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The Glow of Irreality


by Wassily Kandinsky, translated by Elizabeth R. Napier
Yale University Press, 136 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Kandinsky: The Improvisations” 1981

The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. April 26-September 7,

The coincidence of the exhibition “Kandinsky: The Improvisations” at the National Gallery of Art in Washington with the publication of Elizabeth Napier’s translation of Kandinsky’s book Sounds(Klänge) is happy. Both belong approximately to the second decade of the present century. Kandinsky painted the first Improvisation in 1909. In 1913 Klänge, a volume of thirty-eight prose poems and fifty-six woodcuts, twelve of them in color, was published by Piper Verlag in Munich, in an edition of 345 copies. This edition, which did not sell well at the time, is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century German book production. Five copies are on display in the present exhibition, though, as is inevitable, they are in a glass case, so that one can see only three poems and five woodcuts.

Nineteen of the original thirty-six Improvisations are here, together with drawings, watercolors, and prints. It is a small exhibition—about thirty items in all—the third in the excellent series of such exhibitions in the new building of the National Gallery, where the awed visitor searches for pictures among the overpowering architecture as for needles in a wonderfully constructed haystack. The previous exhibitions were of Mondrian’s “The Diamond Compositions” and Picasso’s “The Saltimbanques.”

Beautifully hung and arranged, this exhibition communicates the excitement of the avant-garde of the Blaue Reiter artists in Munich before the First World War. In Germany at that time, with a rawness not Parisian, the twentieth century seemed the beginning of an era in which the arts—music, poetry, and architecture, as well as painting—would transform the world with a new style which would influence men and women to live lives of pleasure, candor, truth, love.

In 1909 Kandinsky, who had abandoned his legal career in Russia to move to Germany, lived with the painter Gabriele Münter in a house known as “Russenvilla” at Murnau. Its very name brings with it a whiff of discussion of the relation of the inner life to art, the different significances of red, blue, green, and yellow, the music of Wagner and of Schoenberg—and also Schoenberg’s paintings—and of theories which are set forth didactically in Kandinsky’s pamphlet—a central document of modernism—Concerning the Spiritual in Art(1911).

Apart from Gabriele Münter, the artist closest to Kandinsky was Franz Marc, painter of horses, deer, and other animals which, within brilliant, stylized landscapes, seem in their elegant, shimmering, rainbow-like luminosity to have been restored by the artist to some Garden of Eden. Franz Marc shared with Kandinsky visionary religious views.

Despite his intermittent association with this “movement” of painters—endlessly dissenting from one another, exhibiting and refusing to exhibit together—Kandinsky appears isolated in his highly cerebral intellectualism, his passion for theory, his mysticism. There is an enchanting and enchanted description of him in 1912 by Jean Arp in “Kandinsky the Poet.” Arp promotes him from the Blaue Reiter to Dada:

Kandinsky spoke to me with tenderness, richness, vivacity, and humor. In his studio, speech and form and color fused and were transmuted into fabulous, extraordinary worlds. Across the bellowing and tumult of these worlds, by listening attentively, I could hear the tintinnabulation of the brilliant and gaudy mushroom cities of Russia. Kandinsky told me that his grandfather had come trotting into Russia on a small steed studded with bells, from one of those enchanted Asian mountains made of porcelain.

Kandinsky’s grandfather certainly bequeathed profound secrets. Anno dada, poems of Kandinsky’s, were recited for the first time in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, and the audience received them with prehistoric howls. The dadaists were the combative and enthusiastic vanguard of concrete poetry. In 1916 Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara were writing sound poetry that greatly helped to clarify the meaning of concrete poetry. My collection The Cloud Pumpconsists mainly of concrete poetry.

Kandinsky’s intellect and art reached deeper and further than the Munich of his time. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he shows his awareness of everything happening then in all the arts—and fifty years before—from Moscow to Paris, which tended toward the modern. He refers to: Wagner (notably the Wagner of Lohengrin), Debussy, Moussorgsky, Scriabin, Schoenberg—among composers; Rossetti, Segantini; Böcklin, Hodler, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso among painters. Maeterlinck especially appeals to him, on account of his use of symbolism both in language and in staging. One passage about Maeterlinck is particularly significant:

[His] principal technical weapon is his use of words. The word may express an inner harmony. This inner harmony springs partly, perhaps principally, from the object which it names. But if the object is not itself seen, but only its name heard, the mindof the hearer receives an abstract expression only, that is to say as of the object dematerialized, and a corresponding vibration is immediately set up in the heart.

