A former law student
at the University of Moscow and a young anthropologist-scientist,
Kandinsky quickly revealed himself as the strategist
for the cause of modernism. As early as 1901, he opened up a veritable
campaign he would lead his whole life long. The goal of this campaign
was to protect modern creative activity by abolishing or circumventing
such cultural institutions as the Exhibition, the School, and
the Press, which were opposed to it while exercising their right
of judgment, jury, expertise, and critique. In order to subordinate
this cultural machine to the service of the artist, one had to
“occupy” these strategic points. The poster for the
first exhibition of Phalanx--the association Kandinsky
founded and presided over in Munich, which organized from 1901
to 1904 twelve exhibitions and which was also a school where Kandinsky
taught--perfectly reflects the offensive character of his strategic
The need to develop
such strategies was no doubt in large part tied, in Kandinsky’s
case, to his late entrance into the field of painting. How could
someone who began to study painting at the age of 30 and who began
to show his work at the age of 35 rapidly construct an artistic
career within a sociocultural paradigm that was, if not fixed,
at least highly structured? Certainly not by waiting for this
paradigm to react to his appearance and to make a place for him
“professional artists” who spent years in apprenticeship
and who trod the beaten path of exhibitions and competitions,
Kandinsky thus prepared from the start to skip those steps. For
this, he possessed other weapons than most artists had: on the
one hand, an economic base--guaranteed by the fortune of his father,
who was sympathetic to his choice--that was broad enough for him
not to have to sell his works; on the other hand, a highly-structured
way of thinking, a dual (Russian and German) cultural background,
and an ability to write in both languages, too. In order to win
recognition for the “value” of his artistic work,
he adopted, in tandem with these elements, a strategy differing
from that of the art market, whose goal was recognition from potential
consumers and from the public in the broad sense. But what kind
of recognition then mattered for Kandinsky? From what kind of
audience was he seeking to command respect for the value of his
works? And through what means did he think that he might attain
One of the ways
to reexamine this question is to come back to the beginning and
reread some of the first texts--nay, the very first text--published
by Kandinsky, which appeared in 1901. For, it is here, in a “youthful,”
not already settled form and through what manages to slip out
therefrom, that one can discover, more easily than in later texts,
some of his ambitions and strategies.
The False Critic
It was in 1901--the
date when, in Munich, he created his association called Phalanx--that
Kandinsky began to exhibit his works in Russia. His first appearance
on the Moscow arts scene occurred as part of the Eighth Exhibition
of the Moscow Society of Painters, where he presented sixteen
of his canvases. And yet this debut was not noticed at all by
critics. The name Kandinsky is not mentioned in any articles devoted
to that exhibition. Kandinsky reacted to this silence with an
article that appeared on April 17 and 19, 1901 in the Moscow newspaper
Novosti dnja (News of the Day). This first text the artist
devoted to the question of art--previously, he had written only
“scientific” texts--bears the significant title Kritika
kritikov (The critique of the critics).(1) We should be aware
by now that Kandinsky was starting an offensive not against an
indictment of his work, but against the silence with which it
was greeted. He was not personally being blamed for anything,
but quite simply was ignored by critics.
The article opens,
indeed, with an attack, the tone of which Kandinsky borrows from
the poem that heads up the text:
Es ist leicht, eine kluge Grimasse zu schneiden
Und ein kluges Gesicht
Und gewichtig zu sagen: Dies mag ich leiden
Und jenes nicht.
Und wiel ich Dies lieden mag so muss es gut sien,
Und jenes nicht --
Vor solchen Leuten musst Du auf der Hut sein
Mit deinem Gedicht!
The choice of
this poem written by Friedrich von Bodenstedt (1819-1892) is significant.
The latter was as much a poet as a scientist, and quite specifically
an Orientalist--that is to say, an ethnographer and anthropologist.
He lived in Russia, in Moscow and Tiflis, had learned Russian,
and became a translator of Russian poetry, in particular of Pushkin,
into German. Thus, just like Kandinsky, von Bodenstedt was a man
with a twofold vocation--scientist and artist--and a dual linguistic
background. The issue of Kandinsky’s bilingualism is one
of the most important ones we should inquire about, but we shall
leave aside that question for the moment.
What von Bodenstedt
is indicting in his poem is to be found in a single word: imposture.
