The Laws of Nature

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Revivals, Soullessness, and Depth

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
by Wassily Kandinsky
Dover Publications, 1977
Translated by M.T.H. Sadler

Painting: Harmony Tranquille by Wassily Kandinsky, 1924

Part 1: About General Aesthetic

Kandinsky begins this section with Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. His point is that art is produced within a culture at a specific time that can never be replicated. Therefore, a revival of any past art form is a dead exercise since we can’t relive the past.

This is so true. About a decade ago, while I was still teaching at a nearby liberal arts college, I witnessed the revival of the hippie culture. My students began to wear knock-off clothes from the 60’s and adopted the language and attitudes. However, they had no understanding of the time and our disillusionment with the war in Viet Nam, the “establishment,” the sexual and drug revolutions, and the push for civil rights. We lived in a riotous time of fear and passion that these students hadn’t experienced. I remember standing before a class and asking them “What would you die for? What cause do you care so much about that you would give your life for it?” They looked completely confused and had no answer. They didn't understand.

Similarly, Kandinsky points out that our art must reflect our time. We can’t relive the past and we can’t revive the past in a meaningful way. It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks, he writes. In the same way those who strive to follow the Greek methods in sculpture achieve only a similarity of form, the work remaining soulless for all time. Such imitation is mere aping.

Nevertheless, the human condition is timeless. There are internal processes and emotions that transcend time and inform artists throughout the ages. It is these “fundamental truths,” as Kandinsky puts it, that link us with the past and are worthy of revival and expression.

When we think of works of art that are deemed a “masterpiece” it seems that they must possess two characteristics: technical mastery and a depiction of some aspect of the human condition. These works evoke emotions from viewers of all ages and cultures. They reflect what we all experience: love, hate, vengeance, lust, solitude, companionship, disease, hopelessness, hope, and so on. This statement may be too general, but there’s an element of truth in it.

I’ve covered only the first two paragraphs of Kandinsky’s first chapter but it’s enough to reflect upon for awhile. When I look back on my body of work, I need to consider its depth. Depth … an important and interesting word.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, I think Kandinsky has a valid point about art being of it's time. I have thought about this point when I study Cubism. If I try to replicate Cubism, it will ring hollow and imitative. My style can have references to Cubist devices, but in a way that's relevant to my ideas. As such, I don't consider myself a Cubist artist. Now, depth. That's a harder question!

Eva said...

I agree with a lot of what Kandinsky has said. I know that a lot of the rules I was taught no longer stand up in today's arena. As for the depth of your art only you know how far you are reaching and whether you are pushing yourself or simply repeating. I had an old customer who wanted to see some new work, but he wanted it to look like what I painted 15 years ago. I find that to be true of most of my older clients. It's hard for me to turn back. I'm trying to dig deeper now. They may not please anyone, but it's where I am now.

Celeste Bergin said...

Sometime during the 80's I happened into a pizza parlor ...the very young lady behind the counter was wearing peace symbol earrings...I remember wanting to don't really know what your earrings stand for, do you? It was such a strong feeling I remember it after all this time. I really didn't like her wearing them...and yet I knew I couldn't say anything.. I can't "own" a symbol just because we suffered in Viet Nam and she didn't. I think I get what Kandinsky was getting at, however..every generation of people have unique experiences and it's ineffective to go over old ground.

Casey Klahn said...

Peggy - you do evoke the Cubists. But, your technique is of today. Keep searching - I love following your drawings.

So a masterpiece must have technical mastery and evoke in a timeless way. Then, what does Kandinsky mean regarding the age? I agree with him that you can't replicate an earlier era, and your illustration about the students works very well, Kathy.

I'm going to pick up the Kandinsky book and read along. It is fairly short (at least on the Kindle it seems short). As a wit once said, the trouble with the future is that it keeps moving. But, WK really wanted to imagine a new era, living as he did at the beginning of the 20th century .

-Don said...

I want my artwork to be the child of my emotions and the mother of its age. I really don't think it's too much to ask...


Robin said...

My thoughts - Kadinsky's works, and many of the modern abstractionists... I have trouble understanding the work. I have always struggled with modern art and when I was an art history student I remember avoiding the 20th century courses, it's only now that I am trying to make sense of it all. I mostly feel disconnect and wish I didn't.

T.Nara said...

Everything in Kandinsky's world was changing so fast. Science, art, politics, social norms all were becoming new. I'm sure it was quite scary and yet parts of it very exciting. Kind of like today, and yet nothing like today.
I think his work does a good job of communicating the sense of chaos that is somehow controlled.
There is a video on youtube from a 1926 film of him starting a painting. He carefully places each line, each shape. Fascinating.

layers said...

I certainly agree with the idea that there is a human connection through history that can be re-lived and re-created over and over- universal truths- histories and memories that can show up in all art forms.

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy - you raise an interesting point, since all of us learn from the past and have developed our artwork in that context. Usually, once we've learned the traditional lessons we move on to do our own "thing." But, the earlier influences remain.

Hi Eva - it makes sense that the work that attracted your customer still resonates with him/her. Like you, I'm not particularly interested in returning to the past in my artwork. However, I have on occasion. Doesn't feel good.

Hi Celeste - I agree that we don't own our generational symbols and I like the fact that younger generations support many of our ideals like peace and equality. And, I also like the fact that subsequent generations have developed their own culture with symbols, language, music, and art. I'm more concerned about mimicry as opposed to understanding.

Hi Casey - I'm glad you'll be reading along and I look forward to your comments!

Hi Don - ooooo... beautifully stated!

Hi Robin - the disconnect might be due to the fact that Kandinsky and others in the modern/contemporary art scene are expressing abstractions of inner thoughts. These works are idiosyncratic and often obscure to the viewer. I often spend a lot of time staring and trying to understand through analysis. It can be a lot of work, but the rewards are great!

Hi T. Nara - good point!! And, thanks for the youtube tip. I'll take a look.

Hi Donna - I see that in your work as well; the human dilemma is the universal theme.