174 of 178 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 1998
Kandinsky spent a lifetime painting in search of the spiritual. His body of work was his philosophical opus, provoked initially by the prodigious philosophical works of Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, in which she introduced the Western world--and Kandinsky--to Eastern philosophies. Kandinsky believed that art had a duty to be spiritual in nature, an expression of "inner need," as he came to call it. He called "art for art's sake" a "vain squandering of artistic power." This book was both his call to artists to meet their obligation to humanity and his attempt to define and explain color and form in its relation to expressing the message of the soul.
89 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2005
All art students are advised to read this short masterpiece but I suspect few young artists take the time to read the book that best explains the concepts that lead to abstract painting in the modern era. I think it would be useful if I pointed out some of the most important and interesting themes and ideas that Kandinsky explains so tht you can see the vast range of this short 80 page book.
First, Kandinsky was greatly influenced by music and recognized that music was judged under different standards than was painting. For example, music is not judged by how much the music sounds like noises in nature. We would never go to a symphony to hear the musicians imitate dogs barking, or ambulance sirens, or police whistles. Yet painting is judged by how well the painter reflects the natural world in a realistic style. Thus for Kandinsky, the ability for painting to lose the object, would free painting to pursue the spiritual. However, the ability for the painter to paint without painting the object is very much a challenge. He gives advice to the read on the use of line, form, and color to try to achieve this goal. But Kandinsky recognized how fragile this makes the painting process, for any brush stroke or color or shape can evoke the material world again. Kandinsky wishes the artist to free themselves from the material world so that they can express their inner impulses. Thus the abstract painting requires contemplation to reveal its meaning. Furthermore, the meaning may be a projection of the inner life of the viewer as much as it is the inner life of the artists. This concept is not new to music but it certainly was new to painting in 1911. Now we hear about the Rothko chapel in Fort Worth, where large abstract paintings by Mark Rothko create a meditative space for contemplative viewers. The spiritual aspect of abstract art is now a given in our culture, no longer a radical idea.
Second, Kandinsky has very insightful comments regarding his contemporaries. He recognizes Matisse as the 20th century master of color and Picasso as the 20th century master of line but he faults them both for not making the final step toward complete abandonment of the physical world. For example, he points out that even though Picasso developed the collage and Cubism, that Cubism is deconstruction of the physical world but not abandonment of the physical world and thus Picasso remains earth bound.
Third, Kandinsky asserts that imitative painting of other eras was a deadly trap for the artist, yet responding to the eternal call of the unconscious forces in an earlier period of art history was a valid area of exploration. His example is Picasso and other artists interest in the primitive. These artists did not wish to copy the primitive works but to respond to the same unconscious content that the primitive artist had tapped.
Fourth, Kandinsky believed that art progressed, that artistic concepts built on each other and that there was a triangle of artistic conception that moved forward to some end point, yet to be discovered. This concept of progress in art, similar to the idea of progress in science, and not related to such cultural values as progress in fashion has lead to much debate in the post-modern era. It is interesting to read Kandinski's opinion on this topic and reflect on the last 100 years to see if he could be correct or mistaken. I prefer to think that the progress is the continued exploration of the human unconscious, an infinity of symbols and images connecting us to our spiritual base.
Fifth, Kandinsky believed in a conceptual hierarchy in the world of painters and he thought only a few make it to the top of the pyramid where a few create truely unique solutions to visual problems. The others are imitative or formulaic and form the base of the pyramid.
Sixth, Kandinsky warns against pattern painting since he thinks this leads to monotany and away from spirituality. In this regard contemporary artists have certainly challenged his conception. In fact, Agnes Martin, the minimalist pattern painter, is regarding as a great spiritual painter. In my opinion, Kandinski would have loved Agnes Martin's paintings. The examples of pattern painting he gives in the book sound more like the patterns on wall paper more than the minimal grids of an Agnes Martin painting.
