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Thursday, October 11, 2012

What Kandinsky Thought


Der Blaue Reiter, 1903, Wassily Kandinsky.
The German expressionist group by the same
name came in 1911.
We tend to judge artists by what they do rather than what they think. And while in some cases, there may be some good in this, by and large, most artists do think and do expound, often at some length, on their thoughts quite apart from their work. Recently I was reading part of an old essay by Wassily Kandinsky. For the most part we know this Russian painter through his work, some of the earliest abstractions on record, and his association with the German group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) who took their name from one of Kandinsky's paintings. But, as some might say, the man had a head on his shoulders, and what he had to say might surprise you.

For example, he didn't think much of revivals. Not the religious sort. There's no indication what he thought of them. I'm talking about artistic revivals--Neo-Gothic, Neoclassicism, Pre-Raphaelites, Neo-Impressionism, etc. He counts only that art produced which reflects current times as having any "soul." His reasoning is, we don't live in times past and as a result, we can't feel what artists then felt. Thus, while we may attempt to contrive some semblance of their art, Kandinsky calls it "stillborn." At best we come up with what is a similarity of form. It will lack spirit.

Wassily Kandinsky, thinking abstractly.
The painting he abstractly called
Composition VIII, dating from 1923.
He doesn't contend that artists from the past can't project spirit through their work, or that this spirit cannot be felt by those viewing it today; only that it can't be effectively translated by a present-day artist into a new work. Kandinsky points out that when an artist tries to invoke a style from the past, the only result is materialism. Not that it's not still art, but that it becomes "art for art's sake"--decoration rather than creative communication. I think he's talking first and foremost about his own type of art, abstraction, or near-abstraction, but the principle carries over into other styles and periods as well. The question thus arises, when do "influences" become imitation? He doesn't answer that question. Maybe there is no definitive answer. Can an artist "borrow" a style from the past and still deliver a living, breathing, "baby" of his/her own? In fact, this raises the question as to whether we, as artists, should dare to study art of the past if, in doing so, we risk creating a weak, inbred, sickly, art-child of limited intellectual capacity and little or no spirit.


  1. I just found your blog and thoroughly look forward to exploring it. Congratulations on your new book, it sounds interesting.

    I don’t know that I agree with Kandinsky on this and it seems to contradict some of his other writings. Kandinsky was concerned with the spiritual in artifacts and this, to me, equates to timeless artifacts, i.e. true art, what James Joyce called “static art,” shouldn’t reflect any particular time period at all. There’s no doubt in my mind that Picasso was influenced by the ancient tribal art of Africa, he rather expertly incorporated the “similarity of form” into his modern work, but I dare say his paintings influenced thus did have spirit. And I think the reason Picasso’s modern works did have spirit is precisely because he felt/experienced something similar to what the tribal artists themselves felt/experienced. Would you agree?

    As an artist myself, I believe it’s darn near impossible not to be influenced by the masters, both old and new. Creativity, if modern studies are correct, is largely a function of analogy; one makes novel associations between entities in memory, which includes the works of prior artists. I think it’s a process one must work through. Returning to Picasso, he said, “It took me four years to learn to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to learn to paint like a child.” I believe this has merit. The process is meditative and leads to new insights which lead to artifacts imbued with spirit. I think you see this process most profoundly in the works of iconographers; they paint the same, or close to the same, image over and over but it’s a meditation. The abstract expressionist, Shelli Renee Joye (, wrote an excellent essay on this subject titled, Integral Aesthetics: The Evolutionary Function of the Sublime ( if you and your readers would be interested.

    Have a great day!

  2. Wes--

    I'd have to say I agree with most of your wise comment, though I think it virtually impossible for a work of art to NOT reflect the era in which it was created. I think what Kandinsky was rebelling against was the constant backtracking artists, including Picasso, were prone to at the time. I'm not familiar enough with Kandinsky's other writings to say how consistant he may have been. However, like you, I think it's difficult, if not impossible, to avoid influences. But that doesn't negate the fact that artists should try to steer away as far as possible from the fine line between influence and imitation. So many artists today, and I assume in Kandinsky's time as well, seem to be SEEKING influences when in fact, they should be trying to AVOID them.

