It is improbable that more nonsense has been written about aesthetics than about anything else: the literature of the subject is not large enough for that (Clive Bell)


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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Der Blaue Reiter Almanac : On The Question of Form

Votive painting from St. Nikolaus church, Murnau

At a certain time what is inevitable ripens, i.e., the creative spirit (which could be called the abstract spirit) makes contact with the soul, later with other souls, and awakens a yearning, an inner urge.
When the conditions necessary for the maturation of a certain form are met, the yearning, the inner urge, the force is strengthened so that it can create a new value in the human spirit that consciously or unconsciously begins to live in man.

Consciously or unconsciously man tries, from this moment on, to find a material form for the spiritual form, for the new value that lives within him.

This is the search by the spiritual value for materialization. Matter is kind of larder from which the spirit chooses what is necessary for itself, much as a cook would. This is the positive, the creative. This is goodness. The white, fertilizing ray.

I wasn't  ready for such a  prophetic voice - but it certainly suits the way that major art museums approach Modernism.

This white ray leads to evolution, to elevation. Behind matter, within matter, the creative spirit is hidden. The veiling of the spirit in matter is often so thick that, generally, only a few people can see through it to the spirit. There are many people who cannot even recognize the spirit in a spiritual form. Today many do not see the spirit in religion, in art. There are whole epochs that deny the spirit, because the eyes of man cannot see the spirit at those times. So it was during the nineteenth century and so it is for the most part today.Men are blinded. A black hand covers their eyes. The black hand belongs to the hater. The hater tries with every available means to slow down the evolution, the elevation.This is negative, this is destructive. This is evil. The black, fatal hand.

Beware the "black fatal hand" !

An update on  Manichean  dualism with  the Hegelian idea of cultural  evolution - where the Good eventually becomes the Bad and needs to renewed over and over and over again. Without the personification of good and evil,  this would later be developed as a philosophy of art by Martin Heidegger.

Evolution, movement forward and upward, is possible only when the way is clear, free of obstacles. This is the outer condition.  The force that propels the human spirit on the clear way forward and upward is the abstract spirit. It must be audible and it must be heard. The call must be possible. This is the inner condition.
To destroy these two conditions is the method the black hand uses against evolution. Its tools are: fear of the clear way, of freedom (Philistinism), and deafness to the spirit (dull materialism). That is why men regard each new value as inimical. They try to fight against it with scorn and defamation. The bearer of values is regarded as ridiculous and dishonest. They laugh at and scorn the new value. That is the horror of life.

Kandinsky and his friends didn't have  the institutional support that confrontational avant guard artists of today might receive.  Perhaps that explains this siege mentality.

Do multiple new spirits arise simultaneously ?  Can older spirits continue to take form even after newer spirits have arisen ?  Can older forms possibly be better than newer,  evolved ones ?  It appears that Kandinsky would answer "NO" to such queries.

There is one new spirit, though it may be expressed in many ways.   Those who recognize or create it's expressions become agents of  good.  Those who oppose it become agents of  evil.

"Sitting" - drawings by un-named children

So why didn't Kandinsky choose modern art  to illustrate this essay ?

Does the art of contemporary children express that evolving  spirit of the new age ?  Does it  really do so any better than the art of children from earlier periods?

Does  that 19th C. votive panel from Murnau  express that spirit ?

It would seem that the further anything  is from classical realism, the closer it is to being an expression of "the human spirit on the clear way forward and upward"

The joy of life is the incessant, constant victory of the new value.This victory proceeds slowly. Gradually the new value conquers man. And when many men no longer question this value, indispensable and necessary today, then it will form a wall erected against tomorrow. -The metamorphosis of the new value (the fruit of freedom) into a fossilized form (a wall against freedom) is the work of the black hand.All evolution, which is internal development and external culture, is thus a shifting of obstacles.Obstacles destroy freedom. By this destruction they prevent us from hearing the new revelation of the spirit.Obstacles are constantly created from new values that have pushed aside old obstacles. We see that basically the most important thing is not the new value, but rather the spirit that has revealed itself in the new value. And the freedom necessary for the revelations. We see that the absolute cannot be sought in the form (materialism).

Having received the spirit, what would be the point of re-visiting the art that expressed it ?

And what could possibly be  the value of historic art?  Wouldn't Kandinsky want to close all  museums to protect us from the bad influence of out-dated art ?

Form is always temporal, i.e., relative, for it is nothing more than the means necessary today through which the present revelation makes itself heard. Sound, therefore, is the soul of form, which only comes alive through sound and which works from the inside out. Form is the outer expression of the inner content.
We should never make a god out of form. We should struggle for form only as long as it serves as a means of expression for the inner sound. Therefore we should not look for salvation in one form only.

This paragraph would suggest that Kandinsky was  synesthetic, and music was indeed very important to him. Half of the essays in the Almanac are about modern music. (though, curiously, none discuss folk or ethnic genres). But since this blog only concerns the visual arts, I've omitted those essays from this discussion

Regarding  synesthesia, I've had no comparable experiences. The instantaneous, all-at-once experience of visual art feels completely different to me from the temporality of sound. But it would be interesting to read what fellow synesthetes had to say about his paintings.

BTW - how did "salvation" slip into the conversation ?  Salvation from what?  Bad old art ?

This statement must be understood correctly. For each artist (i.e., creative artist, not interpreter) his means of expression (= form) is the best, since it embodies best what he is compelled to reveal. From this principle people often draw the wrong conclusion: that this means of expression is or should be the best for other artists as well. 

Since form is only an expression of content, and content is different with different artists, it is clear that there maybe many different forms at the same time that are equally good. Necessity creates form. Fish that live at great depths have no eyes. The elephant has a trunk. The chameleon changes its color, etc., etc.
Form reflects the spirit of the individual artist. Form bears the stamp of the personality.

The personality cannot, of course, be regarded as something outside of time and space. It depends to a certain extent on time (epoch) and space (people).As each individual artist has to express himself, so each people has to express itself, including the people to which the artist belongs. This connection is reflected in the form and is described as the national element.

