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Saturday, 7 March 2009

Kandinsky did it first...

... unless you know better, of course. I didn't. In fact, I had no thought of posting on Wassili Kandinsky until a few days ago, researching Chagall in a somewhat hefty tome of over a 1000 large pages (Art of the 20th Century - part of a retirement present from my former colleagues) I came across an article entitled With Closed Eyes. I almost couldn't believe mine. As those of you who know my post with almost the same title, With Eyes Shut Tight, might well understand. As you will have surmised, the article in question was not about Victor Pasmore, one of the twin subjects of my post back then, but Wassili Kandinsky. Reading the text I became even more engrossed, for it seemed to throw some light on the phenomenon that had formed the other half of my post, those images we see after closing our eyes. I do not recall ever having looked at the page in question before, and it is quite possible I had not. It is a book I dip into, and being of the size it is, there are probably other pages I have missed. I was also intrigued by two reproductions accompanying the text. The year (each of the book's pages deals with a specific year, the number of pages devoted to each year varying in accord with its significance) was 1944. Kandinsky had died on December 3rd of that year after coping with failing health since early March. By the summer his eyes had become almost permanently half-closed. After his death his widow Nina explained that He possessed the rare talent of being able to represent in his mind the world of his paintings with their colours and their forms, exactly as he later set them down on canvas. It has been suggested that these forms, their myriads of rings swimming across the surface of the work, were the effects of phosphenes that can be impressed on the eyeball when the eyes are closed. Towards the end of his life Kandinsky would have been painting what he was seeing with his eyes closed.

That might suggest that he lost his grip on reality to some extent, but Nina says not. What may not be generally known is that Kandinsky is credited with producing the first pure abstract painting, a watercolour. There is a story that goes with the event. It is that he had returned to his studio after a day painting in the countryside, to discover that someone had left a canvas propped against the wall at the far end of the studio. He was amazed at the painting, which he immediately recognised as a masterpiece, and amazed that anyone should have left it there while he was out. He approached it excitedly, only to be confronted with the fact that it was but one of his own, though on it side. The way he told it was that in that moment he realised the harm that had been done to his art by figurative painting.

Until the age of about forty (somewhere around 1906) he produced some of the most superb landscapes. For a while after that there came a period of equally superb watercolours. A few quotes of his I think worth passing on:

Of all the arts abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet.

I applied streaks and blobs of colours onto the canvas with a palette knife and I made them sing with all the intensity I could...

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

There is no must in art because art is free.


Derrick said...

Good morning, Dave,

I know nothing of Kandinsky other than what you have told us. I enjoyed reading this piece and I like the painting too. The colours do sing!

Natalie said...

I enjoyed this post very much thanks, Dave. :D

John Hayes said...

Wonderfully informative-- thanks so much; interesting quotes as well.

Michelle said...

Did he not also write a book to do with art and the spiritual??

I think I studied it a little in art school. I say a little because I usually got half way through things then went off on different tangents. One teacher suggested I read him when I started painting my 'stuff'.

Better go find it again I guess.

Stephen Dell'Aria said...

Fabulous post Dave. In college I was infatuated with Wasili. Even today, I find him to be inspirational. I will admit to enjoying the early abstractions more than the later works because they fit better into our mental library of Abstract Expressionist paintings but that is an unfair assessment because his work proceeded the latter. I read his essay, Reminiscences, which gives loads of insights into what he observed about the world as a child and how it came to bare on his cataclysmic leap to abstraction. What I was struck by was the incredible encouragement he received in his formative years and the excellent relationship he had with his father. Most of us never experience that. I’ve got to think those events laid an excellent foundation to allow a confident mind to take such risks.
What you have brought to light is something I was totally unaware of; the painting with eyes partially shut. I find it interesting that he was drawing on this sort of ocular phenomena. I’ve often felt that his Bauhaus period was forced. I imagine being around so many designers and architects trying to formulate a new millennium in the arts, pushed him to order his art along constructivist lines but his synthesis period (his last period) breaks into a world that aligns well with what you describe. The fragmented patterns and biomorphic forms often floating in a sea of black seem to indicate this.

Cathy said...

I remember studing him and the members of his group in college but he is really the only one I truly remember. I love his use of color. I have no memory of the eyes half closed or pianting what you see with the eyes closed. That's very interesting. I'm set to read more about it. Thanks for sharing. Missed you the last few days.

jinksy said...

Brilliant post - 'vibrations in the soul' says it all.

Andrew Shields said...

Kandinsky's "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" is a wonderful book, highly recommended!

Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat said...

I suspect I need to wander through old posts of yours more to get to know you better! Very interesting post...

I occasionally suffer from what are known as visual migraines. Migrainers normally keep their eyes closed because light is such an unwanted stimulus and the black field is so welcome.

In visual migraines, however, what parades before close eyes are a dripping, dancing of colorful shapes like broken bits of glass viewed in a kalidescope. I have often wondered if such "closed-eye visions" influenced any artists.

Buddhist monks can form mental images of mandalas in their mind's eye as part of a specific meditation practice. I have been experimenting with this by controlling the colors that I see when I close my eye. With eyes closed, I think green (or red, or whatever) and allow green to fill the field....

