Master of the Mystic Arts
Steve Ditko's Dr. Strange from Strange Tales #138 (November 1965):
Kandinsky, Unbroken Line, 1923
The signature geometric style the name Kandinsky immediately suggests
Kandinsky is the abstract painter par excellence, even in popular consciousness. His geometric abstractions became as iconic as the melting watch of Surrealism, or the Campbell’s can of Pop. When Steve Ditko, creator of Marvel’s Spiderman, created the “master of the mystic arts” Dr. Strange, he represented the astral realm with abstract forms adapted from Kandinsky. They are naively, amusingly crude, but not without that intuitive brilliance that has made Ditko’s creations justly, and internationally, famous. As Ditko unconsciously realized, Kandinksy did indeed intend his designs to depict what Marvel comics called “the dazzling, description-defying dimension of eternity.”
Kandinsky began his career as a Symbolist painter, and the mystical, medievalist, occult concerns that color his earliest paintings remained indelibly with him throughout his life. He was very literally a magician-painter. Like Dr. Strange, a “sorcerer supreme.”
Kandinsky, Riding Couple, 1906
Exotic medievalism in a magical mode: though Kandinsky's imagery changed, his preoccupations would remain constant.
Composition VI, 1913
Kandinsky was fascinated by Christian eschatology. He believed that the Twentieth century was “the dawning age of the Great Spiritual” in which outworn ways of being and thinking would be transformed, under the guidance of the arts. One can see this assumption clearly in Kandinsky’s still figurative but whirling and cataclysmic paintings, one of which, the 1913 Composition VI, he also called “the Deluge.” It depicts the world ending with the harmonious crash of a symphony. In his 1913 Reminiscences Kandinsky describes the original theme, the Biblical deluge, as dissolving into “purely pictorial , independent” forms whose reason for being derives entirely from the artist’s spiritual existence. Kandinsky says,
What thus appears as a mighty collapse in objective [representational] terms is, when one isolates its sound [when one understands the interior psychic mood it is meant to convey], a living paean of praise, the hymn of the new creation that follows the destruction of the world.
Note: In my direct quotations from Kandinsky, I follow his exotic terms, and anything else that requires clarification, with my own interpolations in square brackets. The round brackets in quotations from Kandinsky are his own. His idiosyncratic terminology is always deliberate and thoughtful, and used with consistent meaning throughout his forty two years of writing on art.
Kandinsky, final design for the cover of the Blaue Reiter Almanac 1911
Another, more graphic symbol of Kandinsky’s new millenium is St. George slaying the dragon, which provided the emblem for the 1911 Blue Rider Group, an association of the new painters in Munich headed by Kandinsky and Franz Marc.
St. George’s triumph over the dragon appears, with varying degrees of clarity, throughout Kandinsky’s work. Like the final cataclysm, the rider’s struggle represents the birth pangs of the new world where all shall be spiritualized — the triumph of light.
With a White Border 1913. Maelstrom composition with an abstracted, lance-bearing St. George
The use of light in Kandinsky’s work is so significant that we would do well to trace its symbolism back through the religious tradition to which Kandinsky was heir. Isaiah says that at the end of time there shall be no more light from specific sources, but all shall shine with intrinsic brilliance: matter will become luminous:
The Sun shall be no more thy light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, & thy God thy glory. Thy Sun shall no more go down, neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light . . .
— an image adopted by the author of Revelation to describe the heavenly Jerusalem,
And the city had no need of the Sun, neither of the Moon to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it . . . . And the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day: for there shall be no night there.
The same transfiguration of matter into luminosity is observable in Medieval art and Russian icons, where there are no cast shadows. Nor are there cast shadows in any of Kandinsky’s paintings from his inauguration of abstraction to the end of his career.
Kandinsky, Church in Murnau, 1910.
