PRINT Summer 1972

Kandinsky and Abstraction: The Role of the Hidden Image

IN AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL STATEMENT published in 1919, Vasily Kandinsky claimed he painted his first abstract work in 1911.1 However, in his essays written before the First World War, he made no mention of abstract works before the middle of 1913.2 No wonder then that one of Kandinsky’s biographers, when faced with describing the paintings of the period 1911–1913, wrote in 1924: “One thinks one sees in the works from 1911–1913 vegetables, meteorological forms, remnants of trees, water, fog, but by careful concentration one is able to make these figments of our imagination disappear.”3 This expression of uneasiness about the seeming presence of images in Kandinsky’s works betrays the conflict many have felt when seeking to establish a clear cut-off date for Kandinsky’s excursion into abstraction. Kandinsky’s remarks of 1919 have been used to support the misconception that the imagery, actually visible in his paintings of 1911 through 1914, does not really exist. This contradiction between what one sees in the paintings and what one frequently reads is partly due to the fact that Kandinsky’s interpretation of abstraction changed between 1913 and 1919.

Before the First World War, Kandinsky sought to develop an abstract style by increasingly veiling and stripping his imagery, which he retained to provide the spectator with a key to his apocalyptic visions of a coming utopia. In essays written in 1911, 1912, and 1913, he stressed the importance of this “hidden” imagery, stating that it gave expressive power to a painting and that it would be the first step toward the development of a “pure art.” In the essay of 1919, however, Kandinsky no longer mentioned the importance of imagery or its transference into a “construction” as the key element in the creation of abstract painting. By this date, Kandinsky had left Munich and returned to his native land—Russia—where he was exposed to a number of abstract artists using geometric forms. The success of these abstractionists seems to have moved Kandinsky to emphasize an earlier date for his own excursions into abstraction, and to deny the importance of the hidden object in his own development.

Until recently,4 most studies of Kandinsky’s work before the First World War emphasize those paintings which appeared to use only pure form and color, and as a result they ignore the most interesting aspects of Kandinsky’s development during this period: (1) his determination to communicate, (2) his imagery5 to create an effect that moved more and more toward the subliminal, (3) his fears of abstraction becoming merely decorative, and (4) the influences that shaped his gradual resolution of these somewhat contradictory aims.

Kandinsky’s determination to communicate a messianic vision led him to search for a “spiritual” form freed from representational elements which he considered materialistic. Although he envisioned abstraction as having the most potential for the expression of his antimaterialistic values, he feared that neither artists nor spectators would be able to grasp its “meaning” and would see it as mere decoration. Consequently, he worked with veiled and stripped imagery as a means of developing an abstract style which would not lose its power to communicate its message to the uninitiated.

Reaching the spectator was a major goal for Kandinsky, for he believed that man stood at the threshold of a new spiritual realm and that the arts would, through the stimulation of the senses, lead mankind to this new age. In his major theoretical tract of the period, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1912, Kandinsky explained that art was “one of the most powerful agents of the spiritual life,” a “complicated but definite movement forward and upward.”6 He viewed all of his efforts of this period as steps toward achieving this goal. In his autobiography of 1913, for example, he clearly stated that Concerning the Spiritual in Art and the almanac, Der Blaue Reiter, were conceived for the explicit purpose of awakening the “capacity, absolutely necessary in the future, for infinite experiences of the spiritual.”7 He repeatedly wrote that he wanted his works of art to “klingen,” to sound, so that they would send “vibrations” into the human soul and help to elevate the human spirit. Kandinsky’s wish to use all the means at his disposal to communicate his ideas even led him to experiment with a stage composition during this period. He felt that a stage work incorporating music, poetry, painting, and dance, which he called the “monumental art work,” would have a greater possibility of reaching the minds of his audience since those who were only capable of responding to one of the arts would more easily become involved,8 or, as Kandinsky would express it, “vibrated.” However, he devoted his major efforts before the First World War to painting, and he ended Concerning the Spiritual with the optimistic statement that the type of painting he envisioned would advance “the reconstruction already begun, of the new spiritual realm . . . the epoch of great spirituality.”9

Although Kandinsky’s interpretation of his era as one dominated by a struggle between the forces of good, or “the spiritual,” and the forces of evil, or materialism, reflect many of the intellectual currents of the turn of the century, several historians have suggested that Kandinsky’s “new spiritual realm” was a reference to a Theosophical utopia.10 Certainly, statements in Concerning the Spiritual which describe Theosophy as “one of the greatest spiritual movements” of his time and as a “strong agent in the spiritual atmosphere, offering redemption to despondent and gloomy hearts,”11 indicate that Kandinsky viewed favorably the Theosophical search for universal hidden truths. Although Kandinsky never called himself a Theosophist and remained somewhat skeptical of this movement’s optimism, he went so far as to include in Concerning the Spiritual the conclusion from one of the books written by the founder of the Theosophical Society, Mme. Blavatsky, which proclaimed: “Earth will be a heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with what it is at present.”12 While Kandinsky reserved praise for only a few individuals in this essay, he did give the most laudatory comments to Blavatsky and to Rudolf Steiner, another major leader of the Theosophical movement. Although Blavatsky was highly venerated, Steiner, who was the head of the German Theosophical Society and whose home base was Munich, appears to have been the dominant influence on Kandinsky. Steiner’s physical presence in Munich during this period, his belief that artistic experiences were the strongest stimulant for the development of an understanding of the spiritual, plus his own artistic activities, undoubtedly contributed to Kandinsky’s interest in this Theosophist. Moreover, Kandinsky, who often compared himself and his friends to the early Christians for trying, to raise “the weakest to spiritual battle,” and who frequently referred to his love for the Russian church, must have been attracted by Steiner’s interpretation that Christianity incorporated the wisdom of all previous religions and cults and consequently offered the richest source for advancing the destiny of mankind. While Blavatsky emphasized the importance of Hinduism and Buddhism, Steiner used the Revelation to John as the major framework to express his belief in the inevitability of catastrophe before the emergence of a new epoch.14