Form "is nothing more than the means necessary today through which the present revelation makes itself heard." -- but also -- "form is only an expression of content"

So what is the relationship between  content and  spiritual force ?

And, finally, each period has its special task as well, the revelation possible through it. The reflection of this time element is recognized in the work as style.

All these three elements leave their stamp on a work and are unavoidable. it is not only superfluous to worry about their existence, but also harmful. Forcing them would be pretending, betraying the period.

On the other hand, it is obvious that it would be superfluous and harmful to emphasize only one of these three elements. As many today emphasize the national element, and still others emphasize style, people recently have paid homage to the cult of the personality (the individual element).

As we said at the beginning, the abstract spirit first overtakes a single human spirit; later it controls an increasing number of people. At that moment some artists succumb to the spirit of a time, which forces them to adopt some forms that are related to each other and therefore share an external similarity.This moment is called a movement.The movement is completely justified and essential for a group of artists (as is the individual form for a single artist). 

Henri Rousseau, Portrait of Madame M, 1895-7

As one cannot find salvation in the form of an individual artist, so one cannot find it in the form of the group. For each group its form is the best because it best embodies what the group is compelled to reveal. From this we should not conclude that this form is or should be the best for all. Here, too, there should be complete freedom. Each form that is the external expression of the internal content should be considered valid, and each form should be considered genuine (= artistic). If one acts differently, one no longer serves the free spirit (white ray) but the fossilized obstacle (black hand).

The compulsion to reveal seems to be what distinguishes the exercise of the good (free spirit) from the bad (fossilized obstacle) -- and I'm assuming that the word was used in the original text  could not have been translated with the English word 'express'.

A scream or a moan can express an inner condition - but it may not be revealing anything that we did not know but need to.

Thus we come to the same conclusion that was stated above: it is not form (matter) that is generally most important, but content (spirit).

But   the spirit  remains as mysterious as the existence of ghosts, alien space ships, the Loch Ness  monster, angels, demons etc.  Without scoffing at any of it, the strongest possibility remains that such things exist only in the imagination.

Form also exists in the imagination - but not without  a unique physical existence that can be shared, albeit with different results, across minds separated by as much time and space as history allows.

Which would serve as my argument in contradiction to Kandinsky's above assertion.

Thus form may appear as pleasant, unpleasant, attractive, unattractive, harmonious, disharmonious, skillful, unskillful, delicate, coarse, and so on. But it must not be accepted or rejected for qualities considered to be either positive or negative. All these concepts are completely relative, as can be seen in a quick glance at the infinitely changing series of forms that have already existed.

Form itself is just as relative and should be valued and considered as such. We should approach a work so that its form affects the soul and through the form its content (spirit, interior sound). Otherwise we elevate the relative to the absolute.

But how does a form feel "attractive, unattractive, harmonious, disharmonious etc" except for "how it affects the soul?"

Even when people attempt to explain their judgments with various laws or criteria,  aren't they  merely rationalizing  their feelings?

Kandinsky is just saying "how something  affects your soul may be far less important than how something  affects mine"  --- that   universal claim for  authority that everyone makes at one time or another.

In daily life we would rarely find a man who will get off the train at Regensburg when he wants to go to Berlin. In spiritual life, getting off at Regensburg is a rather common occurrence. Sometimes even the engineer does not want to go on, and all the passengers get off at Regensburg. How many who sought God stopped at a carved figure! How many who searched for art were arrested at a form that an artist had used for his own purposes, be it Giotto, Raphael, Dürer, or Van Gogh!

 Regensburg is 250 miles from Berlin - so Kandinsky is suggesting that most art lovers are arriving far short of the Truth.

But what if a person doesn't want to hunt for art other than what has already interested him?  Wouldn't  this include many of the master artists in great traditions around the world and throughout history ? Why is this so wrong ?

And though one can definitely arrive at the Berlin train station, who has  ever completely arrived at Giotto, Raphael,Van Gogh etc. ?  I certainly haven't - which is why I keep going back to Regensburg.

It must be stated as a final conclusion: the most important thing is not whether the form is personal, national, or has style, whether or not it corresponds to a major contemporary movement, whether or not it is related to many or few other forms whether it is unique etc etc The most important thing in the question of form IS whether or not the form has grown out of inner necessity.

(This means that one should not make a uniform out of the form. Works of art are not soldiers. One and the same form can therefore, even with the same artist, be at one time the best, at another the worst. In the first case it grew in the soil of inner necessity, in the second in the soil of outer necessity: out of ambition and greed.)

"one and the same form" can be "at one time the best, at another the worst"?

For me, this is the most troubling of all of Kandinsky's assertions - though authenticity remains a creed in the management of art museums.

And it's especially important in the world of collectible "primitive" art. If an African mask was thought to have been carved for a tribal ceremony, it's authentic (the best).But later, if it's been discovered that it had been carved for an art dealer it's phony (the worst).  That's why  African art in American museums is all by un-named artists - even though most of it was made in the 20th Century by artists whose descendants could probably identify them if they were asked.

And I wonder how  ambition and greed are considered more "outer" than any other kind of necessity. They certainly feel like inner necessities to me, even if I've been  successful enough at repressing them to remain poor and obscure.

As a child, I was ambitious and greedy for baseball cards representing the Cincinnati Reds - though apparently only good children made the art featured in the Almanac.

But that doesn't  make it look any better. (and as with the other children's art reproduced in the Almanac, the original pieces as well as the names of the original artists  have been lost because nobody has really wanted to look at  the stuff)

If you're going to look for the origins of the de-skilling and de-visualization of contemporary art, you might not need to look any further than this famous essay.

Though, you might notice that Kandinsky's notion of "form"  does not seem to include anything like conceptual art.  His discussion involves form and spirit -- but nothing like idea and concept - even if he does end his other essay, "On the Spirituality in Art", with the assertion that "We have before us the age of conscious creation".

Surely that votive painting from Murnau, for example, suggested a number of specific theological ideas to whoever made and hung it in the church --- but Kandinsky does not mention this kind of thing at all.

