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Centenary and Impact of Kandinsky’s "Über das Geistige in der Kunst”, Symposium, University of Leiden, 2012


The groundbreaking book ‘Über das Geistige in der Kunst. Insbesondere in der Malerei’ was written by the Russian artist Vasily Kandinsky. It was published in 1912, by R. Piper Verlag & Co in Munich, the city where its author was living at the time of publication.(1) It received acclaim overnight. A second enlarged and third edition followed a couple of months later, still in 1912. Kandinsky’s book inspired artists as well as art historians and museum professionals to explore the theme of the spiritual in art for themselves, and to create their own art, interpretations and exhibitions on the very same theme. 

The first part of the book’s title has been used in exhibitions such as: The Spritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, 1986, LA Country Museum of Art en HGM, 1986 and Das Geistige in der Kunst. Blauen Reiter zum Abstrakten Expressionismus, 2011, Museum Wiesbaden, whilst the theme of the book is also explored in a number of other exhibitions. Its impact on the international art world, the history of art and the museum world ever since its publication a century ago was the reason to organize the symposium ‘Centenary and Impact of Kandinsky’s book ‘Über das Geistige in der Kunst’ at the University Leiden. The organisors, Laetitia Smit and Inge Wierda, were convinced that this landmark in the history of art could not be passed unnoticed.

The first, slightly abbreviated Russian version and Sandler’s English translation were printed in 1914, the first Italian edition in 1940, a French translation in 1949 and a Dutch translation 1962. The titles of these translations of the German original vary according to the interpretation of the translators. The Dutch art historian Charles Wentinck entitled his translation e.g. Het abstracte in de kunst in 1962, omitting and avoiding the translation of ‘Geistige’ and thereby missing Kandinsky point completely.

The artist explained in his Reminiscences written in 1913 that it had not been his aim to create a philosophy or theory, but to develop and a ‘for as yet nonexisting’ but ‘undoubtedly needed and endlessly enriching capacity to experience the spiritual in material and abstract things’.(2) In other words, he aimed for nothing less than to transform humans into beings who would perceive the world in a spiritual way. Kandinsky desired to change the attitude of artists, curators, spectators and art critics and most probably art and cultural historians into this direction. As a highly responsible artist, he felt, and I paraphrase chapter 8 in Über das Geistige in der Kunst, that it is the duty of an artist, like all people to watch their ‘deeds, feeling and thoughts’ as it would go into the art works he is producing. Painting he said is a ‘power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul’.(3)

The artist began assembling notes for his book around 1900 and finished his writing in 1910. In 1904 he wrote two texts about colour and revealed his wish to become a ‘composer of colour’, as he called it. Kandinsky had a deep respect for the power of both music and colour as Fontaine-Hahl and Smit will elucidate in their papers. He played the cello and the piano and wished that art would have the same impact as music can have, that is to give a ‘pure soul experience’, ‘create a spiritual atmosphere’, ‘set up a vibration in the heart’.(4) Kandinsky counted among his friends the spiritually inclined Russian composer and conductor Thomas von Hartmann, whilst he respected Schönberg, for his independence and music of the future,as can be read in his book. In 1904, the same year that he wrote the first drafts for Über das Geistige in der Kunst, he wrote to his friend, Gabriele Münter, that he would pave a new path in art. In order to become a ‘composer of colour’, he researched the physical and psychological effects of colour, the language of form, and the mutual effects of colour and form within a composition. (see part 2, chapters 5 and 6)

As most of you know, Kandinsky’s evolutionary growth personally and as an artist lead him to revolutionise art, in the form of abstract art, and this came together in his book. This is probably the reason why for some translators ‘the spiritual in art’ became synonymous for ‘abstract art’. In an interview held in 1937 by Karl Niedorf, Kandinsky explained briefly which formal factors had been important for this revolution in art: they ranged from a passion for colour, non-representative art in the Vologda region, an exhibition of Impressionists in Moscow, Russian icon painting, Matisse and the Expressionists rather than the Cubists.(5) The driving force behind this revolution was not mentioned, but explained in his groundbreaking book.