Steiner’s prophecies must have seemed a continuation of many of the apocalyptic notions prevalent in the early years of the twentieth century. Many of the French and Russian Symbolists and those in their circle to whom Kandinsky had been exposed since the late nineties,15 had written of the need for a new spiritual era. For. example, the Russian philosopher Vladimir Solov’ev, whom Steiner admired, prophesied before his death in 1903 that the apocalyptic expectations of St. John would soon occur.16 Moreover, since 1906, Steiner had been friendly with the French Theosophist, Edouard Schuré, whose books, Les grands initiés in particular, were studied by many of the painters and writers associated with French Symbolism. Schuré, in addition, had been involved in the nineties with the theatrical experiments of the Rosicrucian group of Sar Peladan, whom Kandinsky praised in Concerning the Spiritual.

Kandinsky’s contact with Steiner’s Christian Theosophy and his interpretation of the Revelation to John,17 may be responsible for Kandinsky’s increasing use of religious motifs from 1909 to 1914,18 at a time when he was also becoming increasingly interested in abstraction. Beginning late in 1909, Kandinsky started to use apocalyptic images in paintings to which he frequently gave clear eschatological titles,19 such as Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Deluge, All Saints’ Day, Last Judgment, and Resurrection. He used the terms “Last Judgment” and “Resurrection,” or awakening of the dead, interchangeably. These works contain a number of similar motifs such as angels blowing trumpets, figures rising from their graves, cities falling, lightning, which correspond to the description of the day of judgment in the Revelation to John.20 The number of works with these religious motifs and titles reached its height during 1911. During that year, Steiner was especially active in Munich forming an organization called Johannes-Bau-Verein to support his theatrical productions, and Kandinsky, working in Munich and Murnau, was involved with the collection of material for the almanac, Der Blaue Reiter, which he and Franz Marc were editing,21 in addition to preparing the manuscript of Concerning the Spiritual for publication. In both works Kandinsky indicated that his concept of the spiritual rested on a new interpretation of Christianity, one not tied to established religion which he felt had abandoned its responsibility. The Christian emphasis, not dominant in Kandinsky’s works before 1909, can easily be seen when one compares the cover of Concerning the Spiritual, with its apocalyptic overtones, to a membership card Kandinsky designed earlier for an artists’ association formed in 1909. In the card for the Neue Künstlervereinigung, a fairy tale ambience and not a religious one, dominates, whereas the cover of Concerning the Spiritual derives from the center of a glass painting of 1911, which takes its title from the Russian words for Resurrection written on the preparatory sketch. The motif on the cover is quite simplified but the outline of a mountain topped by a city with falling towers and a horse and rider can be identified if one compares it to the motif in the center of the glass painting. The Christian overtones evident in Concerning the Spiritual are also apparent on the cover of the Blaue Reiter almanac which, like the essay, was compiled to “awaken the spiritual.” The prophetic mood of religious conversion can be sensed when one analyzes the source from which the cover was derived. This cover, based on a glass painting derived from the Bavarian folk images of St. George and St. Martin,22 who were associated with the conversion of heathens through their good deeds, reflected the similarity Kandinsky and Marc saw between their goals and those of the early Christians.

At times, Kandinsky’s use of apocalyptic and Christian imagery has been attributed to an interest in 15th-century German Bible illustration and in the Bavarian folk paintings on glass prevalent in Germany before the First World War. Attributing Kandinsky’s choice of motifs to a purely esthetic interest in the formal aspects of such works ignores his overriding messianic outlook and his Russian background.23 It seems more likely that folk art attracted him as a means of expressing his messianic intent, for he felt folk art was “purer” than western art of the academic tradition. In some way, he equated the artist’s study of folk, primitive, and Gothic art with the Theosophical study of hypnosis and mesmerism, for both groups were seeking knowledge in areas not previously admired by the establishment. That Kandinsky’s primary interest was not in the formalistic aspects of primitive art is reflected in his attempt to obscure the motifs which he borrowed from earlier styles. He felt that a style from another age not transmit his message for it had to be clothed in a form which grew out of his generation’s experience. Believing that each period of culture produced its own art, Kandinsky maintained that if artists were to be effective they should reflect the mood of their day, which he described as one of conflict, contradiction, dissonance, and confusion. But at the same time he felt artists should be able to point to the future with their works.24 Consequently, Kandinsky could not be satisfied with imagery as clearly defined as that in Resurrection, where the bent tower and clouds of the central motif are derived, for example, from a 15th-century woodcut for the Nuremberg Bible.25 For the cover of Concerning the Spiritual, Kandinsky hid the central motif from Resurrection to such a degree that the imagery and the theme are barely recognizable. Hiding the imagery, then, was a way in which Kandinsky could create a mood of confusion, and yet also use the image to help lead one out of the initial confusion, thereby suggesting hope for the future. This is the logical basis for the remnants of imagery based on apocalyptic motifs that persisted in Kandinsky’s work even as he moved ever closer to abstraction during this period.