 The existence of the forms in time and space can be explained as arising out of the inner necessity of time and space. Therefore, it will finally be possible to penetrate to the characteristics of a period and a people and to represent them systematically.  The greater the epoch, the greater (quantitatively and qualitatively) the striving toward the spiritual, the more various the forms will be, and the more numerous the collective currents (group movements) to be observed. This is obvious.

I don't know whether Kandinsky seriously rated the greatness of previous epochs to compare it with his own.

I've a seen a book of paintings done in the year 1900, and it's hard to imagine that collections of paintings from the centennial years of 1700, 1800, or 2000 could come close to both its magnificence and variety.

 But surveys of such a global scope may be beyond qualitative comprehension.  It's just too much to think about all at once. At least for me.

These characteristics of a great spiritual epoch (which was prophesied and is today in its initial stage) can be seen in contemporary art. They are:

1. a great freedom, which appears to some to be limitless and which
2. makes the spirit audible, which
3. we see revealing itself with an overwhelming force in things that
4. will increasingly and already do make use of all spiritual fields, so that
5. in each spiritual field, including the plastic arts (especially painting), it will create many means of expression (forms) encompassing both individuals and groups, for
6. today it has the whole larder at its disposal, i.e., every material, from the most “solid” to that which exists only in two dimensions (abstract), will be used as an element of form.

So many  genres developed between 1900-1920 are not to be found earlier in art history - while not much has been added during the subsequent century.

Arnold Schonberg, "Vision"  

Elaboration to 1: As far as freedom is concerned, it expresses itself in the effort toward liberation from forms that have already reached their fulfillment, i.e., liberation from old forms in the effort to create new and infinitely varied forms.

Here, Kandinsky seems to be discussing kinds of forms rather than actual physical forms.  But still, how might one determine whether  forms have "reached their fulfillment"  or not?

One might have claimed that Mozart took the classical symphonic form as far as it could go -- until, that is, Prokofiev wrote another one a hundred years later.

In response, one might argue that Prokofiev's Classical Symphony wasn't really Classical -- but that's the problem with all discussions of kinds-of-forms. The category boundaries cannot be as sharply drawn as the edges of actual physical forms.

Elaboration to 2: The automatic search for the outermost limits of our present means of expression (of the personality, the people, the time) is, on the other hand, a limitation of apparently unrestrained freedom, which is determined by the spirit of the time, and a clarification of the direction that the search must take. A little insect under glass, running in all directions, thinks it has unrestrained freedom. At a certain point it hits the glass: it can see farther but it cannot go any farther. When you move the glass forward, you give it the potential of covering more space. But its main movement is determined by the guiding hand. Similarly, our time believes itself completely free, but we will encounter certain limits, which will, however, be rearranged “tomorrow.” 

The "guiding hand" is presumably opposed by the "dark fatal hand" - much like the 'spiritual warfare' that gets televangelists so worked up.

This kind of language makes it more difficult to argue that Kandinsky was speaking metaphorically - rather than about an actual  supernatural agency required for humans to advance forward.

Elaboration to 3: This apparently unbridled freedom and the intervention of the spirit arise from the fact that we begin to feel the spirit, the inner sound, in all things. And at the same time this emerging ability is the ripening fruit of the apparently unbridled freedom and the active spirit.

Did Kandinsky actually feel the new guiding spirit in all things  - not just  works of art - but also the first flowers of Spring, the nearby dusty road, the  night sky etc. ?

It sounds like the new guiding spirit is himself.

Elaboration to 4: We cannot specify here the above-mentioned effects on all other spiritual disciplines. But it should be clear to everyone that the cooperation of freedom and spirit will sooner or later be reflected everywhere. (1 have elaborated on this point in my essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art.)

Elaboration to 5: In the plastic arts (more especially in painting) we encounter today a striking wealth of forms, which seem to be partly the forms of great individual personalities, partly of whole groups of artists, and which are swept along in a great, well-defined flowing current.

Yet in the great variety of forms the common effort is easily recognized. And in just this same mass movement the all-embracing spirit of form is recognized today. It is enough to say: everything is permitted. What is permitted today cannot be transgressed. What is forbidden today remains unshaken. 

The notion of "everything is permitted" - restated as "anything can be art" - might today serve as the motto carved above the doors of every museum of contemporary art.

Except that now, as with Kandinsky, it does not apply to all that stuff that applies traditional means to express traditional  values and ideals.

In Kandinsky's time, that would have accounted for at least  95% of what would have been made and bought as art

Not that Kandinsky advocated that such things be forbidden (any more than he was forbidden to do whatever he liked).

But to assert that a certain kind of art is under the control of dark, evil forces comes pretty close.

He kept it out of his discussion of form, just as it is kept out of contemporary museums.

As Franz Marc wrote in the preface to the second edition: "We showed only what was alive, and what was not touched by the tone of convention"

One should not set up limits because they exist anyway. This is true not only for the sender (artist) but also for the receiver (viewer). The viewer can and must follow the artist, and he should not be afraid of being misguided. Man cannot move in a straight line physically (look at the paths in fields and meadows!), much less spiritually. And on spiritual paths especially, the straight line is often the longest because it is false, and the apparently false path is often the right one.

I wonder which "spiritual paths" Kandinsky had in mind here.

I'm not aware that he ever pursued any spiritual discipline (other than painting).

In this essay Donald Kuspit speculated on his notion of spirituality, and suggested that it grew out of his experience of walking through Eastern Orthodox churches.

But there's no suggestion that he ever had a spiritual master, joined a church or study group, studied sacred scriptures, or followed some kind of program for spiritual development.

The “feeling” that speaks aloud will sooner or later correctly guide the artist as well as the viewer. The fearful clinging to a single form will inevitably lead ultimately to a dead end. Open feeling—to freedom. The first follows matter. The second—the spirit: the spirit creates a form and goes on to other forms.

I'm wondering just how many artists - i.e. people who devote themselves  to an art -- don't feel that they are doing much the same thing: responding to a "feeling" that speaks to them and demands the creation of new forms to express it.

Whether it's the retired plumber taking water color classes -- or the young art student who wants to have a gallery career.

Are they less spiritual for seeking feedback and validation from teachers?   or from  buyers ?