Finally, after all the explanation of why an abstract painting style should evolve and how artists can achieve that style, Kandinsky makes the linkage between the outer world of the painting and the inner world of the viewer with a quote from Meterlinck "The soul is curious for beauty."
Every artist owes it to themselves to read this short book on which so much art history, philosophy, and practice has been based.
93 of 99 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2001
The 1910s was surely the most exciting, radical, innovative and genuinely NEW period in the history of all the arts, writing, music, painting, cinema, dance. it was also one of the few periods when creative frenzy was escorted by critical might, and is almost as famous for its artistic collectives, its '-isms', its iconoclasms and its spectacularly aggressive, wipe-the-slate-clean manifestoes as it is for any one artwork produced.
Today, however, there aren't many of these manifstoes that possess more than quaint historical value. Kandinsky's 'Concerning the Spiritual in Art' is one, and probably to our own shame, speaks as loudly to us today as it did to the artist's contemporaries. A cry against all that is bogus or a dead-end in art - the bourgeois-currying; the trend-following; the excessively materialistic, naturalistic or representational; art in which formal invention is not matched by emotional power - the book demands a return to spirituality in art in an age where a godless faith in science has resulted in a soulless culture.
Kandinsky is the artist who said that 'Art was close to religion', and his concept of painting is heavly bound up with his Russian orthodox upbringing (as well as later exposure to theosophy). One does not have to be a card-carrying mystic, however, to recognise the truth of his central argument, that the only art with the power to truly move us is that which is ruthlessly faithful to the artist's inner need, not public taste or contemporary styles.
this belief led Kandinsky towards abstraction: he rejected the idea that a painter should draw what was on the surface, instead of its inherent spirit or harmony (if this led to a cul-de-sac in 20th century art, this is because Kandinsky's mimics lacked his moral drive). This book is fascinating as Kandinsky, still creating recognisably (though distorted) representational works, was struggling towards the abstract geomotry for which he is now famous. It is essential for any lover of Kandinsky's work, and modern art in general, with its revealing analyses of colour and form, their 'psychology', and the various effects they can achieve. it is a portrait of modernism from the inside, and it is goosebumping reading a gifted contemporary passing judgement on Picasso and Matisse, although time has parted company with him in his preference for Maeterlinck and Isadora Duncan.
In his demand for a total art that would unite theatre, music and painting, he looks forward to the great Ballets Russes happenings, most significantly Nijinsky/Stravinsky/Picasso's 'The Rite of spring'. Throughout, he calls for painting to achieve the non-naturalistic liberation of music.
But behind the passion and certainty is an intellectually playful (not always caught by the fusty translation), though deadly earnest artist, who knows that everything he says is provisional and a guide, a record of his own groping, striving, tireless searching.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on January 4, 2007
Kandinsky throws his ideas out in a slightly esoteric manner. It make take a few rereads to really grasp the quality of discourse he presents. But, in the end, his commentary shines brightly through his comparisons of music to painting. The spiritual triangle is comparable to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It is important to remember that Kandinsky is not using the term "spiritual" in a religious sense.
This book is a very good read for anyone feeling slumped in their art making. And for anyone who wants to expose themselves to ways of thinking about art. By the third time I had read the material I had underlined and highlighted almost every line and filled all the margins with notes. The book is fantastic. It is especially good when paired with Hans Hofmann's essay "In Search for the Real." Although the ideas in the two books do not parallel. In fact the lines aren't even on the same page. Kandinksky's critiques of other familiar artists are very interesting too. Names like picasso and Cezanne pop up quite a bit.