We find that although Kandinsky gave only a few works religious titles after 1911, he still retained motifs, albeit largely hidden, which related to those in his titled religious paintings. In paintings such as Composition V of 1911 or Composition VI of 1913, he indicated in essays that the imagery of trumpets, angels, and boats, were not merely formal solutions but were included because the theme of Composition V had its origin in the Resurrection, or the awakening of the dead, and Composition VI had been suggested by the Biblical flood.26 In these large oils the imagery is not easily perceived. However, usually one motif, such as the trumpet in Composition V, helps to bring the rest of the imagery into focus. Even those paintings with religious titles after 1911 seem to have no discernible imagery until one finds a key motif. For example, the 1912 glass painting, Last Judgment, begins to come into focus only when one concentrates on the black outlined trumpet in the upper right. When this work is compared to an earlier painting, such as Resurrection of 1911, even more of the nondelineatory lines take on specific forms; the curved black lines in the upper center suddenly come into focus as the outline of a mountain topped by a walled city with falling towers. The themes of most of the paintings from 1912, 1913, and 1914, which had neither title nor written description, can be clarified when the works are compared to earlier paintings.

Although Kandinsky believed that color could have the same emotional intensity as music, could communicate thought, and that line could suggest dancelike motion, he maintained that color and line alone could not be the basis for the development of an abstract style. As he explained in Concerning the Spiritual, artists as well as spectators needed reference points from the external world; otherwise, the use of pure color and independent form would result in “geometric decoration, resembling something like a necktie or a carpet.”27 In his autobiography of 1913, he wrote of the great demands that an abstract art would make on the spectator. Consequently, he urged artists to lead the spectator into the abstract sphere step by step, balancing abstract forms with barely perceptible signs. He suggested that objects could be transformed into these hidden signs and could become an additional means of causing a vibration. In Concerning the Spiritual, which contains the most extensive discussion of how the object could have an evocative power similar to that of pure color and form, Kandinsky explained that a combination of veiling the object with ambiguous shapes and colors and also stripping the object into a skeletonlike outline, or construction (as he did for the cover motifs) would create a “new possibility of leitmotivs for form composition.”28 He proclaimed: “It is not obvious (geometrical) constructions that will be richest in possibilities for expression but hidden ones, emerging unnoticed from the canvas and meant definitely for the soul rather than the eye.”29 Small wonder then that the 1924 biographer might have seen “trees, water, fog” and was genuinely bewildered by Kandinsky’s insistence in 1919 that his first “abstract” work bore a date of 1911. Of course, even in 1919 Kandinsky did not claim that he painted only abstract works in 1911, but many critics nonetheless refused to allow themselves to see imagery in Kandinsky’s paintings after that date. As late as September of 1913, in an essay called “Painting as Pure Art,” Kandinsky continued to emphasize that the first step toward a “pure art” was the “replacement of the corporeal [object] with the construction.”30

Kandinsky’s concept of the hidden image as a means of achieving this first step has certain-parallels with Steiner’s ideas about how knowledge of the “higher worlds” should be communicated. Since Steiner believed that the uninitiated could not directly experience the “spiritual world” where colors and forms floated in space, he suggested that those who hoped to reach out to the layman must begin with something tangible, with physical matter. Although Steiner stressed that the artist or seer use myth, sagas, similes, and comparisons to begin their instructions, he advised that directions not be too clear. He believed that hidden and ambiguous suggestions would be the most powerful. He felt that if the student had to decipher the message, he would reach a new understanding in the process. In the preface to one of his books, Steiner warned the reader that every page would have to be “worked out” if the reader wished to experience the message of the book.31 Influenced by Symbolist theories, Steiner believed that the indirect rather than the direct would lead the way to the spiritual world.32

Although Steiner may have reinforced Kandinsky’s antinaturalist orientation and although his emphasis on the Revelation of John may have offered Kandinsky a myth or saga upon which he could base his message of struggle and redemption, Steiner’s own artistic efforts were rather heavy-handed and did not offer Kandinsky a model for solving the artistic problems he felt. Instead, Kandinsky drew upon the Symbolist esthetic itself,33 with its emphasis on the suggestive, the mysterious, and the indirect, for a solution to the conflict that grew out of his desire to reduce representational elements in his paintings without having the resulting shapes degenerate into meaningless geometric patterns. The Symbolist theory of language, which emphasized that words could create a strong emotional impact if their literal meanings were disguised, provided Kandinsky with a theoretical basis for hiding and veiling the objects in his paintings. A belief in synesthesia allowed Kandinsky to transfer a theory formulated for poetry and drama to the visual arts; it allowed him to believe that he could give to the visual object the evocative power the Symbolist poets and dramatists gave to words.

