Concerning the Spiritual and the Concrete in Kandinsky's Art

Concerning the Spiritual and the Concrete in Kandinsky's Art

Concerning the Spiritual and the Concrete in Kandinsky's Art

Concerning the Spiritual and the Concrete in Kandinsky's Art

Synopsis

This book examines the art and writings of Wassily Kandinsky, who is widely regarded as one of the first artists to produce non-representational paintings. Crucial to an understanding of Kandinsky's intentions is On the Spiritual in Art, the celebrated essay he published in 1911. Where most scholars have taken its repeated references to "spirit" as signaling quasi-religious or mystical concerns, Florman argues instead that Kandinsky's primary frame of reference was G.W.F. Hegel's Aesthetics, in which art had similarly been presented as a vehicle for the developing self-consciousness of spirit (or Geist, in German). In addition to close readings of Kandinsky's writings, the book also includes a discussion of a 1936 essay on the artist's paintings written by his own nephew, philosopher Alexandre Kojève, the foremost Hegel scholar in France at that time. It also provides detailed analyses of individual paintings by Kandinsky, demonstrating how the development of his oeuvre challenges Hegel's views on modern art, yet operates in much the same manner as does Hegel's philosophical system. Through the work of a single, crucial artist, Florman presents a radical new account of why painting turned to abstraction in the early years of the twentieth century.

Excerpt

Although he did write an early draft in his native Russian, Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) chose to publish his first major theoretical statement on painting in German. The statement appeared, consequently, as Über das Geistige in der Kunst, a title typically translated into English as On [or Concerning] the Spiritual in Art. Most Anglophone scholars have tended to hear in that title (and in the text’s other, frequent references to “spirit”) the root of something like “ spiritualist,” with the result that over the last half century or so we have been asked to see Kandinsky’s work in light of Theosophy and Eastern mysticism and various obscure forms of the occult. I don’t want to deny the significance of such things to the development of Kandinsky’s thinking and writing about art—or, rather, even though I want to deny their significance, I find I can’t entirely. Yet I can and will insist that for many of the early German readers of Kandinsky’s text the term “Geistige” would have evoked above all the philosophy of Hegel, and most especially Hegel’s Aesthetics, in which art had similarly been presented as a vehicle for the developing self-consciousness of spirit or Geist. In fact, I suspect that one of Kandinsky’s principal motives for writing in German was that he wanted to use the same language—in many passages, even precisely the same phrasing—that Hegel himself had employed. In any case I’m convinced that he intended Über das Geistige as a fairly direct response to the Aesthetics—a revision of its historical account that would culminate not in the end of art proclaimed by Hegel, but rather in something on the order of Kandinsky’s own abstract paintings.

I am convinced, too, that Kandinsky’s later writings are every bit as fully, and perhaps even more successfully, engaged with Hegel’s philosophy—a fact no doubt connected to the artist’s regular communication, beginning in 1929, with his nephew, Alexandre Kojève (1902–1968). From 1933 (the year Kandinsky settled in Paris) until the outbreak of war in 1939, Kojève led a seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the École des hautes études that was attended by a veritable who’s who of French intellectuals, including Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and André Breton. In 1936—presumably after . . .

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