Saturday, 21 December 2013

Art for Advent (21): ‘Cossacks’
by Wassily Kandinsky

‘Cossacks’ by Wassily Kandinsky

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a work of Art for Advent this morning is ‘Cossacks’ by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944).

This abstract painting in oil on canvas was painted in 1910-1911 and measures 94.5 x 130 cm. Although it is not on display at present, it is held by the Tate Gallery in London, and was presented by to the Tate in 1938 by Mrs Hazel McKinley, who bought it from the artist through Guggenheim-Jeune of London.

In a letter to a friend at the time, Kandinsky wrote: “An American woman living in London has bought a pre-war painting from me and presented it to the Tate Gallery in I.ondon! It is the first truly modern painting in the famous museum in London. The painting is called ‘Cosaques,’ dates from the year 1911, still bears traces of ‘the object’ but makes nevertheless a wholly ‘concrete’ impression.”

When I came across the work of Kandinsky in art classes as a teenager at school, my first reaction was “Painting as Music.” Later, I garsped what Kandinsky meant when he said: “Music is the ultimate teacher.”

Once, while I was moving into a new house, I was given as a present a print of this painting, and it was the first work I placed on a wall. I cannot find the print now, but this remains one of my favourite works of art.

This painting was made during a transitional period, when he retained some representational elements, such as the two Russian cavalrymen in tall orange hats in the foreground of the painting. Kandinsky considered these as points at which the images could be registered, rather than the true content of the painting.

The painting has been variously known as ‘Cossacks,’ ‘Improvisation 17,’ ‘Battle,’ ‘Fragment for Composition 4’ and ‘Composition 4 (Fragment).’ The title ‘Cossacks’ has been used consistently by the Tate because it is the one Kandinsky seems to have preferred at the time of its acquisition. It was painted at a time in Kandinsky’s career when he was living in near Munich and moving rapidly from a form of Expressionism towards Abstraction.

The “traces of ‘the object’” which Kandinsky mentions are as follows: in the upper left portion of the picture are two horses rearing up against each other, their front legs interlocking. Each has a Cossack rider wearing a tall fur hat which Kandinsky has painted orange-red. Each is swinging a long curved sabre, painted mauve. Below the horses is a rainbow bridging a valley, and to the left of that, what appear to be two batteries of guns, one of which is firing, producing a cloud of red and orange fame.

A building on the other side of the valley suggests a castle on a hill. Below it are three more Cossacks, distinguished by their orange hats. Two Cossacks carry long black lances while the third has his arm extended and is leaning on his sabre.

A flock of birds flies in an agitated state in the sky.

The feeling of conflict is vividly expressed by the structure of powerful diagonal lines that tilt, clash and intersect. All horizontals or verticals are rigorously excluded so there is nowhere for the eye to rest.

The focus of this restless linear structure is the group of the horses and the building outlined in thick black lines occupying the upper central part of the picture. Around this focal area, Kandinsky has distributed elements of strong colour – the Cossack hats, the rainbow and the gunfire – that further distract the eye and reinforce the disturbing effect.

In Kandinsky’s own catalogue it is dated 13 January 1911, although the date 1910 is on the picture itself.

Vassily Vassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944) is an influential Russian painter who is credited with painting the first purely abstract works. Born in Moscow, art and music, ranging from traditional Russian religious icons and Rembrandt oils to a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, left profound impressions on him as well. He spent his childhood in Odessa before studying law and economics at the University of Moscow.

He began painting at the age of 30 and he moved to Munich in 1896. He returned to Moscow in 1914, but with the rise of Communism he returned to Germany in 1921 and taught at the Bauhaus school of art and architecture until it was closed by the Nazis in 1933. He then moved to France where he lived for the rest of his life, and became a French citizen in 1939.

He was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church and maintained these beliefs throughout his entire life, except during a short period in his youth. He died in Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1944.

But, apart from a personal liking for the work of Kandinsky, why do I think this is an appropriate painting to consider in the closing days of Advent?

