Visual Arts: First, but Not among Equals Kandinsky Is Considered the Founder of Abstract Art. So Why Does So Muc H of His Work Look Derivative? by Tom Lubbock

By Lubbock, Tom | The Independent (London, England), April 13, 1999 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Visual Arts: First, but Not among Equals Kandinsky Is Considered the Founder of Abstract Art. So Why Does So Muc H of His Work Look Derivative? by Tom Lubbock


Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


One night, Wassily Kandinsky went into his Munich studio and noticed an unfamiliar picture. It was a weird, unrecognisable image, but it seemed to him "of extraordinary beauty, glowing with an inner radiance". It was, in fact, one of his own pictures, which happened to have been placed upside down. But it was this experience that revealed to Kandinsky the power of abstract art. And soon he was doing some of the first abstract pictures there ever were.

Not quite the very first. But, like all originating moments, the "first abstract picture" is a grey area-cum -red herring. Questions of priority get lost in questions of definition. There are several candidates. It depends what you mean by abstract (or by picture). And in the nature of things, it's not even clear what was Kandinsky's own first abstract. But the turning point is about 1910-11, when brightly coloured figures-in- a-landscape become brightly coloured something elses.

The change occurs in the first room of Kandinsky: Watercolours and other Works on Paper, at the Royal Academy, a pretty comprehensive survey of the artist's career, and his first retrospective in Britain. Kandinsky was in his mid-forties. He wasn't just one of the great originals, he was one of the great late-starters. Born in Russia in 1866, he was 30 years old before - bowled over by a Monet - he abandoned a law career to go to art school in Germany. For a decade he did folksy-fairylandish images. He got a bit of Fauvism. He founded the Expressionist Blue Rider movement with Franz Marc. Then he made the big development. Why? With hindsight, we tend to take Kandinsky's (or anyone's) move to abstraction too much for granted - as if abstraction was an obviously profitable modern art option, just waiting to be taken up by some forward- looking artist. And we praise the artists who made the advance, without asking for further explanation or justification. But the step needs a bit more motivation; a bit more content. The tale of the upside-down picture was no doubt true, but hardly the whole story. The embarrassing truth is that, like quite a lot of modern art, Kandinsky's abstraction begins in mumbo-jumbo. He was a follower of Madame Blavatsky's Theosophy and Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophy. He believed in auras and "thought-forms". He was interested in, may well have possessed, the faculty of synaesthesia, where one sense sets the others off (sounds visualised, colours felt, etc). He understood shapes and colours to have specific moods and meanings. And so, for Kandinsky, a non-representational picture wasn't an arrangement of pure forms. It was a very direct sort of soul music. Kandinsky was himself a great explainer and justifier. He expounded his idea in works such as On the Spiritual in Art, which, if they weren't major documents of modern art, would plainly qualify as crank pamphletry. Of course, this doesn't really matter - not because the theory is irrelevant to the art (it's integral), but because you can't do anything with it. I mean, a mediumistic critic might come forward to assure us that a particular Kandinsky, for example, was an excellent rendering of a particular "thought- form"; or again, a very poor one. But this judgement is beyond most viewers. Besides, a likeness isn't everything. You have to take them, as best you can, as pictures. Which is a pity. For, giving all due honour to Kandinsky as an inaugurator, I think you have to admit that the pictures are not much good, and indeed, often pretty hopeless. What's odder is that it's actually very doubtful how many of those abstractions are strictly speaking abstract. And connected to that, what's odder still is that this founder looks like an imitator. Nobody had done quite this sort of picture before, but the way the pictures fail suggests a follower- on who can't get the trick. Abstraction? Well, take the breakthrough images from 1910 to 1916 (the First World War compelled Kandinsky to return to Russia).

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Visual Arts: First, but Not among Equals Kandinsky Is Considered the Founder of Abstract Art. So Why Does So Muc H of His Work Look Derivative? by Tom Lubbock
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?