Wassily Kandinsky on theory and praxis

Josef Albers and a reproduction of his Bauhaus Saturn lamp (1926)

Josef Albers and a reproduction of his Bauhaus Saturn lamp (1926)
"Art means, one and one make three."
Image credit: Tecta

There are also aestheticians who write about an art which was condemned yesterday. In these books, they remove the barriers over which art has most recenty stepped and setup up new ones. They do not notice that they are erecting barriers not in front of art, but behind it. If they do, they write fresh books and hastily set the barriers a little further on. This process will go on until it is realized that the most advanced principle of aesthetics can never be of value to the future, but only to the past. No theory can be laid down for those things that lie in the realm of the immaterial. That which has no material existence cannot be materially crystallized. That which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realized in feeling, and the talent of the artist is the only road to feeling. Theory is the lamp which sheds light on the crystallized ideas of the past.
Wassily Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art: and painting in particular, (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1947), p. 31. Originally published as Über das Geistige in der Kunst, (1912). Translated by Francis Golffing, Michael Harrison and Ferdinand Ostertag from the first English-language translation by Michael T. H. Sadler with Kandinsky’s corrections and additions to the original German-language text supplied by Nina Kandinsky.

First English-language Translation

There are also philosophers of aesthetic who write profound books about an art which was yesterday condemned as nonsense. In writing these books they remove the barriers over which art has most recently stepped and set up new ones which are to remain for ever in the places they have chosen. They do not notice that they are busy erecting barriers, not in front of art, but behind it. And if they do notice this, on the morrow they merely write fresh books and hastily set their barriers a little further on. This performance will go on unaltered until it is realized that the most extreme principle of aesthetic can never be of value to the future, but only to the past. No such theory of principle can be laid down for those things which lie beyond, in the realm of the immaterial. That which has no material existence cannot be subjected to a material classification. That which belongs to the spirit of the future can only be realized in feeling, and to this feeling the talent of the artist is the only road. Theory is the lamp which sheds light on the petrified ideas of yesterday and of the more distant past.
Wassily Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, (Mineola, New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1977), p. 12. A reprint of the first English-language translation by Michael T. H. Sadler originally published as The Art of Spiritual Harmony, (London: Constable and Company Limited, 1914).

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"There are also philosophers of aesthetic"
Wassily Kandinsky Posted on behalf of Wassily Kandinsky on Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 under Quotations.

5 comments

  1. Uncomfortable as it may be to declare, I actually prefer the first english-language translation. The earlier articulation was likely more in tune with the paradigm of the time that the original quote sprung from, and also offered more specific descriptors. The last line in particular is an excellent indicator of the differences in nuance.

    Good choice!

  2. I prefer the 1947 translation as well. It was fun to look up the older translation and see just how different they are. Plus the 1947 translation incorporates “corrections and additions” purportedly from Kandinsky himself, but provided by his widow. Has all the makings of a good drama :)

    To Sadler’s credit, in his introduction he states that Kandinsky was known to be a florid speaker and author. And the English language of the early twentieth century is not the same English we speak now. The habits of speech were also very different. Hence why many say that the words of the past always lack meaning for today, and must always be rephrased and recontextualized to effectively convey their bounty or lack to new generations.

    I am not so sure. Maybe words neglected become dis-abused without attention. If so, does that increase their power and potency for those who make efforts to read them? For centuries before the rise of the modern vernacular/romance languages, scholars kept their secrets locked away in Latin. The “learned” maintained their prestige simply because no one else could read their books or converse in—or even get invited to—their colloquia. Maybe with a little attention and love, the words of the past can be revivified and we can get closer to the original intent and thought of the speakers?

    Meh. I still like the 1947 translation better :)

  3. Nice. On a slight tangent… The Guggenheim in NYC has a large, permanent exhibit of Kandinsky (http://bit.ly/7AgV9D). Even when there were great exhibits in the main space I would still find some time to go and reflect on the Kandinsky and Thannhauser Collection. It seemed like you could always find some new aspect of the collection, either inherent to the group or in contrast to the main, temporary exhibit. I never knew that “blue” had so many values (sight/visual, heat/energy, sound/syncopation, pace/time)… Too bad we can’t lick the exhibits as I’m sure there’s something embedded at that level as well… :-)

    Looks like they just closed out (2010.01.13) a Kadinsky retrospective to mark the 50th anniversary of the Guggenheim . Damn. Wish I could have checked it out. NYTimes says it was a record attendance (http://bit.ly/5SeZcg). The web page for the 50th anniversary Kandinsky exhibit got unlinked before I could right this but here’s the Google cache: http://bit.ly/4IHrXr

    I enjoyed this quote from the above cached description of the 50th anniversary comparing Kandinsky w/ Frank Lloyd Wright (the architect of the Guggenheim):
    “Though Kandinsky is known for an abstraction that expressed his inner nature and Wright for his advancement of an organic architecture connected to the natural world, both advocated a spiritual, aesthetic experience of life.”

  4. BTW, bit.ly flags the above Google Cache as bad stuff but feel free to hit it (or not). Hopefully they’ll put the archive version of the page somewhere as there’s a video on there worth viewing for some background on the project. Alternately, here’s a friendlier link embedded in the above cache showing an online exhibit of Kandinsky:
    http://web.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/exhibition_pages/kandinsky/index.html

  5. @cmgomes, that exhibition video is really interesting. How exciting it must be for art conservationists to glimpse the creative process of the artist as they turn the gaze of microscopes and infrared light on the physical structure and nuance of the paintings themselves.

    I just found the video at an archived location on the Guggenheim site:
    http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/video/past-exhibition-videos/kandinsky

    And I’m now following the museum on Twitter:
    http://twitter.com/guggenheim

    Thanks for the heads up :)

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