A year before representation is abandoned, the forms that remain are turning into pure shadowless color and light
Cast shadow is the visual equivalent of weight. It indicates opacity and solidity, material being. The development of pure abstraction in painting does not necessarily entail the abandonment of cast shadows, though we now take this lack as a given. But shadowlessness is a necessary consequence of full commitment to depicting a wholly inner reality. As in the Biblical visions cited above, Kandinsky has transformed everything into light, a transfiguration which is no way undercut by the use of color, the addition of lines, or later still by the incorporation of geometric and finally biological forms. Shadows never appear in any mature Kandinsky, just as angels need not flap their wings to fly. Shadowlessness, like the pinions of celestial spirits, is a symbol of perfect, weightless freedom, unconstrained by three-dimensional existence. Kandinsky’s worlds are all realized in the zero-gravity of heaven — the realm of light
Kandinsky, Gorge Improvisation, 1914. All has turned to whirling light and color.
Without weight to help in placement, Kandinsky arrived at the maelstrom as a principle of composition. What holds the vast majority of Kandinsky’s abstract compositions together is not a structure based on symmetry and static order but on momentum. In his 1914 Cologne Lecture Kandinsky describes the physics, as it were, of his non-dimensional visual world, his aesthetic chaos where up and down, nearer and farther, heavy and light, have ceased to exist.
But non-dimensional though it is, Kandinsky’s visual world is not flat or dimensionless. He gave a new and non-realistic dimensionality to his compositions by placing his colors and shapes not only on the canvas, but seemingly at different levels in it. In the Cologne Lecture he says
The colors . . . lie as if upon one and the same plane but their inner [psychic] weights [values] are different.
Kandinsky, Fugue, 1914.
Layering of textures.
Technically, this means water-color-like transparencies, thick palette-knife application, scumbling, all the possible ways of varying texture and color density, along with subtle blendings and contrasts of hue — all used alongside of or atop one another. “By this means,” Kandinsky continues,
I also avoided the element of flatness in painting, which can easily lead and has so often led to the ornamental. The difference between the inner planes [the variation in textures and color densities] gave my pictures a depth that more than compensated for [the abandonment of] earlier [realistic] perspective depth.
Kandinsky confirms that his conscious intention was to transcend material being by these techniques, in his 1926 Point and Line to Plane. In a section titled “Dematerialized surface,” he describes “the viewpoint of common materialism” as diametrically opposed to his own, which mandates the “floating” on the picture plane of “elements having no material weight in an indefinable (nonmaterial) space.”
It may be useful here to recall Milton’s description of Chaos from book two of Paradise Lost,
Before thir eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary deep, a dark
Illimitable Ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth and highth,
And time and place are lost . . .
This same alternate-universe spatial sense, along with the weightlessness that is its basis, is even more readily evident in the shadowless, free-wheeling geometries of the Bauhaus period and the final, confetti-like biomorphic paintings he created in Paris. The inauguration of abstract painting was far from being the sum of Kandinsky’s achievements. He created not only new forms, but devised new laws of nature in which such forms would plausibly exist. He created not a style, but a world. As Goethe’s Faust says when he contemplates the symbol of the macrocosm,
Am I now a god? All has become so bright!
I see in these pure lines the living action
of my soul set forth. Now for the first time
I understand the saying of the sage:
“The realm of spirits is not closed to us . . .
Rembrandt, Faust, c. 1652
Creation and the Question of Form
Let us turn to Kandinsky’s Munich-to-Moscow period (1911-1921) and his early abstractions. [At the end of this essay I provide a brief chronology of Kandinsky’s career for the convenience of the reader.] His search for the spiritual through art led him to produce images strongly suggestive of the original undifferentiated energy of pre-creation, primordial time. Like the chaos of the book of Genesis, after the imperative “Let there be light” and before God had drawn the first horizontal line that separated the free luminescence into an above and a below. All hovers, like the spirit of God over the face of the waters, infinite in its undifferentiated and unexhausted potential.
