Kandinsky – “The Spirituality of Colour”

I have quoted the following sections because on reading Kandinsky’s writings I realised that he puts my thoughts and ideas into an eloquent format, more easily understood than if I wrote them myself.

There is a point towards the end that I found myself questioning, and so is explored at the end of this blog.

 “The Effect of Colour”

(P156 in Kandinsky Complete Writings on Art, Edited by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo)

“Letting one’s eyes wander over a palette laid out with colours has two main results:

(1) there occurs a purely physical effect, i.e., the eye itself is charmed by the beauty of the qualities of the colour. The Spectator experiences a feeling of satisfaction, of pleasure, like a gourmet who has a tasty morsel in his mouth. Or the eye is titillated, as is one’s palate by a highly spiced dish. It can also be calm or cooled again, as one’s finger down when it touches ice. These are all physical sensations and as such can only be of short duration. They are also superficial, leaving behind no lasting impression if the soul remains close. Just as one can only experience a physical feeling of cold on touching ice… so to the physical effect of colour is forgotten when one’s eyes are turned away… Gradually… the world loses its magic. One knows that trees provide shade, that horses gallop quickly… that the moon is far away, and that the man one sees in the mirror is not real.

…If one’s spiritual sensitivity is at a low stage of development, can only create a superficial effect, an effect that soon disappears once the stimulus has ceased. Yet, even at this stage, this extremely simple effect can vary. The eye is more strongly attracted by the brighter colours, and still more by the brighter and warmer: vermillion attracts and pleases the eye as does a flame… Bright lemon yellow hurts the eye after a short time, as a high note on the trumpet hurts the ear. The eye becomes disturbed, cannot bear it any longer, and seeks depth and repose in blue and green…

(2) The second main consequence of the contemplation of colour, i.e, the psychological effect of colour. The psychological power of colour becomes apparent, calling forth a vibration from the soul. Its primary, elementary physical power becomes simply the path by which colour reaches the soul… Since in general the soul is closely connected to the body, it is possible that one emotional response may conjure up another, corresponding form of emotion by means of association…

Colour is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano, with its many strings.

The artist is the hand that purposefully sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key.

Thus it is clear that the harmony of colours can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.”

“The Language of Forms and Colours”

“Colour cannot extend without limits. One can only imagine an infinite red, can only see it in one’s mind’s eye. When one hears the word red, this red in our imagination has no boundaries… If, however, this red has to be rendered in material form… then it must (1) have a particular shade chosen from the infinite range of different possible shades of red, being thus, so to speak, subjectively characterized, and (2) be limited in its extension upon the surface of the canvas, limited by other colours that are there of necessity and can in no case be avoided, and by means of which the subjective character is changed… : the objective element here raises its voice.

Form itself, even if completely abstract, resembling geometric form, has its own inner sound, is a spiritual being possessing qualities that are identical with that form… The value of many colours is reinforced by certain forms and weakened by others. At all events, sharp colours have a stronger sound in sharp forms… Of course, it is clear on the one hand that the incompatibility of certain forms and certain colours should be regarded not as something “disharmonious”, but conversely, as offering new possibilities – i.e., also [a form of] harmony.

Since the number of forms and colours is infinite, the number od possible combinations is likewise infinite as well as their effects. This material is inexhaustible.

The more freely abstract the form becomes, the purer, and also the more primitive its sound. Therefore, in a composition in which corporeal elements are more or less superfluous, they can be more or less omitted and replaced by purely abstract forms, or by corporeal forms that have been completely abstracted. In every instance of this kind of transposition, or composition using purely abstract forms, the only judge, guide and arbitrator should be one’s feelings. Moreover, the more the artist utilises these abstracted or abstract forms, the more at home he becomes in this sphere, and the deeper he is able to penetrate it. The spectator too, guided by the artist, likewise increases his knowledge of his abstract language and finally masters it.

There is no “must” in art, which is forever free. Art flees before the word “must”, as day flees from night.”

“Theory”

“The subjugation of composition to geometrical form had been used already in ancient art… Construction upon a purely spiritual basis, however, is a lengthy process, which begins relatively blindly and at random. Thus it is essential that the painter should develop not only his eyes, but also his soul, so that it too may be capable of weighing colours in the balance, and active not only in receiving external impressions… but also as a determining force in the creation of works of art.

If… we were begin to dissolve completely the tie that binds us to nature, to direct our energies towards forcible emancipation and content ourselves exclusively with the combination of pure colour and independent form, we would create works having the appearance of geometric ornament, which would – to put it crudely – be like a tie or a carpet. Beauty of colour and form… is not a sufficient aim of art.”

The paragraph above is where I differ in opinions with Kandinsky. Although not completely as I agree that art is a “child of its time”, but Kandinsky was writing in the early 1900’s when people were not as bombarded with screens and images as we are today. I would argue that in the same way that a silent advert demands attention because it is a change from the noise of most other adverts, abstract paintings offer a relief from the visual stimulation of the 21st Century. For Kandinsky, nature and object were core to forming abstract ideas and landing the artworks within a comprehensible reality. Instead, I propose that in the 21st Century we are so surrounded by visual realities audiences now crave to enjoy colour and form in their most base format.

Furthermore, Kandinsky argued in the previous section that “The spectator too, guided by the artist, likewise increases his knowledge of his abstract language and finally masters it.” After the years have passed since Kandinsky was writing and there has been increasing numbers in abstract artists, as well as mass abstract themed art movements that have helped audiences to learn the abstract language.

Kandinsky does go on to elaborate on his argument and considers that purely geometric art has a different existence:

 “Even ornamentation is not, admittedly, an entirely lifeless being. It has its own inner life [which] is only an illogical confusion… It is like the confusion of a kaleidoscope, in which material accident rather than the spirit has the upper hand. And yet, despite this incomprehensibility or inability ever to be understood, ornament has an effect upon us, albeit at random.”

I would like to remind the reader of “The Langauge of Colour” who argued that colour is an interpersonal experience and so the comprehension that we gain from the abstract artwork is random to the point that it cannot be predicted how each individual audience member will respond to the paintings.

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Jessy Plant

A Brighton born artist, now studying a Fine Art Degree at Cardiff Met Uni.

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