Dedene said...

Kandinsky's always been one of my favorite artists. Now, you've given more to appreciate him for.

Bill Stankus said...

Lst we we did an 'art walk'. I was surpised by the volume of abstract paintings ... most of which seemed done in formula fashion. Perhaps made for clients wanting safe things for offices.

None the less, in time and place, abstracts of the 40s and 50s probably illicited reactions near 10+ on the 1 to 10 scale.

Jenn said...

Wow this is fantastic. I have never been a big fan of abstract style but now this man and his his work are intriguing me -- they must both be looked into! Thanks for sharing those quotes as well, the third (painting & music) is beautiful.

The Weaver of Grass said...

What an interesting post Dave. I like Kandinsky's work - that story about him confronting one of his own paintings on its side is a perfect example of Arthur Koestler's statement "Fortune favours the prepared mind." If you or I had come upon it we would probably have just turned it the right way up - but Kandinsky's mind was already working on the right lines for this to slot into his thinking. (I suppose the same can be said of Archimedes's eureka)
Thanks for this post, it gives a lot of food for thought.

Jeanne said...

A bit behind, so I read your last three posts today -- all excellent, as usual. I'm truly astounded by the poems you quote below from Szirtes. Thank you.


Fascinating, Dave! Thank you~

Conda V. Douglas said...

When I was younger, I had a real dislike of Kandinsky's abstracts (although I adored many other abstract paintings by other artists). Many of his works made me nervous, agitated. I believed they were "too busy."

Now he's a favorite. Now, I believe I can simply "look at and experience" his paintings. Without having to judge or critique or somehow participate in the paintings.

So, fascinating post--I had no idea he was the first!!

Jo Horswill said...

Thanks Dave, I know my heart sings when I look at Kandinsky...
His realisation of "the harm that had been done to his art by figurative painting" interests me greatly...will need to read more about it.

Lady Glamis said...

I have a hard time with some paintings like Kandinsky, but this one has lovely colors and is beautiful!

Leslie Avon Miller said...

"Of all the arts abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet." Which is why I love it so. Thanks for a great post.

Kilauea Poetry said...

Hi Dave. I read your blog this morning and enjoyed it as well as the wonderful pictures! I posted something you may find interesting-(If Color is the Keyboard)..there is a recent poem as well..come check it out when you have time. Anywho..have a great day-

Dave King said...

I had been thinking that I might post on Kandinsky.

Thanks for saying so.

Useful feedback. Much thanks.

Yes, he did indeed; one of the aspects I had been thinking I might post on. He was ahighly rated theorist, covering many aspects. Thanks for the query. Such things are useful.

Many thanks for all that. I think you are absolutely correct about the Bauhaus years, I think there were a lot of what I might call extraneous influences on him during that time.
The leap into abstraction is a fascinating field for study. There is so much here and elasewhere in his life that would be worth posting on. I had not intended this post to be comprehansive, it was purely a response to my discovery (like you, I had been ignorant of it) of the eyes closed aspect. I am grateful to you for such a full response. It strengthens the feeling that there might be somemileage in a more comprehensive post.

Thank you so much for the comment.

Thanks. Much appreciated.

Indeed, I have read it, though do not possess a copy. As I am increasingly beginning to think: mayve a post...? Much thanks for your comment.

I can't tell how interesting that comment was to me. For some years now I have suffered (it seems) from visual migraine, hough I did not have that name for it. I have merely been saying that it's"a bit like migraine, though without the headache". What I get is always the same: it begins as a tiny C-shaped necklace of glittering glass or dianond, light-reflecting beads near the centre of the visual field. The necklace grows slowly in size until it eventually disappears beyond the peripheral field.

Your on experiments sound fascinating.

Thanks for that.

That, too. is very interesting - and a little surprising. Thanks

I have no doubt that you will find the man to be of great interest, even if you remain finally unconvinced about the abstract style.

Weaver of Grass
If I had come upon one of my paintings turned on its side and thought it someone else's masterpiece, I would merely have thought it another "senior moment"! Thanks for the comment.

Many thanks

Much appreciated.

I understand your original antipathy to his abstracts. I shared it for a while, but like you came round at last. They always seemed, as you say, busy, but also undifferentiated. As though a box of motifs had been strewn across the floor without any thought of design.

Yes, to Conda I have described my initial reaction. Now "singing" seems to put it admirably.

Lady Glamis
Agreed. Absolutely!

And much thanks for that comment.

Kilauea Poetry
Thanks for that. Will certainly check it out.

Jim Murdoch said...

I've appreciated Kandinsky's work since I was in my teens but I've not read a great deal about him. Interesting post, Dave.

Elizabeth said...

Kandinsky's quote about abstract art requiring so much of the artist is wonderful...sadly so many young artists take "abstract" and "non-objective" art to be an excuse to be PROUD of their inability to draw at all! I went to school with a bunch of them. Sadly, too, so many art teachers feel it is their duty to drum any "representational qualities" out of their student's work...or just grade them badly because of it. I took more than a few lousy grades from college art professors because of my love for imagery!

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Brian said...

I have a hard time with some paintings like Kandinsky, but this one has lovely colors and is beautiful!

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