a purely abstract basis is a slow business, and at first seemingly blind and aimless. The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul, so that he can test colours for themselves and not only by external impressions.

If we begin at once to break the bonds which bind us to nature, and devote ourselves purely to combination of pure colour and abstract form, we shall produce works which are mere decoration, which are suited to neckties or carpets. Beauty of Form and Colour is no sufficient aim by itself, despite the assertions of pure aesthetes or even of naturalists, who are obsessed with the idea of "beauty". It is because of the elementary stage reached by our painting that we are so little able to grasp the inner harmony of true colour and form composition. The nerve vibrations are there, certainly, but they get no further than the nerves, because the corresponding vibrations of the spirit which they call forth are too weak. When we remember, however, that spiritual experience is quickening, that positive science, the firmest basis of human thought, is tottering, that dissolution of matter is imminent, we have reason to hope that the hour of pure composition is not far away.
It must not be thought that pure decoration is lifeless. It has its inner being, but one which is either incomprehensible to us, as in the case of old decorative art, or which seems mere illogical confusion, as a world in which full-grown men and embryos play equal roles, in which beings deprived of limbs are on a level with noses and toes which live isolated and of their own vitality. The confusion is like that of a kaleidoscope, which though possessing a life of its own, belongs to another sphere. Nevertheless, decoration has its effect on us; oriental decoration quite differently to Swedish, savage, or ancient Greek. It is not for nothing that there is a general custom of describing samples of decoration as gay, serious, sad, etc., as music is described as Allegro, Serioso, etc., according to the nature of the piece.

Probably conventional decoration had its beginnings in nature. But when we would assert that external nature is the sole source of all art, we must remember that, in patterning, natural objects are used as symbols, almost as though they were mere hieroglyphics. For this reason we cannot gauge their inner harmony. For instance, we can bear a design of Chinese dragons in our dining or bed rooms, and are no more disturbed by it than by a design of daisies.

It is possible that towards the close of our already dying epoch a new decorative art will develop, but it is not likely to be founded on geometrical form. At the present time any attempt to define this new art would be as useless as pulling a small bud open so as to make a fully blown flower. Nowadays we are still bound to external nature and must find our means of expression in her. But how are we to do it? In other words, how far may we go in altering the forms and colours of this nature?

We may go as far as the artist is able to carry his emotion, and once more we see how immense is the need for true emotion. A few examples will make the meaning of this clearer.

Wassily Kandinsky| Improvisation III, 1909

A warm red tone will materially alter in inner value when it is no longer considered as an isolated color, as something abstract, but is applied as an element of some other object, and combined with natural form. The variety of natural forms will create a variety of spiritual values, all of which will harmonize with that of the original isolated red. Suppose we combine red with sky, flowers, a garment, a face, a horse, a tree.

A red sky suggests to us sunset, or fire, and has a consequent effect upon us -either of splendor or menace. Much depends now on the way in which other objects are treated in connection with this red sky. If the treatment is faithful to nature, but all the same harmonious, the "naturalistic" appeal of the sky is strengthened. If, however, the other objects are treated in a way which is more abstract, they tend to lessen, if not to destroy, the naturalistic appeal of the sky. Much the same applies to the use of red in a human face. In this case red can be employed to emphasize the passionate or other characteristics of the model, with a force that only an extremely abstract treatment of the rest of the picture can subdue.

A red garment is quite a different matter; for it can in reality be of any color. Red will, however, be found best to supply the needs of pure artistry, for here alone can it be used without any association with material aims. The artist has to consider not only the value of the red cloak by itself, but also its value in connection with the figure wearing it, and further the relation of the figure to the whole picture. Suppose the picture to be a sad one, and the red-cloaked figure to be the central point on which the sadness is concentrated - either from its central position, or features, attitude, color, or what not.
The red will provide an acute discord of feeling, which will emphasize the gloom of the picture.
The use of a color, in itself sad, would weaken the effect of the dramatic whole. This is the principle of antithesis already defined. Red by itself cannot have a sad effect on the spectator, and its inclusion in a sad picture will, if properly handled, provide the dramatic element.