In order to come to an understanding of Kandinsky’s book and his art up to 1912, one cannot only point to formal factors as Kandinsky did, and as was the custom among art historians at that time. We need to study the context of time and place in which it originated: personal, socio-historical, political, cultural, intellectual, artistic and spiritual factors that shaped his art and mindset. It is indeed interesting to examine Kandinsky’s view on the human condition. Let us examine some of these factors briefly.
Kandinsky rebelled against his parents’ generation, their positivist materialist worldview and underestimation of spiritual values. Although not condemning their art, he criticized Russian realists for their subordination to materialism and utilitarianism, and their dependence on patrons. According to Kandinsky their art is ‘without a soul’. Thus, he writes in Über das Geistige in der Kunst’, that ‘degraded artists just copy nature, portray material objects. For centuries their only concern has been how to do this.’

Art mirrors its times, he asserts in his book, and therefore can not be imitated. Neo-classicist art may resemble Greek art, but without its soul. For centuries, the artistic language of classical antiquity attracted the attention of the art world. Winckelmann (1717-1768) claimed it to be the most perfect language that had ever existed and newly established art academies and art museums conformed to his view. They communicated the classical ideal in their educational system and the presentation of their collections respectively. The Imperial Academy of the Arts in St. Petersburg was no exception. In the 1890s for the first time Russian realism was added to the curriculum. Kandinsky perceived neo-classicism and realism as dead art and moved to Germany to receive an alternative training among symbolists.

The fact that artists of his age were reviving Primitive art was not a matter of aping according to Kandinsky, but points towards another resemblance between the art forms of today and those of the past. It is based on ‘similar ideals’, a similar (spiritual) attitude towards life, and is full of potential.(6)This type of art contains an uplifting and evolutionary power, and ‘a deep and powerful prophetic strength’ according to Kandinsky.(7)

Kandinsky asserts in the introduction of his book, that curators and spectators do not recognise the difference between these two forms of resemblances of or borrowings from ancient art. He describes exhibition spaces full of skillfully painted and technically perfect art, but remarks that ‘hungry souls go away hungry’.(8) Art has not appealed to their heart. It lacks ‘vision'. Spectators appreciate solely what they know and turn their back on artists with ideals. This is the reason why the evolution of men is such a slow process, according to Kandinsky. In chapter two, he describes a triangle where the masses below stand still, whilst some prophets and martyrs on top will try to drag them forward and provide those below with spiritual sustenance. To the masses belong all who are imprisoned by their materialism, artists as well as religious believers, politicians, economists and scientists.

Kandinsky noticed that in the late 19 century there was however an increasing number of people interested in questions of a non-material or spiritual nature. They turned to the past, not to copy, but to learn from those with ‘the same ideals’, ‘their half-forgotten methods’.(9) 

Kandinsky himself consciously looked back to medieval Russian religious art, in order to study their representation of the non-material, other or spiritual world. He attempted to grasp its essence and concluded that icons were painted in an abstract, or in any case, a non-naturalist style. He sharply criticizes the Eurocentric and colonial views of the West, regarding Indians as ‘savages’, and he embraces Helena Blavatsky as the first person willing to learn from these so-called savages and what he called ‘their half-forgotten methods’. According to Kandinsky, Blavatsky initiated a ‘tremendous spiritual movement’ in the late-nineteenth century, the theosophical movement (1875), providing a hand in the spiritual quest. At the same time, Kandinsky, is wary of the theosofists’ inclination to answer all questions, instead of humbly posing a question about matters that are beyond the mind’s grasp.

He quotes Blavatsky at the end of her book: ‘The earth will be a heaven in the 21 century in comparison with what it is now’ and he concludes his own book with similar words: ‘We see already before us an age of purposeful creation, and this spirit in painting stands in a direct, organic relationship to the creation of a new spiritual realm that is already beginning, for this spirit is the soul of the epoch of the great spiritual.’(10) 

Kandinsky was influenced by Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner at the time of writing his book, and this influence should not be overestimated nor underestimated. He read their theosophical texts in areas of interest to him, attended public lectures by Steiner in 1908, knew theosophists in Russia (Aleksandra Unkovskaia and Alexander Strakosch) where its impact was profound, discussed their ideas in e.g. his friend, Von Werefkin’s salons, and borrowed concepts from them. However, there were other Russian religious philosophers among his acquaintances and in his sphere of influence.