The critic does not have true knowledge of the things he claims
to be judging, though he mimics such intelligence by sporting
grimaces of it (eine kluge Grimasse), and it is thereupon
that he establishes his authority, which allows him to settle
matters while rejecting all that goes beyond his understanding
(Und jenes nicht) and thereby creating the very phenomenon
of the rejected and the refused (jenes). It is on the
basis of this argument about imposture that Kandinsky was also
going to construct, like a good lawyer, his own accusation, by
challenging the very principle of artistic criticism outside art.
field, one listens to and takes into account only the opinion
of people who know their field in a practical or theoretical way,
people who are called specialists. An honorable exception is made
only for art and literature; in those fields, every Tom, Dick,
and Harry can proclaim out loud, with confidence, some authority
and a ‘grimace of intelligence’: ‘This is beautiful
and that is worthless.’ Anyone who is desirous to see his
‘works’ printed and to be paid for them takes up his
pen and writes whatever he feels like. His writings are read and
he is called a critic. And if that person is especially
free and easy, he begins to spout ex cathedra every sort
of absurdity that comes to mind. And it is up to the public to
‘give the reader an ovation.’”(2)
The Public and the Crowd
argument with another quotation from von Bodenstedt, Kandinsky
identifies this “public” with an “ignorant crowd.”
“Indeed, the crowd allows itself to be abused. But how could
it do otherwise? In the fields of which it remains ignorant, can
it do anything other than listen to a bold ignoramus who is spouting
his spurious “truths” with such conviction and persuasiveness?
And so I venture to ask the following simple question: Can one
let every Tom, Dick, and Harry discuss things in the field of
article is constructed like an exemplary indictment. He chooses
his reader well, or, rather, he creates his reader. This reader
who is going to answer his question and therefore decide, in a
way, the fate of art does not belong to the crowd, which is “guilty”
of ignorance. The reader is not necessarily a specialist of some
sort, either, but, at least, a “man capable of reflection,”
that is to say, a man endowed with common sense, like a juror.
To answer the question posed, Kandinsky proposes that this man
take into account the place and the role of art criticism. This
place, as he defines it, is quite decisive: criticism serves as
an intermediary between the artist and the public.
The fact that
art is made for the public or, at least, for a certain public,
and that it is the public that assigns to art its value, in particular
by buying it, is completely absent from Kandinsky’s logic.
The notions of sponsor and market are totally
excluded from his intellectual apparatus. Quite to the contrary--and
it is hereupon that he builds his indictment--there exists and
there has always existed, since the dawn of time (!), a deep divide
between the public and artists, which is due to the fact that
artists devote their lives to art and the public sees therein
only one of the means to entertain and amuse themselves. The public
is therefore hostile to art, by definition.
public is composed of all those who are not artists. The true
public of painters is made up only of painters, the true public
of sculptors is made up only of sculptors, and so on. Thus, in
Leon Tolstoy’s essay “What is Art?” (1898),
which is one of the most important manifestations of late nineteenth-century
Russian art criticism, Tolstoy, not being a painter, could only
reproduce, apropos of painting, the opinions of the ignorant crowd.
It would seem, therefore, that only painters would be capable
of “criticizing” painters, only musicians who could
write apropos of music, and so on.
The Good Critic
Now, there does
exist, Kandinsky goes on to say, an infinitely small number of
persons who are capable of understanding art without practicing
it. The role of the critic is to communicate with this tiny group
and to attempt to bring in new members by “giving sight
to the blind.” But who is this critic who appears in Kandinsky’s
writing as a thaumaturge? Is he himself an artist? Yes and no,
answers Kandinsky. Yes, for, from the psychical and physiological
point of view, he is constituted like an artist: he has the eyes
and nerves that see and react in a special way to beauty. No,
for he does not practice an art. Yet he is no less a specialist,
for, out of love for art, he devotes his life not to the practice
of art but to its study. The idea of vocation is very
dear to Kandinsky: just as in the case of the artist, what he
underscores here is the notion of sacrifice and of the time devoted
to this activity. Another notion that is no less dear to him is
that of knowledge (znanie) which the critic acquires
at the end of this long sacrifice.
In all eras, specialists
defined in this way were the only ones who had the right to speak
about art. But in the present era, writes Kandinsky, this rule
has to be applied even more strictly, for this era is marked by
a genuine change: “Suddenly, artists discover (otkryvajut)
new fields of beauty in nature that their predecessors did not
see, and, struck by their discoveries, they passionately try to
extract these new pearls from the overall mass of nature, in order
to show them to others.”(4) The role of the critic is to
explain to others these new phenomena that have been discovered
Having thus defined
the nature and role of the art critic, Kandinsky then proceeds
to prove the existence of certain “criminal” deeds.
He “deconstructs” the articles of Russian critics
by demonstrating, not that they are bad critics, but that they
are not critics at all. It is, therefore, a case of imposture,
of “kluge Grimasse,” of masks Kandinsky tears
away, or else of the kind of royal nudity found in Hans Christian
Andersen’s famous fairy tale, which Kandinsky mentions.
