Kandinsky: Law Professor Turned Anti-Materialist Artist

If you happen to be in the New York City area and have the chance to stop in at the Guggenheim, there is a very small but charming exhibit on the work of Wassily Kandinsky from the 1911-13 period.  Kandinsky was a successful lawyer and law professor — he had even been offered a chair in Roman Law at the Universität Dorpat — when he suddenly abandoned the law and applied to art school in Munich.  Maybe legal academia is the second best job in the world.

Among the items in the exhibit are some really neat first editions of his work, Concerning the Spiritual in Art — and Painting in Particular, published in 1911.  When I got home yesterday afternoon, I found a translation here.  Kandinsky had ambitious ideas about the power of art to achieve spiritual illumination — and in some ways to replace traditional religion for future generations.  He had some very critical things to say about “materialism” in art, as well as the idea that art was to be enjoyed for its own sake.  Here is a selection which gives (I think) something characteristic of the flavor of the writing:

With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work.  Connoisseurs admire the ‘skill’ (as one admires a tightrope walker), enjoy the ‘quality of the painting’ (as one enjoys a pasty).  But hungry souls go hungry away . . . . This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colors, this vain squandering of artistic power is called ‘art for art’s sake.’ . . . . The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but easily definable movement forwards and upwards.  This movement is the movement of experience.  It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.  Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears.  When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated.  But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision.  The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so. Scorned and hated, he drags after him over the stones the heavy chariot of a divided humanity, ever forwards and upwards.  Often, many years after his body has vanished from the earth, men try by every means to recreate this body in marble, iron, bronze, or stone, on an enormous scale. As if there were any intrinsic value in the bodily existence of such divine martyrs and servants of humanity, who despised the flesh and lived only for the spirit! But at least such setting up of marble is a proof that a great number of men have reached the point where once the being they would now honour, stood alone . . . .

When religion, science and morality are shaken . . . 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 and show the importance of what at first was only a little point of light noticed by few and for the great majority non-existent.  Perhaps they even grow dark in their turn, but on the other hand 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.