1. Universality as Timelessness and Indivisibility:
At the beginning of the 20th century, the work of the great pioneers begins
to attract the attention of the public-at-large. A memorial exhibition for
Seurat is mounted in Paris in 1900, van Gogh follows in 1901, Gauguin in 1903,
and Cézanne in 1907. These exhibitions establish pictorial thinking and the new
sense of reality as the predominant tendencies of ensuing artistic developments.
The modern artist eschews the unique and the concrete in favor of general, universal values and experiences. Attention is focused on the foundations and the elementary conditions of the creative process. To an even greater extent than before, painting addresses its intrinsic givens, its own pictorial means. To capture the reflection of personal experience, artists no longer look at external reality but rather explore their inner selves: their own pictorial sensations, the stirrings of instinctual impulses, and the products of their fantasy. They discover the creations of so-called primitive art, largely ignored until then: the tribal art of non-literate extra-European peoples, the folk art of Europe, and the work of peintres naïfs. In the experience of the self and the world expressed in this art, modernism recognizes values held to be of universal significance: integrity and originality, that is, the authenticity of artistic expression.
With the opening of the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro (today's Musée de
l'Homme ) in 1882, a handsome collection of Oceanic and African tribal art is
already accessible to the Parisian public before the turn of the century. The
World Fairs of 1889 and 1900 show widely varied examples of indigenous culture
from the overseas colonies of France, and African sculpture is also on view in a
great many curio stores at this time. In contrast to Japanese art, which enjoys
widespread popularity in the late 19th century and exerts a great influence on
Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, the tribal arts of Africa and Oceania
initially meet with purely ethnological interest. Gauguin is the only one to
take artistic inspiration for his own work from Javanese and Polynesian
sculpture, encountered while visiting the Marquesas Islands. It is thus no
accident that modernism discovers the aesthetic qualities of black African art
in the year 1906, following Gauguin's second major retrospective at the Salon
That year, independently of each other, Maurice Vlaminck, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and André Lhote purchase their first African sculptures. Although Picasso is one of the first to see these objects in his friends' studios, he does not take an interest in them until a year later, but then all the more intensely.
While his colleagues admire the qualities of art nègre but do not make personal use of them, Picasso instantly recognizes its expressive potential on visiting the Musée du Trocadéro in 1907 and decides to exploit it in his own work. At that moment, he remarks in retrospect, I realized that this was what painting was all about.2 The overwhelming impact of this visit3 is reflected in the final version of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, completed shortly thereafter (fig. 105).
With this work Picasso definitively jettisons the cloying Symbolism of his blue and pink periods. The sentimentality and the gloomy pathos in much of his early work gives way to the immediacy, the expressive vehemence, and the formal power that issue from primitive art.
Not only does the painting shock the artists, writers, collectors, and dealers who see it in his studio; it also arouses their interest in African tribal art and contributes largely to its dissemination. Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Kahnweiler, the circle around Gertrude Stein, and a great many painters begin collecting African art. In 1909, the Hungarian sculptor Joseph Brummer opens a small gallery on Boulevard Raspail where he sells sculptures from Oceania and Africa as well as the paintings of Le Douanier Rousseau. In 1911 another art dealer enters the scene, Paul Guillaumes, who devotes himself not only to modern but also to African art. More and more frequently, exhibitions and journals address these discoveries in association with the European avant-garde. Interest in tribal art soon spreads to other countries, to Germany in particular, where the members of Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) come face to face with a rich inventory of illustrative material in the substantial collections of the ethnological museums of Berlin, Dresden, and Munich. These developments culminate in 1915 with the publication of Carl Einstein's book Negerplastik, the first comprehensive study on the aesthetics of African art.
Despite growing recognition, few artists (mainly Brancusi, Modigliani, Lipchitz, Nolde, and, of course, Picasso) initially adopt the artistic vocabulary of the primitives. Prior to the First World War, the discovery of art nègre primarily affects contemporary thinking: through their pictorial impact and inventiveness, these unconventional artistic creations legitimize the modernist quest for new forms of expression and a new elementary imagery.
Even more incisive are the authenticity and depth of the magic experience of the world embodied in the masks and fetishes of the natives: For me the masks were not just sculptures, Picasso tells Malraux in describing his visit to the Musée du Trocadéro, they were magical objects […], intercessors, […] against everything-against unknown, threatening spirits. […] They were weapons-to keep people from being ruled by spirits, to help free themselves.4
In a brilliant contribution to the book African Art (1988), its editor Werner Schmalenbach similarly underscores the religious concepts of tribal societies. They recognize divine beings, but not as gods who are separate and higher than man: The forces of the universe are perceived as a constant presence, either as a menace or as guardians, as a comfort or as disruptive influences; they are anything but remote. They live in closest proximity to the people, in a nearby tree, in a rocky outcrop or in streams, in the souls of the dead, and often in the wood figures carved for them. Every last member of the tribe, each member of the community, is directly affected by their machinations, and even though priests and ritual specialists exercise their roles as intermediaries, they do not constitute some powerful priesthood capable of keeping such forces at bay. These forces are directly perceived as everyday presences, they attend one's every movement, and all of this has a definite effect on the art produced to appease them.5
The art of black Africa functions primarily as a means of making life more secure, for it seeks to screen its people from the influence of potentially menacing spiritual forces. Its effect must be immediate and real, that is, it must be invested with supernatural powers itself. For those who use it in this sense, the African cult object does not represent a being in the way that, for example, a medieval sculpture portrays a saint; rather, the object is this being. The suggestive effect of the spirit and the vitality that emanates from these objects and even captivates Europeans is not easy to explain. Schmalenbach associates it with the vital energy of the wood, which always remains palpable in African sculpture, even when the carver appears to work 'against the grain' as he polishes, blackens, oils, or paints it. In contrast to a medieval sculpture whose material-used as a means to an end-is 'metamorphosed' into the object to be represented (as, for instance, the folds of a garment), an African sculpture is not the figure of an animal or a person made of wood, but rather a wooden body carved in correspondence to an animal or human body (fig. 106). These figurines owe their tautness of expression and their astonishingly animate presence to the agreement between material, form, and meaning.
Moreover, the African woodcarver enhances the potency and magic power of his masks and figures by affixing to them highly efficacious 'foreign bodies' such as teeth, hair, feathers, glass beads, mirrors, pieces of metal, and nails, or by giving them sacrificial treatment, that is, rubbing oil, soot, pigments, blood, or other substances into the wood (fig. 107). Precisely because these measures do not have an aesthetic intent in the Western sense but rather entail a ritual worship designed to enhance power, their effect is highly suggestive. The unquestioning faith in the power of supernatural beings and forces that emanates from them not only speaks to those for whom they were intended but affects and captivates open-minded viewers anywhere, whatever their background.
The numinous meaning and magic aura of African art do not suffice, however, to explain its impact on the European avant-garde; this is equally based on its unique artistic form. Its dominant characteristic is the tension inherent in the balance between repose and unrest, metrics and dynamics.
Physical activity, that is, the representation of animals or people in action, is extremely rare in African art. African figures nearly always stand or sit in repose, Schmalenbach observes, largely because their activity is of another order than that of the human body. […] If these figures were engaged in movement, and especially if seen performing specific actions, it would certainly detract from their mysterious potency, if not entirely neutralize it. […] However, the power contained within the figure-including that of the wood itself-must not appear to be neutralized by the air of physical calm, but must be perceived as a potential force.6
This entails a special approach to design. All expressive gesture is purged from this nonetheless deeply expressive art. Although certain figures show great physical dynamism, they retain their air of repose; the dynamic effect is created exclusively through the articulation and dramatic opposition of the different parts of the body (fig. 106). The same may be said of the expressive potential of the human face. A dynamic play of facial features is inconceivable. Masks and figures that seek to be alarming do not lose their sense of balance, for even the expression of fright maintains its strict formal composure (fig. 108). The rigor, the gravity, and the great restraint to which African sculpture owes its timelessness is generated by this balance between repose and unrest, between the metric and the dynamic.7
African art is collective art. It consists largely of variations on traditionally defined types of masks and figures (fig. 109). The formal concept of these basic types establishes a given framework that acts as a support and orientation for the individual artist but also substantially restricts the leeway of personal decisions. All the more inexplicable appear to be the sculptural qualities, the powerful expression and sensibility, the beauty and the nobility of these superb works. A similar phenomenon is encountered in European handicrafts of earlier centuries and in so-called folk art, for they also manifest a kind of 'innocent' artistic perfection, which is irrevocably lost as artistic sensibilities become more sophisticated.
Such must have been the reaction of the first European artists who discovered African art before the First World War. They too saw not only purely formal figuration in the masks and figures but also the manifestation of a view of the self and the world from which the European was already estranged, a view that does not make a clear distinction between humankind and the world, inside and outside, idea and reality but perceives these in the sense of a "unified reality," ("Einheitswirklichkeit") as Erich Neumann put it. Picasso and his compeers see in the unquestioning unity and spiritual integrity of African art not only an alternative to the divisiveness and the lack of inner substance
of European art in the 19th century, but also an artistic value to which they
attribute universal meaning; the originality and indivisibility of the artistic statement becomes a binding standard and a guiding ideal of modernism.
The time is now ripe for a painter whose pictures were heaped with scorn and derision at every Salon des Indépendants for twenty years: along with the discovery of the art of the 'primitives,' the Parisian art world discovers the greatness and genius of le douanier (the customs officer) Henri Rousseau.
