Vasilij Kandinskij and the mysticism of colors

In what is remembered as the anniversary of his death, we retrace some of the most evocative pages of "The Spiritual in Art" by Vasilij Kandinskij: a work that goes beyond the artistic dimension, deeply affecting that of the spirit.

di Lorenzo Pennacchi

in 1910 Vasily Vasilyevich Kandinsky paints his first abstract painting. From that moment he becomes the prophet of a new age, theage of the spirit, revealed over time through his pictorial and literary works. The spiritual of art, published in 1911, does not have artistic practice as its subject, but the dimension of spirituality. As Elena writes Pontiggia in the splendid afterword [1]

Kandinsky is interested in painting only because it is an aspect of art. And he is interested in art only because it is an aspect of the spirit. 

In the opening pages, the artist announces the lukewarm awakening of the soul and retraces the movement of the big triangle, symbol of the spiritual life, recognizing in authentic art the possession of a stimulant prophetic force, capable of exerting a profound influence on history. His narration, in which different artistic forms (literature, music, painting) and meta-historical stages are related, alternates meticulous analyzes with apocalyptic steps [2]

Part of the mighty walls collapsed like a house of cards. A colossal tower that reached heaven, made up of many pierced but "invincible" spiritual pillars, lies in pieces. The old forgotten cemetery trembles. Old graves open, they let out forgotten spirits. The artistically sculpted sun has spots and darkens. How will we replace him in the fight against darkness?

After all, art is about the content before the form: it is a problem on the what, not on like. "The artist must have something to say" [3], writes Kandinsky in the concluding pages of the book. Refusing an art as an end in itself (l'art pour l'art), the painter, as well as the writer and the musician, need not necessarily dominate the form, but know how to mold it to the content. This relentless artistic-spiritual movement is driven by a force infallible, able to lead him to dizzying heights: the principle of inner necessity. In fact, the artist must relate to his work, to the point of relying on it. Professor Giuseppe By Giacomo notes that "the essential thing for Kandinsky is not to free himself from the object, but to free the object from its links with the surrounding reality, thus making it" absolute "" [4], making sure, as the Russian painter admitted a few years later, that the work of art becomes the subject [5]

The shapes and above all colors are the manifestation of this spiritual need: "Color as a revelation of elsewhere removes Kandinsky's grammar from geometric diagrams to give it back a magical emotion" [6]. Not surprisingly, the pages dedicated to the different chromatic shades are the most evocative of the Spiritual. Through an archetypal reconstruction, the artist investigates the meaning and potential of the eight main colors, which assert themselves, confront each other and mix in a continuous vortex: a metaphysics destined to offer endless food for thought. A century later, these suggestions can also be traced through the works of his contemporaries, deeply influenced by these passages. 

Vasily Kandinsky, First abstract watercolor 1910

In his taxonomy, Kandinsky places six colors, divided into two pairs that form three great contrasts (yellow-blue, red-green, orange-purple), in a anello between two opposite poles, like a snake shaking its tail, symbol of eternity and of the cyclical nature of things. At the extremes it is two o'clock great creative possibilities: the silence of birth and the silence of death. The first is the White. In the footsteps of the Impressionists, who do not see no white in nature, it is often considered a non-color. Kandinsky underlines its otherness with respect to the real world, placing it so high that it cannot be heard [7]

This is why white strikes us like a great silence that seems absolute to us. We feel it internally as a non-sound, very similar to musical pauses that briefly interrupt the development of a phrase or theme, without definitively ending it. It is a silence that is not dead, but is full of potential. White has the sound of a silence that we suddenly understand. It is the youth of nothing, or rather a nothing before the origin, before birth. Perhaps the earth resonated like this, in the white time of the ice age. 

The creative potential of white has been deeply investigated by the artists of the twentieth century. The first and most significant example in this sense is represented by the White square on white background by Kazimir Malevich, made in 1918. With his painting, the Russian Supremacist brought abstraction to his absolute limit, which «aims to overcome chaos, disorder, by favoring the appearance of a Cosmos "Other", because freed from the figurative weight " [8]. In this perspective, not at all nihilistic [9]

The canvas is intended as the place of the revelation of Being, that is, of the manifestation of the Absolute as objectless. This means that visible things can be destroyed, but not Being, and Being is God, who cannot be annihilated at all. 

From this point of view, white takes on an all-encompassing spiritual significance, even greater than that reserved for it by Kandinskij, coming to coincide with the divine. Malevič's artistic-conceptual intuition is exceptional, in the true sense of the term. After him, in fact, many (including Barnett Newman and Robert Rauschenberg) will again confront the pure creative power of white, often falling into imitation (mimesis) and in repetitiveness, rarely reaching the deep regions of the spirit.

Kazimir Malevich, White square on white background 1918

Of the six colors placed inside the magic circle, Kandinskij highlights in particular the movements and mutual contaminations, although each color is brought back to its own dimension. Thus the yellow is the appearance typical of the earth, psychologically associated with madness understood as delirium. Symbol of the dying summer, it cannot have too much depth, which is instead the characteristic of blu, the color of the sky that "if it falls into black acquires a note of poignant sadness, it sinks into a drama that has no and will never end" [10]. Mixing these two so distant colors generates the stillness of green, which is more marked and more he wants nothing, he asks for nothing [11]

This is why absolute green is in the field of colors what the so-called bourgeoisie is in society; an immobile, satisfied, limited element in all senses. This green is like a fat, healthy cow lying inert, capable only of ruminating and observing the world with empty and indifferent eyes. 