Kandinsky, Sketch for Composition VII, 1913
Kandinsky himself is quite forthcoming about his embrace of chaos, why he rejected the last traces of form, or “real” objects, even as props and pretexts for his abstractions. He considered recognizable form to be no more than a residue of a materialist subservience to the accidental shapes that present themselves to the eye. Traditional ideas about beauty he likewise discarded, as sterile theorizing about the proper selection and arrangement of such irrelevant figures.
His most stirring formulation of his position appears in the 1912 Blue Rider Almanac:
. . . it is of absolutely no significance whether the artist uses a real or an abstract form . . .
because the only thing that counts in the choice of form is the degree to which the form represents the artist’s inner reality. Kandinsky himself put in bold letters and axiom style his great and liberating truth:
The question of form does not in principle exist.
He further clarified this statement, fifteen years later, in a footnote to his 1927 essay And, Some Remarks on Synthetic Art, where he declared that the confusion about abstract art would only end
. . . once the question of form has been recognized as subordinate to the question of content.
This is something to be borne in mind when one notes the dramatic shifts in style that make his periods recognizable at a glance. Whether he made use of Expressionist, Constructivist or Surrealist modes, he made use of them and was never the adherent of any school. He followed the inner necessity he felt, for which forms were merely mutable clouds that made visible his light.
“Inner Necessity” is a key term in Kandinsky’s writings of the early abstraction period; it seems to mean artist’s intuition, deep feeling and free inspiration. Kandinsky preferred the grandiose, Hegelian-sounding term "inner necessity" in part because the clearer terms had been trivialized by overuse during the Romantic period, and suggested melodramatic emotionalism and self-obsessed individualism.
Kandinsky had in fact inherited much from the Romantics. To the high valuation of emotion and individualism one could justly add Kandinsky’s interest in exoticism, folk art, medievalism, occultism, and the rest of the Byronic baggage. Particularly in his Blakean creation of an alternative visual universe, and the emotional warmth of the torrential colors and textures of the Munich-to-Moscow period, Kandinsky is an arch-Romantic. Kandinsky made good his ambition of achieving in painting what Wagner had in music. But Romanticism alone does not exhaust the meaning of “inner necessity.”
“Inner necessity”, which Kandinsky variously defined as a “mood,” and a “vibration in the soul,” is “inner” because it arises directly from the psyche. The “necessity” comes into play because it is not a response to fortuitous outside phenomena (a landscape, a beautiful woman, &c.) but is (Kandinsky believed) a spontaneous, nonfortuitous and irresistible movement of the soul.
To give Kandinsky the benefit of the metaphysical doubt, we might go on to say that because is an expression of the soul, its mere existence is its necessity. It possesses a higher order of reality: as opposed to what is produced, it already and intrinsically is, and must be. If this analysis is correct, we can see now the deeper reason why Kandinsky chose such a difficult term as “inner necessity.” He used it to distinguish the modern artist’s sublime and spiritual independence from the material world, from the Romantic artist’s highly developed sensitivity to outer reality.
But the full realization of inner necessity as a spiritual rather than an emotional mandate would require other tools than Kandinsky possessed at this time, tool he would only acquire in the midst of the Russian revolution. For this period of his career the chaotic imperative that swept away all forms is perhaps best understood as an emotional torrent. Had Kandinsky stopped here, his development would have ended in Abstract Expressionism — a grimly serious, if not a tragic conclusion.
The Coolness of Tragedy
Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913
Emotional inner necessity at its most asphyxiating.
The term “inner necessity” reveals more of its meaning for Kandinsky when we note that he made an explicit analogy between tragedy and abstract art. Now Kandinsky’s world was that of the psyche, not of exterior material reality. The implacable outside forces (particularly fate and physical violence) which are the raw material of tragedy are represented in Kandinsky by psychic (nowadays we prefer to call these “psychological”) ones. Kandinsky translated these inner forces into visual terms. In his 1914 Cologne Lecture Kandinsky said he had achieved harmony in his paintings through
. . . the collision and dramatic struggle of individual elements among themselves.