I'll stop rambling now. Read the book, it is very good.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2014
I didn't know much about Kandinsky, but after learning about his theory of precise abstract forms in The Painter's Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, I was inspired to say the least. Concerning the Spiritual in Art was an incredible read! I was pleasantly surprised by this powerful, lucid manifesto as artists are not always as eloquent with words as they are with images. This book takes concentration to understand, but that's typical for art theory books, right?! Here, teh famous Russian Expressionist calls the artist to proceed inward to cultivate the abstract expressions of the inner spirit and away from material representation.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2010
[Please note - page numbers in this book and the references to Sadler's introuduction apply to the Dover edition, which is the best-seller on Amazon in the UK but is buried in the depths of the American Amazon at this link: Concerning the Spiritual in Art]
This is a fantastic short book. I am amazed I hadn't heard of it before. It only came to my attention recently when one of my students, Nic Green, used it as a basis for her essay at the Centre for Human Ecology: the student teaching the teacher.
Kandinsky, who was one of the founders of modern art, sets out to confront the crass materialism of his era and the trite art that it was producing. He understands "spirituality" as being the interiority of things, their inner source of meaning and life. He attacks artistic narcissism, saying, "This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colours, this vain squandering of artistic power is called 'art for art's sake'." (p. 3).
Consistent with his Russian Orthodox background, Kandinsky says, "We are seeking today for the road which is to lead us away from the outer to the inner basis. The spirit, like the body, can be strengthened and developed by frequent exercise. Just as the body, if neglected, grows weaker and finally impotent, so the spirit perishes if untended. And for this reason it is necessary for the artist to know the starting point for the exercise of his spirit. The starting point is the study of colour and its effects on men." (pp. 35-6).
And I love his honesty in a footnote where he says, of his colour schema, "These statements have no scientific basis, but are founded purely on spiritual experience." (p. 37). If only we saw more awareness in the world of the importance of not confusing categories of thought between scientific evidence and artistic perception.
To Kandinsky, Art's function is to reveal the spiritual. It "must learn from music that every harmony and every discord which springs from the inner spirit is beautiful, but that it is essential that they spring from the inner spirit and from that alone." (p. 51).
This has a social function, for "each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated". (p. 1) As such, "Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul." (p. 54).
Ultimately, "If the artist be priest of beauty", then she has "a triple responsibility to the non-artist: (1) He must repay the talent which he has; (2) his deeds, feelings, and thoughts, as those of every man, create a spiritual atmosphere which is either pure or poisonous. (3) These deeds and thoughts are materials for his creations, which themselves exercise influence on the spiritual atmosphere. The artist is not only as king, as Peladan says, because he has great power, but also because he has great duties." (pp. 54-55).
And the bottom line? "That is beautiful which is produced by the inner need, which springs from the soul." He concludes: "this property of the soul is the oil which facilitates the slow, scarcely visible but irresistable movement of [the human condition] onwards and upwards."
As will be apparent, this sense of spiritual progress may be modern thinking, but it is decidedly not postmodern. How strange, then, that Kandkindy is seen as a progenitor of "modern" art and its seamless, to my eye, drift into the incohate abstractions of postmodernity.
It is here that my criticism of Kandinsky takes effect. Kandinsky's mindset is, at the same time, premodern in its perception of the spiritual essence, but postmodern deconstructive in its artistic articulation. His spirituality is not an incarnational one, where the Spirit interpenetrates and quickens matter, but a dualistic one, where they can be separated or "abstracted". His purpose is laudable. It is to reveal the spiritual and make it visible anew "towards the close of our already dying epoch" (p. 47). But the problem is that he seeks to do this by abstraction, separation.
This takes us into a world that predicates the transcendent, but implicitly denigrates the immanent. Thus, "The more abstract is form, the more clear and direct its appeal. In any composition the material side may be more or less omitted in proportion as the forms used are more or less material, and for them substituted pure abstractions, or largely dematerialised objects. The more an artist uses these abstracted forms, the deeper and more confidently will he advance into the kingdom of the abstract." (p.32).
And for Kandinsky such abstraction becomes a crusading obsession: "Taking the work of Henri Rousseau as a starting point, I go on to prove that the new naturalism will not only be equivalent to but even identical with abstraction." (p. 52).