Yet again is the case of a red tree different. The fundamental value of red remains, as in every case. But the association of "autumn" creeps in.

The colour combines easily with this association, and there is no dramatic clash as in the case of the red cloak.

Finally, the red horse provides a further variation. The very words put us in another atmosphere. The impossibility of a red horse demands an unreal world. It is possible that this combination of colour and form will appeal as a freak - a purely superficial and non-artistic appeal - or as a hint of a fairy story - once more a non-artistic appeal. To set this red horse in a careful naturalistic landscape would create such a discord as to produce no appeal and no coherence. The need for coherence is the essential of harmony - whether founded on conventional discord or concord. The new harmony demands that the inner value of a picture should remain unified whatever the variations or contrasts of outward form or colour. The elements of the new art are to be found, therefore, in the inner and not the outer qualities of nature.

The spectator is too ready to look for a meaning in a picture - i.e., some outward connection between its various parts. Our materialistic age has produced a type of spectator or "connoisseur", who is not content to put himself opposite a picture and let it say its own message.
Instead of allowing the inner value of the picture to work, he worries himself in looking for "closeness to nature", or "temperament", or "handling" or "tonality", or "perspective", or what not.
His eye does not probe the outer expression to arrive at the inner meaning. In a conversation with an interesting person, we endeavour to get at his fundamental ideas and feelings. We do not bother about the words he uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath necessary for speaking them, nor the movements of his tongue and lips, nor the psychological working on our brain, nor the physical sound in our ear, nor the physiological effect on our nerves. We realize that these things, though interesting and important, are not the main things of the moment, but that the meaning and idea is what concerns us. We should have the same feeling when confronted with a work of art. When this becomes general the artist will be able to dispense with natural form and colour and speak in purely artistic language.

Wassily Kandinsky | Ohne Titel

To return to the combination of colour and form, there is another possibility which should be noted. Non-naturalistic objects in a picture may have a "literary" appeal, and the whole picture may have the working of a fable.
The spectator is put in an atmosphere which does not disturb him because he accepts it as fabulous, and in which he tries to trace the story and undergoes more or less the various appeals of colour. But the pure inner working of colour is impossible; the outward idea has the mastery still. For the spectator has only exchanged a blind reality for a blind dreamland, where the truth of inner feeling cannot be felt.

We must find, therefore, a form of expression which excludes the fable and yet does not restrict the free working of colour in any way. The forms, movement, and colours which we borrow from nature must produce no outward effect nor be associated with external objects. The more obvious is the separation from nature, the more likely is the inner meaning to be pure and unhampered.

The tendency of a work of art may be very simple, but provided it is not dictated by any external motive and provided it is not working to any material end, the harmony will be pure. The most ordinary action - for example, preparation for lifting a heavy weight - becomes mysterious and dramatic, when its actual purpose is not revealed. We stand and gaze fascinated, till of a sudden the explanation bursts suddenly upon us.
It is the conviction that nothing mysterious can ever happen in our everyday life that has destroyed the joy of abstract thought. Practical considerations have ousted all else. It is with this fact in view that the new dancing is being evolved - as, that is to say, the only means of giving in terms of time and space the real inner meaning of motion.
The origin of dancing is probably purely sexual. In folk-dances we still see this element plainly. The later development of dancing as a religious ceremony joins itself to the preceding element and the two together take artistic form and emerge as the ballet.

The ballet at the present time is in a state of chaos owing to this double origin. Its external motives - the expression of love and fear, etc. - are too material and naive for the abstract ideas of the future. In the search for more subtle expression, our modern reformers have looked to the past for help. Isadora Duncan has forged a link between the Greek dancing and that of the future. In this she is working on parallel lines to the painters who are looking for inspiration from the primitives.