Henri Rousseau (1844-1910) and the Primacy of Belief
Henri Rousseau, with whom I shall conclude my discussion of the great pioneers of modernism, effectively defies art historical classification. Emerging out of nothing, as it were, his oeuvre-an erratic block of vast dimensions-abruptly bursts in on the rise of modernism.
After several uneventful years serving in the army as a musician in the regimental band, Rousseau, then twenty-six, moves to Paris with his wife Clémence in 1870. There he works for a notary until 1872, when he finds the job at the Paris customs office that is to give him his nickname. Around 1875 he takes up painting without any formal training. For twenty years he works only in his spare time, retiring in 1896 to devote himself entirely to his art. He is widowed twice and only one of his seven children, a daughter, survives.
With the establishment of the juryless Salon des Indépendants, Rousseau has a forum for his paintings, and he makes annual use of this from 1886. Despite their inept draftsmanship, the first paintings that he shows at the Salon manifest great painterly qualities. Significantly it is again Pissarro who instantly recognizes the artistic superiority of this "Sunday painter." He admires the quality of this art, the precision of the hues and the richness of the tones 8 and points him out to his colleagues. Not so the public and the press: they consider the "tax collector" a simpleminded, innocent fool, whose painting deserves only scorn and derision. Wilhelm Uhde, the artist's first biographer, describes in retrospect the scenes that repeat themselves at the Salon every year: [Rousseau's] pictures became the great attraction there, and Paris crowded in to look and laugh for two months every year. Curiosity-seekers craned their necks at his pictures as though at some comic incident on the boulevards; perfect strangers nudged one another and fell into friendly talk. I never heard such laughter, even at a circus. […] Anyone who suggested that the work might have artistic merits would have been rushed off to the asylum at Charenton.9
Continuing to exhibit with admirable obstinacy at every Salon despite the malice of the public, Rousseau becomes an annual, anticipated source of amusement and, in time, something of a celebrity. Gradually, in addition to mockers and scoffers, he begins to attract the attention of artists and art lovers who recognize the greatness of his work. Pissarro is joined by other admirers, such as Seurat, Redon, and Gauguin. In 1891 the young Swiss artist Felix Vallotton publishes the first favorable review of Rousseau's work in the Gazette de Lausanne. His discussion of the artist's first jungle painting of a tiger leaping through a rain-swept forest concludes with the words, This is the alpha and omega of painting!10
This painting and the self-portrait created the year before (fig. 110) usher in a series of masterpieces: in 1894 La Guerre (fig. 111), in 1895 the over six-foot-tall Portrait of a Woman, in 1897 i (fig. 112), in 1905 the jungle picture of the Hungry Lion, in 1907 The Snake Charmer (fig. 114), between 1908 and 1910 several large jungle landscapes, and in 1910 his last great work, The Dream (fig. 113). In the closing years of his life, Rousseau meets with growing acclaim. In 1905 he exhibits at the Salon d'Automne for the first time. Picasso, Derain, Delaunay, Soffici, Apollinaire, Jarry, as well as a few collectors acquire his paintings, the dealer Ambroise Vollard agrees to represent him, and he begins receiving increasingly favorable reviews in the press. He is compared to Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Paolo Uccello.
Despite the growing acclaim and recognition of Rousseau's artistic mastery, the art world and his new 'friends' continue to treat him with amused condescension. What sets him apart from other artists, from his
admirers, friends, and collectors is his naïve and unerring belief in himself and the world. He lives and believes like a child who has no reason to doubt his perception of the world and has not yet learned to distinguish between idea and reality. This faith fascinates and provokes those around him. The famous banquet organized in his honor by Picasso in 1908 serves not least to make fun of the old man. In her memoirs, Fernande Olivier describes their friends' response to the invitation; everyone was overjoyed at the prospect of pulling the douanier's leg.11 Delaunay is said to have turned down the invitation in protest.
Only the German collector, art dealer, and publicist, Wilhelm Uhde, treats the aging painter with open admiration unclouded by any false sense of superiority. After Rousseau's death, Uhde publishes the first biography of the artist (Eugène Falquière, 1911), in which he attempts, with loving empathy, to capture the essence of Rousseau's character and impart a picture of his human greatness. I should like to quote two passages from Uhde's book:12 With the death of Henri Rousseau, a precious spirit passed away. What made his life so precious and his death so great a loss? Was it his childlike candor, his innocence of the world and its compromises and evils? Was it that he embodied the words of the Gospel: 'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven'? Was it the fantasy and imagination embodied in his art, the tenderly heroic and refreshingly quixotic aspects of his nature?
All such questions, of course, will be answered differently by different men. I myself believe that Rousseau's greatest quality was greater than any of these. It was his emotional self-dedication, his endurance, his overwhelming love and passion for, and faith in, life. Rarely in any given century are there men of similar emotional force and conviction. Rousseau embraced life and art as though they were identical. He loved as only a great artist can love, and painted as only a great lover can paint. […]
And as generously as he gave, he expected to take. As a man, he regarded the love of woman as his right; as an artist, he expected sympathetic understanding of his art. To him, fame was both necessary and inevitable. […] He was sure that he himself was a major artist, and in all likelihood ranked himself among the greatest alive. It seemed only logical to him that everybody else should feel more or less the same way.
This self-esteem was neither arrogant nor assumed. Few artists in history have been less arrogant and less assuming. When his dealer broached the subject of a regular financial subsidy, Rousseau was ready to settle for 20 francs a day, Sundays and holidays included-which for him represented affluence. One day an elderly gentleman knocked at the door, identified himself as Puvis de Chavannes and began to discuss the fine points of painting. Rousseau never realized that his caller was not the renowned Puvis at all, but an imposter, dressed up by waggish conspirators. He evinced no surprise, moreover, when he read in the paper that a 'M. Rousseau' had won a silver medal, or when Gauguin told him that he had been awarded a government commission, or when he was informed that the President of the Republic expected him at a State reception.
On the contrary, he was astounded to discover that it was another Rousseau who had won the medal, that nobody in the Louvre knew anything about the government commission, and that the attendants at the Elysée refused to let him in. 'I went up to the front door,' he later explained to his friends, 'but they told me that I couldn't get in without a card of invitation. When I insisted, the President himself came out, patted me on the back, and said, "Sorry, Rousseau, but you see you're wearing an ordinary business suit. Since everybody else has on formal clothes, I can't very well receive you today. But come again some other time".'
With little lies like these he tried to bolster his wounded pride. He couldn't believe that anyone would laugh at him and his pictures. But eventually he discovered the truth, and saw that he would have to cope with the situation. He became less frank, confiding his thoughts to some friends but not to others. He began to adapt and alter facts so as to put himself in the best possible light. One thinks again of the Gospel: 'Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.'
His passion for work, his will power, his unshakeable confidence-these set Rousseau apart from ordinary mortals. His faith in himself was so great that it became an inspiration to others. Unhappy, elderly neighborhood folk would come to his room and sit quietly in a corner, finding renewed hope in his very presence. There he would sit on a stool, working calmly away at a huge picture. If the afternoon happened to be warm, he might doze off for a few minutes, then awake with a start and go back to his painting. On one occasion, he turned to some visitors with a curious expression on his face. 'Did you notice,' he asked, 'how my hand was moving?'
'Of course, Rousseau. You were filling in that color with your brush.'
'No, no,' he answered, 'not I. My dead wife was just here and she guided my hand. Didn't you see her or hear her? "Keep at it, Rousseau," she whispered, "you're going to make out all right after all".' He settled back on his stool and worked steadily until sunset. Who could laugh at such a man? Who could fail to envy his candor, tenacity and genius?13
What makes this wonderful human being, who seems to stand entirely apart from the developments of art history, one of the greatest European artists of all time? And what is the reason for his extraordinary importance in the evolution of modernism?
If we try to answer these questions within the framework of our psychological model, we are immediately struck by the impressive congruence and consistent mutual interaction of exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures. We sense that every form, every color, every object in his representations is a statement; everything aspires to be seen, felt, and understood, everything seeks to communicate, and yet without ever losing sight of a higher, general, and objective structure. The will to make a unique statement of his own and the will to do this to perfection are one. In defiance of all derision and hostility, Rousseau paints what he wants to, he paints his pictures. But at the same time and despite his ineptitude as a painter and draftsman, he just as stubbornly aspires to infuse them with the 'dignity of permanence' by fulfilling his artistic canon.
However, this canon does not coincide with the ideals of his age. We know from Rousseau himself how much he idealized the illusionist naturalism of the Salon painters of his time, like Gérôme, Bouguereau, and Clément. All his life he bemoans the fact that his parents did not enable him to train as a painter, for with such an education, he writes in a letter of 1882, I ought to be the greatest and richest artist in France today.14 He admires the academic skills of the professionals and does not realize that his technical ineptitude is not due to inadequate training but is rather part of the structure of his consciousness. Even so, he accepts and makes the best of his artistic limitations: like every great artist, he creates the artistic canon that corresponds to his abilities. He thereby replaces an irreal, unfruitful idealism with a binding idealized structure that meets the needs of his ego, with the pictorial canon of a pre-classical and pre-naturalistic, 'primitive' art.15 Rousseau's self-awareness is not reflexive in nature but rather akin to the open-minded though largely pre-scientific self-image and worldview of the early Italian Renaissance. This explains the stylistic rapport of his painting with that of the Trecento.16
His art is magically expressive, like that of primitive tribes. He is less interested in recognizing Nature than in representing and glorifying it. The real, the true, and the right do not stand for autonomous values but are ambitions that serve an idealized structure based not on insight but on faith. This faith is not denominational-Rousseau was anti-clerical and a Freemason-but rather the faith of one who has no inner doubts because he equates perception, idea, and reality. His painting mirrors an experience of himself and the world in which the boundaries between inside and outside, between himself and the world are flowing. The thing that makes me happiest of all is to contemplate nature and to paint it. Would you believe that when I walk through the countryside and I see the sun, that greenery, those flowers, I sometimes think to myself: 'All this is mine!' he says to a journalist shortly before his death.17 His paintings do not mirror objective reality but rather the enchanted world that he calls his own.