Given that the basis of his painting is, as he states, “inner necessity” the dramatic struggle he mentioned in the Cologne Lecture can fairly be seen as interior, psychic conflict, and the harmony a of the tumultuous elements he paints as a precarious psychological balance. .
Kandinsky’s paintings of the Munich-to-Moscow period would make this point without the support from his theoretical writings. They are expansive, surging, vague, autocratic, borderless, impatient of form and constraint, persuasive, hypnotizing — in brief, they are in every way feeling made visible, with all the power that emotion holds and all the demands that it entails.
Kandinsky went on in his Cologne Lecture to say, that he had attempted, out of an “inner moderation” to “mitigate” the “tragic element [the interior tension]” of the composition by the use of “indifferent [mediating]” colors, and the addition of lines, including representational ones.
Kandinsky, Kleine Freuden, 1913.
Schematic representations like the "city on a hill" at center does succeed in mitigating the claustrophobia of "inner necessity.".
But these expedients proved unsatisfactory. He had gone beyond the wildest dreams of the Romantics in his depiction of pure feeling, and his paintings of this period are not only the most dramatic in his oeuvre, but arguably among the most dramatic ever painted. But this drama was not yet true tragedy, in the Greek sense, as he himself surmised. There was only the tension and excitement of inner necessities in collision, irresistible forces held in visible momentary balance by their own opposed motions. Kandinsky at this period was painting not in tragic but in melodramatic style, albeit the melodrama was one of psychic discovery.
Kandinsky would not be not satisfied by a Romantic drama that fell short of the grandeur of tragedy. Tragedy exalts beyond conflict and necessity. Not having reached this “beyond,” Kandinksy finally found the visible dramas he created stifling. In his 1914 Letters to Arthur Jerome Eddy Kandinsky wrote that despite the shapes he paints “outwardly appearing indistinct,” they are “constructive forms [coherent, deliberate compositions]” and in fact “rigidly fixed as if they were cut in stone [my italics].” Here “inner necessity” reveals its weighty, fatelike, compulsory character. Though it gave him the mandate to initiate the age of abstraction, the command was finally tyrranic.
In the 1914 Cologne Lecture Kandinsky described his entry into pure abstraction in a way that prophesied how he would come to transform inner necessity, using the very means he would see in the Russian Constructivists a few years later, and fully implement in his Bauhaus period. He would find a way
. . . to make the external element of form ever more concise, to clothe content in much cooler forms . To my way of thinking, which was at that time still unconscious, the highest tragedy clothed itself in greatest coolness, that is to say I saw that the greatest coolness is the highest tragedy. This is that cosmic tragedy in which the human element is only one sound, only a single voice, whose focus is transposed to within a sphere that approaches the divine.
This is equivalent to the tragic hero’s attainment of an overview, from which he can look coolly down on the terrible necessities of his individual existence, be they interior and psychological (as for Kandinsky) or exterior and fated (as for Oedipus), and attain the deliberate freedom of one who chooses, or at least is capable of choosing his course of action, because he now distinguishes between feelings and facts, is aware of and can moderate with “greatest coolness” his own reaction to both. This transformation of mortal vision to that of a god, who takes in all, and sees self as small (“only a single voice”), is freedom — freedom from the chains of inner necessity — even while recognizing that same inner necessity as the inescapable power source of later achieved freedom. Once he enters into the world of geometric forms, there is no more mention in Kandinsky’s writings of “inner necessity.” It has been wholly sublimated into the new shapes which now appear in his painting.
It was worth our while to dwell at length on Kandinsky's understanding of inner necessity and highest tragedy, for the resolution of this problem, which engages him significantly in his theoretical writings, brings about the startling transformation of his style into a cool and geometric one that divides his entire oeuvre into two periods.