Henri Rousseau, Farmyard with Chickens

Elaboration to 6: The eye directed toward one point (either form or content) cannot possibly view a wide plane. The unobservant eye glancing over the whole surface sees the wide plane, or a part of it, but becomes caught up in external differences and gets lost in contradictions. These contradictions arise because of the variety of means that the contemporary spirit draws out of its larder of matter, apparently without plan. Many call the present state of painting “anarchy.” The same word is also used occasionally to describe the present state of music. It is thought, incorrectly, to mean unplanned upheaval and disorder. But anarchy is regularity and order created not by an external and ultimately powerless force but by the feeling for the good Limits are set up here,too, but they must be internal limits and must replace external ones. These limits are also constantly extended, giving rise to an ever-increasing freedom that, in turn, opens the way for subsequent revelations.  Contemporary art in this sense is truly anarchistic: it not only reflects the spiritual standpoint already conquered but also embodies the spirit as a materializing force, ripe for revelation.

Matisse, La Musique, 1909

These two elements have always existed in art. They have been matter by the spirit can easily be classified between two poles.(I cannot parse this last sentence - it only makes sense without the words "have been matter by the spirit" - so I'll leave those words out.)

These two poles are:
1. Total abstraction
2. Total realism

These two poles open two ways that lead ultimately to one goal. Between these poles lie many combinations of the different harmonies of abstraction and realism. These two elements have always existed in art. They have been classified as the “purely artistic” and the “objective.” The first was expressed in the second while the second was serving the first. It was a fluid balance, which seemed to search for its ideal fruition in an absolute equilibrium.

I don't think that any painting lies in  either total abstraction or total realism  ---  or that it makes sense to think of a  graduated continuum between them.

It may be convenient to say that Kandinsky's  paintings are more abstract than Sargent's (so don't expect to recognize any faces or trees) - but it's not an assertion that would survive scrutiny.

The one seems to pay no less attention to abstract or representational features than the other - even if  one is more about a  direct observation of nature.

It seems that this ideal is no longer a goal today. The horizontal bar that held the two pans of the scale in balance seems to have vanished today; each pan intends to exist individually and independently. This breaking of the ideal scale also seems to people to be “anarchistic’ Art has apparently brought to an end the pleasant supplementing of the objective by the abstract, and vice versa. On the one hand, the diverting support of reality has been removed from the abstract, and viewers think they are floating. They say that art has lost its footing. On the other hand, the diverting idealization of the abstract (the “artistic” element) has been removed from the objective; and viewers feel nailed to the floor. They say that art has lost the ideal. These reproaches originate in incompletely developed feeling. The custom of concentrating on form and the resultant behavior of the viewer who clings to the accustomed form of balance are the blinding forces that block free access to free feeling.

The emergent great realism is an effort to banish external artistic elements from painting and to embody the content of the work in a simple (“inartistic”) representation of the simple solid object. Thus interpreted and fixed in the painting, the outer shell of the object and the simultaneous canceling of conventional and obtrusive beauty best reveal the inner sound of the thing. With the “artistic” reduced to a minimum, the soul of the object can be heard at its strongest through its shell because tasteful outer beauty can no longer be a distraction. (The spirit has already absorbed the content of conventional beauty and no longer finds new nourishment in it. The form of this conventional beauty gives conventional enjoyment to the lazy physical eye. The effect of the work is mired in the field of the physical. Spiritual experience becomes impossible. Often this beauty creates a force that leads not to the spirit but away from it.)

If only Kandinsky had provided an example of "artistic reduced to a minimum"

Did he think that it was all that obvious to his intended readership ?

I have absolutely no idea to which paintings he might have been referring

This is possible only because we can increasingly hear the whole  world, not in a beautiful interpretation, but as it is.   The “artistic” reduced to a minimum must be considered as the most intensely effective abstraction. ( The quantitative reduction of the abstract therefore equals the qualitative intensification of the abstract. Here we touch one of the most essential rules: the external enlargement of a means of expression leads under certain circumstances to a reduction of its internal power.

Here 2 +1 is less than 2 - 1. This rule is naturally also revealed in the smallest forms of expression: a spot of color often loses intensity and must lose effect by being enlarged and made more powerful. An especially active movement of color is often produced through restraint; a mournful sound can be achieved by direct sweetness of color, and so on. All these are expressions of the law of antithesis and its consequences. 

I understand how an area of color might lose it's impact when made larger -- but have no idea how abstraction can be quantitatively reduced.

In short: true form is produced from the combination of feeling and science. Again I must remind you of the cook! A good substantial meal is produced from combination of a good recipe (where everything is specified in pounds and ounces) and guiding feeling. An important characteristic of our time is the increase of knowledge: aesthetics gradually assumes its proper place. This is the future “thorough bass,” ahead of which naturally lies infinite change and development!

This sounds good, but how can any form, true or not, be made without some combination of feeling and science?

Henri Rousseau, View of Malakov, 1903

The great antithesis to this realism is the great abstraction, which apparently intends to annihilate the objective (reality) and to embody the content of the work in “incorporeal” forms. Thus interpreted and fixed in the painting, the abstract life of representational forms is reduced to a minimum and best reveals the inner sound of the painting. Likewise, as in realism the inner sound is intensified by blotting out the abstract, so in abstraction this sound is intensified by blotting out reality. In realism conventional outer, tasteful beauty is a limitation; in abstraction the conventional, outer, supporting object is a limitation.

In order to “understand” this kind of painting, the same kind of liberation is necessary as in realism. That is, here also it must become possible to hear the whole world as it is without representational interpretation. Here these abstracting or abstract forms (lines, planes, dots etc) are not important in themselves but only their inner sound, their life. As in realism, the object itself or its outer shell is not important, only its inner sound, its life.

The “representational” reduced to a minimum must in abstraction be regarded as the most intensely effective reality.   (At the other pole we meet the same previously mentioned law whereby quantitative reduction equals qualitative intensification.)

In conclusion: in total realism the real appears strikingly great and the abstract strikingly small; in total abstraction this relation  seems to be reversed, so that in the end these (= aim) two poles are equalized. Between these two antipodes we can put the equals sign:

Realism = Abstraction
Abstraction = Realism

The greatest external difference becomes the greatest internal equality.