Rousseau paints all of his pictures-even his landscapes-in the studio. His sources are often postcards or other existing reproductions although he sometimes makes small preliminary sketches of his own in oils. These rare outdoor studies are striking for the expansiveness of their painterly approach, whose disregard of detail is reminiscent of Impressionism (cf. fig. 115).
Rousseau is quite obviously capable of painting 'modern' pictures, but this does not coincide with his intentions. (After all, he admires Clément and Bouguereau and not the Impressionists!) To him the sketches made to record his fleeting impressions of a landscape are neither final products nor invested with an autonomy of purpose; they merely serve as mnemonic aids and, as such, form the basis for the figurative, colorful, and formal composition of future paintings. They determine its rudimentary structure and have to satisfy the demands of the general and timeless canon to which Rousseau ascribes: namely, the specifications of scale and balance, and the dialectical link between unity and diversity, between rest and movement, between rhythm and form.
So much for his idealized structure, whose elementary pictorial orientation is, to some extent, related to modernism. However, this does not satisfy Rousseau's exhibitionist ambitions because the spontaneous, Impressionist manner of his sketches does not correspond to them at all. He is primarily interested in giving the 'dignity of permanence' to what he has been through, to what he has seen, felt, and imagined. He does not want to capture the fleeting impressions of landscapes or people but rather to grasp their timeless essence. Rousseau's art is devoted to the miracle of creation, to its sublime presence. The clear contours, the absolute color of the objects, and the unmistakably defined figuration are the ineluctable properties of a pictorial idiom, compelled to give shape and expression to the unshakable certainty of his faith and the passionate power of his love.
From 1890 his paintings no longer show only the people and landscapes of his immediate environment, but begin to include the rampant vegetation and exotic animal world of the tropical jungle. This world is not a figment of Rousseau's imagination. He has actually seen the plants and wild animals, the trees, flowers, and fruit, the monkeys, snakes, birds, lions, panthers, and tigers that inhabit his jungles, though not during a military campaign in Mexico, as he tells gullible listeners, but in Paris: in the immense greenhouses of the Jardin des Plantes and its adjoining zoo; in the paintings of the then so popular Orientalists; in illustrated books and journals; in advertisements and on labels; and above all in the publication of the Galeries Lafayette, Les bêtes sauvages. Only recently has Yann Le Pichon compiled all of these sources, found largely in the house of Rousseau's granddaughter, and juxtaposed them, in the resulting exhaustive publication, with the respective paintings (figs. 116, 117).
On leafing through this volume, one notes with surprise that most of the motifs in Rousseau's exotic paintings are adapted from outside sources. To an astonishing extent, Rousseau exploits the world of popular images that fed the imagination of simple Parisians in those days. But what a difference between his sources and the paintings that they inspired! Rousseau uses them only as an aid, of course, to make his representations accessible and lend them credibility. He translates the appropriated illustrations into the language of the Primitives. Referential authenticity and naturalistic details interest him only inasmuch as they are necessary as a means to an end. With the greatest aplomb, he fades out what does not seem essential to him and retains only those elements capable of communicating the magic and the fascination that he himself feels. When I enter these hothouses and see these strange plants from exotic countries, I feel as if I had stepped into a dream,18 he confides to Arsène Alexandre. His reaction to the exotic representations of the Orientalists and the hackneyed imitations of their work in popular books, magazines, and advertisements is similar. He subordinates this imaginary world to his idealized structures, saturates it with his ambitions, and gives it form and expression in his pictures and in his own 'primitive' way. In Rousseau's paintings, the subjects he has appropriated lose their illustrative, anecdotal character; they become archetypal imagines and acquire the majestic, timeless presence of the work of such artists as Cimabue, Giotto, Piero, and Uccello.
Nonetheless, Rousseau is still a 'modern' artist. The world he represents is not that of the Trecento or Quattrocento but of his own day and age. Balloons and airplanes populate his skies, the masts of electric power lines stand in his landscapes, and he is one of the very first to paint the Eiffel Tower. His dreams and fantasies-the enchanted jungle, the sleeping gypsy, the snake charmer, or the congregation of heads of state for the preservation of peace-are the same as those of the turn of the century, which his competitors, the popular Salon painters, likewise glorify. But the latter do not share Rousseau's faith; they tend to falsify the dream by rendering it with illusionary naturalism as a factual event. In contrast, Rousseau paints these dreams for what they are: fantasies that testify to a world of a different order-primary, irrational, and yet familiar. Rousseau's faith and love endow his visions with that 'magic' order of reality that confronts us in dreams and he thereby lends them fitting form and expression. In his pictures, the miraculous is no longer associated with the semantic context of Christian revelation or the gods of antiquity; for the first time, it is clothed in secular garb. Hence, Rousseau is the great forerunner of both Surrealism and modern, 'magic' Realism.
In him modernism discovers the peintre naïf, and in his "innocence of the heart" a lost artistic quality. For the artistic generations that follow, the former douanier comes to symbolize the reality and faith of an integrated human being, of a total, all-embracing self. Through the consistent identity of mental attitude and artistic idiom, Rousseau set his own standard for the reality of the imaginary: real is what we believe.
2. The Universal as a Structure: from Cubism to Neoplasticism
The second phase in the rise of modernism mirrors the scientific revolution of the new era still more distinctly than the first. The trailblazing discoveries of psychoanalysis and the new physics, the effect of technological and industrial progress, and the resulting dynamics are echoed in artistic efforts to visualize and express the invisible foundations of reality. The artists of modernism move farther and farther away from visible appearances; step by step, but inexorably, they push forward to fundamentals and universals, to universal being, and thereby evolve two basic forms of representation that reflect the above-mentioned developments: structure and energy. These forms are no longer object-bound but rather dynamic in nature. Art no longer depicts; it implements.
Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and the Primacy of Form
The discovery of black African sculpture around 1906 and the major Cézanne exhibition of 1907 provide the seminal impulses that lead Georges Braque (1882-1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) to invent the new stylistic form of Cubism between 1907 and 1914.19 In two major phases of development, they free painting from its erstwhile ties to external reality and establish the theoretical and artistic prerequisites for an autonomous art.
In the first, 'analytical' phase of Cubism, Braque and Picasso adopt Cézanne's structural approach but not his coloring; by restricting themselves to the earthy shades of brown and ochre, green and gray, they underscore the formal aspect of their concerns. Through the rhythmical fragmentation of body and space into Cubist facets, they de-construct the shape of things
step by step and create a self-contained crystal-like structure, which is self-contained, i.e. independent of the object, so that their pictures lose their conventionally figurative legibility and become autonomous formal configurations (figs. 122, 123).
The notion has repeatedly been advanced that Braque and Picasso show different views of an object in their pictures in order to demonstrate the simultaneous validity of different points of view. In his publication of 1913, Les
peintres cubistes, Apollinaire is one of the first to interpret this expansion
of perception through simultaneity as a move in painting toward the then much-debated fourth dimension of time.20 This interpretation may apply
to the Cubist oeuvre of Duchamp or to the work of certain Futurists, but in the case of Braque and Picasso it is completely off the mark.
It is true that the two artists go further than Cézanne in eliminating the unity of the viewer's position, the vanishing point, the incidence of the light, and the horizon. The fragmentation of a unified space and therefore of a unified object is not, however, geared toward the simultaneous representation of different angles and points of view but motivated by entirely different considerations: it forms the decisive precondition for the radical and consistent, rhythmic syncopation of the picture plane, through which Braque and Picasso chart the same new territory in painting as jazz later does in the field of music.
Cubism closes the present chapter in the renewal of pictorial means ushered in by Impressionism. While Seurat broke natural light down into the pure colors of the spectrum thereby liberating color and endowing it with a melodic voice, Braque and Picasso broke objects down into geometric and stereometric elements thereby making form autonomous and infusing it with rhythmic life.21
In the second, 'synthetic' phase of Cubism, during which the Spaniard Juan Gris joins Braque and Picasso, the two latter artists simplify the structure of their pictures. The single elements of their compositions increase in size, and their formal means become more economical, richer in contrast, and more intense. The Cubist effect retreats into the plane, giving way to variable configurations of superimposed, overlapping and, in part, transparent planes. These plans superposés enable the two artists to combine planarity with pictorial depth (fig. 125).
