PRINT March 1973

Kandinsky: “On the Artist”

WRITTEN IN STOCKHOLM IN February, 1916, this important Kandinsky document has never appeared in English nor, except for a few excerpts from the original German, in any language other than Swedish, in which it was published by Gummeson’s Art Gallery, Stockholm, 1916, and reprinted in the Kandinsky exhibition catalogue, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1965. Kandinsky was in that city from December 23, 1915 to March 16, 1916 in connection with his exhibition which opened at Gummeson’s in February. Organized under the auspices of Der Sturm, Kandinsky’s show of 19 paintings, watercolors, and prints was one of a series of three, the first devoted to Franz Marc and the third to Gabriele Münter, to whom Kandinsky dedicated this essay and who was with him in Stockholm.

Although more than a half-century has passed since it was written, this text, like so much of Kandinsky’s writing, is astonishingly pertinent today, not only because we are again (or still) in a period of violent crisis and abruptly shifting values, but more specifically because several of the ideas which Kandinsky expresses could have been written by many of our advanced artists, who would fervently echo Kandinsky’s plea:

When will the question of form no longer replace the question of art? When will one really understand that art does not come from form, but form from art? How many thousands of years will it still take . . . for men to realize that each new content demands its own form, and that form without content is a sin against the spirit?

Mr. Oldenburg and I have aimed at exactitudein our translation of the Swedish version because of its remarkable faithfulness, in sense and flavor, to Kandinsky’s original writing. We feel quite comfortable in making this assertion on the strength of the exceptionally close correspondence of the Swedish to the German in those passages excerpted from the original by Johannes Eichner in his Kandinsky und Gabriele Münter (Munich, 1957). Unfortunately, Kandinsky’s manuscript was inaccessible to us, as it is at present in storage in the custody of the Gabriele Münter und Johannes Eichner Stiftung.

The italics, footnotes, and quotation marks are Kandinsky’s.


On the giant white a black dot suddenly burns. It grows larger, still larger, incessantly larger.

And all at once a whole island world of black flecks is sifted out over the giant white as though through fine gauze. They grow ever greater in multitude and size.

Through the meadow rises the voice of invisibly flowing waters, at first hardly audible and then stronger and stronger. Several voices, each singing a different melody, join, weave themselves together—a polyphonic choir.

And the light becomes dark, the dark light.

Surrounded by a violet aureole, the yellow sun rolls over the rose-hued sky. Intense yellow and light blue rays sting the lilac-colored earth, pierce it, releasing thousands of voices—the air quivers with sound.

Gray clouds blanket the golden sun and grow black.

Long, straight, unbending silver filaments edge the vaulted space.

Abruptly everything becomes silent.

Blow after blow of scorching zigzag rays cleave the space. The heavens burst. The earth splits. And thunderclaps rupture the stillness.

The lilac-colored ground grows gray. The gray wraps itself violently, irresistibly around the hills. Bright colors are sifted through the gauze. The spheres shiver from thousands of voices. The world shrieks.

It is an old picture of the new spring.

An old picture of the new spring is our time. The time of the awakening, the breaking up, the rebirth, and the hurricanes, the time of the fiery strength and the marvelous might.

In such times of complete upheaval, when white becomes black and black white, when the world is full of shining colors and reverberates from thousands of voices—in such times one’s head swims, and faith gives way—should one really believe in the white which not long before was black? The turning away from everything fixed and stiff; the loosening; the reevaluating of the petrified, bound, tightly regulated, yesterday’s still infallible forms; the tempting desire to hurl oneself into the unknown, to follow the thousand new paths which radiate in all directions and seem to lead to the goal—two parallel roads, which suddenly separate and stretch far out from each other; and, at the end, the mighty river which no gaze can encompass, which blinds the eyes through closed lids, and which seems to dominate everything—all these are things that bring man to despair. And later he seeks again to force them into some new, fixed form. The mighty river carries man against his will, but he still wants to control it. People can no longer walk without a guide. They are not willing to wander astray and only reluctantly abandon the familiar path. They do not want to discard the old signs and they accept the new ones only with opposition. But, when they finally decide in favor of the new road, they tread it with firm steps as they once did the old, and they will not hear of any other road: they think that always only “one road leads to Rome.”

THE DIRECT GOAL WHICH these lines aim at signifies a double wish:

1. the wish to show that, in the seeming disorder of the present turbulent times, there is the same adherence to law which always governs the world of art;

2. the desire to demonstrate how, in the uniformity which apparently prevails in the present, already congealing time, no united song can be found or enjoyed; but instead there is a chorus where each particular voice gains rather than loses in independence; and the very dissimilarity in the separate voices within this rich, full-toned chorus becomes the good fortune of the time.