  3. Ah yes, one can reference a work or even a school/movement without imitating it. I think this resonates well with the modern day fair-use movement championed by Sheppard Fairey and collaborators. What these fair-use folks call reference I call copying.

    Recently I read an ongoing discussion on the New York Times art blog called, Shock Me Please: Does Art Still Have the Energy?, moderated by the Times arts editor, Jennifer Schuessler. Many of the works presented were an assault to the mores of society in one form or the other. As a general rule I find the work of artists who assault the moral fabric of society to be rather boring. James Joyce referred to such artists as “didactic pornographers” for very good reason; typically, their sole objective is to build a brand and the art in question has very little, if any, depth and it, more often than not, involves what you term backtracking (one artist copied Picasso’s Le Demoiselles d’Avignon exactly and then superimposed a monkey on top of it).

    The Times dance critic, Alastair McCauley, made an excellent point about the shock value of truly avant garde works. Like Ms. McCauley, I find these challenging avante garde works to be most unsettling hence most compelling. People like John Cage, Pauline Oliveras, Otomo Yoshihide, and etc. force one to become an active participant in the creative process. All humans are mathematicians at our core; we recognize patterns and are most comfortable with familiar structures. The abstract structures presented by these avante garde artists are often an assault to our sense of propriety; they force us to step out of our comfort zone and, in the process, to expand our very sense of being. This too is a spiritual journey. And they do this without assaulting societal mores. Of course all of the above are musicians but the same translates to all art forms.

    You know, a good example is Kandinsky himself. Here in Houston, Texas, we have the Menil Collection which boasts the largest privately owned Surrealist collection in existence and it often challenges one to expand their reality belief system. At the same time I love the sculpture of Michelangelo more than any of the modern stuff, ha, ha . . .

    I appreciated your triptych in Images of Christ, a very nice work.

    1. Wes--

      Thank you for your kind appreciation. Appreciating art has never been easy and is an especially "uneasy" trek through the inevitable mix of trash and treasure we have today.

      In his own way, Michelangelo, both sculpture and painting, was as hard to cope with in his day and age as was Kandinsky a hundred years ago or the shock/schlock artists today. The difficulty they and we (as painters) face is that slopping around liquified pigments is not a very viable form of artistic expression today. Multiple images are difficult, the medium awkward, static, silent, and the public has an attention span measured in mere seconds.

      Painting today is thus almost pure nostalgia, not dead, necessarily, but certainly antiquated by modern YouTube standards of creative communication. Film started this denoument while the digital revolution has pretty much completed it, and all in the brief span of years since Kandinsky thought his thoughts. It's as sad as it is exciting.

    2. Jim,

      I appreciate this little discussion we’re having so, with your graces, I shall continue. You’re absolutely right about painting and, as mentioned in your Last Supper post, the art history ignorance common to the public; if a piece doesn’t set a record at Sotheby’s or offend the Muslim or Christian community its known and appreciated by few. Do you suppose there’s a correlation between this and the millions of pounds of prescription medication distributed for depression every year? And just wait until Virtual Reality technology gets up to speed . . . But then, this is what draws me to painting – the meditative aspect. I get lost in the work and I feel the process is really a communication with something much greater than self.

      You know, Dali is one of my favorite painters. I am especially enamored with his later, more classical works. One of my favorite is his portrayal of Gala as The Madonna of Port Iligat, and, just as with Leonardo’s Last Supper, there are many of these. I, and I believe many others, like the last one he (Dali) painted the best. I also love his book, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali by Salvador Dali.

      I’m curious if you are familiar with the artwork of Alex and Allyson Grey? I would think you would be since they are also from Ohio; however, they most definitely do not seek publicity so you may not. They have The Chapel of Sacred Mirrors in New York City ( The Chapel is designed so that participants/observers stand in front of each image and visualize themselves as the image. It’s a succession which starts from the skeletal structure and progresses to the spiritual structure; one of the last images is of Christ. It’s designed to destroy boundaries. Anyway, they have a book by the same name but all of the images can be viewed on the website.

