Kandinsky & the Fourth

The fireworks on the Fourth reminded me of Kandinsky’s Point and Line to Plane. He returns there to something like the synesthesia of his earlier opus, On the Spiritual in Art, in his discussion of independent straight lines:

Moreover, independent straight lines can, on a given surface, pass either through a common center or on either side of it [see above]. . . . Acentral, independent straight lines are the first to possess a particular capacity that enables a certain parallel to be drawn between them and the “chromatic” colors, and distinguishes them from black and white. In particular, yellow and blue carry in themselves various tensions — the tensions of advance and retreat.

. . . Independent straight lines, especially of the acentral variety . . . are less bound up with the surface and seem on occasion to pierce it. These lines are at the furthest remove from the point that  burrows into the suface, since they in particular have abandoned the element of repose [present in horizontal and vertical lines].


On Voir Dire (and critic George Steiner’s aversion to critics).  Here’s artist and theorist Wassily Kandinsky on art historians:

Art historians . . . write books full of praise and deep sentiments — about an art that yesterday was regarded as senseless.  By means of these books, they remove the hurdles over which art has long sine jumped, and set up new ones, which shti time are supposed to stay permanently and firmly in place. Engaged in this occupation, they fail to notice that they are building their barriers behind art rather than in front of it.  If they notice it tomorrow, then they will quickly write more books in order to remove their barriers one stage further.  And this occupation will continue unchanged until it is realized that the external principles of art can only be valid for the past and not for the future. . . . Theory is the lantern that illuminates the crystallize forms of yesterday and before. [On the Spiritual in Art, chapter 3]

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. [Matthew]

A great improvisation

This fall begins my first year teaching an Advanced Placement course – a college-level course for high school students wishing to place out of typical freshman-level courses at college.  I like how College Board encourages AP Language and Composition teachers to develop their own curricula.

The study of language arts in public schools is generally moving in the opposite direction.  Teachers, of course, now teach to standardized tests.  Innovation and skills both take a back seat to content (i.e., knowledge) since most jurisdictions set unrealistic timelines for the mastery of material.

Less well understood is the teacher’s diminished role in the classroom. Teachers are increasingly told how to teach particular material.  While enforced uniformity might be part of a great means of introducing new teachers to a variety of strategies in a safe and controlled environment that frees up his time to learn skills, it hamstrings more experienced teachers.  Enforced uniformity doesn’t recognize teaching as a profession or as an art.  It’s like trying to inculcate a love of cycling while never losing one’s training wheels.

I thought of this tonight reading Kandinsky on art:

The inner voice of [the artist’s] soul will also tell him which form to use, and where to find it (external or internal “nature”).  Every artist who works according to so-called feeling knows just how suddenly and unexpectedly a form that he himself has conceived can appear distasteful, and how another, correct form substitutes itself “as if on its own initiative” for what has been discarded.  Boecklin used to say that the true work of art must be like a great improvisation, i.e., reflection, construction, previous working out of the composition should be no more than preliminary steps in the direction of that goal, which may appear unexpected even to the artist himself. (On the Spiritual in Art, Chapter 8)

It’s the same for teaching, at least the teaching I want to do.

Good teachers plan, collaborate, learn, work at their skills, reflect, and master subject, scope, and sequence.  If the planning is done for them, they’re not really teaching because they really haven’t entered into the material or its presentation.  If they can’t improvise while planning or teaching, then there’s no live performance.  It’s canned.

When I was a kid, I knew the names of every disk jockey on my favorite stations, and I had my opinions of each one’s strengths and weaknesses.  A good disk jockey could educate his listeners and help them appreciate new trends, he could make a good artist or help to break a bad one, and he could mix material to great effect.  He could enhance a love for music.  Because every station decided on its content, and because many stations gave their best disc jockeys some leeway regarding content (and a lot regarding presentation), new musicians had many possible geographic points in which their music could take root and from which it could spread.   And what directions popular music took from the 1950’s to the 1960’s!

Since then, cost cutting and uniformity have effectively eliminated the disk jockey from radio.  Language arts teachers may be going the way of disk jockeys, and language arts skills may be going the way of popular music.

The worst of it, of course, is the child’s experience in school and his lack of skills once he leaves it.

5. Sea

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:










[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.

4. Artist

How does an artist differ from a mystic, then?  Kandinsky was drawn to mysticism.  He also believed in purity of heart for artistic means.  “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” (Proverbs 4:23)  Throughout On the Spiritual in Art and Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky made a distinction between the exterior, which he described as sign or materialistic or dead, and the interior, which he described as symbol or spiritual or life.  To stay in touch with the “interior necessity” (one of Kandinsky’s favorite expressions), the artist must keep his heart.

The artist must keep his heart – develop his interior life – not for his own sake (“What?  Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, and ye are not your own?” – Corinthians) but for his art’s sake:

The artist is no Sunday’s Child of life: he has no right to a life without responsibility.  He has a difficult task to fulfill, which often becomes a cross to bear.  He must know that every one of his actions and thoughts and feelings constitutes the subtle, intangible, and yet firm material out of which his works are created, and that hence he cannot be free in life – only in art.

From which it is self-evident that the artist, as opposed to the nonartist, has a threefold responsibility: (1) he must render up again that talent which has been bestowed upon him; (2) his actions and thoughts and feelings, like those of every human being, constitute the spiritual atmosphere, in such a way that they purify or infect the spiritual air; and (3) these actions and thoughts and feelings are the material for his creations, which likewise play a part in constituting the spiritual atmosphere.  He is a “king,” as Sar Peladan calls him, not only in the sense that he has great power, but also in that he has great responsibilities.

“The artist cannot be free in life – only in art.”  That freedom in the act of creation is the payoff for the artist’s surrender of his life to his art.  By keeping his heart, the artist is sensitive to what others are not, and his heart becomes an instrument on which life plays: “The open eye and the open ear transform the slightest disturbance into a profound experience” (Point and Line to Plane).

I believe Geoff Dyer pays John Berger a large compliment in his introduction to John Berger: Selected Essays.  He links Berger with Shelley, Lawrence, and Orwell by “the way that they arranged their lives in such a way as to seek out the experiences appropriate to their respective gifts.”  What unites the four writers is therefore “not a tradition but a trajectory.”  Kandinsky seems to believe in a similar trajectory for artists, though Dyer speaks of experiences alone while Kandinsky focuses more on an interior work.

Both the mystic and the artist traffic in the interior, and both keep their souls not for themselves but to keep that traffic alive.  The difference between an artist and a mystic may come down to their principal audiences.  For Kandinsky, the artist’s principal audience is mankind, while the mystic’s principal audience is God.

[This is the fourth of five posts on Kandinsky’s art theory.  Here are links to the first, second, and third posts.]

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.]

2. Dawn

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.]

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.”


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.


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.