Although the Symbolist concept of language found coherent expression in many individuals, the Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck is the only Symbolist to be discussed at length in the text of Concerning the Spiritual. Not only did Kandinsky cite three of Maeterlinck’s plays and one essay, but he stated that his approach to language held “great possibilities for the future of literature.”34 Maeterlinck, who was praised by Kandinsky for expressing the transcendental through artistic means, was also highly regarded by Steiner, who described his work as one of the most “distinguished experiences of the modern soul.”35

Maeterlinck, who had been attentive to the ideas of the French Symbolist poets in addition to the theories of numerous universalist cults such as the Rosicrucians, Theosophists, and Swedenborgians, popular in the nineties in France,36 emphasized in his writings that a new language and a new type of theater were needed to enable men to experience the transcendental in their daily lives. Kandinsky called Maeterlinck a clairvoyant and a prophet because he felt the dramatist’s use of ambiguity and mystery in his plays and poems reflected the anxieties and turmoil of his age. In Concerning the Spiritual Kandinsky devoted considerable space to an analysis of Maeterlinck’s use of words to manipulate moods “artistically.” Maeterlinck, Kandinsky stressed, removed the external reference from words by constant repetition and by dislocation from the narrative. Kandinsky translated Maeterlinck’s suggestions for the dematerialization of words into his own proposal for the dematerialization of objects, writing: “Just as each spoken word (tree, sky, man) has an inner vibration, so does each represented object.”37 He proposed to simplify the object to a residual, organic form which would have the same evocative effect as the symbolic word by placing the object in an unusual context, by hiding its external form beneath veils of color, or by stripping it to a construction. Just as the word could be used for its sound in addition to its notational value so did Kandinsky believe that the residual object could be used to reinforce the effect of pure color and pure form. If the object were hidden, that is if the object became indirect, the inner vibration would be stronger.

Painters connected with Maeterlinck and other Symbolists helped to reinforce Kandinsky’s faith in the power of the hidden. He could study the paintings of Denis and Redon, both of whom he admired,38 and examine how they used color and a loose brushstroke to dematerialize their images. Certainly in the actual development of Kandinsky’s style, these painters, in addition to Matisse, are far more important than any of the Theosophical drawings of “thought forms” which have been suggested as key influences in the evolution of Kandinsky’s abstraction.39

While Theosophical drawings may not have had much influence on Kandinsky’s stylistic development, Steiner’s messianic program and his insistence on providing keys to the spectator through myth, seems to have led Kandinsky to use images of an apocalyptic nature in his paintings. The Symbolist admiration for the mysterious and the ambiguous, in addition to Steiner’s emphasis on the indirect, most likely moved Kandinsky to the use of barely perceptible images combined with nondelineatory colors and forms as a means of leading the observer into the spiritual realm.

The interaction of Symbolist and Theosophical ideas in Kandinsky’s development before the First World War is particularly evident in his experiments with stage compositions, which incorporated music, dance, painting, and poetry. Although none of his plays were performed and only one, Der gelbe Klang (The Yellow Sound), was published in the Blaue Reiter almanac,40 the theater seemed to stand next to painting in Kandinsky’s interests. While Kandinsky’s fascination with the possibilities of a “total art work” based on a stage composition may have originally developed from seeing and reading the work of Wagner41—the hero of many Symbolist groups—Steiner’s adoption of Wagner’s idea that the theater should be the focus for the creation of a religious art“ must have strengthened Kandinsky’s desire to experiment with stage composition. Kandinsky could easily have seen one of the ”mystery" dramas of Steiner and Schuré, which Steiner produced in Munich between 1907 and 1913. Indeed, one of Kandinsky’s friends, Emy Dresler, worked on the set designs for these productions.43 Both Steiner and Schuré used chorus, music, a rudimentary color symbolism, and a ritualized narrative in their theatrical productions.

Interestingly, certain motifs in Kandinsky’s one published stage composition, The Yellow Sound, resemble motifs in Steiner’s and Schuré’s plays. The most striking similarity is the transformation, with the aid of lights, of one of the major characters, a giant, into an enormous cross at the conclusion of Kandinsky’s stage composition. This is very similar to the conclusion of a Schuré play, performed in Munich in 1909, where a cross is placed in the center of a star, the basic Theosophical sign, thereby suggesting the absorption of all wisdom and religions into his Christianized version of Theosophy. And in a Steiner drama of 1911, a character described as a “representative of the spirit” was placed nine feet above the stage with arms extended to suggest a cross.44

While Kandinsky’s experiments with a “total art work” have numerous sources, all of those who influenced his productions seemed interested to some degree in the religious possibilities of the drama. Maeterlinck is no exception. However, Maeterlinck’s dramas with their abandonment of plot, narrative action, and conventional scenery were undoubtedly the primary inspiration for Kandinsky’s avoidance of linear narrative and scenery, his use of indistinct words, and the erratic, puppetlike movements of the main characters in The Yellow Sound.45

