PRINT November 1978

Kandinsky and Problems of Abstraction

IN A VERY SYMPATHETIC ARTICLE Hilton Kramer once voiced his misgivings (and disappointments) about Kandinsky, arriving at the view that he populated naturalistic (19th-century landscape) space with abstract forms and was unable to come to terms with the pictorial implications of the tendency of abstract forms to flatten space.1 Implicit in this criticism, of course, is the assumption that abstract forms demand a certain kind of spatial treatment, and this assumption, in turn, is part of a view about the nature and purpose of abstraction itself. Kandinsky was well aware that abstract forms suggest a narrowing of spatial depth, but he obviously did not think that they demanded it, as at least two passages from Concerning the Spiritual in Art show. So the first question we should ask is, “To what end did Kandinsky introduce abstract forms into his art?”

The answer, I think, lies in his theoretical writings and the fact that they embody the fundamentals of theosophical thought. Such connections have been made before, notably by Sixten Ringbom, who transfers the metaphysics of auras and thought-forms to the works and reads them in a symbolic way.2 That is a very literal approach, whereas all the evidence of Kandinsky’s writings suggests that he did not have a very literal mind. It is true that such an interpretation must enter into one’s account of Woman in Moscow (though not quite as literally as Ringbom suggests3), of the glass-painting Cow in Moscow and, to a lesser extent, of Impression Ill (Concert).4 But that is only a small part of the story, and such paintings are few. For the rest, such literal interpretations are strained; but more importantly, they tell us nothing of why the pictorial structure is the way it is.

The literalist interpretation also underestimates Kandinsky’s intelligence, for it fails to appreciate that he was not so much interested in the trappings of theosophical theory as in the more fundamental issue of the relation between spiritual and material substance (of which auras and thought-forms are merely an outgrowth). The present-day mind tends to focus on these oddities rather than on the supporting thought, and recent interest in the occult has been attracted to these and other psychic phenomena out of a concern with knowledge and experience, or, more accurately, knowledge as experience. The early theosophists, on the other hand, wrote at a time when orthodox religion and its accompanying metaphysics had been eroded by Darwinism and other forces, and when philosophers and even physiologists had raised doubts about the existence of spiritual (or mental) substance by attempting to explain all mental and emotional activity in material—neural—terms. Physicists, on the other hand, had begun to undermine the comforting solidity of material substance by splitting the atom. As Kandinsky himself wrote in Reminiscences:

The crumbling of the atom was to my soul like the crumbling of the whole world. Suddenly the heaviest walls toppled. Everything became uncertain, tottering and weak. I would not have been surprised if a stone had dissolved in the air in front of me and became invisible. Science seemed to me destroyed; its most important basis was only a delusion, an error of the learned, who did not build their godly structures stone by stone with a steady hand in transfigured light, but groped at random in the darkness for truth and blindly mistook one object for another.5

Although the theosophists and Kandinsky set the attainment of spiritual knowledge as their ideal, this did not involve a crude rejection of the material world and of material substance as unworthy of enlightened attention. Rather the emphasis was on seeing it the right way: material substance as just a “solid” manifestation of astral (or spiritual) substance, which, therefore has an “inner life”—the “inner necessity” that gives vitality to the external form. In the words of Madame Blavatsky, whom Kandinsky read a great deal:

Matter is Eternal. It is the Upadhi (the physical basis) for the One infinite Universal Mind to build thereon its ideations. . . . Or: Spirit and Matter are the two states of the One. . . . Spirit is the just differentiation of (and in) Space: and Matter is the first differentiation of Spirit.6

Blavatsky herself, in more understandable terms, quoted from an Indian source: “Wherever there is an atom of matter, a particle or a molecule, even in its most gaseous condition, there is life in it, however latent and unconscious.”7

Kandinsky’s writings—particulary Concerning the Spiritual in Art—are full of remarks which echo these statements. Many of them, like the theosophical writings from which they derive, are cast in terms which translate the principle of latent life into terms of the “sounds,” “resonances” or “vibrations” of the inner life of the material. Kandinsky frequently attributes the ultimate failure of a work to its failing to express the inner sound (see his remarks on Cubism)8. And of his own Composition VI he wrote:

In several sketches I dissolved the objective forms and in others I tried to achieve the impression in a more abstract way. But this did not work either.

