Thursday, November 29, 2012

Artist of the Month: Wassily Kandinsky

-by William O'Connor

 Composition VII 1913

The dawn of the 20th Century was a time of unparalleled change in human history.  Within just  a couple of decades social upheaval would change the fabric of nations.  Scientific inventions would alter the understanding of the universe with Einsteins’s Theory of General Relativity.  The advent of electricity and the industrialization of the major cities of the world introducing the telephone, the automobile, train systems,  recorded music and movies.  Even the construct of the mind had been restructured with Freud's interpretation of human perception and the subconscious.  It was inevitable then that these major evolutions in the human condition would have major repercussions in the field of the fine arts.  The very nature of art itself was on the chopping block with artists asking themselves, “What is Art?”

In my estimation there was no more critical advocate of this Modern Experiment than Wassily Kandinsky  (1866-1944)

Born in Russia and trained in Germany Kandinsky experienced all of these changes of Modernity first hand and reflected them in his work.  It became self evident to artists in this period that the role of the Artist had evolved in this new world.  In the past the academic and formulaic representation of the natural world had been the pinnacle of artistic achievement.  With all other branches of science and philosophy being radically rewritten, most artists of this period felt it was their responsibility to rewrite the goal of the artist as well.  Modernity represented scientific understanding of the natural world.  Space, Time, Matter, all of Human understanding could be reinterpreted by analytic methods.  The world, and the artist’s understanding of the world, had become Relative.  One man’s perception of the natural world, could not be judge against another, there was no objective reality, only the individual artist’s perception of the world.  For this Modern Experiment to work, all traditional artistic understanding of the past 500 years would have to be removed, and the fine arts would need to approach itself the same as physics, psychology, philosophy and the other sciences,  as a series of abstract experiments.

Composition IV 1911

For inspiration Kandinsky looked to music.  Music was the only truly pure abstract art form, without any representation or preconceived attachments to the natural world.  A trumpet sounded like a trumpet, not a bird.  A violin sounded like a violin, not a babbling brook.  Using this template as a starting point Kandinsky begins to experiment with painting as pure and unadulterated by attachments to the natural world, as pure artistic expression.  Blue as Blue, and not as sky.  Green as Green and not as grass. 

This remarkable and revolutionary artistic experimentation led to some of Kandinsky’s most exciting work and begins with his treatise : Concerning the Spiritual In Art (1911).  In this manifesto accompanied by his 20 year long "Composition" series,  Kandinsky breaks down color and form into its pure emotional resonance, associating different colors to different instruments in the orchestra as well as different emotions.  Additionally, Kandinsky establishes the role of the artist in the modern world laying out the concept of the Avante Garde (Advance Gaurd) artist who’s role it is to challenge the status quo and to advance the nature of perception, much like the scientist's job to advance the understanding of the physical world, or the philosopher's job to advance the meta-physical world.

Composition VI  1913

Fifty years before the American Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock, Rauschenberg, and DeKooning, Kandinsky was laying the groundwork for the future of 20th century art.  For me his paintings are joyful and ecstatic in their colorful expressions, and revolutionary in their conception.  His paintings allow the viewer to bring himself and his own relative experiences and imagination to the work intertwined with the perceptions of the artist, as opposed to being dictated to. Every painting becomes new to each viewer, and unique every time it is viewed.

I still enjoy looking at Kandinsky’s paintings.  One hundred years later they are as fresh and inspiring as the day  they were painted.  I highly recommend that if given the chance, sit in your favorite museum and just look and listen to the symphonies Kandinsky composed on canvas.

 Kandisky Collection at:
The Museum on Modern Art, New York


Thank you,
WOC



POST SCRIPT:
New Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. "Inventing Abstraction" on view from Dec. 23, 2012- April 15, 2013.  Exploring Kandinsky and many of the early modernists inventing some of the themes discussed in this blog...












23 comments:

  1. Hmmm ... to avoid getting into a never-ending discussion about this type of ... art, I will just say ... I like your art much, much more.

    Unfortunately I don't have the first one, but your 2nd Dracopedia book is giving me many hours of fun reading and advice. Thanks!

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  2. You don't have to like it, but its important to understand it. Give it a shot, open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity are traits all artists should try to nurture.
    Thanks.

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  3. In college, I had an aversion to this sort of art, it didn't appeal to my sensibilities and when you're surrounded by painting students who immediately jump onto the bandwagon of "abstract expressionism" simply to avoid drawing, it can grate on one's nerves. Honestly though, I think it's impossible and irresponsible for a representational artist to ignore these sorts of explorations. Whether one likes it or not, a modern illustrator has been affected by these tastes, and it's shaped us all in some way or another, whether it be through introducing new shapes, colors, compositions, or treatment. Better to embrace them and use it to bring new tastes, than to avoid them and stunt an artist's growth.

    John Berkey springs to mind - his space work to me is as abstract as a Pollock, it's just that he's arranged the abstract daubs of color to represent form and light. From afar, it looks tight, but you don't have to get very close to it before it falls apart into cleverly designed abstract marks.