In his wonderful Introduction to the text, Michael Sadler suggests that this extreme abandonment of representation of the real world is why, "The question most generally asked about Kandinsky's art is: 'What is he trying to do?'" Saddler suggests, "this book will do something towards answering the question. But it will not do everything." (p. xviii). In contrast, he says, Cezanne "saw in a tree, a heap of apples, a human face, a group of bathing men or women, something more abiding than either photography or impressionist painting could present. He painted the 'treeness' of the tree.... But in everything he did he showed the architectural mind of the true Frenchman. His landscape studies were based on a profound sense of the structure of rocks and hills, and being structural, his art depends on reality.... The material of which his art was composed was drawn from the huge stores of actual nature." (p.xvii).
Where does all this leave us today, in 2010, 99 years after first publication of Kandinsky's little book in German?
When I look at the nihilism of Britart, or the sheer inability to draw and express beauty in what seems to be coming out of some of our contemporary art schools (the students tell me they are discouraged by their tutors from trying to express beauty!), then it is clear that abstraction has gone too far. Like postmodern deconstruction generally, it is all very well to deconstruct, but what about the grace of reconstruction? Kandinsky's aim to reveal the spiritual was laudable. That is the true meaning of the word "apocalypse" - to unveil and reveal that which has been hidden. But abstraction on its own and as the highest ideal is like pulling up a plant to see how the roots are growing. It causes disincarnation, which is another word for death, and so both the material and the spiritual wither.
The art that we need for these our troubled times needs to be an apocalyptic art of incarnation. It needs to reveal the spiritual, but not separate it off from the material world. This will be a new art of the sacred. And here is where we need a debate to start, and artistic action around that debate.
A resource that I would suggest is a book by the theologian Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination - especially the Introduction on pp. 3 - 10.
Wink argues that we must reject the dualistic idea of Heaven being separate from Earth. We need what he calls an "integral worldview", what is also sometimes called an incarnational spirituality. Here Heaven and Earth are interfused in a single reality (Christians can read Luke 17:20-21; Hindus the Bhagavad Gita; Taoists the Tao te Ching, etc.).
And we need art, in the full artistic and theological senses of these words, to "magnify" and "illuminate" what incarnational spirituality looks like. To open the mind and the heart, and give fresh hope to the world.
Sadler's remarks on Cezanne are a pointer in this direction. Kandinsky's little book provides a crucial intellectual stepping stone. We have lived through a century of dying and dead "modern" art. We cannot go on like that. It is time to call back the soul.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Written in 1911, Kandinsky provides a treatise on the meaning of modern art. It is a very subjective and very compelling view of the direction art should take, avoiding the superficial pitfalls that were all so common. He provides a pithy review of Impressionist art and its role in the modern art movement. He notes the successes and shortcomings of Picasso and Matisse as they pushed the envelope of art but weren't quite sure where they wanted to take it.
There is a long chapter on the meaning and importance of color, eschewing the analytical approach. He takes a more subjective approach, noting how color and music can be viewed in similar terms. He talks about the attempt in classical music to create chromatic scales, but Kandinsky prefers to deal with such connections more abstractly, treating color as he would the sounds of instruments, for instance comparing yellow to the blare of the trumpet.