In 1911 Braque begins to insert single letters or whole words into these planes. For the first time in 1912, he pastes a piece of wallpaper onto the picture, thus expanding the potential of Cubist art by applying the principle of the collage, also adopted by Picasso and Gris. The most varied items and materials-newspaper clippings, colored bits of paper, imitation marble and wood, wallpaper, fabrics, and basketwork-now add novel tactile qualities to the picture (figs. 124, 126). These fragments of everyday reality resemble quotations; they evoke memories through which the quoted objects are recreated in their spatial entirety in the viewer's mind. The fragment stands in for the whole, which is now 'seen' and experienced in a new way and with an intensity that naturalistic representation could never achieve. Through this expansion of pictorial devices, synthetic Cubism introduces entirely new perspectives in the visual arts. Braque and Picasso no longer aim at interpreting givens or extracting a form out of them but instead use things and pure elements of form in order to construct a new reality: the picture itself becomes the object. In 1912, inspired by experiments first undertaken but not pursued by Braque,22 Picasso translates the subject matter of his papiers collés into three-dimensional constructions made of cardboard, paper, and string, thereby creating a new form of sculpture (fig. 127). Both artists act out their exhibitionist ambitions in the form of highly unusual pictorial ideas and inventions, but these are still governed by an order based on the idealized structure of scale and balance, characteristic of all Classical art. In these works, general, objective values intrinsic to human nature find their historically unique form, which reflects the spirit of the new era. In this respect, the papiers collés made in 1913-14 count among the first classical works of modern art.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Braque is drafted into the French army. Deprived of his friend's stimulating and disciplining influence, Picasso's output becomes increasingly weaker. He seeks more frequent contact with his compatriot, Juan Gris, five years his junior. Under the influence of Gris's planar and strictly geometrical painting, (fig. 128) Picasso develops, from 1916, the decorative, architectural style of his late Cubism, which culminates and concludes in 1921 with his two versions of Three Musicians (fig. 129). Picasso abandons the path he has followed up to this point in order to address a new order of experimentation in his Neoclassicist pictures.
Braque and Picasso produce their decisive oeuvre between 1907 and 1914. A series of exhibitions makes a name for Cubism overnight in all the major cities of Europe. Countless artists adopt the new style of painting but most of them misunderstand its significance in much the same manner as the pictorial revolution initiated by Cézanne, Gauguin, and van Gogh had been misunderstood by their contemporaries. The group Section d'Or, Delaunay and Franz Marc, the Italian Futurists, the English Vorticists, and the Russian Cubo-Futurists all adopt the external features of Cubism but still adhere to an idealist attitude; the pictorial concerns of Cubism are basically alien to them.
One of the few exceptions23 is the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, who takes Cubism a step further, to nonfigurative art.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) and the Primacy of the Spiritual
Artistic development in the 19th century is dominated by the opposition between the detached, objective, rational attitude of the Classicists and Realists, on one hand, and the emotional, subjective, irrational attitude of the Romanticists and Symbolists, on the other. This opposition is clearly tangible in early modern art as well: Manet, Degas, Monet, Seurat, and Cézanne represent the former; van Gogh, Gauguin, Munch, and Ensor, the latter. But while the 19th century generally inclines toward a progressive polarization of this opposition, the artists of early modernism seek to synthesize the two artistic attitudes: they try to respond with one and the same artistic answer to both questions, i.e. the question of the real, the true, and the right on one hand, and the question of the actual essence and meaning of the Creation on the other. This corresponds to the new paradigm: the belief in the immanent laws and essential unity of all being necessitates the development of an artistic canon with a superior order which permits the unification of the sensual and the spiritual, the real and the ideal, in one homogeneous form.
The attempt was, of course, made earlier as well, before the advent of modernism. The Symbolists in particular explicitly espoused the objective of recovering or recreating the lost unity of man and world. But their efforts were guided by the old paradigm-the idea of a God-man. They sought the uniting factor in the renascence of a transcendent image of humanity, in a new revelation, which ultimately had nothing to offer but the murky mirror image of long familiar ideas. The meaning of life was understood as a representative idea; it was not to be realized or fulfilled but depicted and proclaimed. The most useful artistic device to this end was the symbol.
By contrast, the artists of dawning modernism take a dialectical approach to the contradiction between humanity and world, between idea and reality. They dispel the tension that has marked the self-image of Western civilization since the clash between antiquity and Christianity by achieving a pictorial and spiritual synthesis that is not represented but realized.
This tendency also prevails in the second major phase of emerging modernism. It is clearly illustrated by the fact that, among progressive artists at that time, precisely those who have originally come from the Symbolist camp, Mondrian and Kandinsky, take the decisive step to complete nonobjectivity. They succeed in translating the ideal concerns, which are primarily expressed in symbolic terms in their early work (and thereby also restricted to the realm of the imaginary), into a new artistic language and thus they also succeed in creating a pictorial reality out of the purely imagined: in their nonobjective works, the unity of the physical and the spiritual is neither proclaimed nor represented as a symbol, metaphor, or allegory but rather realized in the artistic act itself; it no longer has to be imagined, but can be experienced directly. The essence of modern art is based on this change which, in turn, lends the paradigm of the new era its unique artistic form. The significance and scope of this far-reaching step shall be illustrated in the work of Piet Mondrian.
The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was born in 1872 into a strict Calvinist family. His father, a schoolmaster at the Protestant primary school in Amersfoort, is said to have been an excellent draftsman; his uncle, Frits Mondrian, was a painter by profession and gave Piet, who wanted to become a painter from his earliest childhood, his first lessons in art.
After training as a secondary school art teacher, Mondrian settles in Amsterdam in 1892 and attends painting classes at the Rijksakademie until 1895. His work during the following decade is of a conventional cast and of little artistic significance.
This does not change until 1908 when Mondrian, now already thirty-six years old, meets the painter Jan Toorop (the most important exponent of Dutch Symbolism) and a group of young, internationally oriented artists through whom he first comes into contact with the then current trends in the arts. At exhibitions and in journals he sees the work of the Pointillists and the French Fauves, of van Gogh, Munch, and the German Expressionists. He immediately begins experimenting with pure color and the new painting techniques, whereby he renders the same four subjects (windmills, church towers, trees, and sand dunes) in all of these styles. These somewhat clumsy, symbolically oriented pictures clearly show the influence of the newly discovered post-Impressionists as well as that of the esoteric teachings that are the subject of heated debate at the time.24 Mondrian reads Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's much-discussed book, The Secret Doctrine (a constant companion for the rest of his life), the writings of Rudolf Steiner, and the work of Edouard Schouré, Les grands initiés (The Great Initiates). In 1909 he joins the Theosophical Society.
Mondrian's Symbolist period lasts from 1905 to 1911. The most distinct articulation of Theosophical thought is found in the triptych of 1910-11, Evolution, which seems to me an attempt to show a soul's development through the effect of its 'aura' (fig. 131). In 1911 Mondrian contributes this triptych to the exhibition of the Modern Art Circle, of which he is co-founder. Also on view at this exhibition is not only the work of his Dutch colleagues, Cézanne, and Derain, but also-and for the first time-the Cubist art of Braque, Picasso, and Le Fauconnier.
The encounter with Cubism has the effect of an epiphany. At one blow Mondrian recognizes the artistic potential of a purely pictorial approach and, with it, a means of giving concrete, that is, sensual and tangible expression to his main concerns: universal laws and the essential oneness of all being. In consequence, the Symbolist phase of his oeuvre comes to an abrupt close.
To study the new manner of painting at close hand, Mondrian settles in Paris a few months after his Pauline conversion. Shortly after his arrival, his painting begins to diverge from that of his models, ushering in the evolution that is to lead to his well-known 'classical' style. Looking back in 1937, he writes: Gradually I became aware that Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction toward its ultimate goal, the expression of pure reality. I felt that this reality can only be established through pure plastics. In its essential expression, pure plastics is unconditioned by feeling and conception. […] The appearance of natural forms changes but reality remains constant. To create pure reality plastically, it is necessary to reduce natural forms to the constant elements of form and natural color to primary color.25
As early as 1912, Mondrian's trajectory takes him to a linear form of abstraction; starting with the representation of a tree, he pares his subject matter down to the rhythmical play of curved and straight lines (figs. 132-34). In 1913 he creates his first entirely nonobjective pictures, floating structures of vertical and horizontal, straight and semicircular lines: subtly balanced, rhythmical orders that impart an impression of serene tranquillity (fig. 135). There ensues an unwavering process of simplification; step by step Mondrian bans all remaining "disturbing" elements (arches, diagonals, and non-primary colors) from his arsenal and, from 1925, restricts it to three elements of design: a white ground, vertical and horizontal black bands, and the three primary colors, yellow, blue, and red (figs. 136, 137). Only then does the systematic articulation of his concept achieve the desired purity. By assigning the colors and shifting the intersecting bars, Mondrian keeps changing the relations of weight in his paintings, but then proceeds to neutralize the resulting tension through the dynamic balance of the composition as a whole.
In keeping with his aims, Mondrian realizes his ambitions and ideals on a universal level. The idealized structure that determines his oeuvre is mirrored in the clarity and cogency of his concept and in the perfection of the balance to which he aspires. His exhibitionist ambitions are implemented in the audacity of his tension-generating, asymmetrical shifts in weight. The singularity of his exhibition and the cogency of his idealized structure are recognized only through their mutual interaction. Tension and balance can be experienced only through a dialectical process-as the link between thesis and antithesis in synthesis. In this sense, exhibition and ideal blend into a pictorial unity in Mondrian's work. Thus, in 1925 he writes: Far from ignoring the individual nature of man or losing the 'human touch', pure plasticity in art is the equation of the individual with the universal. There is equivalence between the two aspects of life.26
According to Mondrian, the call in previous works of art for a dialectical bond between the particular and the general has been eclipsed by the subjectivity of their expression: As long as plasticity makes use of 'form' of any kind, it is impossible to establish pure relations. For this reason, the new plasticity has been completely liberated from the creation of form.27 By limiting his pictorial vocabulary to neutral, anonymous elements, so basic as to arouse neither feelings nor associations, Mondrian wants to make visible and tangible the principle itself-the ultimate reality.
