Abstract painting originated as the result of a conscious shift away from traditional philosophical, spiritual, and aesthetic ideas. While a religious impulse is evident in Kandinsky’s work and theories, this impulse is not connected to any specific doctrine or church. Instead, Kandinsky finds the wellspring of spirituality to exist in the creation of art itself. This factor is a defining element of Kandinsky’s aesthetic because it places art in a particular cultural and social role. This role is similar to the function a shaman or holy man would have played in a tribal society. Art is a mechanism through which revelation takes place. In Kandinsky’s case, this revelation is based primarily around the discovery and release of profound emotion.
As indicated by Read, Kandinsky’s ideas about the function of emotion in art were thoroughly formulated. Read states that Kandinsky believed that a work of art was based on both an inner and outer element. The outer element was the compositional makeup, medium, and technique; the inner element “is the emotion in the soul of the artist; this emotion has the capacity to evoke a similar emotion in the observer.”1 This essential conviction forms the basis for Kandinsky’s conscious decision to move away from the depiction of objective images.
It is through the subjective experience of emotion and sensual reality that the artist receives the energy and materials that create a work of art. These materials, when creatively combined, generate a work that transmits the subjective experience of the artist to a wide (theoretically infinite) audience. The audience is capable of experiencing the emotional inspiration of the artist; it is not necessary for the objective world to be preserved because the non-objective image is still quite capable of transmitting emotion and meaning.
An example of these ideas in motion is Three Sounds (1926). In this work, objective images are jettisoned in favor of abstract geometry, color, and design. The arrangement of shapes and color on the canvas creates a whirlwind of motion, causing the eye to dart around, almost as though in orbit around the canvas. Any point of the canvas can be zeroed-in on and discovered to hold another layer of design in an almost fractal-like construction. At the same time, common symmetry is broken while harmony, proportion, and balance remain. M. Taussig observes of this fractal nature: “Note the darting black arrows and spots of color drifting out of focus into the dark sky with its promise of text in the grid at the top right-hand corner.”2 . Taussig goes on to describe the way that color defines the geometrical basis of the painting while also describing the dominant emotions of the work which are discovery and terror.
According to Taussig, the painting represents a shamanistic vision of reality where one identity is exchangeable for another and where emotion dictates form. The painting describes a magical space, a place of discovery and inspiration. It is a space where “sound and color formed formless forms by virtue of an incandescent palette from which other sorts of images could arise, as when the shaman became a jaguar sitting in his hammock, with the feet of a human swinging relaxed above the floor.”3 While these mystical connotations were undoubtedly intended by Kandinsky, it is not necessary to accept or even understand them in order to see how Kandinsky’s aesthetic theories influenced design.
Kandinsky’s conviction that color and form hold emotional resonance of their own and that this resonance was based on emotion provides any observer with enough of a theoretical basis to explicate his influence on painting design. Put simply, Kandinsky’s liberation of the traditional elements of painting and design from their traditional, objective roles provided the necessary fertile ground for the development of Abstract Expressionism. Artists like Rothko and Pollock were the direct beneficiaries of Kandinsky’s breakthrough theories and practices.
By extension, the use of abstract images, color and form to transmit emotion was integrated into the principles of modern design. It became not only permissible, but mandatory, for design to demonstrate the transmission of emotion along the lines of Kandinsky’s “two level” theory.
Even though the liberation of color and form from the objective world proved to be a fairly easy concept for most painters and designers to grasp, Kandinsky’s ideas about what non-objective art represented went much deeper than simply recognizing an emotional connection between the artist and the audience. Taussig writes that the paradigm that is revealed by Kandinsky’s art is one of pure creativity: “like colored illustrations in children's books converting physics into poetry such that the language of nature and the nature of language become one.”4 Again, the shamanistic quality of Kandinsky’s approach is difficult to overstate. The non-objective world that he is transmitting to the audience through art is one of mystical power and knowledge.
In terms of pure aesthetics and philosophy, Kandinsky’s ideas about the nature of non-objective reality are probably the most important elements of his art. In Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art, written in 1911, we find distinct traces of the shock that the "dissolution of the atom" caused the painter.” 5 Kandinsky was forced not only on a mystical and emotional level to search for a deeper reality, but also on a scientific and rational level. This is important to remember when studying his influence on the later developments of Color Field Painting and Abstract Expressionism because it is indicative of the way that Kandinsky brought all of his capacities and faculties to the table when developing and refining his aesthetic theories.