Kandinsky, Arch and Point, 1923
The most popular of Kandinsky’s paintings all come from the Bauhaus period. These show the influence of the Russian Constructivists, whose austere, flat, hard-edged and primary colored creations had begun to affect Kandinsky’s work while he was still in revolutionary Russia, despite the acrimonious opposition between Kandinsky and the Russian avant-garde. Kandinsky called the Constructivists “house painters,” by which he meant to satirize their use of flat, unblent colors to fill in straight geometric outlines, just as a wall-painter fills in, with mechanical precision, the surfaces of wall and ceiling. The Constructivists in turn considered the warmth of Kandinsky’s blending and shading, the fluidity of the graphic lines that now began to dominate his paintings, as signs of bourgeois sentimentality, of a softness inconsistent with their Cubist-Futurist vision of art’s scientific and technological destiny. Kandinsky was not painting for “the man of today” as they liked to put it.
Malevich, Supremus No. 58, 1915
Malevich, in his purity of forms, the Constructivist supreme.
Once he left Russia to take up a teaching post at the Dessau Bauhaus, without the pressure of the Constructivists’ polemic, Kandinsky was able to absorb the lessons of Constructivism. It was not simply a matter of adopting, Picasso-like, the newest trends to stay on the cutting-edge of artistic fashion. Nor was it a craven concession to the functional and industrial aesthetic of the Bauhaus’ director Breuer. It was an internally necessary next step. The free and fluent chaos of Kandinsky’s Munich-to-Moscow abstractions had been brought to a peak of realization where there could be no development of them beyond further virtuosity, which could never have satisfied his spiritual drive. Like a god creating the universe, Kandinsky required new forms that would enable him to go beyond merely presenting his inner being, however fully. He had to express more than himself, and this required forms that had their own independence. The language of the universally intelligible basic geometric shapes was the answer. Accepting thus the discipline of communication, he created works that spoke far more readily to his audience. The viewer could now recognize shapes, and readily understand them as visual language, even if their meaning remained elusive.
Decisive Pink, 1932
As an aside, there is another and far more prosaic reason for the accessibility of the Bauhaus paintings: they reproduce better. The incredible subtlety of Kandinsky’s color play in the Munich-to-Moscow abstractions is only muddily conveyed in the best reproductions. Really, one should call the plates in art books approximations rather than reproductions. Even for something so straightforward as a Vermeer, or a Durer engraving, the best is always lost on the way to the printed page. The beauty of Kandinsky’s early abstractions is muffled out of sight unless one stands before the original, and even then one must stand as close to it as the painter did when creating it. Then only can one appreciate the juxtapositions, fusions and transitions of color. These are more subtle even than those of a cowry shell, because the cowry is limited by the uniformity of its enameled texture. To give even an inkling of the marvels of these paintings, one would have to reproduce them larger than the originals, so that the very weave of the underlying canvas was easily visible. Admittedly, no less is lost in terms of color as regards Kandinsky’s Bauhaus work, but at least the geometry reproduces, and thus one can see something.
Setting aside the printer’s problems of reproducing art, we may note that, even in a museum, for the paintings from the Bauhaus period, it is no longer necessary to stand close to fully appreciate the canvases. As Kandinksy “cooled” his images with concise shapes, he gained an emotional distance from their content, which the viewer may enjoy from a physical distance. Kandinsky’s painting is no longer a plunge into the inmost, where colors furiously churn and alter into their opposites like strong emotions. Kandinsky’s colors blend now with consistent transitions. Color is harmonized as it becomes subservient to shapes.
Several Circles, 1926
There is also a Hermetic basis for Kandinsky’s turn towards geometric form. He had always favored the Symbolist theory of correspondences, the idea that the physical world is a reflection of the spiritual one, that there are occult connections between things that are influenced from the world of spirit by the same archetypes. This idea, which in its developed form goes back to Renaissance magic, was part of the repertory of Romanticism, and is most concisely expressed in Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences,
Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes let slip a confusing word or two;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which watch him with knowing eyes.