Kandinsky is belaboring a point he has already made - while adding nothing to it.

A few examples will lead us from the theoretical sphere to the practical. When a reader looks at some letter in these lines with unskilled eyes, he will see it not as a familiar symbol for a part of a word but first as a thing. Besides the practical man-made abstract form, which is a fixed symbol for a specific sound,  he will also see a physical form that quite autonomously causes a certain outer and inner impression; it is independent of the above-mentioned abstract form. In this sense the letter consists of:

Element 1. The main form the overall appearance, which, roughly speaking, denotes: happy, sad, striving, sinking, defiant, ostentatious, etc.

Element 2. Various specifically curved lines, which always make a certain internal impression; they too can be happy, sad, etc.

When the reader has felt these two elements of the letter, a feeling is immediately aroused in him caused by this letter as a being with inner life.

One should not reply that this letter affects one person in one way, and another in another way. This is irrelevant and understandable. Generally speaking, every being affects different persons differently.

At last! We're going to get some examples!

But alas, they're not examples provided by specific works of art -- but rather by the typography used on the page that we're reading -- which is probably different in the English translation than in the German original.

And how might  this  typography relate to his previous discussion of abstraction vs. realism ?

He is  merely showing that the details of a shape, taken individually,  may feel differently from the shape considered as a whole.

We see only that the letter consists of two elements that in the end express one sound. The various lines of the second element may be “happy,” but the overall impression (Element 1) may still be “sad.” The various movements of the second element are organic parts of the first. The same construction and the same subordination of the various elements under one sound may be observed in any lied, any piano piece, any symphony. And exactly the same procedure forms a drawing, a sketch, a painting.
 Here the rules of construction are revealed. At the moment only one thing is important to us: the letter produces an effect. As mentioned before, this effect is twofold:

1. The letter acts as a purposeful symbol;
2. It first acts as form and later as the inner sound of this form, self-supporting and entirely independent.

It is important to us that these two effects are not connected with each other; while the first effect is external, the second has an inner meaning. 

From this we conclude that the outer effect can be different from the inner, which is produced by the inner sound. This is one of the most powerful and most profound means of expression in any composition. (Here I can only touch in passing on such great problems. If the reader wishes to become absorbed in these questions, he will realize the power, the irresistibly alluring mystery, for example, of this last chain of reasoning)

Now he's reminding us that a typeface also refers to a symbolic system of written language - what he is calling an "external effect" - as opposed to the "inner sound" created by the shapes of the letter.

But hasn't  that "external effect" actually been internalized ? Aren't all of our internal dictionaries just a little bit different - or sometimes very different  - especially regarding the connotation of words like "god", "brother", "truth" etc.

And isn't  the "inner sound" of shapes affected by previous occurrences of similar shapes in other places?

Inner and outer is so inextricably intertwined in our big, organic, sloppy, ever-changing brains.

That "powerful and most profound means of expression" is just another example of what he earlier called "the law of antithesis"

Arnold Schoenberg, self portrait, 1911

Let us take another example. Suppose we see a dash in the same book. If this dash is in its proper place—as I use it here—it is a line with a practical purpose. Let us lengthen this little line and still leave it ii its proper place: the meaning of the line remains the same, but by its unusual length it is given an undefinable shading. The reader asks himself why this line is so long and whether this length has a practical purpose.

Why wouldn't Kandinsky offer even ONE example from the world of art?

Let us put the same line in a wrong place (as—I do here). The practical function is lost and cannot be found; the shade of the question has increased. It might be a misprint, i.e., a distorted practical purpose. This sounds negative. Let us draw the same line on an empty page, long and curved. As with the last example, one expects to learn its real practical function (as long as there is hope for an explanation). Afterward (when there is no explanation) one thinks of its negativeness.
As long as this or that line remains in a book, its practical purpose cannot definitely be eliminated.
Let us draw a similar line in a context where practical purpose can “be completely eliminated, e.g., on a canvas. As long as the viewer (he is no longer a reader) looks at this line on the canvas as a means of delineating an object, he is still subject to the impression of the practical purpose. But at the moment he sees that the practical object in the painting is mostly accidental and does not play a purely pictorial role, and that the line can sometimes have a purely pictorial ‘significance, (Van Gogh utilized the line as such with special power, without thereby intending to denote the corporeal) at that moment the viewer’s soul is mature enough to perceive the pure inner sound of this line.

Is the object, the thing, thus eliminated from the painting?

No. As we saw above, the line is a thing, which has the same practical purpose as a chair, a fountain, a knife, a book, and so on. And this thing is used in the last example as a purely pictorial means without the other aspects that it otherwise may have, that is, in its pure inner sound. In a painting, when a line is freed from delineating a thing and functions as a thing in itself, its inner sound is not weakened by minor functions, and it receives its full inner power.

Kandinsky has now made the same point three times.

Henri Rousseau, View of Fortifications, 1909

We may conclude that pure abstraction makes use of things that lead a material existence just as pure realism does. Again the complete negation of objects is equal to their complete affirmation. In both cases the equals sign is again justified because it leads to the same end: embodiment of the selfsame inner sound. Here we see that in principle it makes no difference whether the artist uses real or abstract forms.Both forms are basically internally equal. The choice must be left to the artist, who must know best by which means he most clearly can give material expression to the content of his art.

To express it abstractly: in principle there is no question of form. If there were in fact a question of form in principle, an answer would be possible.

Everyone who had the answer would be able to create works of art, i.e., art would at that very moment cease to exist.

Given recent assertions concerning "The End of Art" , this sentence at first  intrigued me.

But Kandinsky is just stating the obvious: if form is a question, it's not the kind that has one answer.

