An inexplicable, bright pattern of arcs. The windshield was no longer shattered, so I fixed my eyes on the pickup as I walked toward it, a cloudless sun rising behind me. I tilted my head a little and involuntarily blinked and squinted my eyes. Something dangerous? My mind seemed to insist on a working theory; it arrived at a spider’s web with searing, half-inch-wide strands (ropes?) just behind the windshield. But the theory ran up against my wonder and disbelief.
The arcs – whatever they were – flashed as the angle among them, the sun, and me grew as I walked. And as the flash receded, my momentary disorientation resolved. So that’s what it was: I had observed the horizontal sunlight’s reflection from one of the two circular patterns of the truck’s silver windshield sunshade, which I hadn’t noticed before.
It took me less than a second to move from shattered windshield to a prosaic sunshade as I walked to the gym yesterday, but the shift felt momentous and richly lived. I had experienced curiosity, wonder, and fear, and I had witnessed a physical transformation, a moment’s animation from broken glass to a spider’s web to a silver sunshade that no one else could experience, given the specific circumstances of object, time of day, weather, and viewer’s prior experience. I thought about the potential emotional effects of silver and the power of bright light disassociated from the direction and strength of such light during those middle daylight hours when we expect it. I thought of our conceptions of angels and the emotions these creatures evoked in biblical witnesses.
I thought of Kandinsky, who stretched out a reader’s disorientation in his second large work of theory, Point and Line to Plane, by moving a sentence’s period from its customary end position to various points closer to the sentence’s first words, and then by increasing the size of the period relative to the size of the font used in the sentence. In this disorienting process, the reader slowly becomes a viewer of art, and the period slowly changes from a “dead sign” to a “living symbol.” (See part one in this series for a fuller description of this disorienting moment.) Why did his make his point about points this way?
Kandinsky seems comfortable with disorientation. The style of his thorough and lawyerly art theory (he was a lawyer before taking up art) – the nomenclature, the cataloging – serves as a foil to his subject matter, which is the disorienting power of colors and shapes just under the surface of recognizable objects. His synesthetic description of colors as sounds, tastes, and textures in On the Spiritual in Art, his first large work of theory, suits a mind comfortable with disorientation.
Two disorienting experiences pushed Kandinsky toward abstract art. According to Ulrike Becks-Malorny in her beautiful book Kandinsky, the first experience happened as Kandinsky was completing law school in Moscow:
. . . he saw a painting from Monet’s Haystacks series and – disconcertingly – failed to recognize the subject. This gave him a first inkling that the power of colour could render the presence of the object superfluous. (8)
Many years later, he had a similar encounter with one of his own paintings:
“It was the hour when dusk draws in. I returned home with my painting box . . . and suddenly saw an indescribably beautiful picture, pervaded by an inner glow. At first, I stopped short and then quickly approached this mysterious picture, on which I could discern only forms and colours and whose content was incomprehensible. At once, I discovered the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, standing on its side against the wall. The next day, I tried to recreate my impression of the picture from the previous evening by daylight. I only half succeeded, however; even on its side, I constantly recognized objects, and the fine bloom of dusk was missing. Now I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures.” (31)
Kandinsky didn’t entirely equate abstraction with disorientation. (He didn’t emphasize the word “disorientation,” either; that’s my doing.) He felt that the Western world had to achieve a “spiritual revolution” before it would be subject to the constructive disorientation of purely abstract – or nearly purely abstract – art. I don’t think he ever got his revolution.
Understanding his time, and finding it impossible on a spiritual basis to live outside his time, Kandinsky didn’t follow his theory immediately into “pure color and independent form.” Had he done so, pure abstraction would arise not from “internal necessity” but from the outward arrogance of theory. An artist operating by such a theory alone would “create works having the appearance of geometrical ornament, which would – to put it crudely – be like a tie or a carpet.” (On the Spiritual in Art, chapter 7). A viewer of such a painting would never experience a disorientation that would take her to the painting’s “inner necessity.”
In a 1912 lecture, Kandinsky offered two other reasons for the gradual manner in which his oeuvre was reaching a fuller abstraction. First, he wanted to slow the viewer’s experience of disorientation so she could achieve a new appreciation for the emotional powers of a picture’s colors, shapes, and composition along with the powers of its recognizable objects. Referring to his 1909 – 1910 paintings, he wrote:
“As yet, objects did not want to, and were not to, disappear altogether from my pictures . . . [since] objects, in themselves, had a particular spiritual sound, which can and does serve as the material for all realms of art. And I was still too strongly bound up with the wish to seek purely pictorial forms having this spiritual sound. Thus, I dissolved objects to a greater or lesser extent within the same picture, so that they might not all be recognized at once and so that these emotional overtones might thus be experienced gradually by the spectator, one after another.” (Kandinsky 37, 39)
Kandinsky, then, wanted the viewer to have the kind of rich, momentary experience I had walking to the gym, but he wanted to control it enough so that the viewer’s conscious mind would have the time to work with the part of her that could hear the “spiritual sound” of a picture’s components before recognition would inevitably end the experience.
Seen in that light, abstract art – art with no discernible objects – would represent a kind of permanent residence in disorientation. And I think this idea of abstract art is associated with Kandinsky’s second reason offered in that lecture for not progressing quickly to fully abstract art: he wasn’t spiritually mature enough for such art to come to him.
“I myself was not yet sufficiently mature to experience purely abstract form without bridging the gap by means of objects. If I had possessed this ability, I should already have created absolute pictures at that time.” (Kandinsky 39)
Neither Kandinsky nor his milieu was prepared for “absolute pictures.” I don’t feel as yet prepared for Kandinsky’s absolute pictures, though I like them. Right now, I feel particularly drawn to his works between 1906 and 1915, particularly the ones that suggest little if any symbolism, a great deal of abstraction, and a few immediately recognizable objects. I like watching myself work with Kandinsky through disorientation and finding that marriage of conscious mind and subconscious experience that makes me feel more alive. I wonder if a deeper appreciation of Kandinsky’s later work might come, for me, as a result of study or experience or spiritual growth, or of some combination thereof.
Kandinsky would progress spiritually, and he felt that his time would, too. In 1912, when he wrote On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky believed that his age was beginning to enter the “epoch of the great spiritual.” I haven’t heard anyone speak in such a sanguine manner about the next few years of our own time. I wonder if Kandinsky’s gift of disorientation and his powers of developing it in others would be just as important for a more benighted age than he anticipated, such as the one I believe we’ve crossed the threshold of. Wouldn’t someone sensitive to the life and possibilities in disorientation be of service to a people unfamiliar with it but faced with too much of it?
Our society-wide disorientation may come on many fronts. Philosophical, economic, geopolitical, climatic, and social changes are happening at a faster rate, and more and more people may find themselves disoriented and dispossessed of what they believed grounded them.
How comfortable or grounded am I in the ungrounded moment between the shattered windshield and the sunshade?
Are my obsessions – my idées fixe – places where I resist disorientation? My perfectionism, my need for control . . .
Is a predisposition to experiencing wonder also a life-giving response to disorientation and disproportion?
Whether we live in Kandinsky’s dusk or my dawn, or in Kandinsky’s dawn or my dusk, can I be trained in the tricks of the sun’s trade?
[This is the second of five posts on Kandinsky’s art theory. The first is here.]