      With that I thought perhaps I would leave you with an image of Christ generated by Father Ed Lavin; it requires a bit of work on the part of the participant:

      Union With Christ

      A Visualization Exercise by Father Ed Lavin

      When you are composed and feel yourself in the presence of the Spirit, try this meditation. Do it slowly and with intensity.

      Imagine yourself on a hilly plain. It is spring. The grass is fresh and green. The sun is warm on your skin. Feel the breath of the gentle breeze. Smell the sweet air and the new grass. A wonderful feeling of well-being flows over your body. You are surrounded by people who are silent and waiting in prayer. Try to feel the vibrations of their devotion.

      Now look to a slightly elevated hill some yards in front of you. A number of people on top of the hill surround a figure whose presence you feel immediately. Look carefully with your mind and your ear. It is the Christ, enveloped in a beautiful white light. An intense light shines from each of His wounds. Gaze upon Him and feel the warmth of His Love. Whisper His name.

      From the heart of the Christ, a ray of light bursts forth and enters into your heart. See Him looking at you, white light joining you heart to heart. He approaches you and slowly enters the center of your heart. See Him there. Feel Him, feel your heart, warm with His Love and brilliant with His Light. Your mind stops, overwhelmed with God’s Love. Stay there awhile. Surrender to the presence of God.

      Now imagine that you are going up with the Christ. Cast up your awareness to the center of your head. Concentrate and go through the top of your head, you and the Christ, going up and up through the sky.

      Above you is a vast ball of pulsating intense light. Go into this light with Christ. Let it penetrate each cell of your body. Again, surrender yourself. Open to your true Being. Rest in the heart of God.

      At any time during a meditation you may be taken over by God. Everything stops. The mind stops, the body seems to stop and you enter into an ineffable quiet – an intense quiet of Love. Just rest in it. Be bathed in God.

      The Peace and Love of Christ the Lord be with you always.

      Father Ed Lavin

    3. Wes--

      I found the website with the Alex and Allyson Grey paintings quite invigorating although the new age Christianity was somewhat off-putting. They have certainly pushed the art of painting to the post-modern limit. Allyson's work reminds me of fractal art. They seem to be "milking" their art for all it's worth, which is the post-modern way to achieve the name recognition and whatever limited financial success a painter can expect in today's hyperactive, 24-7, media driven world. I can't fault them for that.

      I, too, am a lover of Dali's work. Have you ever visited his museum in Florida (Tampa or St. Petersburg, I think...Sarasota, maybe, I forget)? I've not, but from what I've seen I'd like the opportunity to do so (one more item for my bucket list).

      Your comment about paintings offending Muslim or Christian sensibilities is quite timely, except that the latest Libyan dust-up was NOT initially tied a painting but to a video. A painting would hardly have caused a stir in the geopolitical atmosphere. Of course even the video turned out to be merely a convenient jihad excuse for anti-American violence. It's too bad certain politicians have chosen to politicize this tragedy before all the facts were/are known.

      Once more, thanks for your comments, they are much appreciated.

    4. No, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit the Dali museum in Florida. I would certainly like to though. I checked out your artworks with appreciation. I particularly liked the reflection in the golden ball and the story accompanying it. The landscape in the landscape reminded me of the Dali piece in which he is painting himself painting Gala painting himself painting Gala . . . In mathematics and Systems Science this is called self-referential recursion; it’s actually the process that gives rise to fractals. The famous Mandelbrot equation z => z^2 + c where c is a complex number is simply an iteration where the preceding z value (starting with z = 0) is fed back into the next progression – a self-referential recursion.

      Your essays are very informative and educational. They often present subject matter which I would otherwise not consider which is a benefit to me – thanks. I found this rather interesting essay, On the Future of Art and Art Criticism (;, by author Keith Martin-Smith which you may or may not find interesting. It is related to your Beyond Abstract Expressionism post. Mr. Martin-Smith is somewhat critical of Post-Modernism and he makes some very good points (I also find the idea of a urinal hanging on the wall as art rather offensive to my intelligence, as an artist and gallery/museum voyeur) and then calls for an integral movement to take art “beyond Post-Modernism.” I’m actually a fan of Abstract Expressionism however, including minimalism (both music and art). Mark Rothko has a chapel here in Houston which contains a number of large works; his goal was to paint silence and I believe he succeeded in a contemplative way.