    It's been a while since I've seen Kadinsky, so thanks for the refresher, William. Any chance you'll cover Mondrian in the future? He was one of the first abstract artists I really liked.

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  4. Thank you Drew that was an excellent comment. I had the same experience in college. My professors were extremely prejudice against figurative art and I had to argue its merits. Now as an illustrator I'm confronted by the inverse hatred for modern art. Its art and we're artists...its all important.
    Modrian is excellent and I'll keep him in mind in the future.

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  5. What a pleasant surprise to see a post about Kandinsky here on Muddy Colors. I think he and other artists of that time period contributed greatly to the concept of artistic validity (not sure if that's the right word) beyond representational art. His work offers a valuable narrative on what it was like to live and work in Eastern Europe during a period of significant turmoil.

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  6. I remenber studying him in College as well, even then I could see the masterful way that he understood color and played with it in a lyrical manner. When I think of modern abstraction in its general form it usual doesnt employ the pathos that Wassily, brought to bear. There is a lot to be learned here from him still. Thanks for posting this.

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  7. Later into my college experience, I started to appreciate abstract art more because I knew more about the technical side of composition and design. The masters of abstract art use all the same tools that illustrators use, often in very interesting ways. One of my Illustration professors recommended I read Ben Shahn's "The Shape of Content", which totally changed my thinking about modern art. Abstract art to me is meant to be a purely aesthetic experience, which can be more or less appealing depending on the same design principles that make any other art interesting.

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  8. Thank you all for the positive comments- I honestly was nervous about bringing a modernist like Kandinsky into the MC conversation- I greatly underestimated the caliber of the MC audience...thanks
    PS- My bio portrait is me standing in front of Kandinsky.

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  9. Love Kandinsky. Abstraction with a real base. Many artists throw together whatever they'd like and just throw the label abstract on it without even truly understanding the point and definition of the word abstraction. Love his stuff and have always been inspired the rhythm and color work. Great stuff and I'm so glad you took a chance on branching out into the vast world of visual art. It's all one big family even if the members sometimes don't understand each other. ;-)

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  10. Ode to Motherwell..basics in abstract forms, it makes for a fun collaboration!

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    1. Motherwell is on my short-list of Artist of the Month! Thanks Pat! Great memories! But I just did Franz Kline on my own blog, and didn't want to replicate the theme.

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  11. I spent this semester studying Kandinsky's friend Franz Marc for a thesis. They had very similar ideas.

    Even though I consider myself a representational artist all artists can benefit from studying art history. Especially 20th century. The ideas are incredible. I found that Kandinsky's and Marc's ideas relating to spirituality/theosophy in art were extremely profound. Marc differed slightly in that he painted abstracted animals because he felt they were spiritually "pure."

    The idea that our spiritual self cannot be captured by painting ourselves as we appear makes perfect sense. It is the most profound idea I have ever come across in studying art. Our name is not who we are, our face is not who we are, our job is not who we are.

    Marc has some ideas that particularly moved me: We are all connected to one another and the world, animals are connected to us and are therefore deserving of our kindness. Marc also sadly would die long before Kandinsky but was at peace with dying saying that place between birth and death was the worst thing that happens to us.

    Abstract Expressionists are important to study because some like Kandinsky and Marc were convinced that their art would change the world for the better. After reading their essays I feel they were geniuses. Their works incorporate ideas of science, music, philosophy, and theology. Like another person above me stated, Kandinsky struggled in Europe in a time of turmoil. Kandinsky and Marc thought their art would unite us all and bring us towards a spiritual revolution.



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    1. Sarah- Fantastic!, Thank you so much for the contribution. Its great to see artist's inspired by such a variety of ideas!

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  12. I guess I’ll be dissenting then.

    I do not find anything of merit in Kandinsky’s work. I can look out my window and see an infinite number of more interesting, more beautiful, more inspiring things than his paintings.

    “The very nature of art itself was on the chopping block with artists asking themselves, “What is Art?””
    I don’t really see it this way. At that point in time I see visual art as experiencing a division into the continuation of utilitarian visual art, much of which used new technology, and vain visual art that I might describe as anti-proletarian and anti-humanist. Kandinsky falling into the latter.
    Artists that had something useful to say or do continued to do so using comprehensible visual language. Artists that had little to contribute concerned themselves with a fairly pointless question, serving the interests of a small demographic.

    “In the past the academic and formulaic representation of the natural world had been the pinnacle of artistic achievement.”
    This seems uncharitable. I think of effective visual communication, generally through a comprehensible visual language, as the pinnacle of any useful artist of any age, which doesn’t necessarily entail being formulaic or striving for realism in the vein of 19th century academies, which I think was what you were referring to?

    “With all other branches of science and philosophy being radically rewritten, most artists of this period felt it was their responsibility to rewrite the goal of the artist as well.”
    Most artists? I would need to see some reliable figures to be convinced of the accuracy of that statement. I think most artists continued performing many of the same roles they had within society in the past, with many fulfilling new utilitarian roles, adopting new mediums like film, photography and print.

