Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Kandinsky: Concerning the Spiritual In Art

One hundred years ago, artist Wassily Kandinsky wrote and published a small book called Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911). It was translated into English and published in the British Isles in 1914.

Here is the complete text of that translation online: Concerning the Spiritual in Art. (The first page is the translator's preface, which is an interesting historical document for its context, although reading it almost a hundred years later, some of the big arguments about Modern art in this preface have long since been considered settled.) And here is a downloadable etext of the book from Project Gutenberg.

Kandinsky was Russian-born, lived and worked in Germany, and is considered by many to be the first abstract painter of the Modernist era. He sort of started the whole abstract painting project. A lot of what followed, including the flowering of Abstract Expressionism in the USA in the 1950s, flowed from what Kandinsky had started. At some point, every abstract painter needs to deal with his ideas.

The key point in all this for me is the word "spiritual." After a century of Modernism and Postmodernism, and more, the one part of Kandinsky's contribution to ideas about art is the spiritual aspect of art. This remains entirely unfashionable. I have written before about mannerism and decadence, about the re-enchantment of art. The spiritual component of art, so important to Kandinsky, is the main thing that the past century has worked hard to ignore or dismiss. Not all contemporary artists agree with this, though; the spiritual in art is beginning to return to the notice of artists and critics alike.

For example, a recent article by Taney Roniger: Beyond Kandinsky: Toward a New Sense of the Spiritual in Art. I have on my shelves next to my art-making part of my living room creative corner a small collection of books that look at this very topic. This isn't just art therapy, this isn't just psychology, there's more to it than that.

Creativity Beat website boils this down to a nutshell in a post on Kandinsky, and I quote:

In his introduction Kandinsky says, “The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in it grip”. A little over one hundred years later these words speak succinctly to our current state of crisis. The world financial crisis, global climate change, escalating violence and high-tech wars, all point out the destruction brought on by the greed of excessive materialism.

In Kandinsky’s time the vast majority of museum goers and art lovers could only understand art that represented reality. And even though modern and post-modern art have opened us to new ways of seeing, the gate-keepers of the art world currently have very little room for art with spiritual content.

But today, there is a great awakening, a re-membering of our soul’s connection; more and more people from all walks of life are responding to the spiritual in art. As an artist I take these words of Schumann to heart. “To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts- such is the duty of the artist.”


Let me repeat a key statement from that: The gate-keepers of the art world currently have very little room for art with spiritual content. I can attest to this personally, as an artist whose visionary and shamanic art has been rejected more often than not. Something about my artwork seems to scare people and attract them at the same time. Perhaps due to its often archetypal contents. I've written about this before, and I've thought about it a long time. So Creativity Beat accuses the gatekeepers of the art world as being hostile to spirituality in art, I can only nod my head in agreement. I do think, though, that Kandinsky would have been dismayed by this hostility's ascendance in contemporary arts culture; although he may not have been surprised.

For myself, I find new resonance in Kandinsky's words of a century ago, because as artists we are right back where he started from, a century ago, finally addressing these issues of the spirit in art after having denied their existence for so long. Or perhaps addressing seriously for the very first time.

Here are some quotes from Concerning the Spiritual in Art that I find worthy of contemplation.



There is no form, there is nothing in the world which says nothing. Often - it is true - the message does not reach our soul, either because it has no meaning in and for itself, or - as is more likely – because it has not been conveyed to the right place.. ..Every serious work rings inwardly, like the calm and dignified words: ‘Here I am!'



All means (in painting) are sacred when they are dictated by inner necessity. All means are reprehensible when they do not spring from the fountain of inner necessity.. ..The artist must be blind to ‘recognized’ and ‘unrecognized’ form, deaf to the teachings and desires of his time. His open eyes must be directed to his inner life and his ears must be constantly attuned to the voice of inner necessity.



The artist must have something to say, mastery over form is not his goal but adaption of form to its inner meaning.



In a composition in which corporeal elements are more or less superfluous, they can be more or less omitted and replaced by purely abstract forms, or by corporeal forms that have been completed abstracted



The artist must train not only his eye, but his soul.

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