  4. (I encountered word count rejection so had to break up the comment)

    In front of the Rothko Chapel is a piece by Barnett Newman titled, The Broken Obelisk. John and Dominique de Menil, the founders of the Menil Collection, purchased the Newman piece for something like $1.5 million and offered to donate it to the city of Houston provided the city erect it (it’s a rusted iron sculpture) in front of city hall and dedicate it to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This being shortly after the height of the civil rights movement the city council refused the offer. The de Menils resubmitted the offer stating that rather than dedicate it to MLK (the council’s objection) the council could instead erect it in front of city hall with a plaque that said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” The council rejected this offer as well. I just love that little tale.

    Just to the east of the Menil Collection the de Menils built St. Thomas University. On the northwest corner of the campus is the St. Basil Chapel which was designed by Philip Johnson when he was 99 years old (. It is very much a Post-Modern design and is really quite exquisite. Everything about the structure is symbolic including the outstanding prayer garden. I used to live just down the street and every Saturday morning I would walk up to St. Basil, spend a moment in reflection, continue over to the Rothko (one block away) for another moment of reflection, and finish off at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel ( This was always a great morning – like recharging the old battery.

    I was born and baptized into St. John’s Lutheran church (my grandmother’s church) but I have been practicing yoga and meditation for more than a decade now so I understand and appreciate the Grey’s approach to Christ. The Grey’s approach is based on gnosis and, as such, the Gnostic Gospels, which correlates well with my own meditation experience. In my experience, provided one’s attention is focused on the Divine the Divine will respond regardless of methods deployed. This, to me, is the whole point of artwork, art as meditation. This was also the perspective of Michelangelo; he felt artists should live in a pure manner, “as Saints if such is possible.” By doing so the artist opens themselves to Divine inspiration or guidance. I very much concur although I realize not all artists do. In the essay I link above Mr. Martin-Smith quotes Andy Warhol as saying “art is whatever you can get away with.” For certain Mr. Warhol got away with quite a lot.

    1. Wes--

      Thank you for bringing these links to my attention, especially the Martin-Smith article. For the most part I found myself agreeing with what he said though he had the facts wrong in the case of the urinal, which did NOT make it into the 1913 Armory show. It made it into the alley out back and was lost. What you see in museums today are reproductions of it. That alone says a lot about the reverence with which curators today hold Duchamp's "creation" and his arguments as to what is or isn't art. Also, I should note, the "Fountain" did not hang on a wall but was to be displayed flat on its back. This difference is important inasmuch as this was the artist's one contribution in converting the men's room porcelain fixture to a work of art, that and giving it a title. A urinal is not art any more than marble or paint is art. They all require the imput of the artist, however minimal or convoluted. Since the caveman painted his first stroke to the present the definition of art has been expanding. My own, somewhat oversimplified definition comes down to: "Art is creative communication." That is, if it doesn't communicate with reasonable clarity for the artist or it lacks much in the way of originality, then it is not art.

      There is a great deal more on this in my book, "Learning to Think Like an Artist" available for download in e-book (pdf) format at (book shop). I think you would enjoy reading it immensely. Or, if you want to wait a few more weeks (and pay a good deal more) you'll be able to order it in paperback from Amazon (new title: ART THINK).

      The Martin-Smith article is much to long and involved to comment on in this forum, but suffice to say he reiterated a great deal of my own thinking in terms of art, science, and morality and their interconnectedness as well as their conflicts with Biblical teachings. The problem with the Bible is that the words of God have about 5,000 years of human fingerprints all over them. Most are insignficant in nature, however when one begins to encounter 19th and 20th century science and scriptural interpretations (not to mention ancient Judeo-centric misinterpretations)these "fingerprints" grow to become massive smudges. The other problem with the Old Testament especially (and Genesis in particular) is that it was intended by God, in his infinite wisdom, for a very simple-minded, scientifically naive audience of fairly ignorant nomads, which was mostly fine until the last century or two.