Like prolonged echoes becoming one in the distance
In a deep and shadowy confusion of identity
Vast as night and vast as light —
Perfumes, sounds, and colors answer
one another, correspond,
There are perfumes as fresh as the skin of a child,
Sweet like an oboe, green as a meadow —
— And others, corrupt, rich, triumphant,
expansive as infinity itself,
Like amber and incense, musk, benzoin,
That sing the ecstasy of soul and senses.
Kandinsky kept a faith in the theory of correspondences to the end of his life, as scrupulously and fondly as he preserved his membership card for the Theosophical Society (which he had joined in his thirties). Kandinsky’s early manifesto, the 1912 On the Spiritual in Art, develops at length the theory of correspondences as regards color, giving the sound, taste and temperature values of all the primary hues. In his Bauhaus textbook, the 1926 Point and Line to Plane, he extends the analysis to include the values of lines and geometric shapes. There he says,
Naturally, every phenomenon in both external and internal worlds can be given linear expression — a kind of translation.
Picture II, Gnomus, 1928
He worked out a complete vocabulary of colors and forms, composing a grammar of art which he believed would give to abstract painting the precision of language, and create the possibility of translating directly from one artistic medium to another. A triangle for example, would properly be yellow, shrill and sour; a circle, round, blue and cold, and so on with mind-numbing elaboration. And every correspondence might be altered or inverted to produce an ironic, playful or dramatic effect. Point and Line to Plane should properly be classed with Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy as a monumental system of occult-poetic associations.
Kandinsky envisioned what he called “monumental” or “synthetic” art, multi-media performances, projects and events in which several arts, armed with the science of correspondences, would work together towards a common goal. No longer would painting and sculpture merely decorate buildings, or music simply provide a setting for words or dance, but the arts would cooperate, with full precision of purpose, to realize any given theme. The same concept is to be seen in Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Pound’s Cantos and Hesse’s Glass Bead Game. It was an idea of general late-Romantic interest. Kandinksy gave the dream a wittily modern spin by suggesting in his 1927 article in the Dutch magazine i10, that the synthesis of all the arts might also be readily achieved by a music-hall performance, a circus or a movie.
Kandinsky presented this project to the revolutionary Russian avante garde in his 1920 Program for the Institute of Artistic Culture, under the auspices of the ponderously named “Visual Arts Section of the People’s Commissariat for Enlightenment.” Here he proposed that all the arts might be put on a truly scientific basis by an encyclopedic application of the theory of correspondences. He called for the foundation of a research institute, made up of physicists, artists, psychologists, occultists, dancers, musicians and so on, to create “directories” of all the possible correspondences: colors, shapes, postures, smells, moods — nothing would be left out of the proposed synaesthetic dictionary. He gave his best summary of the plan in his 1926 Point and Line to Plane,
The progress achieved by systematic research will give birth to a dictionary of elements that, developed further, will lead to a “grammar,” and finally to a theory of composition that will overstep the boundaries of the individual arts and refer to “Art” in general.
This would entail the abstraction and schematizing of all the content of every field of knowledge to their most basic and rudimentary elements. Behind this was the assumption that the most abstract expression was the most universal one, as with primary colors, geometric shapes and mathematical concepts. Once the elements of every field were revealed in their utmost simplicity, one would see their essential agreement, and thence the basic syntax underlying all of art, and indeed, all of reality. The era of the “Great Spiritual” (a term Kandinsky was careful to avoid in his proposal) would be realized in the socialist-materialist utopia.
The plan was warmly received by those who understood it least, who simply assumed that making art modern and scientific was a fine anti-bourgeois sort of thing. The Institute for Artistic Culture, the art department of the revolutionary bureaucracy, whose membership included Malevich and Rodchenko, instantly saw the project for the mystic dream it was and wanted no part of it.
Something similar though less bitter, took place when Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus. There was a superficial agreement as regards the modern idea of simplifying and abstracting, and also regarding the concept of integrating all the arts, or at least craft production, design and architecture. But the goals of Kandinsky’s Bauhaus allies were industrial and utilitarian, and this would have led at last to a parting of the ways, even without the dissolution of the Bauhaus by the Nazi regime, who viewed its cosmopolitan modernism as “Jewish.”