Franz Marc, The Bull, 1911

Practically speaking, the question of form becomes the question: which form should I use in this case in order to achieve the necessary expression of my inner experience? The answer is scientifically precise and absolute in this case and relative in other cases, i.e., a form that is the best in one case may be the worst in another. Everything depends on the inner necessity. which alone can determine the appropriate farm. And one form may be appropriate for several artists only when, under the pressure of time and space, the inner necessity chooses several related forms. However, this does not change the relative meaning of form at all, because an appropriate form in one case may still be inappropriate in other cases. All the rules discovered in earlier art and those to be discovered later —which art historians value too highly—are not general rules: they do not lead to art. If I know the craft of carpentry, I will always be able to make a table. But one who knows the supposed rules of painting will never be sure of creating a work of art. These supposed rules, which will soon lead to a “thorough bass” in painting, are merely the recognition of the inner effect of various methods and their combination. But there is no rule by which one can arrive at the application of effective form and the combination of particular methods precisely necessary in a specific case. 

This reminds me of many happy hours spent a decade ago on The Goodart  listserv, where the resident dogma was that yup, good art was like good carpentry: there are specific rules and skills involved in its creation.

Obviously, they did not approve of Kandinsky!

(while what they did approve was usually dismaying)

The practical result: one should never trust a theoretician (art historian, critic, etc.) who asserts that he has discovered some objective mistake in a work. The only thing a theoretician is justified in asserting is that he does not yet know this or that method. If in praising or condemning a work theoreticians start from an analysis of already existing forms, they are most dangerously misleading and create a wall between the work and the naive viewer.

Here's a critique of Kandinsky's painting done with just such an "objective"  approach.

I disagree with Greenberg, and I make my own art criticism explicitly subjective.

But still I find Greenberg's assertion fascinating -- and I don't think that art critics should be concerned with naive viewers. (or if they must be - I don't want to read them)

Come to think of it -- Kandinsky was also not writing for me.

He was writing for educated professionals - like the legal scholar that he first became - who are not especially sophisticated about art.  A question like "why can't I recognize anything in your painting?" would have concerned him so greatly he answered it three times.

From this point of view (which unfortunately is usually the only possible one) art criticism is the worst enemy of art. The ideal art critic would not want to discover “mistakes,” (anatomical mistakes,”“distortions,” etc., or offenses against the future “thorough bass.”) “errors,”“ignorance,”“plagiarism,” etc., etc. Rather, he would try to feel how this or that form works internally, and then he would convey his total experience vividly to the public.

Such a critic would need the soul of a poet, because the poet has to feel objectively in order to express his feeling subjectively. This means that the critic would need creative ability. In reality, critics are very often unsuccessful artists, who are frustrated by the lack of creative ability of their own, and therefore feel called upon to guide the creative ability of others.

Can't argue with any of the above -- and appreciate the assertion that "the poet (or critic) has to feel objectively in order to express his feeling subjectively"

I think of art criticism as a pleasant conversation that one art lover has with another -- rather than some kind of technical analysis. So it's as much about the personality, desires, ideals,  and experience of the reviewer as it about the art

And  I never speculate on whether the artist might have gotten what she wanted if she did things differently. (i.e. whether mistakes were made).  I assume that art is the result of an artist's intentions -- it's just that I may not be the intended viewer.

Another reason why the question of form is often harmful to art is that untalented people (i.e., people without an inner urge for art) use forms not their own, thus faking works and causing confusion.

I must be precise here. It is considered a crime and fraud by critics, by the public, and often by the artist, to use the forms of others. This. in fact, is only true when the “artist” uses these forms without an inner necessity and creates a lifeless, dead, spurious work. If in order to express his inner impulses and experiences, an artist uses one or another “borrowed” form in accord with inner truth, he then exercises his right to use every form internally necessary to him—a utilitarian object, a heavenly body, or an artistic form created by another artist.
The whole question of “imitation” is also far from having the importance attached to it by the critics.
(Every artist knows how fanciful the critics are in this field. They know that the most extravagant statements may be used here without consequences. For example, recently the Negress by Eugen Kahler, a good naturalistic studio painting, was compared with . . . Gauguin! The only reason for this comparison could be the brown skin of the model (see Mdnchner Neueste Nachrichten, October 12, 1911), etc., etc.)

(Thanks to the prevailing exaggeration of this question the artist is discredited with impunity.)
 The living remain. The dead vanish.

This open attitude toward imitation  is surprising, given  Kandinsky's earlier harangue against the black, fatal hand clinging to the dead forms of the past.

But I strongly agree!

Resemblance to earlier art is only a problem, for me, when it prompts the thought "Gee -- I sure wish I was looking at the original"

Henri Rousseau, Self portrait with Lamp, 1899

Really, the further we look back into the past, the fewer faked and spurious works we find. They have vanished mysteriously. Only the genuine creation remains; i.e., only that which has a soul (content) in its body (form).

If the reader looks at any object on his table (even if it is only a cigarette stub) he will immediately observe the same two effects. Whenever and wherever it is (in the street, in church, in the sky, in the water, in a stable, or in the woods), the same two effects will always emerge, and always the inner sound will be independent of the outer meaning. The world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually effective beings. Even dead matter is living spirit.

Henri Rousseau, The Wedding Party, 1905

If we draw the necessary conclusions from the independent effect of the inner sound, we see that this inner sound increases in intensity if we remove its stifling, external, practical meaning. This explains the pronounced effect of a child’s drawing on the impartial, untraditional viewer. The child is indifferent to practical meanings since he looks at everything with fresh eyes, and he still has the natural ability to absorb the thing as such. Only later does the child by many, often sad, experiences slowly learn about the practical meanings. Without exception, in each child’s drawing the inner sound of the subject is revealed automatically. Adults, especially teachers, try to force the practical meaning upon the child. They criticize the child’s drawing from this superficial point of view: “Your man cannot walk because he has only one leg,”“Nobody can sit on your chair because it is lopsided,” and so on.((As is so often the case: those who should teach are taught. And later people wonder that these talented children do not develop.)

 The child laughs at himself. But he should cry. Besides being able to ignore the external, the gifted child also has the ability to express the abiding internal in such a form that it emerges and affects very forcefully (or as people say, “It speaks”!).

Giovanni Bellini, "St. Francis in the Desert", 1480
(not in the Almanac)

Just to play the devil's advocate, above I've posted my favorite painting from the Frick to exemplify a painting that is as symphonic with "inner sound" as a Vivaldi concerto, while also packed  with "external, practical meanings" -- and some less practical, more transcendent meanings as well.