In dance as in painting this is only a stage of transition. In dancing as in painting we are on the threshold of the art of the future. The same rules must be applied in both cases. Conventional beauty must go by the board and the literary element of "story-telling" or "anecdote" must be abandoned as useless. Both arts 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 should spring from the inner spirit and from that alone.
Wassily Kandinsky | The black line

The achievement of the dance-art of the future will make possible the first ebullition of the art of spiritual harmony - the true stage - composition.

The composition for the new theatre will consist of these three elements:

1) Musical movement
2) Pictorial movement
3) Physical movement
and these three, properly combined, make up the spiritual movement, which is the working of the inner harmony. They will be interwoven in harmony and discord as are the two chief elements of painting, form and colour.

Scriabin's attempt to intensify musical tone by corresponding use of colour is necessarily tentative. In the perfected stage-composition the two elements are increased by the third, and endless possibilities of combination and individual use are opened up. Further, the external can be combined with the internal harmony, as Schonberg has attempted in his quartettes. It is impossible here to go further into the developments of this idea. The reader must apply the principles of painting already stated to the problem of stage-composition, and outline for himself the possibilities of the theatre of the future, founded on the immovable principle of the inner need.

From what has been said of the combination of colour and form, the way to the new art can be traced. This way lies today between two dangers. On the one hand is the totally arbitrary application of colour to geometrical form - pure patterning. On the other hand is the more naturalistic use of colour in bodily form - pure phantasy.
Either of these alternatives may in their turn be exaggerated. Everything is at the artist's disposal, and the freedom of today has at once its dangers and its possibilities. We may be present at the conception of a new great epoch, or we may see the opportunity squandered in aimless extravagance.

That art is above nature is no new discovery.
New principles do not fall from heaven, but are logically if indirectly connected with past and future. What is important to us is the momentary position of the principle and how best it can be used. It must not be employed forcibly. But if the artist tunes his soul to this note, the sound will ring in his work of itself. The "emancipation" of today must advance on the lines of the inner need.
It is hampered at present by external form, and as that is thrown aside, there arises as the aim of composition-construction.
The search for constructive form has produced Cubism, in which natural form is often forcibly subjected to geometrical construction, a process which tends to hamper the abstract by the concrete and spoil the concrete by the abstract.

The harmony of the new art demands a more subtle construction than this, something that appeals less to the eye and more to the soul. This "concealed construction" may arise from an apparently fortuitous selection of forms on the canvas. Their external lack of cohesion is their internal harmony. This haphazard arrangement of forms may be the future of artistic harmony. Their fundamental relationship will finally be able to be expressed in mathematical form, but in terms irregular rather than regular.

[Footnote: Kandinsky's example of Isadora Duncan is not perhaps perfectly chosen. This famous dancer founds her art mainly upon a study of Greek vases and not necessarily of the primitive period. Her aims are distinctly towards what Kandinsky calls "conventional beauty", and what is perhaps more important, her movements are not dictated solely by the "inner harmony", but largely by conscious outward imitation of Greek attitudes. Either Nijinsky's later ballets: Le Sacre du Printemps, L'Apres-midi d'un Faune, Jeux, or the idea actuating the Jacques Dalcroze system of Eurhythmics seem to fall more into line with Kandinsky's artistic forecast. In the first case "conventional beauty" has been abandoned, to the dismay of numbers of writers and spectators, and a definite return has been made to primitive angles and abruptness. In the second case motion and dance are brought out of the souls of the pupils, truly spontaneous, at the call of the "inner harmony." Indeed a comparison between Isadora Duncan and M. Dalcroze is a comparison between the "naturalist" and "symbolist" ideals in art which were outlined in the introduction to this book - M.T.H.S.]

Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1910

Wassily Kandinsky | V - The psychological working of color
Wassily Kandinsky | VI - The language of Form and Color
Wassily Kandinsky | VIII - Art and Artists