Sky Blue, 1940
In his early compositions, Kandinsky laid claim to the power of inner necessity, which was at once the raw energy of feeling, and the intuitive truth of the spiritual world. This, his entry into the realm of abstract expressionism, was in the strict archaic sense an initiatory ordeal, a dissolution of identity with along with all other forms, a kind of death which might have turned out to be real, an outer as well as an inner necessity! Lest this formulation seem overly dramatic, recall that Rothko and Pollock, who entered the abstract expressionist chaos with similar and considerable spiritual ambitions, found that their ventures ended, respectively, in suicide and alcoholism.
Kandinsky mastered the realm of formless chaos, and made its untamable shapes rage in harmony. Then he controlled it with geometric form, forging a new vocabulary of creation, a magician's book of correspondences and spells, that enabled him to create a coherent alternate world — in fact, a cosmos. He achieved the hermetic dream of making himself (or at least his paintings) a complete and comprehended reflection of the macrocosm. His self-realization was complete, and he had emerged, as Aleister Crowley only claimed to, from the abyss of self-transformation with the prize of enlightenment. Where does one go from there? He had become, from the hermetic point of view, a god. What does a god do when he is bored? Apparently, he goes to Paris.
Kandinsky, Succession, 1935
There Kandinsky entered upon his final period, which, in its playful magical mood could be compared to Shakespeare’s late romances, like The Tempest. The images he painted now are often referred to as “biomorphic.” Strange shapes, resembling cells, embryos and rudimentary sea-life, populate his canvases. He had made a “brave new world,” and now he gave it life. He was not merely making a return to simplified figurative painting, or recapitulating at random all his earlier styles — as is sometimes claimed. He had long ago passed, as he states in his 1925 article Abstract Art, beyond the too well-known natural forms, (landscapes and the like), which were the mere scaffolding of reality. Now he concerned himself with showing the hidden biologic laws that underlie artistic composition and reality itself, the living engine of all that is. His exact term for this is a Latin one, “nervus rerum,” (literally, “the musculature of things”) —the motive force of reality.
Miro, Ciphers and Constellations, 1941
There was some influence from Surrealism at play in the new concern with the nervus rerum, and that of Miro is particularly striking. Though the question of whether Miro was really a surrealist has been hotly debated, particularly by Miro, it should be borne in mind that Kandinsky described the style he came to share with Miro as, in an important sense, surrealist. In his 1929 Reply to a Questionnaire, he describes Surrealism as “trying to create a new relationship with nature” and suggests that Surrealism presents the other side of the world-view of abstract art.
One [Surrealism] puts alongside nature a nature that is surreal. The other [Abstract art] considers nature and art as two worlds coexisting in parallel [and separate] fashion. Both, [the surrealist interpretation of] nature and [abstract] art, are the offspring of nature and create a surreal dual sound [they complement one another in a way that does justice to the more-than-real nature of reality].
Kandinsky had prophesied this dual development in a long footnote to his 1926 Point and Line to Plane, where he said that painting’s turn towards elementary, geometric shapes was indicative of the general modern interest in the underlying workings of reality, evinced most spectacularly in scientific researches conducted through the microscope. Art, he continued, having taken up the most basic forms, will find itself, for all its emancipation from realistic depiction, compelled by “natural laws” to express itself in ever more complex forms, which Kandinsky called “art-organisms.” A page later he draws an analogy between the point, the most primordial of all graphic forms, and the living cell. After reading these passages, one can never look at the circles that dominate the Bauhaus period paintings in quite the same way, and the continuity between his geometric and biomorphic periods, never yet understood, is instantly grasped.
Around the Circle, 1940
There is more. We should bear in mind that although Kandinsky used a wide variety of compositional schemes, by far the most common is the whirlpool, usually an expanding spiral, sometimes moving so fast that it appears to be a round explosion. But the recurring shape is always circular.