Our fortunate time is that of the great liberation, the deliverance from the formal, from the superficial. Free man not only climbs toward the heights, he also descends to the deep. Wherever he goes, he looks with wide open eyes and listens with an attentive ear in order to find life everywhere and everywhere hear the voice of the living spirit, which is hidden from the superficial and which he seeks to perceive. It is in the spirit that life is felt, not in the form, which even dead things possess. The person who has not been freed recognizes life only in the form, and thus he often mistakes the dead for the living. Freed man, who is now born again, seeks the mark of life in the content and turns away from artful death; and, death, ashamed, stands aside.

The adherence to law, which even now clearly reveals itself and, in the light of the time, actually appears sharper, means that artists divide themselves into two groups according to the nature of their talent, each group having its particular basic significance and its own purpose. It is to be hoped that this purpose will stand out more and more individually. The oneness which nowadays pervades all phenomena within the spiritual life and unites them all in the same striving, consists in the desire to put the inner in the place of the outer. Therefore, this oneness in art does not imply that all artists resemble each other in form, but that each artist, renouncing the purposeless use of one or the other “beautiful” or “true” form, consciously employs his own form for his own spiritual content. Not by form, but by content’ is the artist recognized.

Thus, for example, Henri Rousseau stands formally aside from the great current because no labels can be attached to his personal form. But, in content, he is more inseparably bound to the spiritual strivings of the time than many an artist whose form is infallibly “modern.” Through his remarkable form, Rousseau has released the voice of the inner world. This world, which for painters of the present time is only a pretext for art, is in Rousseau’s paintings the one indispensable means of expressing the language of his spirit.2 To evaluate a work according to the currently accepted form has always led to the most flagrant blunders. It is only through clinging to this point of view that shameful injustices have arisen. Thus, all great artists whose content has required a new form have been branded as swindlers, untalented fortune hunters, or crazy decadents.

In ordinary conversation one naturally tries to understand the meaning of the talk—without which any conversation would be impossible. But in art people do not want to hear what the artist says; they are content to note superficially how the artist speaks.

WHEN ONE CONSIDERS PRESENT-DAY artists according to the outward principle, i.e., the form, one finds two groups: the “modern,” and the “old-fashioned.” Whether an artist is praised or censured depends entirely on the spectator’s level of development. The question of whether the artist belongs in spirit to the one or the other group is not taken into account; what he says is of no consequence.

If tomorrow a new modernity should arise, this present division would become useless. Thus it is at bottom meaningless.

To find a good classification, one must not only heed the present, but try to find a division which can run on through all times. One should not seek transitory landmarks, but those that are lasting, because they alone disclose the adherence to law. In this way one can effect a true judgment.

By this means one will readily observe that through the entire history of art two kinds of talent and two different tasks simultaneously exist and are at work.

For art in our view—what we call pure art—only those artists are needed who have been called to create new spiritual values out of themselves.

These are the creative artists who are fundamentally and utterly distinct from the virtuoso artists.

This division is the result of the mysterious law of doubleness in the spiritual realm. Each group has its own function and differs in principle from the other. Herein is certainly an outer similarity, but it is deceptive, because the two kinds of artists do not belong to one and the same kingdom of art, but to two entirely different ones.

The one is art in the purest sense of the word. The creations of this art are spiritual entities, which have no practical use, and consequently no material value. These works belong to the spiritual world. The other is art in the broader meaning. Its creations are material beings which have no spiritual significance, but only an inner tone, like everything else in our known world—be it a person, a tree, a word, a sound, a spot. These works consequently belong to the material world.

It is self-evident that artists serving two opposite worlds in principle must differ from each other.

THE TALENT THAT THE TWO kinds of artists possess is of a different nature. The virtuoso has a brilliant, many-sided gift which is extremely sensitive to every influence, which reacts very strongly to all beauty and, with the utmost skill and ease, develops in many, often totally different, sometimes contradictory directions. This artist can even abandon and completely change his means of expression (drawing and color). He possesses no inner source of creativity because his talent does not need it: he has other means and goals. Therefore, his sensitive eye is not responsive to the influence of an inner dream. Thus he sees even outer nature through the lenses of an alien dream. Alone he cannot create. He needs outer influence; without it his eye is halted in its development. And for his development, the outer development, existing outside himself, is absolutely essential.