The reason for it was, that myself while being forced to render the expression of the deluge, I did not listen to the expression of the word “deluge.”

Not the inner sound, but the exterior expression was dominating me.9

Theosophists are not dualists: they do not believe the world is sharply divided into two discrete kinds of substances, material and mental. This fact is central to Kandinsky’s beliefs and to his art. Leadbetter, for example, divides substance into several planes—solid. liquid, gaseous. etheric, and astral—and then says that these planes

must not be imagined as lying above one another like the shelves of a book-case, but rather as filling the same space and interpenetrating one another. . . . Every physical atom is floating in an astral sea—a sea of astral matter which surrounds it and fills every interstice in this physical matter.10

Kandinsky puts the same point in a slightly different. perhaps more comprehensible. way when he says that all substance. whether material, spiritual or mental. is basically composed of the same thing:

Frequent reference is made to “material” and “nonmaterial,” and to the intermediate phrases, “more” and “less material.” Is everything material—or is everything spiritual? Can the distinctions we make between matter and spirit be nothing but relative modifications of one or the other? Thought, which although a product of the spirit can be defined with exact science, is matter, but of fine and not coarse substance. Is whatever cannot be touched spiritual? The discussion lies beyond the scope of this little book: all that matters here is that the boundaries drawn should not be too definite.11

Hence Kandinsky’s remark on hearing of the splitting of the atom, that he would not have been surprised to see a stone dissolve before his eyes and become invisible.

This interpenetration of material substance and ethereal essence is the subject of Kandinsky’s art from the first growing awareness around 1904 up to 1919-20. He himself articulates it in terms of expressing the “inner necessity” of external forms. But what we actually witness in his painting is the disintegration of the nexus between form and color, so that color is liberated to float free of form, while the discarded form itself is left, not like an emptied shell but with a substanceless life of its own. In the best of his oil paintings (Black Lines, Composition V, the Campbell panels, Composition VII, and Improvisation Without Title, 1914, for example),12 and in his watercolors (which are in many ways more interesting and innovative than his oils), color and line interpenetrate/separate as they move across the canvas in a state of flux, always looking as if in some former existence they had been combined to present a solid object. A sense of movement expresses the flux and transition from material into etheric substance. And the impression that line had once belonged to colored form is achieved by placing a contour slightly out of register with a patch of color, as if it were sliding off, sometimes by opening the contour at one end and trailing the line off to melt into another shape, and by carefully controlling the spatial depth between color and line so that their connection, as well as their separation, is visually plausible. This is particularly true of Composition V, where the figure/ground distinction is muted by the uniform tonality of the colors, and where the vibrant black lines which swing across the erupting landscape seem to have been generated out of the black in the color patches themselves, looking organically connected with the substance of the color.

The beginnings of this kind of visual thinking can be seen in Kandinsky’s early work from around 1904 onward. From 1904 through 1906 he defined form in his oil paintings by means of large blocks of color which, in some cases—notably Beach Baskets in Holland, 190413—are so large as to suggest that the substance of the form is to be seen solely in terms of the colored pigment applied with all the evidence of the brushstroke (as de Kooning was to do). This attempt to present form as simply color has a parallel in the graphics of the same period, where line is used not to define form, but to break it up into counterpointed areas of black and white. The resulting color/line and space dichotomy makes the works difficult to read, as if Kandinsky wanted the dissolution of forms but had not yet been able to realize to what end. At the same time, many of his works are very romantic and mystical in theme and mood, a fact which suggests a striving after an unknown fantasy world (always bathed in color), an ethereal world which does not impinge on reality as we see it. Whether romantic riders of medieval chivalry or single figures in a soft and strangely colored landscape, these are images of people removed from our ken, figures of the same substance as the landscape. Frequently Kandinsky uses black to melt one form into another (as in Die Nacht of 1903), and in Der Spiegel, 1907, and the 1906-07 Die Nacht the flowers against black dresses merge almost imperceptibly with flowers on black grass.14

