Commentary on Kandinsky
Excerpted from "Kandinsky: Compositions", by Magdalena Dabrowski
"The term "Composition" can imply a metaphor with music. Kandinsky was fascinated by music's emotional power. Because music expresses itself through sound and time, it allows the listener a freedom of imagination, interpretation, and emotional response that is not based on the literal or the descriptive, but rather on the abstract quality that painting, still dependent on representing the visible world, could not provide.
"Kandinsky's special understanding of the affinities between painting and music and his belief in the Gesamtkunstwerk, or the total work of art, came forth in his text "On Stage Composition," his play "Yellow Sound," and his portfolio of prose poems and prints Klange (Sounds, 1913). Music can respond and appeal directly to the artist's "internal element" and express spiritual values, thus for Kandinsky it is a more advanced art. In his writings Kandinsky emphasizes this superiority in advancing toward what he calls the epoch of the great spiritual.
"Wagner's Lohengrin, which had stirred Kandinsky to devote his life to art, had convinced him of the emotional powers of music. The performance conjured for him visions of a certain time in Moscow that he associated with specific colors and emotions. It inspired in him a sense of a fairy_tale hour of Moscow, which always remained the beloved city of his childhood. His recollection of the Wagner performance attests to how it had retrieved a vivid and complex network of emotions and memories from his past: "The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time embodied for me all the power of that pre_nocturnal hour. I saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me. I did not dare use the expression that Wagnet had painted 'my hour' musically."
"It was at this special moment that Kandinsky realized the tremendous power that art could exert over the spectator and that painting could develop powers equivalent to those of music. He felt special attraction to Wagner, whose music was greatly admired by the Symbolists for its idea of Gesamtkunstwerk that embraced word, music, and the visual arts and was best embodied in Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, with its climax of global cataclysm. One can also presume that Kandinsky, philosophically a child of the German Romantic tradition, was strongly attracted to Wagner's use of medieval Germanic myths and legends, including those of the world's creation and destruction, as symbols that allowed for the translation of his philosophical attitudes toward the world view, religion, and love. For instance, Kandinsky was enthralled by Tristan and Isolde as an expression of undying love and spiritual transformation. But in Wagner there is also an affinity with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, who considered music to be of central importance in man's emotional life.
"Among his musical contemporaries, Kandinsky admired the work of Aleksander Scriabin, whose innovations he found compatible with his own objectives in painting. What especially intrigued Kandinsky were Scriabin's researches toward establishing a table of equivalencies between tones in color and music, a theory that Scriabin effectively applied in his orchestral work Prometheus: A Poem of Fire (1908). These tonal theories parallel Kandinsky's desire to find equivalencies between colors and feelings in painting: indeed, one of the illustrations included in the essay on Scriabin published in the Blaue Reiter Almanac was a color reproduction of Composition IV.
"Kandinsky's conviction that music is a superior art to painting due to its inherent abstract language came out forcefully in the artist's admiration for the music of the Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg, with whom he initiated a longstanding friendship and correspondence and whose Theory of Harmony (1911) coincided with Kandinsky's On the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky's complex relationship to Schönberg's music is central to his concept of Composition, since Schönberg's most important contribution to the development of music, after all, occurred in the area of composition.
"Schönberg's innovations, such as discarding chromaticism and abandoning tonal and harmonic conventions, unleashed a new future for musical explorations and formed an important turning point for compositional practice. In particular, two of the composer's innovations radically opened musical compositional structures. Beginning with his First String Quartet in 1905, Schönberg introduced a chromatic structure that he defined as a "developing variation," in which there was a continual evolution and transformation of the thematic substance of the musical piece, rejecting thematic repetition. This inspired the constant unfolding of an unbroken musical argument without recourse to the svmmetrical balances of equal phrases or sections and their corresponding thematic content. As a result of this practice, Schönberg achieved a musical continuum that was richly structured, densely polyphonic, and in which all parts were equally developmental.
"These new compositional structures led him toward free chromaticism, which emphasized nonharmonic tones and "emancipation of dissonance" (i.e., unresolved dissonance), one of the principal features of atonal music. Having such constant transformations, rather than the repetition of melodic pattern, endowed the work with a totally unconventional psychological depth, evocative power, and emotional strength. Schönberg's innovations, which permitted any pitch configuration, ruptured traditional conventions of musical composition.