Kandinsky once wrote: “The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.” He believed that abstract paintings could convey spiritual and emotional values simply through the arrangement of colours and lines. Writing in 1911 in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he defines three types of painting: impressions, improvisations and compositions. While impressions are based on an external reality that serves as a starting point, he believes improvisations and compositions depict images emerging from the unconscious, even though composition is developed from a more formal point of view.

Kandinsky compares the spiritual life of humanity to a pyramid – the artist has a mission to lead others to the pinnacle with his work. The point of the pyramid is those few, great artists. It is a spiritual pyramid, advancing and ascending slowly, even if it sometimes appears immobile. During decadent periods, the soul sinks to the bottom of the pyramid; and humanity searches only for external success, ignoring spiritual forces.

He says the colours the painter uses evoke a double effect: a purely physical effect on the eye, which is charmed by the beauty of colours, similar to the joyful impression when we eat a delicacy. This effect can be much deeper, however, causing a vibration of the soul or an “inner resonance” – a spiritual effect in which the colour touches the soul itself.

For Kandinsky, art is born from the inner necessity of the artist in an enigmatic, mystical way, and through this it acquires an autonomous life, becoming an independent subject, animated by a spiritual breath.

For Kandinsky, warmth is a tendency towards yellow, and coldness a tendency towards blue; yellow and blue form the first great, dynamic contrast. Yellow has an eccentric movement and blue a concentric movement; a yellow surface seems to move closer to us, while a blue surface seems to move away. Yellow is a typically terrestrial colour, whose violence can be painful and aggressive; blue is a celestial colour, evoking a deep calm. The combination of blue and yellow yields total immobility and calm, which is green.

Clarity is a tendency towards white, and obscurity is a tendency towards black. White and black form the second great contrast, which is static. White is a deep, absolute silence, full of possibility. Black is nothingness without possibility, an eternal silence without hope, and corresponds with death. Any other colour resonates strongly with its neighbours. Mixing white and black produces grey, which possesses no active force, and whose tonality is near that of green. Grey corresponds to immobility without hope; it tends to despair when it becomes dark, regaining little hope when it lightens.

Red is a warm colour, lively and agitated; it is forceful, a movement in itself. When red is mixed with black it becomes brown, a hard colour. When red is mixed with yellow, it gains in warmth and becomes orange, which imparts an irradiating movement on its surroundings. When red is mixed with blue, it moves away from humanity to become purple, which is a cool red. Red and green form the third great contrast, and orange and purple the fourth.

Kandinsky deplores art that “becomes the satisfaction of vanity and greed … a scramble for good things … of excessive competition, of over-production … this aimless, materialist art.”

He denounces the narcissism of “art for art's sake” – “this neglect of inner meanings … this vain squandering of artistic power” with its consequence that “hungry souls go hungry away.”

Instead, he urges, art must “feed the spirit” by revealing “the internal truth of art, the soul.” This is its prophetic calling in serving society. The artist must “be a priest of beauty.” Beauty itself is that “which springs from the soul,” and is anchored in the sacred.

Kandinsky wants to recapitulate the experience of walking through an Orthodox Church, which is full of pastel colours. Yet, as he says, it does not matter whether the church is Orthodox or Catholic. The experience is the same whether it is in churches in Moscow or chapels in Bavaria and the Tyrol – it is an artistic experience of religion and a religious experience of art, a sense of the easy and seamless merger of religious and artistic experience. The interiors of the churches and chapels Kandinsky visited are brightly and intricately coloured, as he appreciates, so that the excitement of colour and of inner life converge.

Kandinsky suggests the role of the artist is to separate out the spiritual from the material. Art should be an “advance into the kingdom of the abstract.”

Can you identify with Kandinsky’s description of the spiritual qualities of colours?

What does the purple of Advent mean to you?

Tomorrow: Presepe in Duomo dei San Filippo e Giacomo, Sorrento.

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