This attitude recalls Seurat or, to go back even further, the spirit of the Renaissance. Like Leon Battista Alberti, Mondrian could also declare: Beauty is the law revealed. But in Mondrian's oeuvre the great Florentine's statement acquires a specifically Nordic, puritan cast. The dynamic, asymmetrical equilibrium of the Dutch artist's works stands not only for purely visual, sensual values but also for ethical, spiritual ones. His art is a religious profession of faith: it lends ego-compatible, rationally comprehensible, nonobjective and demystified shape to Dutch Calvinism and Theosophical convictions. According to Beat Wismer, Mondrian is therefore still a Symbolist although he chooses to renounce the use of symbols, because the referential and illustrative Symbolist becomes an abstract Symbolist, whose concerns remain the same despite the radical change in pictorial form: the most profound content of the works has not changed even though there is no longer a subject matter.28 However, what Wismer appears to interpret as the most profound content of the work is of secondary importance in artistic terms. Longings, ideas, and convictions form the spiritual foundations of any principled human conduct. The value and meaning of an artistic creation are not based on ideal intentions but on the way in which these are implemented. The essence and particularity of a work does not lie in the Weltanschauung that the artist is trying to articulate but rather in the artistic shape it acquires in the process.29
The artist does not simply want to make a statement; he wants to lend his statement an autonomous existence independent of himself. As long as Mondrian restricts himself to merely stating his ideas and feelings, that is, illustrating their 'content' and pointing out their meaning (as in his early Symbolist phase), his work is still one statement among others and, as such, bound up with his person. But when he succeeds (in his mature years) in creating the artistic equivalent of what Wismer calls the most profound content of the work, he endows this hitherto purely imaginary 'content' with a concrete shape of its own; the idea has been turned into an autonomous artistic reality; it acquires the status of a being, thus becoming integral and indivisible. With his nonobjective work Mondrian has created a new reality, as Braque and Picasso have done before him, and has stepped over the threshold to the age of modern art.
To repeat: the decisive achievement of Mondrian's nonobjective art does not lie in its ideal intentions but in the revolutionary implementation of these intentions. In his painting, the desired unity of body and soul is no longer proclaimed or represented in dark symbols comprehensible only to initiates; it is realized. And it can therefore be directly experienced and apprehended by the viewer. Mondrian's pictures no longer represent the universal; they are universal. In this sense, Mondrian sees his art as a means through which the universal is recognized, that is, demonstrated in the plastic composition. His art communicates what Rudolf Steiner proclaimed but obviously failed to achieve: knowledge that no longer requires any proof. Thanks to this broad accessibility, which potentially crosses traditional cultural boundaries, a new global consciousness is lent a classical artistic shape in Mondrian's paintings. Therein lies the epochal significance of the great Dutch artist's contribution; it is also the "most profound content" of his oeuvre.
While Cézanne was still concerned with "the equivalent of nature," Mondrian
aims exclusively at its underlying, universal structure. But he is not
content to make it tangible only in the reality of the picture. His Neoplasticism
is also meant to modify social reality. The writings and activities, to
which Mondrian dedicates himself in this connection, reveal the Messianic
nature of his character. This trait also puts its stamp on the De Stijl
movement, of which he is co-founder. De Stijl brings together painters,
architects, and designers, who have set themselves the goal of subordinating
the form of all artifacts created by man to a unified aesthetics based
on functionality, geometry, and logic, and reflecting the universal laws
of being in order to create a humane environment that corresponds to the
enlightened spirit of the new age. The missionary zeal of these artists
as well as their belief in progress and the utopian character of their
ideas become manifest when Mondrian says: In future the realization
of the pure expression of plasticity will replace the work of art in the
physical reality of our environment. But in order to achieve that, an
orientation toward a universal imagination and release from the pressure
of nature are necessary. Then we will no longer need any pictures and
sculptures because we will be living in realized art.30
Despite their tendency toward idealization, these ideas reflect a fundamental attitude of modernism, in which the Christian promise of paradise is transformed into the utopia of a perfect world to be created by the human mind, by reason and science. Through his art, Mondrian lends this modern myth a classical formulation. Together with the De Stijl group and related movements like the Bauhaus, he establishes the rationally verifiable aesthetic standards that will substantially determine the appearance of technical, industrial civilization in the 20th century.
3. Universality as Energy: from Fauvism to Abstract Expressionism
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and the Primacy of Color
The quest for universals is shared by all four directions in classical
modernism. Like all classical art, modernism by its nature also adheres to a
realistic attitude inasmuch as it only acknowledges the reality of authentic
individual experience and of integrated, i.e. personal, idealized structures.
The essence of this experience, i.e. that which endures and persists, in
contrast to its changing content, conditions, and forms, is held to be a
universal structure and dynamics. This interpretation enables the artist to
present his own experience as a continuous whole and to lend its essence the
'dignity of permanence' through his oeuvre.
Never before has a cultural epoch been so permeated with a consciousness of the relativity and mutability, or rather the doubtfulness of all values and appearances. Former representations of the enduring and the immutable, the myths of Christian revelation, religious and secular power, the God-man, had lost their credibility. They are displaced by a belief in elementary natural forces governed by universal laws. This approach becomes the guiding paradigm of modernism and modern art, which is therefore necessarily anonymous, i.e. abstract or nonfigurative in character.
The tendency toward universality also underlies the movement of the Fauves, who form around Matisse in the early years of the new century. During a brief Pointillist phase, Matisse and his friends (including André Derain, Maurice Vlaminck, and Albert Marquet) follow the teachings of Seurat and Signac, but their application of these teachings is entirely undogmatic, free, and spontaneous. From 1905 they begin to look to Gauguin and van Gogh, adopting the former's homogeneous planarity of color, and the latter's spontaneity of brushstroke and compact, pastose application of paint. But unlike their expressionistic predecessors, they do not exploit these means to voice individual longings or individual erotic desires but rather to create a pictorial world whose superior harmony assimilates all yearning and all longing. It is no accident that Matisse names his large composition, which is to become the programmatic picture of Fauvism, Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life) (fig. 140).
Although Matisse takes much inspiration from Gauguin, he quite consciously distances himself from his great model through his rejection of a psychic-expressive attitude for the sake of a pictorial approach to painting: What prevents Gauguin from being assimilated to the Fauves is his failure to use color for constructing space, and his use of it as a means of expressing sentiment.31
In rejecting 'sentiment' and seeking a 'purity' of pictorial means, Matisse shows an affinity with Mondrian. He says, for instance, that Colors and lines are forces, and the secret of creation lies in the play and balance of those forces.32 But Mondrian's puritanical, Calvinist mentality is alien to him. Matisse does not seek abstract truth but rather harmony with life and the world. He does not entirely discount the object and Nature (so spurned by Mondrian) but tries to establish a new relationship with them. He does not approach Nature from outside like the Impressionists; he does not try to grasp it analytically like Seurat nor reveal its structure like Cézanne; instead he wants to absorb it as his own. To him, the artist assimilates the external world until the object of his drawing has become like a part of his being, until he has it within him and can project it onto the canvas as his own creation.33
Matisse seeks the universal in the human spirit and in the forces of Nature, generality in unique appearances, eternity in the here and now. His primary concern is the creative moment, the controlled spontaneity of expression. In the immediacy and the detached self-evidence of his pictures, in the serene calm that issues from them, they achieve a oneness with the whole. The placement of line and color is always unique and individual; while retaining the unspoiled freshness of the moment of their creation, they simultaneously testify to what has always been (figs. 141-43). In this sense exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures are united in the work of Matisse and also form an autonomous pictorial whole. His still lifes, interiors, and odalisques, but above all his magnificent late work, the découpages, in which he unforgettably renders his dream of an art of balance, purity, and repose, represent the third highlight of classical modern art.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and the Primacy of Instinct
Historically, Fauvism is related to German Expressionism and to Kandinsky's nonfiguration in the same way as Cubism is related to Mondrian's constructive art, the De Stijl movement, and the group around Malevich. In both cases the trailblazing achievements of southern, Mediterranean, 'heathen' artists are assimilated by northern Protestantism (German Expressionism, Mondrian, De Stijl) and by Russian mysticism (Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Malevich), and placed in the service of a mystically oriented mentality.
Through the artist's group Die Brücke (The Bridge), which Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) joins in 1904, Dresden becomes the home of a German variation on Fauvism. The members of the group also adopt Gauguin's use of pure color and van Gogh's impulsive brushstroke but they take a less restrained and more vehement approach than the French Fauves. And they look to Edvard Munch as their model-the expressive outweighs the pictorial. Their art is polemic and idealistic: they want to free not only painting but also society from its long-established laws, and bring about radical renewal. Their artistic manifestoes read like political pamphlets. One of their leading members, Schmidt-Rotluff, writes: To combine all revolutionary and progressive elements-that is the objective expressed in the name 'bridge'! Where Matisse wants to evoke an atmosphere of relaxed well-being and unabashed pleasure, the members of Die Brücke, the founders of German Expressionism, aim to shock and provoke.
A more moderate approach characterizes the circle that gathers around the
Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and forms the Neue Künstlervereinigung München
(NKVM, The New Association of Munich Artists) in 1909. The group includes Alfred
Kubin, Marianne von Werefkin, Alexej von Jawlensky, and Kandinsky's companion,
Gabriele Münter; in February 1911, Franz Marc also joins the group. Most of
these painters can be identified with German Fauvism as well, but the polemic
attitude and the social commitment of the Die Brücke are alien to them. Their
painting is more complex, their coloring more differentiated, and their remove
from everyday experience much greater than in the work of their Dresden
This applies particularly to the work of the painter to whom the following discussion is devoted. Born in Moscow in 1866, Kandinsky is already thirty years old when he abandons the legal profession and moves to Munich to study painting (with Franz von Stuck, among others). From 1903 to 1908 he travels extensively through Europe and spends six months in Tunisia. In 1906-07 he lives in Paris for a year where he makes the acquaintance of Fauvism and Matisse's paintings. His own oeuvre initially remains unaffected by these influences, continuing to show an aesthetic defined by Impressionism and Art Nouveau. Kandinsky does not find his own artistic voice until 1908 when he returns to Munich with his companion, Gabriele Münter. The couple rent an apartment in the city at Ainmillerstrasse 36 but, together with their compatriots Jawlensky and Werefkin, they work largely in nearby Murnau, nesting in an untouched pre-Alpine landscape where Münter purchases a country home in 1909. This residence has been preserved in its original state and can still be visited today.
