modernist art

late impressionism through surrealism

kandinsky & der blaue reiter


people, terms, and concepts: Der Blaue Reiter, primitivism, the apocalypse, the Epoch of the Great Spiritual, color vibrations, Geist, Theosophy, abstraction

additional reading: Kandinsky, The Effect of Color

Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) was the other big German Expressionist movement; its main artists were Franz Marc and the expatriate Russian Wassily Kandinsky. Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter share a belief in the corruption of modern society and an interest in primitivism -- think of Franz Marc's animals and Kandinsky's borrowings from Russian folk art and medieval art.  Kandinsky’s turn toward the subject matter of the apocalypse (and similar stories such as Noah’s Flood and the myth of the phoenix) indicates his belief that the ultimate solution to modern corruption will be a wholesale destruction of the material world, and its rebirth in a new, more pure state which he called the Epoch of the Great Spiritual.  What apocalyptic imagery can we see in the works below?

However, Kandinsky’s works are obviously not meant to be illustrations of the apocalypse.  Why did he disguise his subject matter and deny its importance to the understanding of his work?  Think about this quote:

"The designation 'Canons,' selected by me for my own use, is not to be conceived as indicating the "contents" of the picture. These contents are instead what the spectator lives, or feels while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture ... ."

Why did Kandinsky feel that form and especially color could better convey his spiritual message than subject matter could?  The reading handout talks extensively about his theory of color vibrations that would resonate or ‘klingen’ on the spirit or Geist of the viewers; here is another quote not in your readings:

"[A work of art] has the power to create a spiritual [geistige] atmosphere; and from this internal standpoint alone can one judge whether it is a good work of art or bad. If its form is 'poor', it is too weak to call forth spiritual vibration. ... It is only well painted if its spiritual value is completed and satisfying. 'Good drawing' is drawing that cannot be altered without destruction of this inner value, quite irrespective of its correctness as anatomy, botany, or any other science. ... Similarly, colors are not used because they are true to nature, but because they are necessary to the [spiritual vibrations of the] particular picture."

How are Kandinsky’s ideas about color, as both a manifestation of spiritual vision and as a means of communicating with the spirit, seen in contemporary occult movements such as Theosophy?

One final, complex issue:  Kandinsky claimed to have been the first artist to produce abstract art.  Is this claim valid or not?  What are the arguments pro and con?  Which of his works would you cite as the first to be truly abstract?  (Why do his works and his art theory make this question impossible to answer?)

Franz Marc, Deer in the Woods 2, 1913-14

Kandinsky, Small Pleasures, 1913

Kandinsky, Improvisation 30 (Cannons), 1913