There is also mention of Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky. Some of these names today cause one to shudder. What all have in common is first the Wagnerian insistence on the interrelationship of the arts—music, painting, poetry, theater, ballet; and secondly, the idea that art should be about an inner vision, and should avoid imitating “nature.” Kandinsky remarks of Matisse:

He paints “pictures,” and in these “pictures” endeavors to reproduce the divine. To attain this end he requires as a starting point nothing but the object to be painted…and then the methods that belong to painting alone….

What we have here is a pre-two-world-wars internationalism in the art of this century that no longer exists in a period when air travel would seem to have abolished distances. Part of this internationalism is symbolism in all the arts connected with a mysticism which is present in Rilke, and also Yeats, and even with the apocalyptic vision of D.H. Lawrence, evident in the concluding pages of The Rainbow.

And, of course, also with Kandinsky there were Russian links, of suprematism and other movements in painting, as well as of his visions remembered from childhood of the towers of the Kremlin, and of Odessa.

Looking at the Improvisations elucidates Kandinsky’s poetry, and reading the poems elucidates the paintings. This is not because the poems “explain” the pictures or that the pictures illustrate the poems, but because behind both we see the same religious-visionary and abstract-analytic, almost scientific, intelligence.

In the later Improvisations, as in the woodcuts accompanying the poems in Sounds(I do wish that Miss Napier had translated Klängeas Resonances—but doubtless she has excellent reasons for not doing so), objects are transformed into signs or indicators, like those arrows and exclamation marks which Kandinsky’s friend—and, later, colleague at the Bauhaus—Paul Klee introduces sometimes into his work. E.A. Carmean Jr., in the notes provided for the guide to the Washington exhibition calls these “abstract signs.” In the poems, names for things in nature are qualified by adjectives in such a way that they tend to become abstract symbols which the poet assumes to be present in the mind of the reader. For instance, in “Hills,” the opening poem of Sounds, Kandinsky assumes the existence in the reader’s mind of a clearly visualized yet abstract concept of hills as one mental or imagined hill, different from particular hills:

A mass of hills of all the colors you can imagine or care to imagine. All different sizes, but the shapes always alike, i.e., just one: Fat at the bottom, puffed out around the sides, flatround up above. Just plain, ordinary hills, like the kind you always imagine and never see.

The poet-painter here assumes that the reader shares with him the universal inward image (like an archetype of the Jungian collective unconscious) “the hill you always imagine.” This is in part surrealist play between poet and reader (before the word “surrealist” came into use). A good deal of the bright attractiveness of Kandinsky’s poetry is that it can be surrealistic without being turgid.

Another characteristic that the poems have in common with the Improvisations is that every object seems to be moving on a trajectory in which it may evolve into something else. The external natural landscape is only a mask, a deception behind which the spirit that dwells within the inner landscape of the spiritual life is engaged in a perpetual task of transforming appearances.

In all this, study of what goes on in the poetry is, I think, helpful in understanding the paintings. Especially the later Improvisations, in which the transformation of external things into “abstract signs,” or ideograms of the spiritual life, becomes complete.

In the earlier Improvisations this has not happened yet. In them, Moscow with the towers of the Kremlin, horse, horse and rider, the Lohengrin-like figure of a knight, hieratical priestly figures, the walls of Tunis (as recollected from a journey there taken together with Gabriele Münter) are represented or illustrated, while at the same time being drawn into a pattern of which they become only the parts. For example, in Improvisation 8(1910) the upper third of the picture is a hallucinatory childhood memory of the Kremlin with its bulging towers, semi-haloed by a rainbow. This is divided by an irregular wall (somewhat like the upside-down figure of an animal) from the lower part of the picture, dominated by the figure of a crusader knight, extending his rigid arm toward an enormous sword, pointed against the earth. This sacred knight seems reminiscent of Lohengrin. Behind him, on the right, there are Oriental-seeming cloaked figures, or so they appear to me.

Moscow, the knight, the sword, the rainbow, etc., are not representational. Rather they are illustrational, impregnated with a glow of irreality partly derived from childhood memory, partly from children’s books read, and pictures seen in them, partly from journeys made. They have the aura of Vaughan’s lines:

When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour,
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity….

Behind all there is Holy Russia, the things seen there. Will Grohmann in Wassily Kandinsky, Life and Workwrites of a visit which Kandinsky, then only twenty-three years old and a government official (he did not become an art student till he was thirty), made in 1889 to the northern province of Vologda, to make an anthropological report:

People in their local costumes moved about like pictures come to life: their houses were decorated with colorful carvings, and inside on the walls were hung popular prints and icons; furniture and other household objects were painted with large ornamental designs that almost dissolved them into color. Kandinsky had the impression of moving about inside of pictures—an experience of which he later became quite conscious when he invited the beholder to “take a walk” in his pictures and tried to forget himself, to dissolve himself in the picture.