Many exalted claims can be made for the circle. Mathematically, it is the only infinitely symmetrical shape. For mystics (which would include Kandinsky) it has been used for millennia as a symbol of perfection and totality. The ultimate vision in the final canto of Dante’s Paradiso is the Trinity as three differently colored and superimposed circles sharing a single circumference.
Kandinsky’s final circles are no longer the purely geometric ones of the Bauhaus period. Now they are also cells, and though the cell is a rudimentary life form, its depiction is concrete and figurative. Figurative? Had Kandinsky retreated from abstraction? Not really. Figures were never wholly abandoned at any point in Kandinsky’s oeuvre. Through the entire Munich-to-Moscow period, one can make out here and there amid the abstract masses of color a schematic city on a hill, St. George, and the boat with oars — although they have become structurally as irrelevant as the shapes one sees in clouds. The Bauhaus period images have highly abstracted figures as well: faces, people and ships, though here they are more in the character of humorous asides, and are more readily appreciated as pure arrangements of shapes within the overall composition. Only in the Paris period do true figures return. But not in the old sense as subjects of the paintings. Rather, they are the paintings’ inhabitants.
Kandinsky’s final world, one of cool weightlessness, is water. Expanses of pastel blue appear as background, circles rise in them like bubbles, and all the “art organisms” that appear in it are aquatic: foeti, prawns and paramecia, seahorses and wriggly squid. The grids that sometimes divide these canvases present the creatures suspended and centered, like exhibits in a heavenly aquarium.
The circle which manifests as the cell became for Kandinsky the new St. George, the emblem of his entire program. He says in his 1927 contribution to Plaut’s The Psychology of the Productive Personality,
I love circles today in the same way that previously I loved, e.g., horses, perhaps even more.
Kandinsky, Accent in Pink, 1926
Bear in mind that the micro-organisms of the late Kandinskys are, to the naked eye, invisible. He had, with a final burst of wit, arrived at a new and humorously over-appropriate symbolism of the invisible spiritual realm — a point lost on viewers who, recognizing the shapes from their high-school biology textbooks, take them at face value as visible simply because they have seen them, and so regard them as “realistic.”
Since his entry into abstraction, Kandinksy never painted the simple visible. All his themes, the pure tensions between colors and textures, then geometric forms, and the final biomorphics, are underlying, structural elements of the material world, but never actually seen except shrouded in physical things. Many things are reddish, but absolute “red” is nowhere to be found in nature; many things are triangular, but “the” triangle is nowhere to be seen. Man is made of cells, but he may never pick one up and play with it. All these things are pure, implicit, and not to be experienced physically so much as intellectually. Even seeing through a microscope is to scry, in Paul’s phrase, “through a glass darkly.” From this perspective, Kandinsky’s work has no periods or shifts, the subject is always the interior, the unseen, the spiritual, and “the question of form does not in principle exist.” The magician takes his stand in the astral realm, outside the limits of contingent being, and so he is able to shift his shape and alter the forms of what seems to us real.
Dr. Strange, Ditko, 1960's
Note: A Brief Chronology
The artistic career of Kandinsky (1866-1945), who began to paint at the age of thirty, may conveniently be divided into four major periods.
Munich (1896-1911) After experimentation with Symbolism and Impressionism, Kandinsky evolved his own Expressionist style, and became a leader of that movement.
Munich (1911-1914) to Moscow (1914-1921) This phase began with Kandinsky’s creation of the first abstract painting, and was characterized by whirling, chaotic compositions that relied almost entirely on color and texture for their content.
Bauhaus (1921-1933) The geometric shapes used by the Russian Constructivists, which Kandinsky only tentatively experimented with in Moscow, now became the central structural elements in his painting.
Paris (1933-1944) Kandinsky made a paradoxical return to the figurative, with shapes inspired by simple biological forms (cells, embryos. &c.)
Return to Caligula