The virtuosos form “schools.” Enchanted by the alien dream, they create works which are always inferior to the originals. But their works possess a moderate charm, which builds a kind of bridge from the original to the public and popularizes the dream of the original. Such artists are like starlings, which have no song of their own but, with more or less success, imitate the nightingale’s.

The same kind of talents in music often become great virtuosos. They fulfill a major and necessary task which is indispensable to the life of art. They seldom try their hand at composition, but when they do, their works are only virtuoso drawing room pieces, which lack all real musical content.

Also, in the art of painting this division will become final. Thus many unnecessary pictures will pass out of sight. An extensive field for new activity will open infinite ranges of vision. Many areas which have for ages longed for the hand of the artist will become not only richer but so perfected as to form whole new spheres.

In great epochs just such richly gifted painters have, in an astonishing degree and with incredible power, woven the art style of the time into all of life. It was exactly through them that the great styles were propagated—those styles which saturated the entire life of the time and which we now preserve in our museums—the embodiment of the deathless spirit of past great eras.

Also in our time, which is the beginning and the continuation of one of the most significant great spiritual epochs, there are signs of renewal in this respect. The Russian theater, for instance, soon realized how to give work to such virtuoso artists in painting. After a private opera in Moscow had taken the initiative,3 the imperial theaters in both Moscow and St. Petersburg exchanged their former banal “decorators” for real artists.

Thus arose the truly artistic decoration which enters the theater not mechanically, but as a living organic part, and forms a new theatrical unity—a fact of major import, as it will constitute the basis for the theater design of the future.

THE CREATIVE ARTIST COMES into the world with his own soul’s dream. The import of his existence is the embodiment of that dream. His entire talent exists only for this goal. Therefore it is stubborn, seems to be unbending, resists influences, does not allow itself to be drawn into the currents of the day, stands to one side, is misunderstood, underestimated, and, in the beginning, unnoticed. Such artists are often poor students in school, will not obey their teachers, frequently fail examinations, and are considered untalented even by their comrades. They see other art and everything around them with their own eyes. When they speak with the help of nature, they do so in their own way and cannot even in this respect agree with the currently recognized “correct principle.” And so they are considered, in the beginning of their career and often for many, many years, as “second-class” artists.

The creator walks his own difficult but unswerving road. When the art historian later looks back on his career, he sees a straight line. He sees that, from the beginning, line (drawing) and color (harmony) remain the same and it is only during the course of the work that they are developed, purified, concentrated, and perfected. Drawing and color are inborn to the creative artist. He cannot change them. In his most disparate works, a delicate eye will always recognize the same character. His line and color are necessary tools, under orders only to the soul’s dream; for other purposes they fail.

The creator of the new learns from other artists. But how can he adopt someone else’s form since he cannot possibly escape his own form? Thus the help of others can be of use to him, but it plays no essential role. It lies outside his power to reproduce anything exactly “as it is.” When he needs nature in order to express himself, he is incapable of rendering it “accurately”; from the outer world, he unconsciously and involuntarily creates an inner world. He does not reproduce the things themselves but the spirit of the things, as his dream reveals it to him. This is called rendering nature “as one sees it”—as one’s inner eye sees it. This is the cause of the “distortions,” which thus derive from inner necessity. The hand is unconsciously and unconditionally subordinate to the soul, and the artist is not satisfied with his drawing until he has made it become an exact expression of what his dream perceives. Thus drawing at first hand becomes a clear testament of the artist’s soul. It is only herein that the new creator is recognized. If such drawing is imitated, it immediately gets a stamp of weakness, platitude, and lack of character. The innovator does not need any direct outer influence. The created work is for him an inner experience. It is to him like a phenomenon of nature which has made him inwardly richer, but which externally is not indispensable to him. If he does not have it, he will nevertheless, in one way or another, realize his dream, as long as the dream is alive within him. Thus, in contrast to the virtuoso, he needs the inner development.

THE PERSONAL IS THEREFORE INNATE to the creative artist. It consists in two parts which are necessarily and inseparably joined to each other:

1. the inner world, that is the ideal, the artist’s dream, which seeks embodiment;

2. the power needed for this task—and only for this—the artistic means—personal line, personal color.