Kandinsky often depicts a world in cataclysm: sometimes this is literal, as in the “Deluge” and “Resurrection of the Dead” works, but frequently it is just compositional, as if by shaking the world he could free essence, color and line from their physical imprisonment. In two watercolors of 1913, for instance, he prises color and line apart, not so much to present “pure” color and line as entities in their own right (as some critics have felt he should have done), but so that the ghost of a form is retained—although a form from which material solidity has evaporated. In Study for Painting with White Form,15 although the lines do establish the forms, many of them have become detached and wander freely around the landscape as objects of interest in themselves—very black, thick and vibrant. Although such forms inevitably establish some depth, the emphasis is not on spatial illusion, but on the quality of the lines themselves: in fact, they tend to negate the spatial effect by pulling together the various planes of black-outlined forms. The color is left floating behind the lines. In Watercolor (No. 13),16 on the other hand, line is used mainly to define form and remains relatively stable; the deliberate indeterminacy of planes (for example, the intersecting sides of the mountains) and the unity of color tonality have the effect of freeing the patches of color to float forward toward the viewer, each one vying for attention. Also, the juxtaposition of nonoutlined, indeterminate shapes next to determinate, recognizable objects such as hills creates an ambiguity of substance that again tends to free the color.

The ancestor of this technique can be seen in Church at Murnau, 1909,17 where large expanses of black or dark forms are lifted, with jewellike effect, by splotches of high-tone color, and unified through their uniformity of tone and saturation. Despite the representational subject matter, the patches of color establish their own existence, partly because they are difficult to read as objects (especially the color-patches on the path) and partly because of the counterpoint of lighter tones over dark, and darker over light, which makes one very aware of the brushstroke and of the color as pigment. On the roof a totally irrational black-green shadow falls across the large area of yellow-orange, breaking up the color and delocalizing it, making it seem that color capriciously inhabits the objects that it visits. Sometimes Kandinsky abandons actual forms and uses color so that it emanates from line alone, as if substance and form had disintegrated and been subsumed, as color, into the quality of the line. In an untitled watercolor of 1915 from the Rebay collection,18 for instance, within a central ovoid “frame” of the work streaks of color overlap or abut onto black, energy-creating lines; rather than reading as adjacent but separate lines, however, their dark tone links them generically with the black lines, as if the “black” had begun to disintegrate into its own manifold color components: the color appears to burn through from the very center of the black.

From around 1909 to 1919 Kandinsky’s best works succeed regardless of whether they are representational or abstract; in fact, whether they are representational or not seems to have very little to do with it. This may seem a strange observation to make of an artist who is often regarded as the father of abstract art (and whose work therefore has to be seen in terms of striving toward that end). But it raises certain crucial questions about the nature and purpose of abstraction. Although Kandinsky’s theory of painting is embedded in theosophical metaphysics, basically he painted pictures about the way the world of nature looks—or would look, if only we attended to it a little more carefully. Given his views of the unity of all substance, and the interpenetration of its various solid, “etheric,” and mental “manifestations.“ it is not surprising that many of his forms are, or are derived from, objects in the world: they are the source from which spring those images of color, line and vaporous form. Forms which did not originate in the visual experience of the world were impossible for Kandinsky. As he says:

And the most important [question]: what should replace the missing object? The danger of ornamentation stood clearly before me, the dead make-believe existence of schematical forms could only repulse me.19

The important thing was, however. for the stimulus object to lose its identity as a concrete object having a certain material function in the world, so that a viewer might concentrate on the way it looks rather than on what it is. In Kandinsky’s terms, this meant freeing the image from any connotations which might get in the way of seeing its “inner form”.

