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  • The Paradox of Kandinsky's Abstract Representation
  • Kenneth Berry

There is a paradox in the relationship between Kandinsky's use of the terms, "abstract" and "concrete," which is presented in the expression, "Kandinsky's abstract representation." Thisexpression, while being apparently contradictory, may point to a feature underpinning Kandinsky's art, which is pivotal to a proper experience of his work, just as, in Christopher Middleton's view, a poetic language may be pivotal to the formation of cultures.1 Art and cultural artifacts are vital to aesthetic experience and aesthetic education, and both the language of art and other languages are instrumental to this end. However, how may Kandinsky's mature abstraction, being in essence objectless, have any claim to representation, and consequently the higher cultural goals of aesthetic expression and the aesthetic enrichment of society?

According to Thomas M. Messer, the position of centrality that Kandinsky has assumed in our understanding of modern art is largely due to his having brought to bear on his art, an instinctive awareness of what constituted the central aesthetic issues of his era.2 Kandinsky's writings in Concerning the Spiritual in Art elaborate on his aesthetic theories, and, in particular, [End Page 99] present the view that paintings should be looked at as a graphic representation of a mood rather than as a representation of objects. Messer observes that, for Kandinsky, abstraction, defined as a mode of painting extending beyond the depiction of recognizable objects, having gradually stripped itself of mimetic vestiges, thus becomes paramount. Michael Carter has similarly pointed out that with the pure forms of absolute abstraction, the non-objective colors and shapes of Kandinsky's paintings were regarded as distillations of the aesthetic properties of the artistic sign3 — separable from any referential aspect of art.4 This aesthetic aspect of Kandinsky's work, which became known as nonfigurative, nonobjective, or nonrepresentational,goes along with the cultural — and, as sculptor Anish Kapoor has remarked, "in the deepest, deepest depths of human history the cultural has always been a motivator of people," and has the power to transform society through finding visual equivalents for an emotional language.5

Much has been written about Kandinsky's use of color, but perhaps the primary innovation that he made, as in the case of Barnett Newman, was in the field of drawing. Kandinsky was influenced by Gauguin's idea that drawing was an abstraction from memory after nature, just as Gauguin had been affected by the simplified contours and flattened forms of Puvis de Chavannes. Drawing did not come so easily to Kandinsky as color — he had to work harder at drawing, but in his early improvisations, forms and their outlines as graphic symbols came welling up from the unconscious, and eidetic motifs only had to be copied — almost as the art of calligraphy. Kandinsky's "organic" drawing developed as an urge to nonnaturalistic impulses, and during the period of Point and Line to Plane became almost a grammar of form, saved from mere pedantry by the living forces or visual tensions that made various kinds of line operate not just as contours but as dynamic or restful elements within themselves. In 1913, Kandinsky wrote in his "Reminiscences" that, "painting is a thundering collision of different worlds, intended to create a new world in, and from, their struggles with one another, a new world which is the work of art."6 It is clear from this that the Modernist work of art was intended to be a "new world" operating according to its own universal aesthetic laws.

Kandinsky is not just a painter; he is also a visual poet. Poetry, according to Tony Curtis, involves the expression of the intensification of experience — the elevation of banal facts of life into something beyond the merely prosaic — something unique and perceptively heightened.7 It involves both imagination and poetic license to explore both ambiguity and paradox. As Scottish poet Norman MacCaig observed, poetry renders the ordinary extraordinary, seeing the unfamiliar in the familiar.8 Creative analogical thinking such as evinced in Kandinsky's art, often involves breaking free of a clichéd representation.

Malcolm Budd has remarked that, in its most exclusive sense, a work...


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