This Russia was the ultimate of Kandinsky’s world just as much as it was Chagall’s.

This is still the world of the early Improvisations. Its images are not perhaps altogether representational, though too much so for anyone to call, say, Improvisation 8abstract. They are stereotypes, cut-outs from memory (Kandinsky had, rather to his distress, a photographic memory), illustrational, and with color which, as it were, floats off from the subject and creates a wash or veil of abstraction, and has the meanings, separate from it, which he attaches to colors. Intense yellow is aggressive, recalling the sound of a trumpet, green is the color of compromise—bourgeois life, smug and passive—blue is the color of heaven, and corresponds in music to flute, cello, double bass. Such associations are of poetry and remind us of Rimbaud’s sonnet on vowels, or Auden’s,

Whose favourite colour is blue,
Colour of distant bells
And of boys’ overalls.

In the early Improvisations, these stereotypes are collaged within a wider overall composition, like themes in a symphony:

Complex composition, consisting of various forms, subjected more or less completely to a principal form. Probably the principal form may be hard to grasp outwardly, and for that reason is possessed of a stong inner value. [Concerning the Spiritual in Art]

In the later Improvisations, what I call stereotypes of memory are replaced completely by abstract signs. The representational has been swallowed up within the ideogrammic, like Chinese ideograms in which what originates from a thing soon becomes changed into a “character.”

E.A. Carmean, Jr., has done very extensive research into the “abstract signs” in the Improvisations. Some of these are explained in the exhibition guide. Water is a wave, indicated by an outline like that of a gloved six-fingered hand. This refers to the power of water and thus to the destructive force of the Deluge. Signs for arisen soul, boats, horse and rider, towers, and troika are interpreted. The troika, a rake-shaped transverse line with behind it small, wiry lines indicating the manes of horses, followed by three trailing lines, derives from the familiar Russian team of three horses, and refers also to the horses of the Apocalypse. A childishly recognizable cannon with loop-shaped smoke coming out of the mouth denotes the end of the world. A chrysalis-shaped outline, often darkened in, indicates lovers. What looks like an inkblot, evil. The most frequent of the configurations appearing in the later Improvisations is that of ghosts: long lines moving diagonally across the canvas and linked up at the end by a crossing line like the top of an n.

The “abstract signs,” thanks to Mr. Carmean, can now, most of them, be interpreted, but if the pictures separately or as a whole are meant as messages, these are concealed, mysteries spoken in mysterious language. Some pictures seem clearer than others, because we recognize what they are about, and tend to read our own fears or wishes into them. For instance, Improvisation 27(Garden of Love), with its sun at the center of the garden, clasping lovers, fence, serpent, etc., seems easy; as does Improvisation 30, with cannon-smoke ghosts of the dead rising toward heaven, the war we know so well.

The Apocalypse was an inspired subject for Kandinsky for several reasons. In it he was painting the subject matter of his esoteric religion. He was also painting the strange feeling of things coming to an end and at the same time of total renewal, which artists, in particular, had in the years preceding 1914. However, the important reason why the subject had a certain inevitability for him at this stage of his career is that the view of life contained in the book of Revelation corresponds not just to his religious mysticism, but to his view of art. It provided him with a subject that was also a style and also the proper use of “the methods that belong to painting alone.”

It did so because the apocalyptic view of life reverses the whole order of appearances in the world and in history. What we call nature is only a deceptive covering; what we think of as history is only a procession of masks, historic figures, apocalyptic beasts, behind whose faces and actions the struggle between God and Satan, light and darkness, good and evil continues. There is a cast of God and Satan, angels and devils, the horses of the Apocalypse, acting out a play whose cataclysmic events—the Deluge, earthquakes, Armageddon, war, the end of the world, etc.—are only symbols of invisible events going on in the conflict of abstract divine and eternal forces.

In the late Improvisations, Kandinsky was “using the methods that belong to painting alone”—painting the invisible. This may seem a contradiction in terms until one reflects that a vision is precisely this—a vision of the invisible. The struggle between abstract forces of good and evil is what many painters throughout history have tried to depict. It is quintessential, basic painting. This is evident in primitive cultures where the artists who carve and paint totems, masks, gods, hunting scenes, are painting invisible magic. In doing so, the act of making art itself becomes magic. Kandinsky’s Improvisations are the magical works of modernism in which the act of painting is itself a form of creating a book of Revelation.

The misunderstanding of European religious artists since the Renaissance and earlier has been to try to express the invisible through the literally rendered description of the human body, nude or clothed, at a time when artists were infatuated with the human body anyway. The result of this is that we have a tradition of religious art which moves us because we instinctively recognize in it a religion of art—and of the human figure, the artist’s model. Kandinsky in these pictures reverses this process by making art into religion, not a religion of art but art as religious ritual sign language. The Improvisations resist being regarded as aesthetic secular objects. They are the documents of an intense spiritual struggle.