Its opposite is represented by fervor and by manly maturity of red, capable of being hot or cold at the same time. When mixed with black, it gives life to brown (the first infiltrated in the alchemical circle), of which moderate use an indescribable inner beauty is born. If strengthened by yellow, on the other hand, it conceives theOrange: "Its sound seems to be that of a bell inviting the Angelus, or of a robust alto, or of a viola playing a largo" [12]. Finally, if it retracts to the blue, it generates the violet, a cold color, inherently sad and sick. 

Alexander Rodchenko, Pure red color, Pure yellow color, Pure blue color 1921

The second outer end of the central ring is occupied by the black, the silence of death, comparable in music to a final pause: "And like a nothing without possibility, like the death of nothing after the sun goes out, like an eternal silence without a future and without hope, the black" [13]. And the closing the circle, the end of the world, the condition of possibility for everything can be born in a new form. As for white, also for this other polarity, Malevich has left his mark on history, with his Black square on white background, defined by the artist himselficon of our time, the culmination ofaesthetics of the abyss theorized by Jean-Claude Marcade in reference to Suprematism, the manifestation of "Nothing released" on the flat surface. Di Giacomo continues [14]

The black of the Square […] can be interpreted as that of the darkness typical of apophatic mysticism, or of the deus absconditus, impenetrable to both sensitive and intellectual knowledge, whereas in icons we find an apophantic character. In Suprematism, therefore, it is no longer a question of "representation" […], but of manifestation, of apparition, of revelation, and what manifests itself is the objectless as a cosmic reality.  

Of great importance is the fact that the work is not totally black (as will happen instead in Rodčenko and Ad Reinhardt). The white background, in fact, takes on a significant value, especially in light of the Spiritual. In this painting, the two opposite silences confront each other, touch, but do not mix. Another slight movement would generate the Grey (the second infiltrate), a generally silent and immobile color that "if it becomes clearer, it is instead crossed by a transparency, by a possibility of breathing that contain a secret hope" [15]. It is from this original relationship, and from the sentiment that derives from it, that the circle can regenerate itself indefinitely

Kazimir Malevich, Black square on white background 1915

Kandinsky analyzes the individual colors, but what he is primarily interested in is theirs relationship. It is no coincidence that, unlike the other artists we have presented, he believes that harmony based on a single color is not very suitable to represent his era, so full of problems, doubts and contradictions [16]

We can listen to Mozart's works with envy, with affectionate sympathy. They are a happy pause in the din of our inner life, they are a comfort and a hope. Yet we perceive them as the echo of a different, past time, which is fundamentally alien to us. Struggle of tones, loss of balance, fall of "principles", unexpected drumming, big questions, apparently aimless tensions, lacerating impulses and nostalgia, broken chains and bonds, contrasts and contradictions: this is our harmony. The composition is based on this harmony: a relationship of independent colors and lines, which arise from inner necessity and live in the tone of the painting.  

Schöenberg, not Mozart, speaks to contemporary man. In any case, in music as in painting, there is and "there will always be something that the word cannot fully render, and that is not the superfluous, but the essential" [17]. In addition to admitting i limits of his reflections, which will never exhaust the great problem of the spirit, in these passages Kandinsky recognizes the specificity of the various arts and of his time, with which every authentic artist must deal with through his own language. The of him is a real one mystique, in which painting is only one side of the great spiritual triangle. 

Vasily Kandinsky, Composition VII 1913

The publication of the book, initially scheduled for 1912, is brought forward to December 1911: "It is a singular privilege for a book ahead of its time, to be ahead of itself" [18]. After the initial criticisms, taken for granted for an avant-garde text, lo Spiritual “It was not the manifesto of a current, it was the manifesto of a generation» [19]. And the examples presented in these few pages should be enough to show why. As early as 1909, Alfred cube, in correspondence with the artist, he confesses [20]

They are very original thoughts, which often draw from the most abysmal depths. The discourse on color has an extraordinary charm. 

Kandinsky was convinced that the era of great spirituality was now upon us. On the contrary, two world wars, rampant materialism and the commodification of art have slammed the door in her face. What remains, then, of this prophetic work a century later? Yesterday as today, today as tomorrow, the great spiritual triangle is in motion. And art is an essential part of this journey [21]

Painting is an art, and art is not the useless creation of things that vanish into the void, but it is a force that has an end, and must serve the development and refinement of the soul, the movement of the triangle. . 

Vasily Vasilyevich Kandinsky (1866 - 1944)


[1] Elena Pontiggia, Afterword to Wassily Kandinsky, The spiritual in art, SE, Milan 1989, p. 115

[2] Wassily Kandinsky The spiritual in art, SE, Milan 1989, p. 29

[3] Ibid, p. 89

[4] Joseph Di Giacomo, Malevich. Painting and philosophy from Abstraction to Minimalism, Carocci publisher, Rome 2014, pp. 37-38

[5] The expression, taken from Painting as pure art of 1913, is reported by Paul Klee in his Diaries 1898-1918. Cf: Ibid, p. 38

[6] Pontiggia, op. cit., p. 122

[7] Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 66

[8] Di Giacomo, op. cit., p. 80.

[9] Ibid, p. 81

[10]  Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 63

[11] Ibid, p. 65

[12] Ibid, p. 71

[13] Ibid, p. 67

[14] Di Giacomo, op. cit., p. 27

[15] Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 67

[16] Ibid, p. 74

[17] Ibid, p. 72

[18] Pontiggia, op. cit., p. 120

[19] Ibid, p. 116

[20] Ibid, p. 117

[21] Kandinsky, op. cit., p. 88

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