If we pretend to respect the artist at all, we must allow him his freedom of choice, in the face, in particular cases, of innumerable presumptions that the choice will not fructify. Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions.—Henry James, 1884
I have for many years searched for the possibility of letting the viewer “stroll” in the picture, forcing him to forget himself and dissolve into the picture.
Often, too, I have succeeded: I have seen it in the observers. From the unconsciously intended effect of painting on the painted object, which can dissolve itself through being painted, derived my ability to overlook the object within the painting. Much later, in Munich, I was once enchanted by an unexpected view in my studio. It was the hour of approaching dusk. I came home with my paintbox after making a study, still dreaming and wrapped up in the work I had completed, when suddenly I saw an indescribably beautiful picture drenched with an inner glow. At first I hesitated, then I rushed toward this mysterious picture, of which I saw nothing but forms and colors, and whose content was incomprehensible. Immediately I found the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, leaning against the wall, standing on its side. The next day I attempted to get the same effect by daylight. I was only half-successful: even on its side I always recognized the objects, and the fine finish of dusk was missing. Now I knew for certain that the object harmed my paintings.
A frightening depth of questions, weighted with responsibility, confronted me. And the most important: what should replace the missing object? The danger of ornamentation was clear, the dead make-believe existence of stylized forms could only frighten me away.
Only after many years of patient work, of strenuous thinking, of numerous careful efforts, of constantly evolving ability to experience painterly forms purely and abstractly—and to penetrate even deeper into these immeasurable depths—did I arrive at the forms of painting with which I work today, on which I work today, and which, I hope and desire, will develop much further.
It took a very long time before this question (What should replace the object?) received a proper answer from within me. Often I look back into my past and am desolate to think how much time I took for the solution. I have only one consolation: I could never bring myself to use a form which developed out of the application of logic—not purely from feeling within me. I could not think up forms, and it repels me when I see such forms. All the forms which I ever used came “from themselves,” they presented themselves complete before my eyes, and it only remained for me to copy them, or they created themselves while I was working, often surprising me. With the years, I have now learned somewhat to control this creative power. I have trained myself not simply to let myself go but to bridle the power working within me, to guide it. With the years I have understood that working with a pounding heart, with a straining breast (and thus aching ribs later), and with tension in my whole body cannot suffice. It can however only exhaust the artist, not his work. The horse bears the rider with strength and speed. But the rider guides the horse. Talent carries the artist to great heights with strength and speed. But the artist guides his talent. This is the element of the “conscious,” the “calculating” in his work, or whatever one wants to call it. The artist must know his talent through and through and like a smart businessman leave not the least bit unused and forgotten—instead he must exhaust, develop every particle to the maximum possible for him.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I bought a paintbox with oil paints from money slowly saved up. The feeling I had at the time—or better: the experience of the color coming out of the tube—is with me to this day. A pressure of the fingers—and jubilant, joyous, thoughtful, dreamy, self-absorbed, with deep seriousness, with bubbling roguishness, with the sigh of liberation, with sensitive unstableness of balance came one after another these unique beings we call colors—each alive in and for itself, independent, endowed with all necessary qualities for further independent life and ready and willing at every moment to submit to new combinations, to mix among themselves and create endless series of new worlds. Some lie there as if already exhausted, weakened, petrified, as dead forces and living memories of bygone possibilities, not decreed by fate. As in struggle, as in battle, fresh forces pour out of the tube, young forces replacing the old. In the middle of the palette is a world of the remnants of colors already used, which wander far from this source in their necessary embodiments on the canvas. Here is a world which, derived from the desires of pictures already painted, was also determined and created through accidents, through the puzzling play of forces alien to the artist. And I owe much to these accidents—they have taught me more than any teacher or master. Many an hour I studied them with love and admiration. The palette, which consists of the elements mentioned, which is itself a “work”—and often more beautiful than many another work—should be valued for the pleasures which it offers. It sometimes seemed to me that the brush, which with unyielding will tore pieces from this living color creation, evoked a musical sound in this tearing process. Sometimes I heard a hissing of the colors as they were blending. It was like an experience that one could hear in the secret kitchen of the alchemist, cloaked in mystery.
I learned to battle with the canvas, to come to know it as a being resisting my wish, and to bend it forcibly to this wish. At first it stands there like a pure, chaste virgin with clear gaze and heavenly joy—this pure canvas which itself is as beautiful as a painting. And then comes the willful brush which first here, then there, gradually conquers it with all the energy peculiar to it, like a European colonist, who pushes into the wild nature, hitherto untouched, using axe, spade, hammer, and saw to shape it to his wishes. I have gradually learned not to see the resistant white of the canvas, to notice it only for instants (as a control), instead of seeing in it the tones that are to replace it—thus one thing slowly followed another.
Painting is a thundering collision of different worlds, intended to create a new world in and from the struggle with one another, a new world which is the work of art. Each work originates just as does the cosmos—through catastrophes which out of the chaotic din of instruments ultimately create a symphony, the music of the spheres. The creation of works of art is the creation of the world.
From “Reminiscences.” Facing in his own words a “now or never” moment at the age of twenty-nine, Kandinsky turned down a professorship in Estonia to board a train to Germany, intending to become a painter. He became active in avant-garde circles in Munich, founding “The Blue Rider” group with Franz Marc in 1911. Known as the father of abstract art, Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus School before the Nazis closed it in 1933.