Here we find the same criterion and principle which thus far we have encountered everywhere as the only purely artistic one free from the unessential, the principle of inner necessity.

If, for example, features of the face or parts of the body are changed or distorted for artistic reasons, one encounters not only the purely pictorial question. but also that of anatomy, which hampers the pictorial intention and imposes upon it the consideration of unimportant details.

He goes on to say,

In our case, however, the unessential disappears automatically and only the essential remains, the artistic aim. These seemingly arbitrary but, in reality, well-reasoned alterations in form are one of the sources of an infinite number of artistic creations.20

What Kandinsky is pointing to here, apart from one of the limitations of representation, is a certain kind of abstractional thinking which puts an image through a sieve. Such an attitude toward the portrayal of forms invites the kind of abstraction which concentrates with great specificity on one aspect of a form while reducing and filtering out others. It has its forebears in the volumetric anatomical abstraction of Ingres, and is especially evident in the economy of the telling line in much of Matisse’s work—in the Dance, 1909, in the Museum of Modern Art, for example. It is also the basic principle of stylization in general (epitomized, perhaps, in Japanese Noh masks) and of caricature. But such abstraction can never be totally abstract; that is to say, it can never effect a total divorce between object and image. For no matter how much the viewer is urged to discard the question of representation, the artist never forgets the source of the image, for it is in this abstract image that he has sought to crystallize what he sees as the essentials of the stimulus-object. From this point of view, total abstraction is an impossibility, since there must always be something to abstract from, which precludes the severance of the umbilical cord connecting the abstraction with nature.

Given this essential connection with the real world, there is nothing intrinsic to this kind of abstraction which demands a particular (let’s say flat, or shallow) use of space (though it may, of course, on occasions aid it):21 since the forms are always ultimately connected with forms in the visible world, they do not have to strive to appear as if they were not. Since such forms are not necessarily bound to avoid looking as though they inhabit real space, criticism of Kandinsky’s abstractions on the grounds that he employs naturalistic space is beside the point. If by naturalistic space one means deep space as opposed, say, to the shallow space of Cubism (and all such space is “illusionistic”), why should the latter be more appropriate to Kandinsky’s particular illusion of the dismembering of line and color from the substance of forms? Indeed, that situation might well be more easily achieved within a not-too-shallow space, which is evidently what he had in mind when he wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art:

One of the first steps away from representation and towards abstraction was, in the pictorial sense, the exclusion of the third dimension, i.e. the tendency to keep the picture on a single plane. Modeling was abandoned. In this way the concrete object was made more abstract, and an important step forward was achieved—this step forward has, however, had the effect of limiting the possibilities of painting to the actual surface of the canvas: and thus painting acquired another material limit.

Any attempt to free painting from this material limitation, together with the striving after a new form of composition, must concern itself first of all with the destruction of the theory of one single surface. . . .

There are other ways of using the concrete plane as a space of three dimensions in order to create an ideal plane: the thinness or thickness of a line, the placing of a form on the surface, the crossing of one form by another may be mentioned as examples of the extension of picture space in depth through drawing. Similar possibilities are offered by color, which, when rightly used, can advance or retreat, and can make the picture suspended, non-material form. The combination of both means of extension-in-depth in harmony or counterpoint is one of the richest and most powerful elements in pictorial structure.22

Clearly Kandinsky felt that the preservation of the flatness of the picture plane was incompatible with his desire to make line and color look as if they had once belonged to the same substantial form, although, at the same time, he was always careful to avoid a space which is so deep and coherent as to re-endow his forms with the solidity of material substance. Of his own Composition VI he wrote:

Here the pink and white are mixed in a foam which gives the impression of neither laying on the canvas nor on any ideal plane. Rather it seems to hang in the air and appears to be surrounded by haze. Such an absence of plane and an uncertainty of distance may be observed for instance in Russian steambaths. A human figure standing amid the steam seems to be neither close nor far; it is ‘somewhere’.23