Here the development commences that is to lead Kandinsky within a few short years to nonrepresentational painting. Elements of traditional verre églomisé folk painting, still an extremely lively art in the region, combined with impressions received in Paris from the Fauves and Matisse, result in aggressive, intensely colored paintings, whose excessively distorted subject matter transgresses all naturalistic conventions. Although these paintings recall the work of the Fauves or Die Brücke painters, they have an unmistakably distinct character of their own (fig. 146).
Landscapes and historical or religious themes melt indistinguishably into a rhythmical composition of luminous areas of color in which the subject matter has all but disappeared. In Reminiscences (1913), Kandinsky recalls a key experience which persuaded him of the inevitable necessity of taking the final decisive step-the step to nonrepresentation: Much later, after my arrival in Munich, I was enchanted on one occasion by an unexpected spectacle that confronted me in my studio. It was the hour when dusk draws in. I returned home with my painting box having finished a study, still dreamy and absorbed in the work I had completed, and suddenly saw an indescribably beautiful picture, pervaded by an inner glow. At first, I stopped short and then quickly approached this mysterious picture, on which I could discern only forms and colors and whose content was incomprehensible. At once, I discovered the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, standing on its side against the wall. The next day, I tried to re-create my impression of the picture from the previous evening by daylight. I only half succeeded, however; even on its side, I constantly recognized objects, and the fine bloom of dusk was missing. Now I could see clearly that objects harmed my pictures.34 Probably in 191235 Kandinsky follows this insight to its logical conclusion by making line and color the sole subject matter of this famous watercolor, which marks the beginning of his nonrepresentational art (fig. 147).
The seemingly unbounded painterly freedom thus achieved applies, however, only to freedom from the object; the next step is to establish a congruence between grandiose exhibitionism and a generally valid idealized structure in order to lend the liberated gesture value, permanence, and universal relevance.
Kandinsky's quest leads to a conflict between his claim to unrestricted freedom and his demand for binding artistic standards, i.e. general, objective values which distinguish the "true" and meaningful work of art from work that is insignificant or unauthentic. Like Piet Mondrian, the second great pioneer of nonfigurative art, Kandinsky investigates the fundamental issues raised by his quest not only in practice, through his own work, but in theory as well. His major writings between 1911 and 1919 (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912 and Reminiscences, 1913) rank among the most important documents of early modernism.
These texts are not easy reading; vagueness of terminology and a tendency toward mystification indicate that Kandinsky was not always sure about how to formulate what he wanted to say. But they give us insight into the intense spiritual deliberations that accompanied the artist's creative breakthrough and, despite some inconsistencies, they reveal enough of his concerns to enable us to relate them to our own psychological model.
Kandinsky's artistic credo is based on a wide-ranging critical attitude directed not only against the scientific credulity, materialism and agnosticism of his time but also against the official art, in whose "soulless naturalism" Kandinsky sees the clearest expression of a shallow, decaying culture. Against this polemic background, he conceives of a "true" art of the future that will usher in a new age following a prolonged materialist period, because: When religion, science, and morality are shaken (the last by the mighty hand of Nietzsche), when the external supports threaten to collapse, then man's gaze turns away from the external toward himself. Literature, music, and art are the first and most sensitive realms where this spiritual change becomes noticeable in real form.36
The writer of these lines is obviously referring largely to his own painting and his move toward nonrepresentation. To justify the move, he declares the authenticity of the instinctual drives that compel the artist to be the sole measure of all artistic expression. I felt with increasing strength and clarity, he writes in 1913, that it is not the 'formal' element in art that matters, but an inner impulse (=content) that peremptorily determines form. One advance in this respect-which took me a shamefully long time-was solving the question of art exclusively on the basis of inner necessity, which was capable at every moment of overturning every known rule and limit.37
In this sense Kandinsky elaborates the thesis of an unknown inner force that acts upon the artist, providing the essential impulses and representing the actual source of the creative process. It is not an arbitrary force but appears, so to speak, autonomously. We do not govern it, it governs us: In a mysterious, puzzling, and mystical way, the true work of art arises 'from out of the artist'. Once released from him, it assumes its own independent life, takes on a personality, and becomes a self-sufficient, spiritually breathing subject that also leads a real material life: it is a being. […] it possesses-like every living being, further creative, active forces.38
The artist thus becomes the agent of cosmic forces. The task of finding a balance between freedom and order, between spontaneity and convention, and of finding out what will replace the missing object is assigned to the mythic authority of the "creating spirit": The birth of a work of art is of cosmic character. The originator of the work is thus the spirit. Thus, the work exists in abstracto prior to that embodiment which makes it accessible to the human senses. For this therefore necessary embodiment, every means is justified. i.e. logic just as much as intuition. Both these factors are examined by the creating spirit, which rejects the false in both of them. Thus, logic may not be rejected simply because it is by nature foreign to intuition. Neither may intuition be rejected, for the same reason. Both factors are in themselves, however, barren and dead without the control of the spirit.39
The lines cited here and further reading clearly demonstrate how hard it is for Kandinsky to find adequately precise and unmistakable terms to describe the deep layers of the creative process and the values, forces, and feelings through which it is ultimately defined. Kandinsky does not elaborate on the assumption that a work exists in the abstract prior to its materialization and that it is of cosmic origins. He is unable comprehensibly to articulate the concepts of the "spirit," the "soul," and "inner necessity."
Kandinsky obviously realizes that the work of art is engendered by the dialectical confrontation between a variety of forces, but he finds it difficult to define and mutually delimit their essence and functions. He speaks alternately of spirit, content, emotion, feeling, inner necessity, work, and form, but it is frequently unclear what these terms actually refer to-whether some of them are used synonymously and, above all, how they are structurally interrelated.
To him, all of these forces and factors are the expression and "content" of his inner world, which he perceives as "vibrations of the soul." Moreover, he recognizes within himself a conscious will to artistic creation, which has the task (as a neutral authority) of negotiating among all of these heterogeneous and even contradictory forces, ultimately uniting them into an artistic whole.
Kandinsky is a painter above all; his central, authentic experience is the creative act, which he attempts to interpret and justify after the fact. Theoretical analysis poses such problems because he experiences this act as integral and indivisible. His difficulties are compounded by the fact that he does not have a clear picture of the nature and complexity of the structure of the human psyche. On one hand, he feels compelled to situate outside himself certain inner forces due to their autonomy and resistance to control; yet he still considers them part of his own self and is therefore unwilling to detach himself from them altogether. To resolve his dilemma, he posits the mythic concepts of the "spirit" and "sensation," which, despite their cosmic origins, arise within the artist and urge to be given shape and expression as an "inner necessity." The artist thus becomes a "seer," and his nonrepresentational work the expression of an "inner vision."
Had Kandinsky been familiar with psychoanalysis, he would most probably have transferred the cosmic origins of the creative process to the unconscious, i.e. to the realm of the soul, which, according to psychoanalytical theory, cannot be accessed through objective knowledge. The unconscious is, of course, by definition the quintessential unknown; what we know is only the effect it has on our conscious. In the present case, this entails the artist's creative visions, which often arise within him and press for realization without any action or conscious will on his part.
While Freud restricts his investigations to the offshoots of the personal unconscious, Carl Gustav Jung additionally postulates a far more comprehensive, collective unconscious, which represents the psychic heritage of humankind within the individual psyche. The so-called archetypes stem from this deep layer and are the ur-images of human experience, which generally surface in dreams but occasionally also in the form of inner visions, irrational decisions, or dark, often accurate premonitions. In his memoirs (1954) Jung writes: Recognizing that [such inner experiences] do not spring from his conscious personality, they are called mana, daimon, or God. Science employs the term 'unconscious,' thus admitting that it knows nothing about it. […] Therefore the validity of such terms as mana, daimon, or God can be neither disproved nor affirmed. We can, however, establish that the sense of strangeness connected with the experience of something objective, apparently outside the psyche, is indeed authentic. […] Hence I prefer the term 'unconscious,' knowing that I might equally well speak of 'God' or 'daimon' if I wished to express myself in mythic language.40
Kandinsky probably shares these thoughts when he says: Every form I ever used arrived 'of its own accord,' presenting itself fully fledged before my eyes and I had only to copy it, or else constituting itself actually in the course of work, often to my own surprise.41 The seeming purposefulness and autonomy with which these archetypes exert an effect is also inherent in Kandinsky's visions and lends them the numinous character, which is so palpable in his formulations.
The thesis of the collective unconscious-Jung's most important contribution to psychoanalytic theory-allows a mythic interpretation of his own artistic experience, but it does not provide an insight into the dynamics and structure of the creative process. In contrast, Kohut's model of the bipolar self enables us to illustrate this process structurally and dynamically and thereby translate Kandinsky's reflections and his "principle of inner necessity" into the concepts of scientific psychology. The decisive passage in which the artist attempts to define the psychic and mental foundations of his central concept shall serve as our point of departure. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky writes:
Inner necessity arises from three mystical sources. It is composed
of three mystical necessities:
1. Every artist, as creator, must express what is peculiar to himself (element of personality).
2. Every artist, as a child of his time, must express what is peculiar to his own time (element of style, in its inner value, compounded of the language of the time and the language of the race, as long as the race exists as such).
