Concerning the Spiritual in Art



Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker


It is exactly 99 years ago that the Russian-German painter Wassily Kandinsky wrote his influential text Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art) which he published the following year, in 1911. The English translation was to appear in 1914 under the title The Art of Spiritual Harmony, a translation which – although not accurate - hinted at a possible influence of Oriental thought in the artist’s writings.

Re-reading Kandinsky’s treatise nearly a century after it was written, one is tempted to question its significance, and to ask why, for the past one hundred years, it has been so influential, and considered so radical.  A close examination of the text lays bare an enthusiasm for the esoteric pseudo-mysticism promoted by Madame Blavatsky (1831-1891), one of the co-founders of the Theosophical Society. Blavatsky’s writings, as Kandinsky noted in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, were a source of inspiration for many artists and intellectuals in the Western world at the turn of the last century:

Mme. Blavatsky was the first person, after a life of many years in India, to see a connection between these "savages" and our "civilization." From that moment there began a tremendous spiritual movement which today includes a large number of people and has even assumed a material form in the Theosophical Society. This society consists of groups who seek to approach the problem of the spirit by way of the INNER knowledge.

The fascinating aspect of reading Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art at the beginning of the twenty-first century is that his description of the political, artistic and intellectual world of 1910 sounds remarkably like our own.  Instead of a “steady co-operation” among artists Kandinsky describes 

a scramble for good things.  There are complaints of excessive competition, of over-production.  Hatred, partisanship, cliques, jealousy, intrigues are the natural consequences of this aimless, materialist art.

Spirituality, and political life, Kandinsky writes, had been debased. People call themselves Jews, Catholics, Protestants, etc “but they are really atheists.”  Some even “openly avow [that] ‘Heaven is empty,’ ‘God is dead.’” 

In politics, he notes, “these people are democrats and republicans” who direct “fear, horror and hatred” against anarchism “of which they know nothing but its much dreaded name.” In economics, he continues, “these people are socialists [who] make sharp the sword of justice with which to slay the hydra of capitalism and to hew off the head of evil.”

Others, he writes, “read the political leading articles in the newspapers.  In economics they are socialists of various grades, and can support their ‘principles’ with various quotations, passing from Schweitzer’s Emma via [Ferdinand] Lasalle’s [1825-1864] Iron Law of Wages, to [Karl] Marx’s Capital (1867), and still further.”

In art, Kandinsky observes, there are those who “are naturalists. … despite their infallible principles, there lurks … a hidden fear, a nervous trembling, a sense of insecurity. ..this modern sense of insecurity.”

Kandinsky then goes on to say that “that which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realized in feeling, and to this feeling the talent of the artist is the only road.”

This road - which was to lead to what in the West is called abstract or non-objective art – also drew heavily on the discourses associated with Transcendentalism. Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau believed that an ideal spiritual state “transcended” the physical and the empirical and could only be realized through the individual’s intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religion.

In 1854 Thoreau wrote in Walden:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma, and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water-jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges.

Regrettably, the fascination which the East held for Western intellectuals in the middle of the nineteenth century when Thoreau wrote Walden, and at the turn of the 20th century when Kandinsky penned Concerning the Spiritual in Art, did not ensure – either then or in our present day - a profound or broadly based understanding of Asian philosophy, aesthetics, or languages – outside of the domain of highly qualified specialists in these areas.  Instead an Orientalist fascination for the East – one that combined spiritual longing, idealism, the promise of enlightenment, and a refuge in mystical visions – took hold of the Western imagination.

Among those who succumbed to this fascination in their spiritual longing and idealism were the artists Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondriaan, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley; the writers William Butler Yeats and T. S. Eliot; and the composers Gustav Holst and Alexander Scriabin. Their studies of the metaphysics and laws of the “spiritual paradigm” of Theosophy revolved around the notion of a “spiritual hierarchy” that was helping humanity evolve to greater perfection according to these laws.  Rhythmic form and the power of the triangle were among the building blocks of a new life of the spirit.