There is, however, another kind of abstraction within which total abstraction is, in a sense, realizable, an abstraction whose image derives not from the visual world, but which is architectonically put together from ideas of the mind. That is, of course, an overstatement, for in a sense all ideas are ultimately derived from experience of the world. The painter of abstract images (as opposed to abstracted images) constantly treads a knife-edge from which he may slip into producing images which have a specificity of references to things or qualities in the real world, on the one hand, or else may lapse into incoherency and noncommunication, on the other. The problem of translation from nonmaterial idea to material visual image is an acute one—and ultimately an impossible one that necessarily involves compromise. Some of the artists of the Bauhaus and De Stijl resolved it, in theoretical terms at least, by invoking metaphysical “universals” which somehow expressed themselves in certain generalized forms such as triangles, squares and circles, or through other theoretical devices such as synesthesia.

Whether or not the conviction of such paintings is attributable, at least in a major part, to the truth of the theories behind them is another question. For my part, I find it difficult to believe that they are, if only because such theories are essentially untestable. What is more likely, however, is that the theories have acquired some truth, not in absolute terms, but simply by virtue of constant repetition. In other words, even if the circle does not embody, in a real sense, perfection and eternal endurance, if we have been told so since early Greek times, we might well have come to accept the fiction (as a fiction) so that it indeed symbolizes those things. In the case of synesthesia, it is hard to know whether we associate the color red with passion, intensity, danger and excitement because of the heightened physiological response we experience on seeing it, or whether the increased heart-beat, adrenalin flow and so on occur because of the associations it has; as with blue/depression and other correspondences, the hypothesis tends to become self-fulfilling after a while.

The other point—and pictorially a much more important one—is that the images of this kind of abstraction can never be completely generalized and must have some determinable qualities of form and color even to be perceivable. Then the struggle for the artist is to avoid that kind of specificity of qualities which will be read as having specificity of reference to some object or visual experience. The suspicion remains, however, that in such abstraction the art succeeds at least in part through a specificity of reference which is not explicitly recognized as such. In a sense, how could it be otherwise? How could an image ever be played with by the mind and the eye if it is so generalized as to have no connection with one’s visual experience? My suspicions about this sort of hidden reference are strengthened by the fact that later abstract artists not concerned with eschewing the specificity of an image nevertheless took over the pictorial syntax of Mondrian and others and adapted it to their own ends without too much sense of strain.

Be that as it may, something can still be said about the limitations this kind of abstraction imposes. One very obvious point is that the forms it employs must divest themselves of any sense of being located in “real” space: hence the flatness of the picture-space and the “skin of paint” across the surface, which Hilton Kramer feels is so lacking in Kandinsky’s work. Also, of course, there is danger in letting the figure/ground phenomenon have its way, for it has a tendency to suggest a specific object in a particular space, albeit a shallow or flat one. At the same time, abstract art took on that quality of tactility that almost inevitably comes with closeness of vision as well as the necessity of avoiding the discreteness of forms. Kandinsky’s art is never concerned with tactility: his artistic vision was always completely visual, as both his works and his writings testify.

Since the abstract image must avoid looking like something else (being representational, that is, in the broad sense), and if a belief in metaphysical correspondence is no longer tenable, then the only viable option is for art to become self-reflexive, and for the image to look like nothing but itself, a painted image. That, too, is a chimera, of course, but the point is that we are prepared to overlook the gap between the intention and the realization, provided it is within acceptable limits, because we share the artist’s impulse to perform these impossibilities.

That much is history, and Kandinsky’s kind of abstraction did not prevail. He was never interested in painting ideas: “The dead make-believe existence of schematical forms could only repulse me.” He always painted images from experience, and his art was always art at the service of a vision of the world. With historical hindsight, his art turned out not to be a principal resource (like Cubism), for all its quality and beauty. That, however, is quite another thing from saying that Kandinsky failed to appreciate or accept the implications implicit in abstract art. As I have tried to show, that is to confuse one kind of abstract intention with another.