3. Every artist, as servant of art, must express what is peculiar to art in general (element of the pure and eternally artistic, which pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal element of art, knows neither time nor space). […]
Only the third element, that of the pure, the eternally artistic, remains immortal. […] [The first] two elements are of a subjective nature. The whole period wants to reflect itself, to express its own life in artistic form. Likewise, the artist wants to express his own self, and selects only those forms that are emotionally appropriate to him. Slowly but surely, the style of the period becomes formal, i.e. a certain external and subjective form. The element of the pure and eternally artistic is, as opposed to this, the objective element, which becomes comprehensible with the help of the subjective. […]
In short, then, the effect of inner necessity, and thus the development of art, is the advancing expression of the external-objective in terms of the temporal-subjective.42
The basic tenets of Kandinsky's thesis seem to coincide with my own concept
of the creative process, provided the contradictions and the conceptual
fuzziness of the above-quoted passage are clarified.
Kandinsky fails to realize that the dividing line between the subjective and the objective runs straight through the single individual; the individual represents both that which is peculiar to himself and also, being a child of his time, that which is peculiar to his own time. However, the latter is not of a subjective nature, as Kandinsky believes, because the style and language of the time are not subjective forms. For the artist, who encounters the respective style and language, they represent the objective factors of an artistic canon: they represent an idealized structure.
Every idealized structure is obviously determined by individual and socio-historical factors, and is therefore relative, even when the individual or society attribute universal validity to it. But within the human psyche, which is the framework of our discussion, it is still endowed with a general, i.e. an objective meaning, on the basis of which it enters into a dialectical relationship with its exhibitionist ambitions, which are by nature subjective. This dialectical exchange is mirrored in the work of art, in which the combined objective and subjective form an artistic whole.
It is obviously difficult for Kandinsky to make a persuasive distinction between the concepts of 'objective' and 'subjective' and to incorporate them into his theory of art. He does not recognize that the "objective element" of the work of art always arises out of its communicative, uniting function, that is, out of general values: out of cognitive and linguistic conventions. Therefore this "objective element" is actually to be associated or equated with "what is peculiar to the time." Kandinsky, however, declares the abstract "element of the pure and eternally artistic" to be objective, merely giving this unknown factor a different name; the decisive question as to what this "pure and eternally artistic" element actually consists of is thereby left unanswered.
To my mind, the "timeless value," which Kandinsky opposes to the other two elements, the "element of personality" ("what is peculiar to the artist himself") and the "element of style" ("what is peculiar to the time"), consists of the unification in art of the two poles of the self, i.e. the synthesis of the subjective and the objective, the unique and the general.
The only constant which (as Kandinsky says), pervades every individual, every people, every age, and which is to be seen in the works of every artist, of every nation, and of every period, and which, being the principal element of art, knows neither time nor space, is the dialectical confrontation between exhibition and ideal, between subjective and objective, between individual and general. The intensity of the spiritual and mental tension between these two poles and the persuasive power of their pictorial synthesis determine the "greatness" and the "eternally artistic" quality of the respective work. As I see it, this is the only way in which Kandinsky's statement that the effect of inner necessity, and thus the development of art, is the advancing expression of the external-objective in terms of the temporal-subjective can be understood and meaningfully interpreted.
The groundbreaking significance of Kandinsky's text, written over seventy
years ago, is certainly not diminished by my explanatory arguments. As
Peter Anselm Riedl justly remarks, it would be wrong and unfair to
measure the theoretician Kandinsky with the same yardstick as a trained
philosopher.43 For want of scientifically substantiated psychological
learning and a pertinent terminology, Kandinsky bases his theses and speculations
on the undefined and ambiguous concepts of Theosophy and adopts its mystifying
Theosophical teachings with their critique of materialism and positivism, their belief in the transcendental, and their call for spiritual renewal engage with Kandinsky's thoughts and feelings. However, he is not an indiscriminate apostle of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner. He lauds the Theosophists as people who set no store by the methods of materialistic science in matters concerning the 'nonmaterial,' or matter that is not perceptible to our senses, but restricts their significance, a few lines later, to purely theoretical support.44
In contrast to Sixten Ringbom, who has repeatedly (1966, 1970) attempted to attribute the emergence of nonrepresentation in the art of Mondrian and Kandinsky to their Theosophical convictions, it is my opinion that their creative achievement-their nonrepresentational breakthrough-is tantamount to an emancipation from the Christian-Theosophical worldview. In any case, the influence of Theosophy on Kandinsky is restricted to theories put forward after the fact in an effort to justify his revolutionary approach. The ecstatic mysticism of the "great initiates" gives him a theoretical and intellectual alibi; he adopts their vague concepts, their pathos, and their mystifying, nebulous language whenever he requires the rhetoric to bridge inconsistencies or gaps in his argumentation. Significantly, Kandinsky resorts to linguistic clichés and the obfuscating rhetoric of the Theosophists above all when he tries to outline the values and ideals that underlie the creative process.
Kandinsky's painting is the expression of sublimated drives and seems to be determined more by the exhibitionist than by the idealized pole of the self. The "inner necessity" which seeks expression within him draws its strength from emotions and instinctual impulses, from spontaneously arising visions, and is capable-at least in his writings-of overturning every known rule and limit.
Closer study of his pictures soon proves, however, that the spontaneity of the painterly gesture does justice to the demands of a pictorial canon, i.e. an idealized structure. In contrast to Piet Mondrian, however, Kandinsky's canon is not clearly articulated; it is not readily accessible to direct investigation and rational grasp.
Although Kandinsky repeatedly avows the necessity of a consciously controlled artistic process-I have trained myself not simply to let myself go, but to bridle the force operating within me, to guide it, he writes in 191345-, he is not willing or able to elucidate the principles that are involved in this process. This indeterminacy indicates that the idealized pole of the self has been insufficiently integrated; the issues therefore remain unconscious or are expressed exclusively in negative terms.
The artistic canon which acquires shape and expression in Kandinsky's art can only be grasped directly, sensually, and intuitively because it is rooted in the biological principle of homeostasis. A brief sketch of this principle, an essential aspect of aesthetic pleasure, follows. Psychoanalysis interprets pleasure as the outcome of an instinctual process. Instincts, the somatic demands on the mind and the ultimate cause of all activity, are regulated, according to Freud, by the pleasure-unpleasure principle. This principle is based on the fact that the wellbeing of every higher organism depends, among other things, on an optimal balance between internal and external processes and on the fact that the organism strives to preserve and, in case of deviation, restore this balance. In discussing this homeostatic model of motivation, Freud remarks that the raising of [internal and external] tensions is in general felt as unpleasure, and their lowering as pleasure. It is probable, however, that what is felt as pleasure or unpleasure is not the absolute height of this tension but something in the rhythm of the changes in them.46
As much as tension is felt as unpleasure, as little is it possible to counteract unpleasure without tension. Pleasure thus seems to presuppose prior unpleasure. Within certain limits, a constant alternation between the raising and lowering of internal tensions is a condition of our physical and mental wellbeing. Every disturbance of our physical or mental balance activates the organism and mobilizes energy-tension-aimed at restoring the original equilibrium. Without a minimum of such stimulation, boredom and apathy ensue. The attendant unpleasure is ordinarily counteracted by the provocation of new tensions.
The isolation and sublimating displacement of these psychic processes in the domain of visual artistic perception and creation forms one of the bases of aesthetic pleasure. Thus, pictorial contrasts, the juxtaposition of planes, dots, and lines, of horizontals, verticals, and diagonals, of curves and angles, of softness and hardness, of rhythmical repetition and unique events, of large and small, etc., generate a constant succession of visual tensions that demand to be counteracted. In addition to contradicting each other, pictorial elements must therefore also share common ground, thanks to which they can be united into homogeneous, i.e. harmonious pairs or groups. The tension generated by the contrast between an angular and a rounded shape or a smooth and a grainy texture can, for example, be canceled out or neutralized through a color that links the two shapes or structures. An aesthetically successful work of art thus offers the viewer the possibility of engaging in a creative process by forming a whole image out of the complex intricacies and oscillating rhythms of contrast and consonance, in which separate parts and joined wholes, in which tension and release ultimately come together in a balanced pictorial whole. The process of perception involved in this engagement generates aesthetic pleasure. Any ornament illustrates the workings of the homeostatic principle; the work of art is merely a more complex and differentiated implementation of this principle.
In his theoretical writings, Kandinsky is not prepared to acknowledge the cognitive divestment of his idealized structure and its reduction to a biological principle governed by instinct; nor is he able to recognize the philosophical significance of the "materialization"-so paradigmatic for modernism-through which the ideal becomes an immanent factor that satisfies the needs of the ego. The Messianic and mystically prophetic tendencies in his thought processes make it impossible for Kandinsky to analyze his own artistic experience with impartiality and to grasp its structure and dynamics. He is deprived of insight into the universal meaning of instinct as the psychic energy on which all human activity, all human behavior is based. This explains why he does not succeed in providing a satisfactory interpretation of the trailblazing step he has taken in his painting.47
Instead of acknowledging the instinctual dimension of feelings not only
in painting but in his theoretical writings as well, Kandinsky remains confined to the idealistic, anti-instinctual attitude of the Theosophists. To persevere
in ignoring-in repressing-the instinctual, he emphasizes the "spiritual" character of his art in the sense of a defense or anticathexis; this also explains his paradoxical equation of spirit and feeling.
