Related Story: READ Kandinsky in His Own Words
From the Closer Look in the Art Institute of Chicago app, available for iOS devices through the iTunes Store.
Cover of Vasily Kandinsky, Uber das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art), 1912. Robert Allerton Purchase Fund.
In his seminal 1912 publication Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Vasily Kandinsky advocated an art that could move beyond imitation of the physical world, inspiring, as he put it, "vibrations in the soul." Pioneering abstraction as the richest, most musical form of artistic expression, Kandinsky believed that the physical properties of artworks could stir emotions, and he produced a revolutionary group of increasingly abstract canvases—with titles such as Fugue, Impression, and Improvisation—hoping to bring painting closer to music making.
Vasily Kandinsky, Landscape with Two Poplars, 1912. Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection.
Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born. It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks.
Vasily Kandinsky, Painting with Green Center, 1913. Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection.
The observer of today, however, is seldom capable of feeling [lofty] emotions. He seeks in a work of art a mere imitation of nature, which can serve some definite purpose (for example a portrait in the ordinary sense) or a presentment of nature according to a certain convention ("impressionist" painting), or some inner feeling expressed in terms of natural form (as we say—a picture with Stimmung).
Vasily Kandinsky, Painting with Troika, 1911. Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection.
The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures "nice" or "splendid." Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called "art for art’s sake." This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colors, this vain squandering of artistic power is called "art for art’s sake."
Paul Cézanne, The Basket of Apples, c. 1893. Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection.
Cézanne made a living thing out of a teacup, or rather in a teacup he realized the existence of something alive. He raised still life to such a point that it ceased to be inanimate. He painted these things as he painted human brings, because he was endowed with the gift of divining the inner life in everything. His color and form are alike suitable to the spiritual harmony. A man, a tree, an apple, all were used by Cézanne in the creation of something that is called a "picture," and which is a piece of true inward and artistic harmony.
Henri Matisse, Apples, 1916. Gift of Florene May Schoenborn and Samuel A. Marx.
By personal inclination, because he is French and because he is specially gifted as a colorist, Matisse is apt to lay too much stress on color. Like Debussy, he cannot always refrain from conventional beauty; Impressionism is in his blood. One sees pictures of Matisse that are full of great inward vitality, produced by the stress of the inner need, and also pictures which possess only outer charm, because they were painted on an outer impulse. . . . His work seems to be typical French painting, with its dainty sense of melody, raised from time to time to the summit of a great hill above the clouds.
Vasily Kandinsky, Orange, 1923. Robert A. Waller Fund.
The artist is not born to a life of pleasure. He must not live idle; he has a hard job to perform, and one which often proves a cross to be borne. He must realize that his every deed, feeling, and thought are raw but sure material from which his work is to arise, that he is free in art but not in life.