This part of the article also provides a wealth of material for
those who want to explore Kandinsky’s intellectual universe.
But we shall stop here in order to offer a temporary conclusion.
The Scientific Model
It seems clear
that this first text published by Kandinsky should be considered
an act of seizure of power that accords only to specialists or
colleagues the right to pronounce upon the value of artworks and
to communicate this judgment to a broader public, which is by
definition hostile to art. Apparently determined by the Romantic
paradigm, this construction corresponds, at the same time, to
the model of scientific expertise. It is this scientific component
of Kandinsky’s way of proceeding that is rarely taken into
account, but that we would like to underscore.
During the years
preceding his choice to pursue an artistic career, Kandinsky was
already totally invested on an emotional level in his scientific
career. He describes his break with science in his Looks on
the Past as an epistemological break, nay, an existential
one, and as a loss of faith. This break was influenced by a discovery
that, instead of assuring him of the progress of science, proved
to him its thoroughgoing impoverishment.
of the atom was the same thing, in my soul, as the disintegration
of the entire world. The thickest walls were suddenly crumbling.
Everything was becoming precarious, unstable, weak. I would not
be surprised to see a stone melt into thin air before me and become
invisible. Science seemed to me ruined: its most solid bases were
but an illusion, a mistake by scientists who were not building
their divine edifice stone by stone, with a calm hand, in a transfigured
light, but were groping about in the dark, at random, in the search
for truths, and in their blindness, took one object for another
The poverty of
science is therefore tied to its subjectivity, its character as
a human endeavor. Ultimately, despite all the progress of science
and technology, man is still seeking to know the world while having
for an instrument of this knowledge only his own human nature,
with all there is about it that is imperfect and limited. There
is therefore no reason to confer upon science a higher value than
that assigned to art. The truth sought by science and by art is
the same Truth: “I recognized with time and very
gradually that the ‘Truth’ in general, and more specifically
in art, is not a given X, an imperfectly known, but immutable,
magnitude; it is, on the contrary, a variable magnitude, animated
by a slow and ongoing movement.”(6)
The artist can
hope even more to attain the Truth, because he is, more
than a scientist, aware of his own limits.
Now, in examining
art from the gnosiological standpoint and in setting the search
for the Truth as the goal of art, Kandinsky creates a
bridge between artistic activity and science’s mode of operation.
Replacing science with art while retaining Truth as the
objective signifies replacing one form of science--in particular,
an experimental science that deals with the study of the phenomenal
world, which is observable with the help of ever more sophisticated
instruments that are, however, still misleading since they are
built by man--with another form of science, one that deals with
other types of phenomena that are observable not with the aide
of instruments but by man himself qua instrument capable of developing
his sensitivity, his eyes and his nerves.
In one case as in the other, value is nonetheless attributed above
all to the act of discovery. It is precisely as discovery--and
in conformity with all the criteria of experimental science--that
Kandinsky describes, we have seen, the change in the art of his
time: artists discover new phenomena in nature that were always
there but that were not seen beforehand, and they attempt, with
the aid of their art, to extract them from nature.
scientific discovery can be subject only to the approval of a
single jury, that of “fathers” and “brothers,”
of “colleagues,” and only then, and upon this sole
condition, of society. Conversely, what is recognized within the
milieu of specialists cannot be “criticized” or challenged
by any public.
seems to us very clear (even though this has never been noticed
before) that the discovery of abstraction in 1910 was orchestrated
by Kandinsky on the model of scientific discovery, recognition
of which appertains to the artistic community alone. This discovery
is established (patented) in a series of texts published in the
years 1911-1913--Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911/12),
the articles in The Blue Rider (1911), and in Looks
on the Past (1913, 1918)--in which Kandinsky not only himself
explains his discovery but recounts the path that led him toward
this revolution. Better put, what he does is describe his life
as the straight path toward that discovery (which nonetheless
occurred “by accidental”) by excluding from this construction
every useless detail. While supplying a few additional precious
details, the 1976 book by the artist’s widow, Nina Kandinsky,
does no more than crystallize the image created by the artist
himself.(7) Continuing Kandinsky’s own desire on this score,
she insists quite specifically on the priority of his discovery,
exactly as if it were a matter of the discovery of radioactivity.
Genius in Science and in Art
an apparently paradoxical way, the artist thus adopts experimental
science’s own mode of operation, wherein discoveries are
submitted to strictly internal expert evaluation. But can one
go further than this simple statement of a paradox?