Their position in Kandinsky’s own work is that in them all his affinities, influences, memories, theories, religious feelings, are in a fluid state. One has the impression when one looks at the later pictures in the series of witnessing an explosion. Apart from everything else there is here the joy of the paint itself, laid on with such different surfaces: sometimes as wash, sometimes as swift diagonal strokes of the brush in a parallel direction, sometimes as trailing lines, sometimes as the outlines of abstract signs, which are the heart’s handwriting; and always with patches of brilliant color forming abstract patterns that fly apart from the lines.

It is worth pointing out that these pictures do not at all strike the note of tragic pathos which we find in Picasso’s Blue Period paintings. They are entirely exhilarating, Nietzschean in being beyond good and evil.

The temptation to read journalistic prophecy into certain of the Improvisations which are concerned with war is even stronger with some of the poems. It is difficult to read the opening lines of “Bassoon” without the feeling—“he must be talking about us”:

Very large houses suddenly collapsed. Small houses remained standing. A fat hard egg-shaped orange-cloud suddenly hung over the town. It seemed to hang on the pointed point of the steep spindly town hall tower and radiated violet.

A dry, naked tree stretched its quaking and quivering long branches into the deep sky. It was very black, like a hole in white paper. Its four little leaves quivered for a long time. But there was no sign of wind.

But when the storm came and buildings with thick walls fell down, the thin branches didn’t move. The little leaves turned stiff: as if cast out of iron. A flock of crows flew through the air in a straight line over the town.

And suddenly again everything was still.

The orange-cloud disappeared. The sky turned piercing blue. The town yellow enough to make you cry.

And through this silence a single sound rang: hoofbeats. And they knew that through the totally empty streets a white horse is walking all alone.

The sound lasted for a long time, a very, very long time. So no one knew exactly when it disappeared. Who knows when silence begins?

Through elongated, extended, somewhat expressionless, unsympathetic notes of a bassoon rolling far, far away deep in the distant emptiness, everything slowly turned green. First low and rather dirty. Then brighter and brighter, colder and colder, poisonous and more poisonous, even brighter, even colder, even more poisonous….

These poems were written in German (Kandinsky also wrote some poems in Russian). They are concisely and clearly translated by Elizabeth Napier and are close to the original text (one hardly expects this from translators nowadays, and is grateful). In either language the poems read as though they were written in a kind of basic English (or German), like instructions on the box of a do-it-yourself kit. They often have humor, but underneath there is the tone of another kind of instruction, on how to live in an apocalyptic era.

It is difficult to write about these poems except in the language of surrealist hyperbole (as Arp does) or with extreme aridity. Elizabeth Napier writes rather surrealist things in a language of extreme aridity. Here is a passage:

Although in both Erdeand Tischrepetition serves to stabilize and to simplify an already circumscribed universe, the reduplication of phrases and single words occasionally evokes resonances of a more complex nature. In Offen, the mysterious quality of the poem’s landscape derives from heavy rhythmical cycles of sounds which, in imitation of the recurring seasons, approach and recede from the deep, central oof “Rohre.”

Even if, through repetition, one were able to stabilize “an already circumscribed universe” (what can that be?), how, after accomplishing this feat, could he possibly, through reduplication, be expected to evoke “more complex resonances”? I did, however, manage to gather from the above, after reduplication of my reading of it, that repetition of a word or phrase tends to hold up the forward movement of a sentence. It is true that since Kandinsky’s language lacks a rich verbal texture of the kind one expects in poetry, one has to look for other qualities to explain its very real appeal. It combines sharpness, brightness, precision with an underlying ominousness, and this is due to the positioning of words so that they make one see beyond them into colors and sounds they represent. It is excellent painter’s poetry or wordpainting. Kandinsky can be surrealist without being verbose or turgid, as here in “Early Spring”:

A man on the street took off his hat. I saw black-and-white hair stuck down to the right and left of his part with hair cream.

Another man took off his hat. I saw a big pink, slightly greasy bald spot with a bluish highlight.

The two men looked at one another, each showing the other crooked, greyish yellowish teeth with fillings.

This edition is printed clearly in very black typography on shiny paper. The woodcuts, although greatly reduced in size, come out black and strong. It is good that it should be widely accessible to readers. It is a pity, however, that there are not colored reproductions of the twelve original color blocks. It is greatly to be hoped that someone enterprising someone enterprising (if I may dare stabilize and simplify an already circumscribed universe by repetition of a phrase, for a moment) will publish a replica of the book as printed by Piper Verlag. Perhaps in Germany someone enterprising is already doing this.

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