3. Word

Kandinsky was a prolific writer.  His Complete Writings on Art, edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, is 923 pages long.  Kandinsky used art theory to explain such things as abstract art, the role of the artist in society, the relations among the arts, and his theories of color and form.  But Kandinsky was driven to write art theory for the same reason the Word became flesh – for theosis, that is, for union with God:

Only by a process of microscopic analysis will the science of art lead to an all-embracing synthesis, which will ultimately extend far beyond the boundaries of art, into the realm of “union” of the “human” and the “divine.” (Point and Line to Plane)

The Word points to something silent that words drown out.  Scripture can enlighten or bedim, befog.  “Have you never read . . .?” Jesus asked the religious leaders again and again.  He knew they had.

Illustration from Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane. “The same undulating line accompanied by geometrical elements.”


You can see this not only in what Kandinsky, a Russian Orthodox, writes but also in how he uses writing.  Creation, the province of artists and God, is ineffable.  Art theory is necessary “1. to discover the living, 2. to make perceptible its pulsation, 3. to establish the law-governed nature of life.”  But Kandinsky frequently makes clear that words have no part in the act of creation.  As Lindsay and Vergo put it in their introduction to Complete Writings:

He recognized the virtue of verbal reasoning for an artist and encouraged it to roam freely except during the act of creation.  Only when the brush has completed its odyssey should the mind examine the findings with words.

[This is the third of five posts on Kandinsky’s art theory.  The first is here, and the second is here.]

1. Point

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.]

The illumination of grace

Real light, which creates shadows, seems to turn on and off during nodal points of history.  Thus, we can speak literally of the “Dark Ages.”

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If, after Judgment, a day is like a thousand years, then chronological time ceases to be the yardstick by which the events and stories of realist art are measured.  Instead, a timelessness prevails in which colors and forms can function on their own terms.  In this immensity of tranhuanman time, the traditional technique of chiaroscuro cannot be applied.  Old sources tell us that after the cataclysm the secular shadows of time yield to the “new lights of eternity.”  Nonobjective painting keeps pace with this vision: shadows cast by candles, moons, and suns vanish so that a new kind of light can emanate from within the picture’s core.

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Dante’s transhumanization [in the Divine Comedy] means that he will no longer be capable of casting a shadow and will no longer yield to the law of gravity.  Finally, in Canto 33, he has the Beatific Vision and sees the Supreme Light.  Viewing the three colored circles of the Trinity and wanting to “see how the human image was conformed to the divine circle and has a place in it,” Dante needs the illumination of Grace.  St. Bernard gives him this capacity to discover human measure in the colored circles of the divine nonobjective display.  It is ironic that Italy’s highest expression of the medieval quest for transcendence resisted convincing pictorial visualization until modern art made it possible.

— Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, from the introduction to Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art.