"The magnitude of this revolutionary change can be compared to the fundamental transformation in Kandinsky's painting from a figurative idiom to free, expressive, abstract work. The kinship between Kandinskv and Schönberg (who was also influenced by the philosophy of Schopenhauer) is a special example of the intellectual affinity of artists in search of new vehicles for expressing their inner emotions. These diverse artistic and philosophical influences were all important for the conception of Kandinsky's first seven Compositions before World War I.
"Although Kandinsky created Composition I about a year before he became immersed in Schönberg's new musical concepts, the objectives of his pictorial search seem nevertheless to coincide with those of the composer. As Schönberg had done, Kandinsky searched for a free chromatic field, probably best exemplified in his Composition VII (1913), where richly structured, polyphonic motifs create spatial and compositional ambiguities, visual beauty, emotional impact, and intellectual stimulation. The elements "constructing" Kandinsky's Compositions that are at first glance abstract, such as in the three pre_war works, Compositions V, VI, and VII, could be compared to Schönberg's use of unresolved dissonance: one dissonance, followed by another, and then the next, without completing the expectations of the musical destination. In Kandinsky's Compositions, numerous motifs_either abstracted from natural objects as in the first six works, or more purely abstract as in Composition VII_are organized into visual structures that can be experienced simultaneously, without expecting a resolution, and that can exert emotional impact on the viewer on several physical, psychological, and emotional levels.
"In his conclusion to On the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky again resorts to a musical metaphor to describe the deliberately cloaked pictorial construction of form and color. In a passage in which he is primarily concerned with the issues of composition and where Composition II is reproduced as a reference, he divides compositions into two groups: "1. Simple composition, which is subordinated to a clearly apparent simple form. I call this type of composition melodic. 2. Complex composition, consisting of several forms, again subordinated to an obvious or concealed principal form. This principal form may externally be very hard to find, whereby the inner basis assumes a particularly powerful tone. This complex type of composition I call symphonic."
"He goes on to discuss diverse elements of the Compositions in overtly musical terms, clarifying his understanding of a melodic composition as being that in which the objective element is eliminated to leave only the basic pictorial form_such as simple geometrical forms or a structure of simple lines that create general movement. The movement is either repeated in the individual parts of the painting or is varied by using different lines or forms. These are compositions that possess a simple inner soul; their creation and perception occur on a less complex level, where the perceptual and spiritual elements are fairly simple.
"In Kandinsky's view, melodic compositions were revitalized by Paul Cézanne and later by the Swiss Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler. As an example of melodic composition, Kandinsky illustrated Cézanne's Large Bathers within the text of On the Spiritual in Art, stating that the picture represents "an example of this clearly laid out, melodic composition with open rhythms." Indeed, one observes a clear rhythm in the arrangement of trees and the figures gathered under the triangular canopy of rhythmically leaning trees. As in a musical composition, the rhythms add vitality to the pictorial composition, inviting the eye to travel from one form to the next according to a regularly determined motion.
"The section on rhythm in his conclusion to On the Spiritual in Art reveals much about Kandinsky's philosophical approach, whereby every phenomenon in nature, not only in music but also in painting, has its own structural rhythm. He felt that numerous pictures, especially woodcuts and miniatures from earlier periods, represented excellent examples of "complex 'rhythmic' composition with a strong intimation of the symphonic principle. Among these types he included the work of old German masters, of the Persians and the Japanese, Russian icons, and particularly Russian folk prints. But he observed that in most of these early works the symphonic composition is very closely tied to the melodic one, where principally the objective element underlies the structure.
"For Kandinsky, if that objective element of a painting were taken away, the building blocks of the composition would reveal themselves to cause a feeling of repose and tranquil repetition, of well_balanced parts. A similar feeling is evoked by diverse modes of musical expression, for instance early choral music or the music of Mozart or Beethoven . However, when the objective element is in place, especially beginning with Composition IV, all of the juxtapositions, conflicts, and dissonances are arranged in a manner that parallels Schönberg's own innovations."