These misinterpretations  and misunderstandings  of Eastern aesthetics and philosophy – whether they came from India or China – resulted nevertheless in extraordinarily important innovations in Western art and music in the twentieth century, ranging from the non-representational Neo-Plasticism of Mondriaan to the theories of  the abstract and the non-objective proposed by Wassily Kandinsky and the German artist and co-founder of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Hilla von Rebay.  In music Theosophy provided the rationale for the dissonant counterpoint of a composer such as Alexander Scriabin. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky described the experience of listening to Scriabin’s music and that of Arnold Schoenberg:

Almost alone in severing himself from conventional beauty is the Austrian composer, Arnold Schonberg. He says in his Harmonielehre: "Every combination of notes, every advance is possible, but I am beginning to feel that there are also definite rules and conditions which incline me to the use of this or that dissonance." [i] This means that Schonberg realizes that the greatest freedom of all, the freedom of an unfettered art, can never be absolute. Every age achieves a certain measure of this freedom, but beyond the boundaries of its freedom the mightiest genius can never go. But the measure of freedom of each age must be constantly enlarged. 

For Kandinsky, and especially Mondriaan, abstraction, non-objectivity and Neo-Plasticism held the promise of an “enlarged freedom”, especially in an age of dictatorship, brutal war and mass annihilation. This was profoundly and movingly described by Mondriaan in his text Liberation from Oppression in Art and Life, written during the Second World War. In a paper on abstract art from 1941 he proposed that

Abstract art is in opposition with our natural vision of nature. But it is in accordance with the plastic laws which in nature are more or less veiled.[ii]

“Art,” he continued, “is the aesthetic establishment of complete life – unity and equilibrium – free from all oppression….For this reason it can reveal the evil of oppression and show the way to combat it.”[iii]

Following the teachings of Theosophy, Kandinsky noted in Concerning the Spiritual in Art that the life of the spirit could be “represented in diagram as a large acute-angled triangle.” At the apex of this triangle Kandinsky placed the artist-genius. I quote:

At the apex of the top segment [of the triangle] stands often one man, and only one. His joyful vision cloaks a vast sorrow. Even those who are nearest to him in sympathy do not understand him. Angrily they abuse him as charlatan or madman. So in his lifetime stood Beethoven, solitary and insulted.

Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art  created fertile territory for what would later become a Hollywood-style caricature of the angst ridden modern artist as  a bearer of new truths, alone and misunderstood on his pinnacle, his (and possibly her) talent the only path to “the spirit of the future.”  The aesthetic representation of this spiritual revolution was abstract and non-objective art.  The political stance was one of “resistance” against all: against organized religion, against the political class (the democrats, the republicans and the socialists), and against the age of materialism. Kandinsky wrote in 1911:

When religion, science and morality are shaken, the two last by the strong hand of Nietzsche, and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself. Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt. They reflect the dark picture of the present time … they turn away from the soulless life of the present towards those substances and ideas which give free scope to the non-material strivings of the soul.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there were artists from the West who did indeed

seek to understand the philosophy and aesthetic principles of the East in a more profound manner.  The first of these is Mark Tobey (1890-1976) who studied calligraphy with the Chinese artist Teng Baiye (1900-1980) in both Seattle and Shanghai. Another was Tobey’s colleague, Morris Graves, also from the Pacific Northwest of America, who studied Zen Buddhism and travelled three times to Asia between 1928 and 1930. Finally I want to recall the work and writings of Bernard Leach (1887-1979) who co-founded Leach Pottery in Cornwall, England, in 1920 with the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada. Leach, who was born in Hong Kong, was a close friend of Tobey and traveled with him to Asia.

In conclusion I would like to return to the convictions espoused by those artists who had been swayed by Theosophical beliefs, such as Kandinsky, that the spirit of the future can only be realized in the feeling and intuition of the individual, and that the only road to this feeling is “the talent of the artist.”

Our era, one hundred years after Kandinsky penned his treatise, is still haunted by hidden fears, “a nervous trembling, a sense of insecurity. ..[and a] modern sense of insecurity.“ I would like to pose the following questions:

Is the highly individualized spirituality which Kandinsky proffered to the West (and the East) the path to the “spirit of the future?”  

Did this individualized spirituality enlarge the “measure of freedom” of our age?

Is our continued faith in the “talent of the artist” (and his or her intuition) as the path to, and a prophecy of, the future justified?

And, finally, did the search for, and the profound longing for, a form of spirituality that could cross cultural boundaries result in a moving closer of East and West, either at the turn of the last century or today?


[i] "Die Musik," p. 104, from the Harmonielehre (Verlag der Universal Edition).

[ii] Piet Mondrian, “Abstract Art” (1941) in The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian edited by Harry Holtzman and Martin James, London 1986, 311-312.

[iii] Ibid, 323.

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