    “The world, and the artist’s understanding of the world, had become Relative.”
    This conclusion seems incongruous with the preceding sentence about science increasing our understanding of the world. Surely an increase in understanding of reality makes that understanding more objective, and less relative or subjective? Science is convergent rather than divergent. If you understand natural phenomena scientifically, you understand it in the same way as a similarly scientifically literate person understands it on the other side of the planet.

    “One man’s perception of the natural world, could not be judge against another, there was no objective reality, only the individual artist’s perception of the world.”
    I strongly disagree with this statement. It seems like an outlook more in line with the pluralism and cultural relativism associated with Post-Modernism.

    Continued:

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  13. “For this Modern Experiment to work, all traditional artistic understanding of the past 500 years would have to be removed, and the fine arts would need to approach itself the same as physics, psychology, philosophy and the other sciences, as a series of abstract experiments.”
    I object to the equivocation of Modernist visual art with methodological naturalism/the scientific method. Perhaps I haven’t read enough on the subject (hopefully you can educate me if that is the case) but what was Kandinsky’s hypothesis and how did he seek to falsify it? How would he know if he succeeded and how would he know if he failed? Was this subject to him or subject to an audience? A layperson, primed, or expert audience? What does a bad or failed Kandinsky painting look like?

    I was once told in a lecture by Associate Professor Paul Thomas (Head of Painting) at the University of New South Wales College of Fine Arts, that (in all seriousness) Einstein and Picasso were rivals and were competing with each other to be the first to discover the fourth dimension. I doubt his anecdote is true, but I found the idea of a person expecting to discover something meaningful about spacetime by applying paint to a canvas laughable. Paul Thomas thought it was entirely plausible and that I was denigrating the abilities/potential of painters.

    “In this manifesto accompanied by his 20 year long "Composition" series, Kandinsky breaks down color and form into its pure emotional resonance, associating different colors to different instruments in the orchestra as well as different emotions.”
    Here you appear to be saying Kandinsky developed a new visual language for visually depicting (and communicating) music/sound and/or emotions? Is his use of this coded language throughout the series consistent? (For example, is a flute always orange? Is happiness always a squiggly line?)
    I don’t understand what pure emotional resonance is (purple prose?) or how it can be communicated through a visual language of colour and abstract form. If you could explain it in a way I can understand it, I would greatly appreciate it.

    I think the following statement helps illustrate my thoughts on the majority of Modernism.
    “His paintings allow the viewer to bring himself and his own relative experiences and imagination to the work intertwined with the perceptions of the artist, as opposed to being dictated to. Every painting becomes new to each viewer, and unique every time it is viewed.”
    I know that many art connoisseurs greatly value this quality, but to me, this is essentially seeing things in the shapes of clouds. The artist has actually done very little and says next to nothing. Whatever the viewer gets out of the work is primarily what they put into it. The viewer’s time could have been better spent doing something useful or creating something original of their own.
    Generally, I look at visual artwork to see the results of someone else’s imagination and abilities, not so that I can claw meaning out of or force meaning into something amorphous.

    “I highly recommend that if given the chance, sit in your favorite museum and just look and listen to the symphonies Kandinsky composed on canvas.”
    If I hadn’t been informed that the paintings are meant to be visual representations of symphonies, I could not have inferred that meaning from them. I might have speculated that it’s what they may or may not be intended to represent, but I certainly couldn’t positively infer it. I do not believe they effectively visually communicate their meaning or intent.

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  14. Cole-

    Thank you for your extremely comprehensive response. As I stated earlier, you don't have to like it, you don't even have to agree with it. My intention is merely to present an artist and the context of his work, as all my Artist of the Month blogs do. Like you, I am a post-modernist representational artist, and fought earnestly in my youth for the merits of figurative art, as I still do today. I hope that you will be able to appreciate the ideas that the artists before us fought for, and continue your passionate pursuit for artistic truth... WOC

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  15. As counterpoint to Kandinsky I hope you all will also view my blog on Post Modern master... Anselm Keifer:
    http://williamoconnorstudios.blogspot.com/2011/05/artist-of-month-anselm-kiefer.html

    WOC

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  16. @Cole, ( and All)

    Your arguments against Modernism (Kandinsky specifically) are extremely cogent and well documented. This is the great paradox of all Modernist theory (including Einstein) that the only Truth is that there is no Truth. This was why it was expressed as a Modernist "Experiment". Many of these ideas were walked back with Post-Modernism as artists, and scientists, tried to re-connect with historical Truth, and the end of Modernism re-engaged with traditional art at the end of the 20th C.
    Keep Talking.

    WOC

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  17. Here is an link to Emmanuel Kant's dissertation on perceiving aesthetic beauty....http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gU2LXgBbfaI

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  18. I always wodered why would english-speaking people write his name as Wassily, while also calling 16th century russian emperor Basil, when in fact in russian it clearly sounds as Vasili.

    Just a thought :)

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