      Today such teachings and interpretations appeal only to those who can't, or won't, delve into the complexities of today's scientfic knowledge and correlate it with what the Bible really says, as opposed to what they've been TAUGHT the Bible says. The whole evolution/creationism brouhaha (for example) all boils down to a 5,000 year old misinterpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 (the creation of mankind and the creation of Adam as being one and the same event). Brushing that aside, allows for millions, of years to intervene, which is the primary roadblock to the acceptance of evolution as the "how" of God's creation correlated to the Biblical "fact" of His creation.

      I must say you are fortunate to be living so close to such great art and architecture. I have written on the Rothko chapel (use the search feature at the top of this blog to find it) as well as on Duchamp, the urinal, etc. If you've not yet discovered the magic little white search box at the top, it is quite useful. I use it daily to make sure I'm not writing on something I've already covered.

      Nice talking to you again.--Jim Lane

    2. Jim,

      Excellent, excellent posts on mythology; this is my subject. I generally paint triptychs which generally morph mythology with modern epistemology. I have written an essay, posted on my blog, called, Enough About Science: Finnegan’s Wake and the Garden of Eden (, which explains the metaphors of Genesis in a manner you may find interesting. I have another essay, posted on my blog, called, Specifica Universalis: A New Ontology of Introspection (, since renamed, Dedicare Omnimodus: A New Ontology of Introspection, which exlains the metaphors of the New Testament in a manner you may find interesting as well. This is really the subject of my whole blog, although it also contains a few pieces of my own artworks.

      I would very much love to read your book but am currently unable to at the moment. The reason for this is explained in the very first post to my blog aptly titled, Credence: A Tale of Corruption ( When my situation is rectified I will most definitely purchase and read a copy of your book. Now, allow me to recommend a couple of books for you: The Hero With a Thousand Faces (; The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers ( These books have been invaluable to me as an artist.

    3. Michelangelo is, to me, the master of all masters when it comes to sculpture and painting so I wanted to add a little lore to your Mythic Women post. Michelangelo had very little regard for the “authority” of the Church when it came to his art, as you may know. His “The Last Judgment” was harshly criticized as obscene with one critic stating, “. . . it (The Last Judgment) did not belong in a papal chapel but in public baths or brothels.” Pope Paul IV sent a message to Michelangelo telling him to “make it suitable” to which Michelangelo replied, “Tell the Pope that this is a small matter and it can easily be made suitable; let him make the world a suitable place and painting will soon follow suit.” The Vatican’s Council of Trent decreed the nudity in The Last Judgment needed covering but nothing was done until after Michelangelo’s death. The “artist” da Valterra implemented many of the modifications and when he had trouble matching colors from one day to the next (specifically the green covering St. Catherine, difficulties of which are readily apparent to this day) legend decreed that Michelangelo’s spirit was causing the problem.

      Michelangelo lived the life of a monastic and I believe this is reflected rather well in his painting and sculpture – the nudity actually adds to the rapturous quality of his work. To Michelangelo the human form was an object of unlimited expressive potential, evidence of Divine mastery; I would be so bold as to suggest Michelangelo had a much greater understanding of the ineffable than did any of the Popes who employed his skills.

      I question whether any artist since has been able to unleash the rapturous nature inherent in the nude form to the degree Michelangelo did. For certain many have tried and a few have, perhaps, come close but most, in my opinion, fall far short; their works are often titillating rather than rapturous. They are nudes meant for the eyes rather than for the soul hence the “didactic pornography” of James Joyce.

      “Is soul seeing possible? Can we somehow, through intuitive thinking see more than we do with ordinary seeing? Looking at the example of the artist the answer is clearly yes. […] The artist can see what we do not naturally see in our self imposed limited view of reality. We do recognize and give value to the truth we learn from the artist, from what the artist sees and expresses in some way. We recognize that the artist sees in nature something we do not see, details we do not notice. The artist provides us with a window through which we can perceive a reality we sense but cannot see clearly.”

      - Susan Adler, “Conscious Awakening of an Intuitive Mind: The Western Esoteric Method of Seeing Wonder in Reality” (

      So then, one could conclude that art is a matter of seeing, first and foremost, and then, secondly, expressing that extra-sensory sight in a manner conducive to subsequent sense perception and interpretation. I would suggest, with regards to many of the modern and post-modern nudes, the problem is a failure to properly see . . .

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