Moreover, all those who influenced Kandinsky’s experimentation with works combining the various arts were believers in theories of the correspondence of the senses. Such theories were popular at the end of the 19th century not only among the Symbolist groups in France and Russia, but also among psychologists and various occult groups such as the Theosophists. The belief that one means of stimulating the senses could be substituted for another, and that in certain persons the stimulation of one sense would set off the stimulation of all the others, was accepted by Maeterlinck as well as by Steiner and Schuré. Kandinsky, however, unlike many of the Symbolists and Theosophists and even those experimenters among his contemporaries such as Scriabin who related color to music, did not believe that his stage work combining the various arts should depend on parallel or reinforcing stimuli (bright colors supported by loud music). He felt a stronger expression of his ideas could be achieved if the various arts were used contrapuntally. For example, if in The Yellow Sound the colored lights were to be very intense, Kandinsky indicated that the music should subside. For Kandinsky, the repetition of parallel stimuli was in some sense like naturalism, a 19th-century device—it could in no way suggest the conflict and disharmony which he felt were present in the 20th century. In this respect, the Austrian composer, Arnold Schönberg, who wrote an essay for the Blaue Reiter on non-parallelism between text and musical accompaniment, exerted some influence on Kandinsky’s movement away from a simple and harmonious use of parallel correspondence in his works.46

Kandinsky’s paintings of this period, like his stage composition, are based on the principle of using as many different stimuli as possible to multiply the vibrations emanating from the canvas. Kandinsky often spoke about color as equivalent to music, of line as equivalent to dance, and of objects as equivalent to words. Here we find one more reason why Kandinsky would write that the object must be used in a painting: “To deprive oneself of this possibility of causing a vibration would be reducing one’s arsenal of means of expression.”47

Even in 1913 when Kandinsky began to feel he was closer to abstraction, the transformation of apocalyptic motifs into hidden constructions are quite evident in his paintings. In Small Pleasures (known also as Little Pleasures), for example, whose title stands in ironic counterpoint to its contents, the motifs and their arrangement are similar, although much more veiled, to those in the clearly titled religious works of 1911. Although at first glance Small Pleasures may not appear to have Religious signs, close examination of this painting and the glass painting upon which it is based, reveal a general scheme of a mountain, topped by a walled city, in the center of the work, and a boat tossed by stormy waves to one side of the mountain, a scheme which is similar to the arrangement of motifs in the glass painting, Resurrection. Moreover, the three horse and riders clearly outlined in black in the glass painting of Small Pleasures, but simplified to a few incomplete lines veiled by layers of color in the oil, are derived from a glass painting that Kandinsky called Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In both he included only three of the four riders described in the Revelation to John, an interpretation preferred by Steiner.

Despite the apocalyptic motifs, the imagery has been referred to as the “‘small pleasures’ . . . rowing, loving, riding.”48 This would seem to ignore not only the relationship of the imagery to earlier apocalyptically titled works, but also the relationship of the imagery in the painting to vivid metaphors found in Kandinsky’s essays, particularly in Concerning the Spiritual. Although Kandinsky did not write a specific essay about Small Pleasures, many of his verbal images in Concerning the Spiritual correspond to motifs in the paintings. The central image of the walled city on top of a mountain threatened by dark clouds frequently appears. In one section of Concerning the Spiritual, Kandinsky wrote:

Humanity is living in such a spiritual city, subject to sudden disturbances for which neither architects nor mathematicians have made allowance. In one place lies a great wall fallen down like a house of cards, in another are the ruins of a huge tower which once stretched to the sky. . . . Spots appear on the sun, and the sun grows dark; and what power is left against the dark?49

In another section, Kandinsky seemed to be describing the purpose of the storm-tossed boat in Small Pleasures when he equated the anxiety and fear of his age as similar to the “nervousness, a sense of insecurity” of those at sea, when “the continent left behind in mist, dark clouds gather, and the winds raise the water into black mountains.”50 In addition, Kandinsky’s frequent use of light as a metaphor for awareness and knowledge and his feeling that the color blue could express the spiritual suggests that the sun in the upper left of Small Pleasures, which in the first version was painted blue, is meant to represent the higher planes of the spiritual world.

Kandinsky’s use of certain of the motifs, moreover, seems directly related to Steiner’s attempt to put a more positive cast on apocalyptic symbols. In his lecture on the Revelation of John, Steiner stressed, for example, that the fourth horseman, traditionally indicating death, should be eliminated.51 Indeed, in one of Steiner’s drawings of the apocalypse, the fourth horseman is barely visible.52 Kandinsky may have been following Steiner’s injunction when he eliminated the fourth horseman from all of his versions, even from those called Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Kandinsky’s choice of the sun motif as a sign of the spiritual may reflect Steiner’s characterization of the sun as the essence of Christianity. Then the three apocalyptic horsemen leaping from the stormy sea toward the sun could be understood as a visual metaphor, not of the pestilence coming on the day of the judgment, but of the struggle to attain the light—enlightenment. Kandinsky often equated the horse and rider to the artist and his talent53 and stated that the artist was to lead the way to the future. The theme of regeneration emerging from this more positive interpretation of the apocalypse is reflected in Kandinsky’s statement of 1913 that “out of the most effective destruction sounds a living praise, like a hymn to the new creation, which follows the destruction.”54

