My reading turned to viewing as Wassily Kandinsky in Point and Line to Plane took a period, moved it from its normal spot at a sentence’s end, and made it disproportionately larger than the sentence’s font.  Dead sign became living symbol, and the word became flesh. (See part 1 of this series.)

The same thing happened this past summer at the Portland Museum of Art’s John Marin show.  There I discovered Marin’s painting “The Written Sea.”  A year before he died, Marin had put his paint into a syringe – making that medical instrument into a fat pen – and squeezed out squiggles that suggest sentences that become (apparently) a sunrise along a somewhat overcast Maine coast.  My viewing turned to reading turned to viewing.

Viewing “The Written Sea,” I wasn’t thinking, “the word became flesh”; I hadn’t even read Kandinsky’s theory when I saw “The Written Sea.”  I was simply stunned, the way I was stunned looking at the British Museum’s illuminated manuscripts more than half a lifetime ago.

When I left the Marin exhibit room the first time, I had the usual crass urge to own the painting’s likeness, but the print in the show’s catalog doesn’t start to do the painting justice, particularly the inexplicable emotional impact of the painting’s blotchy white clouds against the white canvas above the written sea.  The clouds could be the culmination of what the sea wrote – heck, maybe of what the thunder had said the night before.  The barest sunrise bleeds through the mottled clouds.  Nothing more needs to be said or written; despite that, there moves the sea, ceaselessly writing, and there I was, for a blessed hour, at least, ceaselessly reading, reading and viewing.

The written sea could be the beautiful, brightly colored rooms of my recurring childhood dream.  The daybreak clouds could be the dream’s culminating room, which was the outdoors itself, the neighbors’ wide backyard and trees.  Something was transcended at the end of that sequence of rooms each night I dreamed it.

Repeating rooms, repeating dreams, repeating waves.  All those waves tearing open, over and over, on the black rocks, long after they’ve made their point.  The poet Bob Lax has it, too:

the
dance
of
the
waves

is
an
order
‘d
dance

the
dance
of
the
waves

is
a
solemn
dance

a
solemn
dance

an
order
‘d
dance

the
dance
of
the
waves

the
dance
of

the
waves

[from the poem “Solemn Dance” in A Thing That Is.]

In “Solemn Dance,” the repetition of the words becomes the repetition of the waves, and I can begin to hear the waves across Lax’s pages.  The spacing of Lax’s words, particularly at the end, makes the poem even begin to look like waves, just as the “sentences” in “The Written Sea” turn the reader into a viewer.

In writing about art, Kandinsky often wrote about words.  His description of a word’s “inner sound” comes from its wave-like, Jesus-Prayer-like repetition:

Words are inner sounds.  This inner sound arises partly – perhaps principally – from the object for which the word serves as a name.  But when the object itself is not seen, but only its name is heard, an abstract conception arises in the mind of the listener, and dematerialized object that at once conjures up a vibration in the “heart.”  The green or yellow or red tree as it stands in the meadow is merely a material occurrence, an accidental materialization of the form of that tree we feel within ourselves when we hear the word tree.  Skillful use of a word (according to poetic feeling) – an internally necessary repetition of the same word twice, three times, many times – can lead not only to the growth of the inner sound, but also bring to light still other, unrealized spiritual qualities of the word.  Eventually, manifold repetition of a word (a favorite childhood game, later forgotten) makes it lose its external sense as a name.  In this way, even the sense of the word as an abstract indication of the object is forgotten, and only the pure sound of the word remains.  We may also, perhaps unconsciously, hear this “pure” sound at the same time as we perceive the real, or subsequently, the abstract object.  In the latter case, however, this pure sound comes to the fore and exercises a direct influence upon the soul.  The soul experiences a nonobjective vibration that is more complex – I would say more “supersensible” – than the effect on the soul produced by a bell, a vibrating string, a falling board, etc.  Here, great possibilities open up for the literature of the future. [On the Spiritual in Art, chapter 3.]

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet who liked to draw, spoke of an object’s inscape; Kandinsky, a painter, spoke of a word’s “unrealized spiritual qualities.”  Kandinsky is Hopkins in reverse. Together they represent a kind of breaker and backwash, Hopkins writing and hearing the voice of objects, Kandinsky painting and hearing the voice of words.

° ° °

Ken Johnson says some insightful things about the Marin exhibit in a New York Times review, but I’m not sure I agree that Marin was “unable” to break through to abstract expressionism.  I think Marin saw abstract expressionism coming, but his art wasn’t asking it of him. (Kandinsky was similarly slow about moving to abstraction in his art because he waited for an artist’s “internal necessity” to take him there.)  Johnson also suggests that Marin’s canvasses seem small and cramped.  But how large must a page of illuminated manuscript be?  And of course Marin’s paintings do suggest what Johnson calls an “astringent pantheism,” but is that bad?  Marin may hold to the astringent pantheism of Hopkins’s hero, medieval theologian Duns Scotus.

“The Written Sea” will be part of Portland’s Marin exhibit until October 10.  The exhibit will reappear in Dallas and then Andover, after which time, presumably, “The Written Sea” will return home to the National Gallery.  We’re neighbors!

Marin’s picture is at the post’s top. This post is the last of five posts on Kandinsky’s art theory.  Here are links to the series’s first, second, third, and fourth posts.