By moving beyond materialism, Kandinsky brought art to the same level of modernity as science and philosophy. It was no longer essential in any of these disciplines to regard the material world as a thoroughly “concrete” reality. Rather, it was permissible to explore the relationship that might exist between emotion and material reality, with human consciousness as an active agent of both the creation and discovery of the universe. The basic idea that Kandinsky remained intent on pursuing was that the non-objective world revealed by art and emotion was the world of the soul. As such, his art must be understood as having a basis in mysticism.
One painting that helps to demonstrate Kandinsky’s approach is Composition No. 2 (1910). This work virtually explodes with color, shape, and form, challenging the viewer to remain balanced after such a starling onslaught of brightness and apparent joy. The basis of Kandinsky’s theory of how emotion is transmitted from artist to the audience is complicated but begins with the idea that the body experiences senses, which, in turn stimulate the soul. This means that the senses form a kind of doorway to the non-material reality of the soul which is based in emotion and pure form. What lies behind this mechanism is actually soul-to-soul communication, or stimulation. This is, in essence, what the purpose and meaning of art is: to provide a medium that deles past the material world to employ and enjoy the world and language of the human soul.
This gives some insight into the images that are depicted in Composition No. 2. What Kandinsky offers in this painting is a full spectrum of emotions and feelings associated with this landscape of the soul. In this regard, the painting’s title is especially important because it avoids reference to any specific material theme. It also conspicuously avoids any association with a particular religious or mystical philosophy while maintaining the fact of mystical connection.
The title plays an important role because it gives the viewer just enough information to understand that the depicted images are not drawn from the “outer” objective world. Providing a clue about the artist’s intention was a key of Kandsinsky’s approach: “On the one hand, Kandinsky expects viewers of an artwork to be touched immediately by what they see…on the other hand, he holds they will never arrive at this stage unless they have some idea about what the artist intends.” 6 There is a balance between rationality and emotion in Kandinsky’s aesthetic just as there is a balance between the objective and non-objective worlds.
In another painting, Composition IV (1911), Kandinsky brings this idea of balance and contrast to the forefront of expression. The painting is meant to suggest violent contrast and tension, but at the same time reflects a totality of balance. Within this harmonious frame, however, the traditional elements of design and painting are being thoroughly transformed. Florman notes that “Line, no longer called upon to function as flattening "tracery," has begun to detach itself from color”7 as exemplifies by the “horse” images in the upper-left portion of the painting. At the same time, the field of depth in the painting has been transformed to an almost two-dimensional rendering. Feelings of proximity and distance are transmitted purely through color and shape.
Rather than traditional perspective and depth, the painting offers a flat, but endless sense of depth. Florman writes that “As a result of both that transgression and their "blurring," the colored patches recede into a perceptible if indefinite depth.” 8 Again, the detachment of painterly elements from their traditonal roles has a revelatory capacity. It is as though Kandinsky is transforming a two-dimensional surface to an infinite depth right in front of the viewer’s eyes.
This is an expression of how the senses lead to the deeper apprehensions of the soul. As such it must be restated that Kandinsky’s preoccupation as a visual artist was with a religious and mystical process that led to unconscious revelation. The shamanistic process that Kandinsky advocated was of profound influence over the worlds of art and design due the liberating impact he had on the use of form, color, and line. It is not necessarily the case that the Abstract Expressionists, Color Field painters and post-structuralism design artists adhered to, or even understood, Kandinsky’s mystical and religious ideas.
However, these ideas are not only apparent in his works; they are the prime operating principles around which all of the other elements gel. The fact remains that Kandinsky’s elevation of non-objective reality as a basis for modern art and expression is founded on his conviction that a deeper world exists beneath the material world and that this world is evidence of a greater human experience, one that is revealed through the artistic process. In this sense, Kandinsky not only influenced the technique and perspective of generations of artists, but redefined the method and meaning of what being an artist means in relation to the modern world.