Magazine article New Criterion

Kandinsky's Hocus-Pocus

Magazine article New Criterion

Kandinsky's Hocus-Pocus

Article excerpt

The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) occupies a pioneering role in the modernist canon. He was among a handful of artists who first ventured into abstraction. Pure abstraction, that is: Picasso and Braque, while delving into the headier precincts of Synthetic Cubism, had already made pictures with relationships to observed phenomena that were, if not exactly strained, then tenuous. But it was left to figures like Kandinsky to jettison representation altogether. Given the skepticism with which abstraction was greeted at the time, such a pursuit betokened sensibilities made bold (or reckless) by their aesthetic convictions.

Kandinsky's radical achievement is the subject of a sweeping retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. "Kandinsky" is, among other things, a reminder that retrospectives don't always shine a generous light on their subjects. (1) What's striking about the six signature abstractions installed toward the exhibitions beginning isn't their sophistication, but the manner in which that sophistication was misprised. In arrays of wiry lines, random puffs of color, and pinched, convulsive rhythms, the paintings struggle against their own pretensions.

The paintings exude a certain fervor, but not the kind that emanates from exquisitely honed compositions. Kandinsky was an adherent of Theosophy, a mish-mosh of mystical bromides made influential by Madame Blavatsky, the self-proclaimed practitioner of levitation, clairvoyance, and other sideshow hijinks. It was Kandinsky's artistic goal to evoke this immateriality prized by Theosophists. The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, another follower of the hermetical Madame, wrote that if an artist is "to approach the spiritual ... [he] will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual:' Escaping the tangible world was the Theosophical artist's highest calling.

As Kandinsky writes in "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" (1911):

    A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere
   representation, however artistic, in his longing
   to express his inner life, cannot but envy the
   ease with which music, the most non-material
   of the arts today, achieves this end. He
   naturally seeks to apply the methods of music
   to his own art. And from this results that
   modern desire for rhythm in painting, for
   mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated
   notes of color, for setting color in
     This borrowing of method by one art from
   another, can only be truly successful when the
   application of the borrowed methods is not
   superficial but fundamental. One art must
   learn first how another uses its methods, so
   that the methods may afterwards be applied to
   the borrower's art from the beginning, and
   suitably. The artist must not forget that in him
   lies the power of true application of every
   method, but that that power must be
     In manipulation of form music can achieve
   results which are beyond the reach of painting.
   On the other hand, painting is ahead of
   music in several particulars. Music, for example,
   has at its disposal duration of time;
   while painting can present to the spectator the
   whole content of its message at one moment. 

Oil paint is, in its fleshy malleability, intensely material, and paintings are physical objects with an adamant stake in the here and now. How did abstraction enable painters to navigate the conundrums posed by Theosophy? In The Triumph of Modernism, Hilton Kramer divines the crucial role Theosophy played in the development of Kandinsky's vision. Kramer writes of how, "in the realm of art at least, a silly idea may sometimes form the basis of a serious accomplishment":

    Theosophy supplied a systematic cosmology to
   which the new abstract art could readily attach
   itself. For the pioneers of abstraction were as
   eager to have their art "represent" something--even,
   in some special sense, to have it
   represent "nature"--as the most academic
   realist, and theosophy gave them a meaningful
   world beyond the reach of appearances to
   "represent" in a new way. … 
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