Kandinsky starts with a point. He lifts it from a sentence. He writes a sentence three times, each time with the point at a different place. The first sentence has the point at the end, a conventional period that “belongs to speech and indicates silence.” The second sentence has the point in the middle. The resulting fragments may have been lifted from a transcript of a conversation. The third sentence has the point near the sentence’s start and can be explained only as a misprint.
The third sentence allows us to see the point’s inner value for a moment before the typo explanation extinguishes our insight. What did we glimpse?
A period “indicates silence,” but it “belongs to speech.” Our habituation to the point used thus as an outward sign prevents us from hearing “the inner sound of the symbol.” So, the point’s silence is deafening.
A period is a sign. The artist can hear “dead signs” become “living symbols.” “The dead comes to life,” Kandinsky points out in the first few pages of Point and Line to Plane, the second of his two major works on art theory.
The progression of three sentences gradually divorces the point “from the narrow sphere of its customary activity.” But the divorce is not complete after the third sentence. Kandinsky increases the size of the point relative to the sentence, and he increases the amount of white space on the page around it. As he does, “the sound of the writing becomes diminished, and the sound of the point gains in clarity and strength.”
What is the point’s sound? “The ultimate and most singular combination of silence and speech.” The sound comes not from the point’s use in writing as a period, but from its status in geometry as “an invisible entity.” As such, we associate the point “with the utmost conciseness, i.e., the greatest, although eloquent, reserve.”
One can see, then, from Kandinsky’s perspective how easy it was to co-opt the geometric point (a living symbol) for use as a period (a dead sign). As a sign, the point (which “belongs to speech and indicates silence”) hints at its symbol, but our predilection for signs drowns out the sound of the symbol.
Signs are useful. Verse is useful. I’ve used “Thirty days hath September” countless times.
For Kandinsky, in the beginning was the word. But the painter rescues the word from its own dead-sign nature. (Paul says that “the letter kills.” Perhaps John was speaking of the word as symbol, while Paul was speaking of it as a sign, in Kandinsky’s terms.) The word hides symbols in its signs, symbols that came before and that can be used again in art to create something larger while still honoring the symbol and helping others to feel it.
Jesus, then, is an artist. Christian theologians believe this prophecy in Isaiah points to him: “The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.”
The fleeting moment of recognition is expanded and made accessible to all. The deafening silence is silenced, and the point’s true silence sings.
[This is the first of four posts on Kandinsky’s art theory.]