While Small Pleasures may indeed reflect Steiner’s messianic views that the next epoch would only emerge after great destruction, little besides the theme and the motifs used to transmit the message can be attributed to Steiner. The means he used to transform the image into a hidden construction reflect other sources. Redon, Denis, and Matisse contributed much to Kandinsky’s use of color and blurred edges to make his imagery ambiguous. And the Symbolist theory of correspondences strengthened his belief in the power of multiple stimuli in the form of residual motifs and layers of colors, related to the themes of the motifs, to reinforce his message. The motifs of storm and turmoil, such as the boat tossed by waves, on the right side of Small Pleasures, are reinforced by the darker colors of the black-brown cloud formation in the upper right. The more optimistic motifs of the sun, the couple, and the three apocalyptic riders on the left side of the painting are supported by warmer and brighter colors. However, the multiple stimuli are not always parallel. The title, for example, is clearly ironic and serves as a disguise for the deeper meaning of the painting which could only be grasped, according to Kandinsky’s intention, after much study and meditation. Although there is some general correspondence of color to motifs, the difference in color between the right and left sides of the painting is not striking. Indeed, at first glance the color division from bright to dark might not even be noticed. Through these devices of ambiguous multiple stimuli based on residual images of an apocalyptic nature overlaid with color, Kandinsky sought to communicate a tension and an uncertainty in his paintings which would express the dissonance of his age in juxtaposition with his hope for a better future.

Kandinsky was not alone in finding the step to abstraction a difficult one to take during this period. One thinks of the “hermetic” paintings of Picasso and Braque in 1911, where the objects are so dissected as to be virtually unrecognizable. But then, their use of more visible objects in paintings of the very next year indicates their resistance to abstraction. Gleizes and Metzinger verbally testified to this dilemma in their short essay on Cubism, stating: “Nevertheless, let us admit that the reminiscence of natural forms cannot be absolutely banished; as yet, at all events. An art cannot be raised all at once to the level of pure effusion.”55 Although Kandinsky had contact with the various Cubist groups, his hidden object bears little visual relation to the Cubist fragmentation of the object into geometric components. Nonetheless, many of the Cubists, as well as Kandinsky, would use one motif to bring the rest of the painting into focus.56 In Picasso’s Man with Pipe of 1911, for example, once we fixate on the pipe, easily identified by the white color in the upper center, the simplified and fragmented forms of the man come into focus. Picasso’s signs don’t have the messianic implications of Kandinsky’s, yet the efforts of both artists were frequently viewed in a similar context before the First World War. Their movement away from representationalism was considered so radical at that time that both men were called “Expressionists.” By 1914, they were clearly moving in different directions and while Picasso’s signs became more readable, Kandinsky’s became almost incomprehensible.

By the end of 1913 Kandinsky had grown increasingly discouraged that his art could reach the uninitiated. The constant criticism of his paintings as meaningless and decorative had taken its toll. In 1914 Kandinsky began to make notations for changes in Concerning the Spiritual which indicated that he felt a few artists could venture into the sphere of abstraction. Even though the process for most of his works of late 1913 and 1914 was the same as the past several years, in some paintings the hidden images became so thoroughly veiled or stripped as to be virtually unrecognizable. Unlike Small Pleasures, where even without studies some sort of imagery can be recognized, a few paintings such as Light Picture appear to have dispensed with apocalyptic imagery and to have substituted what Kandinsky would later call a sensation of the cosmos or infinity. At this point, the outbreak of World War I separated him from his friends and sources in Germany. When Kandinsky finally returned to Germany in 1921 after a lengthy stay in his native Russia, his solutions to the problems of abstraction had been radically altered.

Rose-Carol Washton Long is on the faculty of Queens College, City University of New York. This article is an adaptation of material from her forthcoming book on Kandinsky to be published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford.

An exhibition of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s Kandinsky collection will take place from May 12th through September 5th.



1. V. Kandinsky, “W. Kandinsky: Selbstcharakteristik,” Das Kunstblatt, III, 6, 1919, p. 173.

2. Kandinsky began to state in his essays of 1913 that he had made a major step in the creation of abstract forms. In his autobiography, “Rückblicke,” first published in the catalogue, Kandinsky, 1909–1913, Berlin, 1913, he described those paintings as closest to abstraction where the forms grew “out of the artist” rather than Originating from nature, a separation which he felt he was just beginning to achieve in that year. See p. xxv. Also see his lecture read at the gallery, Kreis der Kunst, in Cologne on January 30, 1914, in J. Eichner, Kandinsky und Gabriele Münter, Munich, 1957, pp. 109–116.

3. W. Grohmann, “Wassily Kandinsky,” Der Cicerone, XVI, 9, 1924, p. 895.

4. See K. Lindsay’s review of W. Grohmann’s monograph on Kandinsky in The Art Bulletin, XLI, 4, 1959, p. 350, which challenged the accuracy of the 1910 date for the work called the “first abstract watercolor.” See also L. Eitner, “Kandinsky in Munich,” The Burlington Magazine, XCIX, 651, 1957, pp. 192–197, and D. Robins, “Vasily Kandinsky: Abstraction and Image,” The Art Journal, XXII, 3, 1963, pp. 145–147.

5. K. Brisch in his unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, “Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Untersuchungen zur Entstehung der gegenstandslosen Malerei an seinem Werk von 1900–1921,” University of Bonn, 1955, was the first scholar to explore the apocalyptic motifs in Kandinsky’s pre-World War I paintings. See also H. K. Röthel, “Kandinsky: Improvisation Klamm, vorstuffen einer Deulung,” Eberhard Hanfstaengl zum 75. Geburtstag, Munich, 1961, pp. 186–192, where the imagery in a painting of 1914 is identified.