There is a short biography of Kandinsky which serves as an introduction and a preface by the translator, placing Kandinsky in the pantheon of modern artists. The book is by no means exhaustive. Kandinsky's writings have been collected into a marvelous book edited by Peter Vergo, which offers the width and breadth of this artist's vision. But, if you are looking for the short course, this is the place to go.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2012
This edition of Kandinsky's "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" while being a very interesting read in which Kandinsky spells out his philosophy on creativity and painting unfortunately omits illustrations, charts and tables that the author refers to in the text. Apparently these were included in the original edition to illustrate and support the points he makes but were not included in this 2010 version. This "abridgement" should have been made clear upfront.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 2010
This book destroyed any notion I had as an artist about why I was doing what I was doing, which at the time was surrealism. Not every statment can be agreed with, but if this book is not loaded with quads of relative and relevant directions to a more complete and whole understanding of why one should make art in a more sincere method, then I am not writing this review. Too often over shadowed by the philosophical statements of Duchamp, this book, as much, revolutionized art. If you feel uncertain that the principals by which you make art are honest, read this book, then make your judgement. As did witnessing Ad Reinhardt's black canvases, this book recreated my spirit, unexpectedly.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Kandinsky had risen to positions of influence in other disciplines (political science/economics and law) before directing his considerable intellect to painting. His insights extended into the historic 'meta' trends of the arts and sciences, including the physical sciences, and had his interests been directed more to the history and philosophy of science instead of the history and philosophy of art, he might have written Kuhn's observations regarding paradigm change a half century before Kuhn did: "Here and there are people with eyes which can see, minds which can correlate. They say to themselves: 'If the science of the day before yesterday is rejected by the people of yesterday, and that of yesterday by us of today, is it not possible that what we call science now will be rejected by the men of tomorrow?' And the bravest of them answer, 'It is possible.'"
Instead, Kandinsky extended the frontiers of painting and authored philosophic writings on the future of art that are among the most important of such works. M.T.H. Sadler, who translated this work into English, was a friend of Kandinsky's and was among his early admirers. The notes he has written in the front of the book (Translator's Introduction) are therefore more helpful than could be the opinions of many other critics, including myself:
"Anyone who has studied Gauguin will be aware of the intense spiritual value of his work. The man is a preacher and a psychologist, universal by his very unorthodoxy, fundamental because he goes deeper than civilization. In his disciples this great element is wanting.
"Kandinsky has supplied the need. He is not only on the track of an art more purely spiritual than was conceived even by Gauguin, but he has achieved the final abandonment of all representative intention. In this way he combines in himself the spiritual and technical tendencies of one great branch of Post-Impressionism.
"The question most generally asked about Kandinsky's art is: 'What is he trying to do?' It is to be hoped that this book will do something towards answering the question. But it will not do everything. This--partly because it is impossible to put into words the whole of Kandinsky's ideal, partly because in his anxiety to state his case, to court criticism, the author has been tempted to formulate more than is wise. His analysis of colours and their effects on the spectator is not the real basis of his art, because, if it were, one could, with the help of a scientific manual, describe one's emotions before his pictures with perfect accuracy. And this is impossible.
"Kandinsky is painting music. That is to say, he has broken down the barrier between music and painting, and has isolated the pure emotion which, for want of a better name, we call the artistic emotion. Anyone who has listened to good music with any enjoyment will admit to an unmistakable but quite indefinable thrill. He will not be able, with sincerity, to say that such a passage gave him such visual impressions, or such a harmony roused in him such emotions. The effect of music is too subtle for words. And the same with this painting of Kandinsky's. Speaking for myself, to stand in front of some of his drawings or pictures gives a keener and more spiritual pleasure than any other kind of painting. But I could not express in the least what gives the pleasure. Presumably the lines and colours have the same effect as harmony and rhythm in music have on the truly musical. That psychology comes in no one can deny."
Some aspects of Kandinsky's color theory are dubious, at best they cannot be universalized, and Kandinsky sees this. But other of his ideas and arguments are widely accepted among artists, even as being self-evident. Stating that "there is no 'must' in art, because art is free," that is, free to address external representations OR "the inner need," to merely chase after material 'objects' OR to wrestle with the mysteriously spiritual, to somehow meld the two visions OR to stay purely to exploration of the spiritual high ground, Kandinsky absolutely rejects the materialistic expectation of an art "explanation" that has been articulated by EO Wilson in his unfortunate daydream 'Consilience' (Wilson knows ants better than he knows humans, and is given to understanding humans to be essentially ant equivalents).
Anyone interested in art history, painting of the past century, or the relationships/correlations/divergences of the various arts (visual, musical, literary), as well as anyone interested in the meaning and purpose of art, or in the philosophy of aesthetics, should read this important book, perhaps more than once.