It convincingly asserts "this is important to humanity" -- rather than just "this is important to me".

There's no way a child or an un-trained adult could have done it.

I happen to like the paintings by le Douanier that Kandinsky has used to illustrate this chapter in the Almanac. And so do many other art lovers -- so his work is in museums and easy to find on the internet.

(in contrast, by the way, with all these drawings by children or untrained/unknown adults that nobody cared enough to save)

But there's as vast a difference in ambition, intellect, and virtuosity  between him and Bellini, as there is between a charming episode of Seinfeld and Shakespeare's King Lear.  These are  the kinds of differences that Kandinsky does not address.

Every form has many aspects, and one may discover new and different virtues in it over and over again. But here I want to emphasize one aspect of good children’s drawing important to us at the moment: composition. Here we see the evidently unconscious application—virtually self-generated—-of both previously discussed aspects of the letter: (I) the total appearance, which very often is precise and sometimes schematic, and (2) the single forms, which together create the great form, each leading a life of its own (e.g., Arabs by Lydia Wieber). There is an enormous unconscious power in the child that expresses itself here and that raises his work to the level of adults’ work (sometimes even higher!).(”FoIk art” also possesses this startling quality of compositional form (see the votive painting of the Plague in the church in Murnau).

I'm not sure if this is the Bavarian Votive painting in the Almanac
that represents "The Plague",
but the multiple coffins in a procession might suggest that

For every fire there is a cooling off. For every early bud—the threatening frost. For every young talent—an academy. These are not tragic words but a melancholy fact. The academy is the surest way of destroying the power of the child. Even the greatest, strongest talent is more or less retarded in this respect by the academy. Lesser talents perish by the hundreds. An academically trained person of average talent excels in learning practical meanings and losing the ability to hear his inner sound. He produces a “correct” drawing that is dead.

"Practical Meanings" ("can this leg walk?" -- "can this hand grasp?")are only one aspect of academic drawing that is usually also associated with one-point perspective, the illusion of volume, an economy of means --- and beauty.

Kandinsky has told us several times that 'tasteful outer beauty' is a distraction from the inner sound of a form. It would seem that this sound is more like a noise than a melody.

Something else we might note -- Kandinsky never mentions photography - though that would seem to provide the best examples of forms whose inner sound is dead.

If a man without academic training, free of objective artistic knowledge, paints something, he never produces an empty sham. This fact demonstrates the effect of the inner power, which is influenced only by the general knowledge of the practical meaning. However, only a limited application of this general knowledge is possible in these works. Here the external is removed (less so than with a child, but still considerably), and the inner sound is intensified: the works produced are not dead, but living (see, for example, the four heads reproduced here).

Alfred Kubin, "Fischer", 1911-12
(marked in back by Kandinsky: "Blue Rider line technique")

Christ said: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God.
The artist, whose whole life is similar in many ways to that of a child, can often realize the inner sound of things more easily than anyone else. In this respect it is extremely interesting to see how the composer Arnold Schonberg simply and confidently applies pictorial methods. As a rule he is interested only in the inner sound. He disregards decorations and delicacies entirely, and in his hand the “poorest” form becomes the richest (see his Self-Portrait).

Schoenberg, self portrait, 1910
(not in the Almanac)

Here lies the root of the new total realism. In rendering the shell of an object simply and completely, one has already separated the object from its practical meaning and peeled forth its interior sounds. Henri Rousseau, who maybe considered the father of this realism, has pointed the way simply and convincingly (see the portrait and his other paintings). ((The majority of Rousseau’s paintings reproduced here are taken from Uhde’s warm, sympathetic book (Henri Rousseau, Paris, Eugene Figuière et Cie. Editeurs, 1911). I take this opportunity to thank Mr. Uhde cordially for his cooperation.)

By "rendering the shell", presumably the artist is removing the inner life of the subject and replacing it with his own.

Not a bad metaphor - but it might be applied to a greater or lesser degree to every other painter

Henri Rousseau has revealed the new possibilities of simplicity. At present this aspect of his complex talent is most valuable to us. Objects or the object (i.e., the object and the parts forming it) must be in a certain relationship. This relationship may be strikingly harmonious or strikingly disharmonious. A schematic or a subtle rhythm may be applied.

The irresistible effort of artists today to expose the purely compositional and to reveal the future rules of our great epoch is what forces them to strive along different paths to the same goal.

Yes - there does seem to have been a thrill for the 'purely compositional' in those decades - but the only rule that have survived is the necessity for breaking rules.

In such a case, the artist naturally turns to the most regular and at the same time to the most abstract. We see that in many artistic periods the triangle was used as a basis for construction. This triangle was often equilateral, and therefore the number became important; i.e., the completely abstract element of the triangle. In the present search for abstract relationships the number plays a particularly important role. Each numerical formula is cold, like an icy summit, and solid in its extreme regularity like a block of marble. It is cold and solid like all necessities. The search to express the compositional element in a formula is the origin of so-called cubism. This “mathematical” construction is a form that sometimes must lead to the complete destruction of the material relationship of the parts of the object, and when applied consistently, does so (see, for example, Picasso).

The re-asserts the  importance of mathematics - not that it has actually been applied - but as if  it had been applied.

The final goal of this approach is to create a painting that becomes real, that comes alive, exists, through its own schematically constructed parts. If there is any objection to this approach, it is only that the number is too narrowly applied. Everything can be represented as a mathematical formula or simply as a number. But there are various numbers: 1 and 0.3333 . . . have equal rights and both are living beings with an inner sound. Why be satisfied with 1 ? Why exclude 0.3333...? This raises another question: Why restrict artistic expression to the exclusive use of the triangle and similar geometric forms and figures? It must be repeated that the compositional efforts of the “cubists” are directly connected to the necessity to create pure pictorial essence which, on the one hand, speaks in the object and through it and, on the other hand, in various combinations with the more or less resonant object, finally leads to pure abstraction.

Foolish Virgins, Magdeburg Cathedral, 13th C.

