-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
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...