6. Many of the quotations from Concerning the Spiritual in Art are my translations from the German text of 1912, Uber das Geistige in der Kunst, 7th ed. (which follows the 2nd ed. of 1912), Bern-Bümpliz, 1963, p. 26, hereafter cited as U.D.G. The best English translation by F. Golffing, M. Harrison, and F. Ostertag, New York, 1947, is based on additions of 1914 and will be used, hereafter cited as C.T.S., when the translation does not conflict with the German version.

7. See Kandinsky, “Rückblicke,” p. xxvii or its English translation, “Reminiscences,” Modern Artists on Art, ed. R. Herbert, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1964, p. 42.

8. U.D.G., pp. 107–108.

9. Ibid., p. 143.

10. Although Theosophy has been connected with Kandinsky’s name since 1912, the relationship has not been taken seriously until recently. See L. D. Ettlinger, Kandinsky’s “At Rest,” London, 1961; S. Ringbom, “Art in ‘the Epoch of the Great Spiritual’, Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XXIX, 1966, pp. 386–418; L. Sidhare, “Oriental Influences on Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, 1909–1917,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1967; and my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, listed under my maiden name, R.-C. Washton, “Vasily Kandinsky, 1909–1913: Painting and Theory,” Yale University, 1968.

11. U.D.G., pp. 42–43.

12. Ibid., p. 43.

13. Ibid., p. 107.

14. Between 1906 and 1914, Steiner devoted the majority of his lecture programs to an elucidation of the Gospels. See J. Hemleben, Rudolf Steiner, Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1963, p. 162. As early as 1902, Steiner revealed his Christian orientation in Das Christentum als mystische Thatsache, Berlin, 1902. Because of increasing differences with the international Theosophical Society, Steiner founded his own group in 1913, which he defined as Anthroposophical.

15. Between 1896–1911, Kandinsky had been exposed to a variety of Symbolist concepts. Although Symbolism reached its height as a literary movement in France in the mid-nineties, its impact was of a longer duration in Germany and Russia. In fact, in Russia, Symbolism continued to be a dominant influence in intellectual circles as late as 1911. Kandinsky was the Munich correspondent for the Russian Symbolist periodical, Apollon, 1909 and 1910.

16. Solov’ev’s vision of the cleansing effect of the Apocalypse is reflected in the works of the Russian Symbolist poets Blok and Belyj, both of whom described in their writings of the era before the First World War, the power of Symbolism to create a religious art, not merely an esthetic. It is noteworthy that Belyj also became interested in Steiner and went in 1914 to stay with Steiner at his Goethenaum in Dornach, Switzerland. Kandinsky mentions neither Solov’ev nor Belyj nor Blok, but his friend Marianne von Werefkin, with whom he spent the summers in Murnau during 1909 and 1910, is reported to have been in contact with a number of the Russian Symbolists. See J. Hahl-Koch, Marianne Werefkin und der russische Symbolismus, Munich, 1967.

17. C. Weiler, who holds the diary of Marianne von Werefkin, reported in his biography of her companion, Jawlensky, that both artists had introduced Kandinsky to the ideas of Steiner, perhaps during the summer of 1909. Weiler stated that Jawlensky had spoken with Steiner and had seen one of his plays. See Alexej Jawlensky, Cologne, 1959, pp. 68, 70–73. According to Weiler, Kandinsky had attended a lecture by Steiner on Goethe’s Faust in Berlin during April of 1908 and had been inspired to illustrate the Ariel scene. See W. Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky, New York, 1958, p. 41. One of Kandinsky’s pupils, Maria Strakosch-Geisler, is reported to have attended a lecture of Steiner’s in Berlin during 1908. See A. Strakosch, Lebenswege mit Rudolf Steiner, Strasbourg, 1947, pp. 22–24.

18. For an analysis of this development see Washton, “Vasily Kandinsky, 1909–1913: Painting and Theory.” In The Sounding Cosmos, Abo, 1970, Ringbom also describes Kandinsky’s interest in apocalyptic motifs, which he had not dealt with in his essay of 1966. However, he sees.this interest primarily as a reflection of the fascination with the apocalypse, widely evident at the turn of the century, especially among the Russian Symbolists.

19. The earliest, Paradise, is listed as the last work of 1909 in the house catalogue Kandinsky kept of his paintings. The first of the paintings called Last Judgment is listed in 1910.

20. All Saints’ Day also refers to another aspect of the judgment day, the gathering of all the saints. While the clearest examples of apocalyptic imagery occur in the small glass paintings of 1910, 1911, and 1912, which were modeled after Bavarian folk paintings on glass, a number of oils also contain these apocalyptic titles and motifs. The arrangement of these motifs became the basis for many of his compositions before the First World War.

21. Kandinsky wrote in a letter of September 1, 1911 to Marc that the almanac had to mention Theosophy “concisely and strongly (if possible statistically).” See Der Blaue Reiter, reprint of the 1912 edition with notes by K. Lankheit, Munich, 1965, p. 261.

22. See E. Rolers, “Wassily Kandinsky und die Gestalt des Blauen Reilers,” Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, V, 2, 1963, pp. 201–226; also H. Nishida, “Genèse du cavalier bleu,” XXe Siècle, XXVII, 1966, pp. 18–24.

23. II also ignores the prevalence of Christian references in Kandinsky’s essays and poems. See Klänge, Munich, 1913.

24. C.T.S., pp. 23, 65–66.

25. It is reproduced in Der Blaue Reiter, Lankheit ed., p. 215. Other elements of this motif such as the walled city and the leaping horse and rider can be traced to Kandinsky’s own works of 1902 and 1903.

