Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), an influential Russian painter and art theorist, contains two parts and twelve illustrations.
This short book tries to answer the question What is he trying to do?, question some of us formulate when we stand in front of an abstract painting. They say, ‘Kandinsky paints music’; he actually breaks down the barrier between music and painting. Let’s listen to part of it. (It can be also absorved for writers and other makers of art.)
PART 1: ABOUT GENERAL AESTHETIC
Food for the soul:
With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work. Connoisseurs admire the ‘skill’, enjoy the ‘quality of painting’ (as one enjoys a pasty.) But hungry souls go hungry away.
The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures ‘nice’ or ‘esplendid.’
Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing.
The spiritual triangle: the spiritual art, to which art belongs:
At the apex of the top segment stands often one man, and only one. His joyful vision cloaks a vast sorrow. Even those who are nearest to him in simpathy do not understand him. Angrily they abuse him as charlatan or madman. So in his lifetime stood Beethoven, solitary and insulted.
In every segment of the triangle are artists. The greater the segment so the greater the number who understand the words of the artist. Every segment hungers consciously or, much more often, unconsciously for their corresponding spiritual food. This food is offered by the artists.
In each artistic circle are thousands of such artists, of whom the majority seeks only for some new technical manner, and who produce millions of works of art without enthusiasm, with cold hearts and souls asleep.
Fusion of arts:
Consciously or unconsciously artists are studying and proving their material, setting in the balance the spiritual value of those elements, with which it is their several privilege to work.
And the natural result of this striving is that the various arts are drawing together. They are finding in Music the best teacher.
This borrowing of method by one art from another, can only be truly successful when the application of the borrowed methods is not superficial but fundamental.
PART 2: ABOUT PAINTING
Music is not judged by how much the music sounds like noises in nature, whereas painting is judged by how well the painter reflects the natural world. Kandinsky points out the explanation by association by saying:
To let the eye stray over a palette, splashed with many colours produces a dual result. In the first place one receives a purely physical impression, one of pleasure and contentment at the varied and beautiful colours. The eye is either warmed or else soothed and cooled. But these physical sensations can only be of short duration. They are merely superficial and leave no lasting impression, for the soul is unaffected. But although the effect of the colours is forgotten when the eye is turned away, the superficial impression of varied colour may be the starting point of a whole chain of related sensations.
On the average man only the impressions caused by very familiar objects, will be purely superficial. A first encounter with any new phenomenon exercises immediately an impression on the soul. This is the experience of the child discovering the world, to whom every object is new. It is realized that trees give shade, that horses run fast and motor-cars still faster, that dogs bite, that the figure seen in a mirror is not a real human being.
As the man develops, the circle of these experiences caused by different beings and objects, grows ever wider. They acquire an inner meaning and eventually a spiritual harmony. It is the same with colour, which makes only a momentary and superficial impression on a soul but slightly developed in sensitiveness.
But to a more sensitive soul the effect of colours is deeper and intensely moving. And so we come to the second main result of looking at colours: Their psychic effect. They produce a corresponding spiritual vibration, and it is only as a step towards this spritual vibration that the elementary physical impression is of importance.
The choice of one of the elements in the harmony of form must be decided only by a corresponding vibration in the human soul:
The more abstract is form, the more clear and direct is its appeal. The more an artist uses these abstracted forms, the deeper and more confidently will he advance into the kingdom of the abstract.
Meterlinck stated, ‘The soul is curious for beauty.’