Looks on the Past, Kandinsky cites only a few names of
those who influenced him on the path to his discovery. We therefore
have to be all the more attentive to each of those names. Thus,
while listing the sciences he studied at the university, he mentions
“criminal law which particularly and perhaps too exclusively
affected me on account of Lombroso’s theory, which was still
new at the time.”(8) Without doubt, what Kandinsky is invoking
here is the theory of Criminal Man (1876) by Cesare Lombroso
(1835-1909), though it is difficult for us not to assume that
he had also read the latter’s The Man of Genius
(Genio e follia, 1864; 3rd edition, 1877)(9), translated
into Russian by Tarnowski and Tehukinova,(10) who added some new
material drawn from the history of Russian literature.
is well known, Lombroso’s genius is, as is the case with
the criminal, a phenomenon of natural pathology, the physiological
basis of which he describes.(11) In analyzing hundreds of “cases,”
Lombroso draws up a “composite picture” of the genius
that includes, for example, a diminutive body, rickets, emaciation
or extreme slenderness, a peculiarly-shaped cranium, but also
precociousness or retardation, stuttering, vagrancy, somnambulism,
and so on, the most important characteristic being hyperesthesia--the
abnormal physiological or pathological increase in visual acuity
and in sensitivity to the stimuli of the other senses.
“If we investigate more intimately, with the help of autobiographies,
the physiological differences that separate a man of genius from
an ordinary man, we find that they consist in a morbidly exquisite
sensitivity. . . . They feel and notice more things, with a greater
intensity and with a stronger tenacity, than other men. . . .
The infinitely small things, the accidents the vulgar do not catch
sight of, or do not notice, are caught by them, connected in a
thousand ways, to which the vulgar give the name of creation.”(12)
the genius is a sort of machine produced by an accident of nature
who becomes an instrument, par excellence, for knowing nature.
Thanks to his extreme sensitivity, to his specially organized
eyes and nerves, the man of genius produces discoveries. Discovering,
seeing what others do not see, is his physiological function.
It is of little consequence whether he would be a scientist or
a painter. Lombroso’s genius is essentially an inventor,
a discoverer, a creator of the new. In his Preface to the French
translation of Lombroso’s book, Charles Richet summarizes
Lombroso’s argument by employing the figure of Lavoisier:
“He discovers very simple facts that thousands of observers
had not seen, although they had passed in front of their eyes
before having passed in front of Lavoisier’s.”(13)
points in Lombroso’s model are to be found again in Kandinsky’s
texts that appropriate his idea of “discovery,” the
mechanism of which (the genius’s hyperesthesia) is similar
in art as in science. According to Kandinsky, however, a similar
mechanism is also to be found in the critic who, he too, must
represent a form of pathology and must have eyes and nerves that
differ from those of others, so as to be able to discover novelty,
this time not in nature but now in art. In passing the test of
experimental science, the romantic genius thus sheds his light
upon the field of art criticism at the very moment that field
was becoming professionalized.
1. Despite the publication
of this article in both English (Kandinsky, Complete Writings
on Art, ed. Kenneth C. Lindsay et Peter Vergo [Boston: G.
K. Hall, 1982) and Russian (ed. N. Avtonomova, D. Sarabjanov,
and V. Tourtchin [Moscow: Gileia, 2001]), this text remains quite
underutilized by the authors of works devoted to the period before
Kandinsky’s discovery of abstraction. See, in particular,
the studies of Peg Weiss (1979, 1995), Jelena Hahl-Koch (1993),
Igor Aronov (2006), and so on.
2. We are translating the text into French from
the 2001 Russian edition, vol. 1, pp. 37-38 [translated, in turn,
3. Ibid., p. 38.
4. Ibid., p. 39.
5. Wassily Kandinsky, Regards sur le passé
(Paris: Hermann, 1974 [1913 for the German edition, 1918 for the
Russian edition]), p. 99.
6. Ibid., p. 123.
7. Nina Kandinsky, Kandinsky und ich,
(Munchen: Kindler, 1976); French translation: Kandinsky et
moi (Paris: Flammarion, 1978). This volume may be compared
to some biographies of scientists, like the one about Marie Curie
written by her daughter. See T. Swann Harding, “Science
and Propaganda,” American Journal of Economics and Sociology,
7:4 (July 1948): 475-86.
8. Regards sur le passé, p. 95.
9. I have consulted the French edition L’homme
du génie, translated on the basis of the fifth Italian
edition by Fr. Colonna d’Istria, an agrégé
in philosophy, and prefaced by Charles Richet, a professor in
the Paris Faculty of Medicine (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1889).
10. Saint Petersburg, 1895.
11. Or, more precisely, a psychosis (an irritation
of the cerebral cortex) that is due to degeneration (this degeneration
possibly being progressive in character, as with the loss, in
man, of the animal tail).
12. L’homme du génie, p.
37 [translated from French into English--Trans.].
13. Ibid., p. XIV [translated from French into
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