Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pyramid Scheme

Always trying to express the inexpressible in the simplest terms, Wassily Kandinsky tried to depict spiritual progress as a triangle or pyramid to be climbed in his 1912 landmark work of art theory, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. "The life of the spirit may be fairly represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle divided horizontally into unequal parts with the narrowest segment uppermost,” Kandinsky writes. “The lower the segment the greater it is in breadth, depth, and area.The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can be understood only by the apex and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought and feeling of the second segment." Born December 16, 1866, Kandinsky is often accused of writing “incomprehensible gibberish” when it comes to art, but his influence on modern art and the advent of abstraction is undeniable. Kandinsky wanted to link music and art together as two non-rational media following the same spiritual set of rules. Composition VI (above, from 1913) aspires to the state of music in eschewing all recognizable subject matter and becoming pure expression of color and line. Once Kandinsky opened the door and explained his ultimate destination, much of the art world slowly followed him through.

Like Picasso, Kandinsky goes through many different stages in his art right up to the end of his life. Always evolving, neither artist is easy to pin down. However, Kandinsky differs from Picasso in that Picasso sheds his earlier styles for the most part before moving on to the next thing. In Kandinsky’s art, you always sense the baggage of earlier techniques coming along for the ride. The theoretical dialogue Kandinsky maintained with the art world at large represented only a sliver of the larger dialogue running inside Kandinsky’s own head. Fugue (above, from 1914), another musically titled work, reflects the turmoil of all these ideas working simultaneously like point and counterpoint in Bach. Kandinsky founded Der Blaue Reiter with Franz Marc, August Macke, and others and even later taught at the Bauhaus with Paul Klee, bouncing his ideas off of these other artists continually, but I always get the sense of Kandinsky as the ultimate loner in the crowd, stuck inside of his own head despite his best attempts to communicate.

I’ve tried to read Kandinsky’s theories on art but usually come away with only a vague notion and a pounding headache for my efforts. As much as he tried to diagram and chart abstractions such as the spiritual and art itself, they always remained slippery ghosts. Kandinsky’s best explanations for his ideas remain his works themselves. A work such as Several Circles (above, from 1926) seems such a simple thing that even a child could manage, but the perfection of arrangement and the balance of contrast and color belie any idea of accident or chance. Kandinsky always knew what he was doing, thinking and overthinking every element. For him, every shade of color held a storehouse of meaning and every line could change your life with a single turn. “All Profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence,” Herman Melville writes in Pierre. “Silence is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on of the Divine Pontiff's hands upon the world. Silence is at once the most harmless and the most awful thing in all nature. It speaks of the Reserved Forces of Fate. Silence is the only Voice of our God.” Standing before Kandinsky’s works, buttressed by his great scheme of words and aspiring to the condition of music, we realize that silence may be the only voice that truly speaks for them.