One of them was Dmitri Merezhkovsky, prophesising as early as 1892 an epoch of ‘divine idealism’ and evolutionary mysticism. Merezhkovsky revived the medieval idea of The Third Testament, the New Age of the Holy Spirit, emphasising the Necessity of a Revolution of the Spirit. He distinguished three ages: 1. an Age of the Father, 2. the Age of the Son and 3. the Age of the Spirit.(11) In Reminiscences, written in 1913, Kandinsky refers to these revived medieval ideas. He speaks of ‘a mighty kingdom, that we can now only dimly conceive’ and a little further ‘Here begins the great period of the spiritual, the revelation of the Spirit. Father-Son-Holy Spirit’.

In other words, Kandinsky subscribes to the theosophical idea of a nearing spiritual epoch in all realms of life, and names it after Merezhkovsky’’s borrowed and ancient Christian Idea, ‘the Third Age of the Spirit’.(12) Merezhkovsky proclaimed a revolutionary form of Christianity based on the Apocalypse, indeed the Revelation of St. John. It can be no coincidence that we find apocalyptic themes in Kandinsky’s art works around 1912 as well.

Being an avid reader and well informed, Kandinsky must have heard about the other major Russian religious philosopher of his time, Vladimir Soloviev. Like Soloviev (and Merezhkovsky), Kandinsky criticised the state of Christians in Über das Geistige in der Kunst and pleads for introspection and change. Moreover, Soloviev predicted the end of the world in his ‘A Short Story of the Antichrist’ published in 1900, whilst Kandinsky tackled themes like the Flood and the Last Judgment. Vladimir Soloviev famously wrote that "the end" will be like the final act of a play by Ibsen: the actual end isn't ever "in doubt"; it's just a matter of his audience having to wait as the inevitable ending gradually / eventually / inevitably 'unfolds' before them.

In 1911, the year which saw the publication of Über das Geistige in der Kunst, Kandinsky painted Composition V, which he based on the theme of the Last Judgment. It is difficult to recognize his allusion due to its abstract character. Kandinsky made however more representative variants and studies on the subject and these studies are much easier to comprehend. He made a so-called Hinterglasbild (painting on glass) in Murnau in August 1911. It is entitled Resurrection, with an angel awakening the death on Judgement Day, blowing a huge trumpet at the top left side. In Composition V, one sees the sounds the angels make depicted in bold black lines. The angels themselves are much abstracted. Only a few lines are left at the top right side. We also identify a walled city with crumbling tower on top of a mountain, which reoccurs in Composition V. 

The motif of crumbling architecture appears in Russian folk art (luboks) and reoccurs in the watercolour ‘Sound of Trumpets’ (1911) by Kandinsky and in the woodcut ‘last Judgment’ (1911), now in the collection of the Städtische Galerie Lenbachhaus Munich. And finally, and most importantly we find a detail of the Last Judgment on the cover of Über das Geistige in der Kunst.

We may hope that Blavatsky and Kandinsky’s prediction that a new spiritual era will dawn after a period of darkness is correct. The awakened interest in (eastern) spirituality in the late 19th century which Kandinsky signalled in his book, Kandinsky’s book and its impact on the art world, museum world and art history allows us to imagine its possibility. 

1. The book appeared slightly earlier on the market than the publication date mentioned in the book suggests. Kandinsky’s inner circle was able to obtain a copy in December 1911. 
2. Kandinsky, Reminicences, 1913, cited in Kandinsky. Complete Writings on Art (ed. by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 380-81. 
3. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. and intr. by Michael Sandler, (New York, Dover Publications, 1977), p. 54. 
4. Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1977, pp. 15-16. 
5. Interview with Karl Niedorf in 1937, in: Kandinsky. Complete Writings on Art, 1994, pp. 806-807. 
6. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1977, p. 1 
7. Ibid, p. 4. Kandinsky regards the art of the Primitives (e.g. Indian and Persian art) as a more developed art than neo-classicism or realism, saying that ‘the still harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy, divide our soul sharply from that of the Primitives.’[7] ‘Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal’.[7] The idealist artist of his day will ‘endeavour to awaken subtler emotions, as yet unnamed’.[7] ‘The possibilities of the influence of art are not exerted to their utmost’. 8. Ibid, p. 3 
9. Ibid, chapter 3, p. 13. 
10. Ibid, p. 13 and p. 57. 
11. For more information, see: B. G. Rosenthal, D.S. Merezhkovsky and the Silver Age: The Development of a Revolutionary Mentality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1975). 
12. Kandinsky, Reminicences, 1913, cited in Kandinsky. Complete Writings on Art,  1994, pp. 377-379.
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