Sunday, October 19, 2008

The "Beginning" of Abstract Painting

Kandinsky, The "First" Abstract Painting, watercolor, 1910

Kandinsky, Improvisation no.III, 1911

Kandinsky, Black Lines, 1913

Abstract painting officially is almost 100 years old. The Russian/ German artist Wassily Kandinsky made the official First Abstract Painting, a watercolor, in 1910. As far as I'm concerned, the argument over who made the first truly non-objective painting is ultimately a sterile exercise. There are plenty of other earlier contenders from Jungendstil designers like Henry Van De Velde to Symbolist painters like Thorn Prikker. And if you wanted to get really technical about it, you could bring in the whole legacy of Islamic pattern and Prehistoric symbols.
Kandinsky is awarded the prize because his work created a transformation and had a legacy that earlier contenders did not.

What do we mean when we say "abstract" painting? Kandinsky was quite clear about this. Abstract meant a painting with no imagery, and no ties to any kind of imitation of appearances. Blue was blue, and not about describing the sky. A line was a line, and not a contour describing the shape of something. Kandinsky believed that colors had a kind of sympathetic effect on the emotions, akin to the notes and chords of music. The big problem for Kandinsky was finding an organizing principle to replace the description of perceived reality that dominated Western art since the Renaissance. Kandinsky's solution was in music, that lines and colors were to be thought of as notes on a keyboard, and not as tools for recreating the world of appearances. A successful painting should affect the emotions as directly and as powerfully as music, he believed.

Kandinsky believed in the mission of abstract painting with a religious zeal. He was an enthusiastic follower of Theosophy. He shared the Theosophical belief in the duality of matter and spirit, that the material world was an illusion and that true reality lay in the spirit beyond the reach of the senses or the rational mind. Kandinsky looked at all the parallel developments in music, literature, and art of his day, of their departure from traditional structures and descriptions of reality. He even looked at the developments in science, especially at Einstein's discovery that matter and energy were interchangeable. Observing all of those things, Kandinsky concluded that he was living in an End Time, on the brink of a kind of Theosophical apocalypse when the veil of the material senses will be rent asunder and the spirit will break through. He fully believed that it was his mission as a painter to prepare people for this coming apocalypse by showing them a new way to think and to see. He wanted to make a "spiritual" art to anticipate a coming spiritual age.

The world did indeed end in August 1914, though not quite in the way he, or anyone else, expected.

Those who know me and know my work might be surprised to learn that I love Kandinsky's work, especially his paintings before 1914. They are full of explosive apocalyptic drama, sometimes dark and tragic, frequently joyous. Kandinsky was one of the great colorists of the 20th century who did indeed come close to making art that works directly on the emotions like music. Like all art students of a certain generation, I read Kandinsky's great essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art, and I would still recommend it to students today.

I am not, however, a Theosophist, or anything like that. I am a materialist, and a follower of the most materialistic of the major world religions, Christianity (and I follow its more materialist and humanist forms) . I believe that the world of appearances DOES matter, and that how we see and understand and act in that world matters. It matters because that's the world we live in and all share.  It is all that we have, and all that we can know, however imperfectly and partially. Besides, turning a flat surface into something that appears to be 3 dimensional is, for me, and inexhaustible magic act.


Grandmère Mimi said...

To me, all good painting is magical. I love Kandinsky, too. As I've said before, for better or for worse, for right or for wrong, my major response to painting is emotional. That's not to say that my response to a particular painting cannot change over time, because that has surely happened.

I remember that I was no more than a teenager when I saw a reproduction of Rembrandt's Man in Armor and became quite caught up in it. I returned to the image in the art book time and again, and I never quite forgot it.

I've told this story before, maybe even here, but my epiphany in which I came to appreciate art in a new way came many years ago, when I entered a room full of Rembrandts at the Met in NYC and audibly gasped at what I saw.

I've never seen the original of "Man in Armor", but I'd like to, to know what effect it would have on me today. It might knock me flat.

Counterlight said...

Well, if you ever go visit Madpriest, you can take a train to Glasgow to see the painting for yourself. It is sometimes titled "Alexander the Great" by some scholars, though the subject is ambiguous.

I've looked at Rembrandt's work for 40 years, and I still gasp when I see a room full of them. That's the pleasure of looking at the work of great artists like Rembrandt, and Kandinsky, the epiphanies never stop coming.

Euphrosene said...

I absolutely love Kandinsky. Yet how do I see the spiritual from a mass of lines and what are effectively beautiful blobs of colour?

Perhaps there is a hidden code and I am lucky enough to tune in without necessarily understanding the exact meaning?


Counterlight said...

Welcome Euphrosene!

I'm not sure that it's really necessary to "understand" Kandinsky to love his work.
His pictures really are just lines and blots of color, but what splendid lines and blots of color.

As for the spirituality, I've looked at his work for years, and never once was tempted to enlist in the Theosophists.