26. See Kandinsky, lecture, January 30, 1914, in Eichner, Kandinsky und Gabriele Münter, pp. 114–115.

27. U.D.G., p. 115.

28. Ibid., p. 78.

29. Ibid., p. 129.

30. Kandinsky, “Malerei als reine Kunst,” Der Sturm, IV, 178/179, 1913, p. 99.

31. R. Steiner, Theosophie, 5th ed., Leipzig, 1910, pp. iv, 79, 116. Kandinsky cited this book in Concerning the Spiritual, p. 32, in addition to mentioning articles by Steiner in the magazine, Lucifer-Gnosis.

32. The Symbolists and various occult groups shared an interest in the mysterious and the hidden. During the eighties and nineties in France many of those who were to be called Symbolists were interested in Rosicrucian and Theosophical groups. See J. Senior, The Way Down and Out: The Occult in Symbolist Literature, Ithaca, 1959; G. Mauner, “The Nature of Nabis Symbolism,” The Art Journal, XXIII, 2, 1963–64, pp. 96–103; R. Pincus-Witten, Les Salons de la Rose+Croix, 1892–1897, London, 1968. Similarly Theosophists such as Schuré and the Rosicrucian Peladan adopted ideas from Wagner and the French Symbolists. See G. Wooley, Richard Wagner et le symbolisme Français, Paris, 1931.

33. Symbolism through its visual branches, the Art Nouveau and the Jugendstil, had a direct effect on the subject matter, style, and medium of Kandinsky’s works from 1900 to 1906.

34. U.D.G., p. 46.

35. Steiner, “Maeterlinck, der ‘Frei Geist’,” 1899, reprinted in Dr. Rudolf Steiner, Veröffentlichungen aus dem literarischen Frühwerk, XXIV, Dornach, Switzerland, 1958, pp. 22–24.

36. See W. Halls, Maurice Maeterlinck, A Study of his Life and Thought, Oxford, 1960, p. 48.

37. U.D.G., p. 76.

38. Kandinsky had contact with Denis and other Nabis since 1903 when works by Denis and others were displayed in the 1903 Phalanx exhibition organized by Kandinsky. As late as 1912, D. Burliuk wrote in an article, “Die ‘Wilden’ Russlands,” for the Blaue Reiter that Denis’ opinion was highly regarded. See Lankheit ed., p. 47. Redon contributed an essay for the second exhibition catalogue of the Neue Künstlervereinigung München, 1910/11.

39. The importance of these drawings was stressed by Ringbom in “Art in ‘the Epoch of the Great Spiritual’,” p. 405.

40. See Kandinsky, “Der gelbe Klang,” Der Blaue Reiter, Lankheil ed., pp. 210–229, or see the English translation by V. Miesel in Voices of German Expressionism, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1970, pp. 137–145. The music for this stage composition was written by Thomas von Hartmann, a Russian composer living in Munich who later became a follower of the mystic Gurdijev.

41. See Kandinsky, “Uber Bühnenkomposition,” Der Blaue Reiter, Lankheit ed., pp. 195–200. Kandinsky adopted the Wagnerian term “leitmotiv” to describe his concept of the hidden object.

42. See E. Schuré, Le théâtre de l’âme, Paris, 1900, I, pp. xiii–xiv and Schuré, Les grands initiés, Paris, 1909, pp. 438–439. Steiner was much indebted to Schure’s understanding of Wagner.

43. Emy Dresler was a pupil of Kandinsky who exhibited with the Neue Künstlervereinigung; see Sammlungskatalog I, Der Blaue Reiter, 2nd ed., Munich, 1966, p. 12.

44. See Schuré, “Les enfants de Lucifer,” Le théâtre de l’âme, I, and Steiner, Die Prüfung der Seele, Berlin, 1911.

45. Maeterlinck used marionettes in his one act plays and fairy tale figures as the main characters in his larger works to reinforce his departure from the traditional theater. Kandinsky’s use of a chorus offstage may derive from Peladan’s placement of the chorus in his religious dramas.

46. See Kandinsky, “Uber Bühnenkomposition,” and C.T.S., p. 35.

47. C.T.S., p. 50.

48. See H. K. Röthel, Vasily Kandinsky, Paintings on Glass, New York, 1966, no. 19.

49. C.T.S., p. 31.

50. Ibid., p. 30.

51. Steiner, Die Theosophie on der Hand der Apokalypse, 1908, p. 90; copy of the manuscript of this 1908 lecture is located in the Anthroposophical Society, New York.

52. See Steiner, Die Apokalypse des Johannes, 5th ed., Dornach, 1963, no. 3.

53. See Kandinsky, “Reminiscences,” pp. 32–33.

54. Kandinsky, ,“Notizen—Komposition 6,” Kandinsky, 1901–1913, p. xxxviii.

55. A. Gleizes and J. Metzinger, “Cubism,” in Herbert, p. 7.

56. In The Rise of Cubism, H.-D. Kahnweiler described the Cubist use of signs as a means of stimulating one’s memory image in order to bring the whole object into mind; see H. Aronson’s translation from the 1920 German edition, New York, 1949, pp. 11–13.