Kandinsky: The Best of Us Aren’t Crazy
I vowed tacitly to never discuss the connections between mental illness and creativity. That whole mad genius trope (rather, cliché). But I’m in, shall we say, a rather blue period. My productivity has ground to a halt, and what little literary skill I possess is in suspension.
Nonetheless, holed up in my apartment for two days and incapable of speaking to people — trapped basically in my own head — I can at least string a few words together (thank goodness) on my favourite subject, painting, and in so doing address a subject I should have treated long ago.
Pace Kay Redfield Jamison, I don’t think Madfolk are any more or less creative than anyone else. At best, we’ll come up with some off-kilter notions, some provocative outside-the-box thinking, that will translate to some unexpected content and if lucky to some bold formal advances. But in the end I’m not sure how strong the correlation actually is. Creative Madfolk might stand out more than the non-creative, but I doubt they stand out more than the creative non-Mad.
Case in point. The man painted the freest, loosest-looking canvases anyone had ever seen in the inter-War era. Yet he did so usually while wearing a jacket and tie, fastidiously avoiding getting the tiniest drop of paint on his sleeve. So much for the image of the unkempt, unshaven, greasy-locked, tobacco-fingered, sleep-deprived romantically tormented genius. If there was anything crazy about him, it was that he gave up a sinecure as an established law professor.
Yet this was the man who developed the paradigm for what would later evolve into pure abstract art: painting which sought to make literal Walter Pater’s dictum and “aspire towards the condition of music.” That, even at the turn of the Century, in a world which had a rough handle on Fauvism (e.g., Derain) and other Post-Impressionist styles, was simply crazy.
Back then, you could not possibly, no matter how much you distorted (abstracted from) Nature, ever do away with Nature itself. But the writing had long been on the wall. For all that Turner, for example, was blotchy, his blotchiness could be reconciled with adventurous new and (R/r)omantic ways of representing and seeing Nature. But the Impressionists set about killing that notion, by making of paint and its application the unabashed subject of their paintings.
To hear Kandinsky describe himself, the unwary would think him a synaesthete (someone who receives one form of stimulus and interprets it based on another sense’s apparatus: touch eliciting smells, taste provoking auditory responses, etc.). Rather, he truly did see that colour, form and line held the potential for the visual equivalent of music — something which was indeed abstract.
But the formulation of this theory was no more than a very sensitive person’s ambitious — and highly rational — response to the aesthetic dead ends of the day. For let us not forget the “how” of music! Music can only exist as the explicit creation and manifestation of strict rules (Pythagoras on up!). There’s nothing arbitrary about intervals, scales and other aspects of theory. Kandinsky wanted full formal freedom, but a freedom defined — in other words, created — by a set of rational rules.
The rules he laid out for painting would nonetheless strike some as flaky, as they are based on an arbitrary “psychology” that as mentioned borrows analogies from musical theory, and also on a belief system of the day (part philosophy, part religion) called Theosophy.
As to the former, there’s actually something rather disappointing in his complexly articulated, yet rather obvious conclusions that dark colours suggest profundity, in the manner of minor chords; while a composition can have its adagio, andante and allegro moments based on the “quickness” or “gravity” of stroke and line. Artists had pretty much been intuitively working these principles since day one, and Kandinsky’s conclusion that colours and shapes had direct effects on emotional states was just conjecture. Where Kandinsky succeeds is in the sheer fact of regarding colours and shapes as direct, subjective outgrowths and expressions of emotional states. Thatwas liberating. And it was wholly reasonable.
As for Theosophy, this was a belief system which sought to reconcile all spheres of knowledge — religious, philosophical, scientific, what have you — into one great pure synthesis of true wisdom. It was essentially the template for the entire subsequent New Age movement, and offered answers to those who were dissatisfied with conventional religion yet sought a mystical spirituality which had room for empirical science. For the spiritually open and curious artist, it provided a fertile source of inspiration at a time of intellectual, spiritual and philosophical crisis. Outlandish, perhaps, but less outlandish than many of the other myriad belief systems which popped up in the period between the mid-19th and mid-20th Centuries.
Sure, Kandinsky had his moments. But his tendency to fall to his knees and weep before objects of great beauty is remarkably common: average Joes and Janes off the street report bursting into tears before the sombre profundity of Mark Rothko’s paintings in his eponymous Chapel. Kandinsky was an extremely sensitive individual, highly intuitive, profoundly rational, a voracious reader, very organized, ambitious, and a champion of the marriage of strict form and caprice.
We should all be so lucky.
Coming soon: Paterson Ewen: Maybe the Best of Us Are Crazy.