The first purely abstract painting is generally recognised as Wassily Kandinsky‘s ‘Untitled – First abstraction‘ of 1910. This is in the header above.
Kandinsky had been edging towards that style of painting, with his dreamlike fairy tales using ‘flat’ colour fields. This painting started an artistic revolution.
But what is also very interesting is the way that his writings about art and its development created a solid basis for both the theory and the practical art of abstraction.
Blue Mountain, 1908-1909
His book, ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art‘ (published in 1911) laid out the historical, contextual and scientific basis for his new art. In doing so, Kandinsky set out to open up painting and redefine art theory.
Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. (pg 7)
Kandinsky sees the triangle as a manifestation of movement and of music, and it is a central metaphor in both his writing and his painting. It has been claimed that Kandinsky had synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the senses co-operate (e.g. ‘seeing music’). Certainly that would partly explain both the way Kandinsnky writes and paints.
The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute−angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost. The lower the segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.
The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can be understood only by the apex and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought and feeling of the second segment. (pg 9)
This simile of the triangle cannot be said to express every aspect of the spiritual life. For instance, there is never an absolute shadow side to the picture, never a piece of unrelieved gloom (pg 10)
Study for autumn (1909)
Kandinsky is clearly a great admirer of his contemporaries Picasso and Matisse, and analyses their work like this:
[Picasso] .. shrinks from no innovation, and if colour seems likely to balk him in his search for a pure artistic form, he throws it overboard and paints a picture in brown and white; and the problem of purely artistic form is the real problem of his life.
In their pursuit of the same supreme end Matisse and Picasso stand side by side, Matisse representing colour and Picasso form. (pg 16)
So, the basis of all of Kandinsky’s work is colour and form – and the act of painting itself:
Colour directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul. (pg 19)
The angle at which the triangle stands, and whether it is stationary or moving, are of importance to its spiritual value. This fact is specially worthy of the painter’s consideration. (pg 20)
So the abstract idea is creeping into art, although, only yesterday, it was scorned and obscured by purely material ideals. Its gradual advance is natural enough, for in proportion as the organic form falls into the background, the abstract ideal achieves greater prominence. (pg 21)
The artist must be blind to distinction between ‘recognized’ or ‘unrecognized’ conventions of form, deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. (pg 24)
Blue is the typical heavenly colour. The ultimate feeling it creates is one of rest. When it sinks almost to black, it echoes a grief that is hardly human. When it rises towards white, a movement little suited to it, its appeal to men grows weaker and more distant. In music a light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello; a still darker a thunderous double bass; and the darkest blue of all − an organ. (pg 27)
Kandinsky was drawing parallels between the emotion that arises in the listener from music, to the emotional response we can have to colour in abstracted images.
Transverse Lines , 1923
And, in the concluding paragraphs of his book, he not only defines his approach to his own paintings, but he lays out a formal vocabulary of painting which stands the test of time.
As examples of the new symphonic composition, in which the melodic element plays a subordinate part, and that only rarely, I have added reproductions of four of my own pictures.They represent three different sources of inspiration:
(1) A direct impression of outward nature, expressed in purely artistic form. This I call an “Impression.”
(2) A largely unconscious, spontaneous expression of inner character, the non−material nature. This I call an “Improvisation.”
(3) An expression of a slowly formed inner feeling, which comes to utterance only after long maturing. This I call a “Composition.”
In this, reason, consciousness, purpose, play an overwhelming part. But of the calculation nothing appears, only the feeling. Which kind of construction, whether conscious or unconscious, really underlies my work, the patient reader will readily understand. (pg 39)
Kandinsky has long been one of my favourite artists, and a huge inspiration in my early days as a painter.
For more on Kandinsky and synesthesia, here’s a great YouTube video
I am thankful to this MA program for pushing me to go back and read his work, as well as look with different eyes at his images.
Truly, an artist that built his practice on a unique, powerful and intensely personal Critical Theory.
Wassily Kandinsky. 1911. Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Online document © 2002 Blackmask Online. Available at http://www.public-library.uk/ebooks/22/92.pdf (accessed 15/04/18)