The fait accompli of history conditions us to believe that the art development we have passed through was an inevitable one developing out of the intrinsic nature and problems of art. True, but that encourages a dangerously narrow view of historical evaluation. To measure all art at the crossroads of an artistic development against the aims and achievements of what finally developed out of the ferment—as if that were what it already should have been—seems to me misguided. Judged by those standards Kandinsky’s work was a failure; judged by its own, it is not.

Alwynne Mackie



1. Hilton Kramer, “Kandinsky,” Artforum, May 1963. He makes these criticisms of Kandinsky’s best period, from 1907 to 1919 approximately.

2. S. Ringbom, The Sounding Cosmos; a study in the spiritualism of Kandinsky and the genesis of abstract painting, Abo Akademi, Abo Finland, 1970.

3. Ringbom, pp. 94–99.

4. Woman in Moscow, 1912, oil on canvas, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; Cow in Moscow, 1912, glass painting, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich; Impression III (Concert), 1911, oil on canvas, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

5. W. Kandinsky, Reminiscences (1913), in R. Herbert, Modern Artists on Art, Englewood Cliffs. N.J., 1964, p. 27.

6. H. P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (1877), Los Angeles, 1947, vol. 1, p. 280: vol. 1, p. 258.

7. H. P. Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled (1877), Los Angeles, 1931, vol. 2, p. 263.

8. W. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), New York, 1947, p. 67.

9. Quoted (no source given) by Hilla von Rebay in Kandinsky, published on the occasion of the Kandinsky Memorial Exhibition, March-May, 1945, Museum of Non-Objective Paintings, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1945, p. 10.

10. C W. Leadbetter, Man visible and invisible, Wheaton, III, 1971, p. 9.

11. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 29.

12. Black Lines, 1913, oil on canvas, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Composition V, 1911, oil on canvas, private collection, wall panels for Edwin R. Campbell, 1914, oil on canvas, Spring, Summer, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Autumn, Winter, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Improvisation without title, 1914, oil on canvas, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich.

13. Beach Baskets in Holland, 1904, oil on canvas, Städtische Galene im Lenbachhaus. Munich.

14. Kandinsky, of course, did not invent the style as such, which is basically Jugendstil, what is distinctive about it, however, is the use to which it is put. Likewise other elements of style which I isolate do not take place in a vacuum: for instance, in terms of sheer technique, the use of color that I describe in Church at Murnau (see page 9) has obvious connections with Fauvism and, to a lesser extent, with Neo-Impressionism; the centricality is also to be found in Cubism. However I am not concerned with tracing these roots here.

15. Study for Painting with White Form, 1913. watercolor, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

16. Watercolor (No 13), 1913, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

17. Church at Murnau, 1909, oil on cardboard, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

18. Untitled watercolor, 1915, Rebay Foundation, No. R172, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

19. Kandinsky, Retrospects, trans H. Rebay in Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 28: italics mine.

20. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, p. 51.

21. This point needs some qualification. Every pictorial task will impose its own limitations, and it is not true to say that this kind of abstraction always allows the use of any kind of space. In Kandinsky’s case his use of the image compels him to forsake volume and the easiest way to deny volume is to avoid deep space, though it is not the only way. In fact, Kandinsky’s space is not as deep as Kramer and Greenberg (in “Kandinsky,” Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Boston, 1961, pp. 111–114) seem to think, though it is never flat either, it is important to notice, however, that despite its depth, the ground is insubstantial and ambiguous as to location, and the image is constantly referred back to the surface. The point I am making is that he modifies the use of “naturalistic” space in accordance with his pictorial aims: but this is different from saying (as Kramer and Greenberg imply) that abstract forms must be in flat or very shallow space in order to be abstract forms. The following discussion should elucidate this.

22. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, pp. 66–67.

23. Quoted (no source given) in Rebay, Kandinsky, p. 11.