Monday, 5 July 2010

»We must strive through the penumbra of words to the core within« Kokoschka

I am back and breathing in a post-Finals life. The first thing I have been reading since finishing my "bachelor in chemistry" (strictly, my part I of the degree, since I am yet to complete part II which is also known as the masters) is a book on Modernist art source material (
Theories of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics) which covers all the way from Post-Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism.

While considering Expressionism I came across two seminal essays on Expressionistic art:

Wassily Kandinsky "On the Problem of Form" (1912)
Oskar Kokoschka "On the Nature of Visions" (1912)

First let me provide some initial remarks on 20th century German expressionism:

19th century romantic art considered the theme of “the world and the spirit”: Experiences that go below or beyond the conscious experience. In Hegel's philosophical dialectics the Spirit denotes God. Hegel referred to the spirit of the time as the Zeitgeist.

Some notions that prevailed included I) The grandeur of the outer world being regarded as a trace of the creation of God. II) The conflicts of the inner world, the unsatisfied self, were deemed important.

Nietzsche and Hegel

For most of the classical era, man and nature were considered to be under the pastoral care of God. In the 19th century God died (Nietzsche), and artists were not feeling too well either.

Expressionism became less of a style or a movement than an attitude of mind accompanying the tumultuousness of the early 20th century. It concerned itself with the idea that reality was so distant and intangible that great leaps of emotion must bridge the gap. The only secure point in a hostile or insecure world was the artist himself.


The first essay I consider is one of Wassily Kandinsky, the spiritual leader of Der Blaue Reiter movement in Munich. Through his work Kandinsky attempted to unify the rational and irrational. He hoped to achieve a total synaesthetic form (a dream about letting all senses melt into a total synaesthetic form). Kandinsky was probably the first artist to paint transcendental images that were completely abstract. He was initially inspired by les Fauves (Rousseau, Matisse), but gradually his painting became more abstract.

“Colour directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul”.

Kandinsky was a theosophist: He believed that the sins of man came from too much material reality. He believed a spiritual age was coming and that the right art for it would be abstract, ideal and immaterial.

On the Problem of Form: (1912)

o Kandinsky sees two main roads: The “great realism” (e.g. simplicity of Henri Rousseau) and the “Great Abstraction” (e.g. Kandinsky’s own work).

o One goal: The expression of the artist’s inner meaning.

o Form itself is meaningless unless it is the expression of an artists’ inner necessity. Everything is permitted to serve this end.

o At the appointed time, necessities become ripe. The creative spirit (which one can designate the abstract spirit) finds an avenue to the soul” Influenced by Hegel’s view on history as the process of self-replication by which the spirit (i.e. God) comes to know himself.

o “The act of choosing, so that the spirit may take form, leads to evolution, to elevation”.

o “When the conditions necessary for the ripening of a precise form are fulfilled, the yearning, the inner urge acquires the power to create in the human spirit a new value, which (consciously or unconsciously) the human being seeks to find a material form for the new value which lives in him in spiritual form”. Kandinsky argues that the Creative Spirit is not only “hidden behind matter but also concealed within matter”.

o “People are blinded. The veiling of the Spirit in the material is often so dense that there are very few people who can see through to the Spirit”.

o “The evolution, this movement forward and upward is only possible if the path is clear, that is if there are no barriers that stand in the way: That is the external condition”.

o “Then the Abstract Spirit moves the Human Spirit forward and upward on the clear path which must naturally ring out and be able to be heard within the individual; a summoning must be possible. This is the internal condition”. Obstacles to this process include “fear”, “the deafness of the Spirit (which is dull Materialism)”.

o “People regard each new value with hostility. The new value is laughed at and abused. This is the misery of life”.

o However, Kandinsky contends that that which is new today in turn becomes petrified and an obstacle to further progress: “The joy of life is the irresistible, constant, victory of the new. The victory proceeds slowly. The new value conquers people gradually. When it becomes undeniable in many eyes, this value that was absolutely necessary today will be turned into a wall erected against tomorrow. The changing of the new value into a petrified form is the work of the black hand”.

o The whole evolution (inner development and outer culture) is a shifting of the barriers. The barriers are constantly created from new values which have overthrown the old barriers”.

o “Hence, the new value is not the most important thing, but rather the Spirit which has revealed itself in this value and the freedom necessary for the revelation”.

o Kandinsky stresses that the Absolute / Spirit / God is “not to be sought in the form (Materialism)”. This is because “the form is always bound to its time, and is relative, since it is nothing more than the means necessary today, in which today’s revelation manifests itself and resounds. The resonance is the soul of the form”.

o The form is the outer expression of the inner content”.

o Kandinsky stresses that every “creative artist’s own means of expression (i.e. form) is the best for him, since it most appropriately embodies that which he feels compelled to proclaim”. From this conclusion is often falsely drawn, he contends, that “this means of expression is the best for other artists too”. “Since the form is only an expression of the content and the content is different with different artists, it is clear that there can be many forms at the same time which are equally good”. This is because “necessity creates the form”

o The spirit of the individual artist is mirrored in the form”.The form bears the stamp of the personality” “The personality is subject to time (epoch) and space (people).

o “Each individual artist has to make his work known, so do the people the artist belongs to. This connected is mirrored in the form and is characterized by the national element in the work”.

o Each age has its especially assigned task, the revelation possible at a specific age. The reflection of this temporal element is recognized in the work as style”. I.e. three elemnts: Personality, national element and style. Kandinsky stresses that it is “superfluous and harmful to want to lay particular stress upon only one of the three elements. Today, too many people concern themselves with the national elements in a work of art, still others with the style and recently, great homage has been paid to the cult of the personality”.

o Kandinsky hastens to explain that the “Abstract Spirit" (another of Hegel’s synonyms for God) "takes possession first of a single Human spirit; later it governs an ever-increasing number of people. At this moment, individual artists are subjected to the spirit of the time" (the Zeitgeist) "which forces them to use particular forms which are related to each other and therefore possess an external similarity”. This way a “Movement” is formed. This is “completely justified and indispensable to a group of artists (just as the individual form is indispensable for one artist)”.

o Kandinsky concludes that “the form (the Material) is not the most important thing, but rather its content”.

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