Between the purely abstract and the purely real composition lie possibilities of combining abstract and real elements in one picture. The reproductions in this book show how great and diverse the possibilities of combination are, how life pulsates strongly in all these examples, and how free one should be in considering the question of form.

The artist’s inner intuition does and will always control the combination of the abstract and the objective, the choices among the infinite number of abstract forms or of objective matter, i.e., the choice of the particular means in both fields. Any form that today is in bad taste or despised, that seems to lie far off the beaten path, only awaits its master. This form is not dead, it is merely sunk in a kind of lethargy. When the content, the spirit, which can appear only through this seemingly dead form, becomes ripe, when its hour of materialization has arrived, the spirit enters this form and speaks through it.

The layman especially should not approach a work with the question: “What did the artist not do?” or else ask: “How does the artist dare to neglect my wishes?” Rather he should ask: “What did the artist do ?“ or “Which of his inner wishes did the artist express here?” I also believe that the time will yet come when the critics will no longer search for negative qualities, for mistakes, but will seek out and communicate positive appropriate qualities. One of the “important” problems for the contemporary critic of abstract art is how to differentiate between the false and the true, that is, for the most part, how to detect the negative qualities. The attitude toward a work of art should be different from the attitude toward a horse one wants to buy. With a horse one important negative quality outweighs all the positive ones and makes it worthless; with a work of art this relationship is reversed: one important positive quality outweighs all the negative ones and makes it valuable.

But if the viewer is not concerned with what suits him best, why keep on searching for it?  Why be involved with art at all ?  Kandinsky is asking the viewer to be less demanding.

The artist may have the right to "neglect my wishes" -- but I still have the right to demand fulfillment.

If this simple idea were taken into consideration, all questions of form as an absolute principle would vanish automatically. The question of form would retain its relative value, however, and the choice of form necessary for himself and for his work will finally be left to the artist.

In closing these reflections on the question of form, which unfortunately are very short, I want to point out a few examples of construction reproduced in this book. I am forced to emphasize only one of the many vital aspects of the works and to omit all the other manifold qualities that characterize not just one specific work, but also the soul of the artist.

The two paintings by Henri Matisse show how the “rhythmic” composition (La Danse) has an internal life and consequently a sound that differs from the composition in which the elements of the painting seem to be combined unrhythmically (La Musique). This comparison is the best proof that harmony lies not only in a clear-cut scheme but also in a clear rhythmic pattern.

I can't grasp the difference between a "clear-cut scheme" and a "clear rhythm pattern".  Doesn't every scheme have some kind of  rhythm pattern ?

The strong abstract sound of physical forms does not necessarily demand the destruction of the objective. As we see in the picture by Marc (The Bull) there are also no general rules in this matter. The object can fully retain both inner and outer sound, and its individual parts may become independently sounding abstract forms, thereby causing a general abstract primary sound.

19th C. German, artist unknown)
(not in Almanac)

This more naturalistic rendition t also has a "general abstract primary sound" -- but it's in a different genre of music - less like Stravinsky, more like Dvorak.

Gabrielle Munter, "Still Life with St. George", 1911

Munter’s still life shows that a dissimilar and uneven transposition of objects in one and the same painting is not only harmless, but applied correctly, it produces a strong, complicated inner sound. The accord that seems to be disharmonious externally in this case creates the harmonious inner effect.

I'd agree -- it's like a jumble -- but it isn't.

Its certainly is different from the naturalistic still-lifes of the 19th C. - as well as from the cubist still lifes of Braque and Picasso. Maybe you could call it surrealism.  I may never get a chance to see much of her work, but I'd like to.  It's the kind of thing that still is done today - so one might even call it post-modernism.

The two paintings by Le Fauconnier are powerful, didactic examples:  similar “relieflike” forms cause two diametrically opposed inner effects by a distribution of “weights.” Abundance resounds like an almost tragic overloading of weights. Swamp reminds one of pure lucid poetry.

Again, I'd agree - and wonder just how painful that "almost tragic overloading" would feel in person.

If the reader is able to rid himself of his own desires, his own ideas, his own feelings for a while and leafs through this book, going from a votive painting to Delaunay, from Cezanne to a work of Russian folk art, from a mask to Picasso, from a glass painting to Kubin, etc., etc., then his soul will experience many vibrations and he will enter the sphere of art. Here he will not find shocking defects and annoying faults, and instead of a minus he will attain a spiritual plus. And these vibrations and the plus arising from them will enrich his soul as no means other than art can do.

I wonder whether Kandinsky tried to rid himself of desires when he visited an art galley or museum. It sounds like an ascetic discipline more appropriate for life in a monastery.

As an alternative, he might have allowed viewers to  satisfy a desire for novelty - which is certainly what drives me to explore things  new to me.

Later the reader can go on with the artist to objective reflections and scholarly analysis. Then he will find here that all the examples respond to the same inner call—composition; that they all restore the same inner basis—construction.
The inner content of a work belongs to one of two processes that include all the minor movements today (only today? or distinctly visible only today ?).
These two processes are:

1. Disintegration of the soulless, materialistic life of the nineteenth century, i.e., the collapse of the material supports that were considered the only solid ones and the decay and dissolution of the various parts.
2. Construction of the spiritual and intellectual life of the twentieth century that we experience and that is already manifested and embodied in strong, expressive, and distinct forms.

Did the 20th C. turn out to be any more "spiritual" than the 19th ?

The rise of totalitarian empires in the East - and the consumer economy in West - would suggest  not.

Was 20th C. visual art any more spiritual ?

The leading styles of the 19th might say "the world of stuff, and how it appears, is all that exists"

The leading styles of the 20th would emphasize the world of the psyche and how things appear to it.

But if spirituality is a connection to something divine -- i.e. far above human experience -- it seems peripheral to the art of both eras.

So far, Kandinsky's spirituality seems closer to the scented candles and Tarot decks of metaphysical bookstores than to hermits meditating in the desert.  But soon I'll take a closer look at his essay on that subject.

Oskar Kokoshka, Portrait of Else Kupfer, 1911

Egyptian Shadow Play figure

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