In Kandinsky's case, the inadequate integration of the idealized pole leads
a heightened narcissist cathexis of the exhibitionist pole. In contrast to Mondrian, who exhibits the ideal, Kandinsky tends to idealize exhibition. While Mondrian lends the spiritual (i.e. the idealized idea of an abstract principle) a sensual and instinctually effective form, Kandinsky elevates sensual instincts to the idealized idea of a spiritual principle. Certain passages in Concerning the Spiritual in Art as well as the title itself are focused on this goal.
So much for Kandinsky's theoretical writings. While he is unable to 'change
his spots' as a theorist, the painter Kandinsky allows sensual instincts
unprecedented freedom. At the same time he strives for a complex pictorial
balance, which emerges on several mutually penetrating levels and is not
always easy to follow. Instead of the clear architecture of the Cubists
or the rational transparency and serenity of the great Matisse, we are
confronted with the Dionysian intoxication of unleashed instinct in Kandinsky's
early nonfigurative works (figs. 150-51). However, these early works never
completely escape the artist's creative control. Almost all of the large
compositions and improvisations (1910-20) are carefully prepared in preliminary
sketches and designs. By construction, Kandinsky writes to Arnold
Schönberg in 1912, one has understood up until now the obtrusively geometrical
(Hodler, the Cubists, and so on). I will show, however, that composition
is also to be attained by the 'principle' of dissonance. […]48 By
the principle of dissonance, Kandinsky means the conflict, the collision
of heterogeneous forces, while the terms construction/composition refer
to the pictorial structure of the work and the sensual-spiritual balance
of the forces at work within it.
Kandinsky's pictures consistently fulfill Gauguin's call to use color enigmatically not to draw, but to create musical sensations that issue from color itself, from its own character, from its mysterious, enigmatic inner force.49 The formal structure to which these pictures owe their overall unity is equally enigmatic. The inner serenity of a Matisse is alien to Kandinsky. His equilibrium is of a different order: […] from the fact that we live in a time full of questions and premonitions and omens-hence full of contradictions-we can easily conclude that harmonization […] is precisely the least suitable for our own time. It is perhaps with envy, or with a sad feeling of sympathy, that we listen to the works of Mozart. They create a welcome pause amidst the storms of inner life, a vision of consolation and hope, but we hear them like sounds of another, vanished, and essentially unfamiliar age. Clashing discords, loss of equilibrium, 'principles' overthrown, unexpected drumbeats, great questionings, apparently purposeless strivings, stress and longing (apparently torn apart), chains and fetters broken (which had united many), opposites and contradictions-this is our harmony.50
With the elimination of figurative associations and intelligible geometrical relations, the viewer is robbed of all rational and literary aids to interpretation and thrown back on a purely emotive response: on the psychic sensibilities, sensual standards, and spiritual laws of his own inner world.
Kandinsky has thus opened the sluices of irrationality but only to gain insight and cognitive access to these dark regions of the soul. By studying the organization of late Cubist pictures, Kandinsky invents an orchestration and an order of his own, in which the diversity of chromatic tones and formal rhythms, streaming colors, and sweeping, fluttering curves are united in a complex and comprehensive pictorial whole (figs. 152-53). Kandinsky's theoretical writings, his teaching at the Bauhaus, and the ongoing evolution of his painting testify to the persistent attempt to fathom the mysterious relationship between pictorial means and psychic expression in order to establish a harmony between the exhibition of the "inner sound" and the laws that govern both the universe and the human soul.
Kandinsky also realizes his exhibitionist ambitions and idealized structures on a universal level; but, unlike Mondrian, he does not seek universals in the workings of human reason but rather in the dynamics and laws of human instincts, in the id. Hence, the two great pioneers mark the two conceptual poles of nonfigurative art and its further development.
This conceptual opposition is expressed not only in their artistic endeavors
but also in their public appearances and in the respective associations,
movements, and organizations through which they try to exert an influence on the
art world of their day.
While Mondrian is so (extremely) dogmatic that he breaks off contact with the De Stijl group, when founding member Theo van Doesburg adds diagonals to the vertical and horizontal lines in his pictures, Kandinsky, whose artistic credo is less rigidly codified, is open to any art as long as he can assume that it springs from an inner necessity. In Reminiscences he writes: The ability to experience others' works (which naturally occurs, and must occur, in one's own individual way) renders one's soul more sensitive, more capable of vibrations, making it richer, broader, more refined, and increasingly adapted to one's own purposes.51
This attitude also characterizes the agenda of the legendary Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider), launched by Kandinsky in cooperation with Franz Marc. In the summer of 1911, the two artists decide to issue a programmatic art publication in the form of an almanac. In a letter outlining his plan, Kandinsky writes, In the book the entire year must be reflected; and a link to the past as well as a ray to the future must give this mirror its full life. […]We will put an Egyptian work beside a small Zeh [the last name of two talented children], a Chinese work beside a Rousseau, a folk print beside a Picasso, and the like! Eventually we will attract poets and musicians.52
After finding the first contributors, the two artists agree on the title, Der Blaue Reiter, which acquires unanticipated significance even before the first issue of the almanac is published: differences of opinion while preparing the third exhibition of The New Association of Munich Artists force Kandinsky and Marc to resign. In protest, they decide on short order to organize the First Exhibition of the Editors of the Blue Rider, which opens in December 1911 in Munich and subsequently tours several German cities. On view are new works by Kandinsky, Marc, Münter, Kubin, Campendonk, Delaunay, Epstein, Macke, and Schönberg, as well as le douanier Rousseau. Three months later an exhibition of graphics follows, in which the French Cubists, the Russian avant-garde, the painters of Die Brücke, and Paul Klee participate. Finally, in May 1912, Piper Verlag publishes the planned almanac (fig. 154).
This publication, unique in its day, contains 140 reproductions, small vignettes, three musical scores, poetry, and fourteen longer essays. The Russian painter David Burlyuk writes about "Russia's Wild Ones" (the Russian Fauves). In his essay "Two Pictures," Franz Marc reports on "Germany's Wild Ones" (the German Fauves) and compares a popular fairy-tale illustration with a painting by Kandinsky. August Macke writes about African masks, the art historian Erwin von Busse about "Robert Delaunay's Means of Composition," Arnold Schönberg about "The Relationship to the Text," and Thomas von Hartmann about "Anarchy in Music." In "The Yellow Sound," Kandinsky designs a stage composition to link dance pantomime, the play of light and color, and music. His most important contribution is the essay "On the Question of Form," in which he seeks to relativize the opposition between abstraction and realism and to prove that in principle it makes no difference whether the artist uses real or abstract forms because the most important thing in the question of form is whether or not the form has grown out of inner necessity.53 In this sense, he likens "the great realism" of, for example, children's drawings, primitive art, or Rousseau's paintings to "the great abstraction" found in modern art.
This idea, shared by Kandinsky's colleagues, is manifested in the reproductions chosen to illustrate the almanac and in the frequently applied principle of juxtaposing works from different fields and epochs on adjoining double pages. Thus, a painting by van Gogh is placed next to a Japanese woodcut, or Delaunay's Cubist Eiffel Tower next to a religious El Greco painting. These comparisons hone the viewer's sensitivity to inner affinities among such outwardly divergent works. The illustrations comprise African sculpture and Russian folk art, paintings by Rousseau, Cézanne, and van Gogh, a Romanesque mosaic from San Marco in Venice, Bavarian votive images, a religious representation by El Greco, children's drawings, works by Gauguin, and examples of art from the Far East; in addition to the work of Kandinsky and Marc, the almanac shows works by Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, Arp, Kubin, Macke, Klee, Kirchner, Heckel, Kokoschka, Nolde, and Gabriele Münter.
The diversity of issues addressed in these contributions mirrors the universal claim of the message propagated by The Blue Rider. The editors set themselves the task of clearing the path for a new epoch and a global culture in which the spiritual heritage of humankind will be united with the creative forces of the present. In the work of Paul Klee,54 this all-embracing vision will find its most compelling artistic form.
Matisse, Braque, Picasso, Mondrian, and Kandinsky took the ultimate
consequences of the pictorial revolution launched by the pioneers. Their
endeavors liberated the expression and form of idealized structures from the
objective conditions of visible reality and experience to an unprecedented
degree. At the same time this liberation robbed the ideal of its roots in the
tangible and visible world. This rootedness in objectivity, without which an
idealized structure is inconceivable, is now sought by these artists in their
own inner world. It is here, in the inner sense of proportion and balance and in
the structure and dynamics of their own psyches, that they recognize the
universal and objective laws to which they feel bound; artistic sensibility is
their only measure. Through this retreat to inner sensibilities, they achieve a
new spiritual and artistic integrity.
This breakthrough to invisible reality, to the consistent unity and hidden laws of being, which takes place at the same time in the sciences as well as in the arts, acquires the significance of a new revelation. A new faith has acquired form and expression. Its adherents are compelled to fight the ignorance of the public and the negative response of the official art world, but they conduct the struggle knowing that they are in possession of the truth. They envy none of the successful Salon painters of their time but rather, like the first Christians, pity all those who refuse to embrace or are deprived of the glad tidings. The new ideal-universality-unites humanity and the world in a new global community. The art of modernism has reached its classical stage.
Like every classical epoch, it, too, is of brief duration. The First World War is close at hand, and the premonition of impending catastrophe omnipresent. The stylistic forms of modern mannerism emerge in the shadows cast by these circumstances