It is a simple thing, which “everyone knows.” And still it is constantly forgotten. Especially in the time of great whirlpools, such as ours, artists are often judged not in accordance with the harmony between these two elements but exclusively according to the latter, which unconditionally strives to be “modern.” Often an artist is reproached for his greatest quality: his individuality which diverges from the latest “credo”; he is accused of being unmodern, behind the times. People fasten readily on form because it is easier to feel with the eye than with the soul; and precisely in our time, filled with great spiritual upheavals, man still prefers to concern himself with outer things, an unhappy remnant of a past extreme materialism. Under this system, artists are identified in accordance with their outer signs, are sorted, and bundled together like bunches of radishes. Like smoked fish, they are packed according to form, color, and size into small boxes, on which labels are already printed. Weak artists are nice little fishes who themselves prepare their boxes and proudly crawl into them. In this way “movements” originate.

Nevertheless, it would be so easy to perceive from the above-mentioned point of view which “everyone knows,” that it is not form alone, but the content emerging through the form, which constitutes the most significant and the only significant element in art.

It would be so easy to see that there are at bottom neither modern nor unmodern artists,4 because each new art is neither better nor worse than all authentic, already existing art—quite irrespective of time and country. To divide artists according to country or time may be of historic-cultural interest, but in no case does it have any value for art.

THE EVERLASTING TENDENCY AND THE fancied need to measure the inner by means of the outer gauge and to judge according to this measure, is the arch enemy of all real art and false art’s best friend. With its shrill voice, the label drowns out the inner voice of the genuine work, and endows a mute work with a false voice; it stifles the real life and gives something dead the semblance of life.

The outer measures and labels are external results of that art which has lived a long time.

The inner is transformed into the outer. Inner necessity is disguised as an outer fashion. A new classification appears, new names are invented, new labels produced. And what was thrust aside yesterday with abhorrence is highly prized today—what was prized yesterday is thrust aside today with abhorrence. A new personal language is turned into a new formula. And no one any longer cares about content.

The accepted formula is attached to the newly wrought pictures, and woe betide the artist whose work does not correspond to this formula. No one will give him the slightest attention and no one is willing to understand that it is easier to acquire a readymade formula than to find one’s own necessary language.

Those artists who cannot be led are lonely dreamers who, for all the shortsightedness and hatred of their fellow men, extend the boundaries of art and create imperishable values. If their language is modest, no one will notice them. If their dream is clothed in powerful words, they are hated.

People want to force souls, like soldiers, into identical uniforms; he who does not have one is “good for nothing.”

When will the question of form no longer replace the question of art? When will one really understand that art does not come from form, but form from art? How many thousands of years will it still take (since the preceding have taught us nothing) for men to realize that each new content demands its own form, and that form without content is a sin against the spirit?

The empty forms float around on the surface in empty barrels, until the water penetrates them and they sink forever into the dark depths.

A genuine work of art speaks spontaneously to the spectator, and spontaneously the spectator should place himself beside the art work.

One must not forget that art is not a science, where the “correct” theory proclaims the old one false and cancels it out.

The only stand toward art which is creative demands, with all clarity, that one surrender oneself to the personal resonance of the artist, that one entrust oneself to him, that one enter so deeply into his work that all which is old and stale is reduced to silence. Then a new world, which he has never known before, opens up for the spectator. He journeys into a new land of the spirit where his life will be enriched.

This country, which the artist is compelled to show his fellow men and which, despite all and defying all, he must embody, is created by the will of fate, not for the artist’s sake but solely for the spectator’s, because the artist is the slave of humanity.

Stockholm, February, 1916



1. By “content” is here understood, not a “literary narrative,” but the sum of those indescribable inner experiences which are the origin of the work. These experiences belong to a world which cannot be reached through any literary “means.” They can only be brought to light through wordless art, i.e. through those means of expression which alone belong to such art—within the art of painting: line and color, those means which are fore-ordained for painting and which, in case of need, can have recourse to nature.

2. See my article, “Über die Formfrage,” in Der blaue Reiter, Piper Verlag. Munich, 2nd printing.

3. This was the opera of the versatile and artistically gifted patron S.I. Mamontov. Thereafter his example was followed by the famous Diaghilev.

4. Closely bound up with today’s burning issue of modernity is another special question: what will become of “objective” painting if the so-called abstract art spreads further? It is easy to answer this with a simile. Music, which at the beginning was exclusively vocal, was enriched after thousands of years by instrumental and especially symphonic forms. This fact did not prevent composers, in the course of the centuries, from using both forms and combining them with each other. When ultimately, as can be assumed, vocal music in its present form (singing with illustrative words) becomes unnecessary and no longer attracts the composer, it will still in its retrospective form retain the ability to evoke spiritual experiences, as “les instruments anciens” do today.