Recently I have read quite a few good books. So good, in fact, that I am hesitant to call my following talk a “review”. And so I’d like to start by disclaiming that this article is simply my recommendation to you. One artist to another. Friend to friend. You know how it is when you find something really good, you feel the need to share it with your friends. This book is that something. It is a book that may not get as much attention as it should. A book that is much more than just another book. Today’s book is Wassily Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”.
As the title suggests, this is not a how-to book, nor one with colorful images. This book is not even focused on any specific media. Even though the author briefly touches on color theory, the book goes beyond technique, beyond media – it goes beyond the physical aspect of art making. And this is why it is so valuable.
It is, admittedly, a very short book. With only 57 pages it may seem to have limited means to go in-depth on any subject. This assumption, however, is false. That being said, I highly recommend you pick up the particular edition I have, which is Dover edition from 1977, an unabridged republication of the original English translation from 1914. This edition is translated with an introduction by M. T. H. Sadler. Mr. Sadler sketches out the background of the life of Wassily Kandinsky and the era in which he lived and draws some really important parallels thus providing the reader with an important context to Kandinsky’s ideas.
When I researched reviews of this book I was quite surprised to find many people rating it poorly. I would recommend you ignore these reviews until you’ve read it for yourself. These reviewers may not be practicing artists, they may not have been able to appreciate it for some other reasons, they may not have been ready for it or they could indeed already surpass the potential of what this book has to offer. The simplest explanation, however, is that Kandinsky’s view of the world simply disagreed with them. And this is perfectly natural. Each of us has their own preferences and leanings. Whatever is the case, my personal rating would be very high as I have high regard for the ideas contained in the book. I wish to note that I am not biased by my personal attitude towards Kandinsky’s work or any opinions I may have previously had. I always try to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. I let them convince me. And so I got convinced.
So, what’s the book about and is it actually for you? I think the best way to outline the character of the book is to talk about the character of the author. Wassily Kandinsky is, without a doubt, one of the greatest artists of 20th century. Let me list just a couple of examples of his philosophy.
I value only those artists who really are artists, that is, who consciously or unconsciously, in an entirely original form, embody the expression of their inner life; who work only for this end and cannot work otherwise.Wassily Kandinsky
… the relationships in art are not necessarily ones of outward form but are founded on inner sympathy of meaning.Wassily Kandinsky
This belief may be just the reason why not everyone appreciate Kandinsky. He believed in underlying meaning of expression. As Mr. Sadler points out in his introduction: “There are, of course, many people who deny that Primitive Art had an inner meaning or, rather, that what is called ‘archaic expression’ was dictated by anything but ignorance of representative methods and defective materials. Such people are numbered among the bitterest opponents of Post-Impressionism, and indeed it is difficult to see how they could be otherwise. ‘Painting,’ they say, ‘which seeks to learn from an age when art was, however sincere, incompetent and uneducated, deliberately rejects this assumption that Primitive art is merely untrained Naturalism, but until it is conquered there seems little hope for a sympathetic understanding of the symbolist ideal.'”
As to the contents of the book, these consist of two main parts and following chapters:
- Part I. About general aesthetic: Introduction, The Movement of the Triangle, Spiritual Revolution, The Pyramid
- Part II. About painting: The Psychological Working of Colour, The Language of Form and Colour, Theory, Art and Artists, Conclusion
I am hesitant to use such extreme simplification, but basically, Kandinsky’s ultimate goal was to express music through painting, or rather merge the two to achieve pure expression. When we look at the big picture, his ideas do revolve around this central goal. However, it doesn’t make any one of them any less important on their own and any less worthy of our thought.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me personally is that these were quite literally revolutionary ideas. These were the ideas occupying the minds of the greatest artists who were there at the birth of a new era. Ideas that became the foundation of what we call modern art. Yet I don’t mean to over hype the book and declare it more important than it actually is. And so let me end this little “non-review” by saying that you may lose nothing by skipping this book but at the same time you may just as well deny yourself the transformative experience that may stem from pondering ideas beyond the physical.
Let me know what you think of Wassily Kandinsky, his art and literary work. Are you going to pick up this book? Have you read any of his writings?