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7. ‘Russian Messiah’: On the Spiritual in the Reception of Vasily Kandinsky’s Art in Germany, c. 1910–1937

Sebastian Borkhardt

© 2017 Sebastian Borkhardt, CC BY 4.0

And then, without fail, there appears among us a man like the rest of us in every way, but who conceals within himself the secret, inborn power of ‘vision’. He sees and points. Sometimes he would gladly be rid of this higher gift, which is often a heavy cross for him to bear. But he cannot. Through mockery and hatred, he continues to drag the heavy cartload of struggling humanity, getting stuck amidst the stones, ever onward and upward.

Vasily Kandinsky1

In around 1908 the art of Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944) underwent a decisive change. The works he created in Murnau, near Munich, where he lived and worked for many months between 1908 and 1914, show an increasingly free use of colour as well as a gradual dissolution of representational subject matter — a shift towards a new, abstract art. From 1910 onwards there was an iconographic shift in Kandinsky’s work: several paintings and prints from this period are dedicated to the subject of the apocalypse.2 Many of them display the motif of a city with a falling tower, which signifies the destruction of the earthly Jerusalem (figs. 1.1 and 7.1).3 The transformation of the objective world which Kandinsky executed in these works had its reference in the written tradition of the Bible and in the pictorial tradition of icon painting (see, for example, the Apocalypse icon in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow (end of the fifteenth century)). At the same time, by referring to religion, Kandinsky proclaimed his abstract art as a substantially spiritualised art.

The eschatological theme of such works as Last Judgment (1912) (fig. 7.1) corresponds with the prophetic tone of the artist’s seminal treatise, On the Spiritual in Art, which was first published in December 1911 (fig. 1.1).4 Against the backdrop of an all-embracing materialism that he felt had to be overcome, Kandinsky preached the dawning of an “epoch of the great spiritual”.5 According to Kandinsky, his art was to be neither decoration nor an end in itself, but rather, the medium for conveying a spiritual message. As is indicated in the quotation which introduces this chapter, Kandinsky conceived of the artist — and thus himself — as a prophet or even a messiah, sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity.

The religious aspects in Kandinsky’s oeuvre have been highlighted by a number of scholars.6 In this chapter, I shall shift the focus from the artist and his work to the audience to whom his message was addressed. I shall explain the role played by the concept of the ‘spiritual’ in the German reception of Kandinsky from the early 1910s, when abstract art was first beginning to be recognised in Germany, to 1937, the year that the infamous exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ (Entartete Kunst) opened its doors in Munich.7 The main focus here is the response to Kandinsky’s work as described in several key texts on modern art that were published between 1914 and 1920. My intention is to show how some of Kandinsky’s supporters in the adopted homeland in which he launched his new art and philosophy elevated and appreciated his work as a manifestation of the ‘spiritual’, and thus made up for the unintelligibility of abstraction, of which it was accused by the critical community. In parallel, I will take into consideration the broader context by drawing attention to a concurrence between the German self-image and the concept of a spiritual art which was associated with abstraction and the east. Through this, I aim to provide an understanding of why the ‘Russian soul’ that was supposed to be operating in Kandinsky’s art was considered by some a kindred spirit of the ‘German soul’.

7.1 Vasily Kandinsky, Last Judgment, 1912. Glass painting, 34 x 45 cm., Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris. As published in Vasily Kandinsky: Painting on Glass. Anniversary Exhibition (exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1966), no. 18. Photograph in the public domain.

In 1912, Herwarth Walden (1878–1941), owner of the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin and a major supporter of avant-garde art, hosted a Kandinsky retrospective that subsequently toured several cities in Germany and abroad. In 1913, the exhibition reached Hamburg. The writer and journalist Kurt Küchler (1883–1925) used the event as an opportunity to write a polemic article in which he vented his hatred of abstract painting and its promoters or, from his point of view, profiteers. Küchler wrote:

Once again at Louis Bock & Sohn there was an exhibition by one of those unfortunate monomaniacs who consider themselves prophets of a new art of painting. […] Standing in front of the dreadfully scrawled colours and stammered lines […] one initially does not know what to marvel at more: the larger-than-life arrogance with which Mr Kandinsky demands that others take his bungling seriously, the unsympathetic impudence with which the fellows from the ‘Sturm’ — the patrons of this exhibition — propagate these savage paintings as revelations of a new and promising art, or the condemnable sensationalism of the art dealer who lends his rooms to this madness of colours and shapes.8

To Küchler, Kandinsky’s paintings were bereft of all spiritual or any other meaning that lay beyond the scope of inability, fraud, or idiocy. Seen from his perspective, the alleged “prophet” was a “monomaniac” whose “revelations” were nothing but a “madness of colours and shapes”. Walden responded to Küchler’s slating review in his periodical The Storm (Der Sturm). Under the slogan ‘For Kandinsky’ (Für Kandinsky) he issued a protest statement, which was signed by more than eighty personalities — mainly from the cultural sphere.9 One of them was the art critic Wilhelm Hausenstein (1882–1957). In a letter to Walden printed in The Storm, Hausenstein identified two opposite poles within Kandinsky’s work: on the one hand, “the absolute logic of shapes and colours”, and on the other, “a wealth of the most irrational sensuality […] a sensuality that is spiritualised”.10

The following year, the dualism between the rational and the irrational suggested by Hausenstein reappeared in his survey The Visual Arts of the Present.11 In the book, Hausenstein further explained this dualism as a relationship of tension between western rationality and Russian mysticism. In doing so, he devalued the rational (i.e., ‘western’) elements which he found in Kandinsky’s work as subordinate. To Hausenstein, the essential quality of Kandinsky’s texts and paintings was derived from Russian sources:

‘[On] the Spiritual in Art’, according to our literary standards, is only a poor achievement […]. But that is precisely the point: we have no right to apply to these things the common standards which, even in the best case, still have something of western European rationality about them and, hence, do not do justice to the mysticism, the irrational mysticism, the incomprehensible stammering of the Russian soul.12

Likewise, he argued that “the ultimate basis of Kandinsky’s painting, that which we perceive as the richness of his work, is that wonderful Russian soul”.13 Interestingly, Hausenstein’s defence of Kandinsky’s abstraction had something in common with Küchler’s polemic: both authors seemed to have something of a comprehension problem regarding Kandinsky’s works. Yet, while Küchler reduced this problem to the conclusion that Kandinsky’s abstraction was meaningless, Hausenstein discerned in it an expression of the “Russian soul”. According to Hausenstein, Kandinsky’s paintings were not without object; rather, the spiritual object had taken the place of the physical object in them.14 From his perspective, the comprehension problem resulted primarily from the fact that Russian mysticism could not be understood in terms of western rationality. The crucial difference between the two authors is that Hausenstein believed in Kandinsky’s sincerity while Küchler did not.

Another early account of the new art was written by the journalist Paul Fechter (1880–1958). In 1914, he published his monograph Expressionism.15 In Fechter’s book, Kandinsky is presented as a main exponent of Expressionism. His artistic approach is described by Fechter as an “elimination of every outward aspect”:

He [Kandinsky] finds the artistically productive, the immediate, purely in himself, in sinking into the depths of his own soul, into which neither representation nor concept have access, in which a chaos of colours reigns and experience is to be found still unformed, shapeless, foreign to any representational understanding […] as a purely spiritual material.16

By referring to the depths of the artist’s soul, Fechter used a central topos that also appeared in Hausenstein’s remarks on Kandinsky. Yet, unlike Hausenstein, Fechter did not relate it to Kandinsky’s Russian origin. That does not mean, of course, that Fechter refrained from any national interpretation. On the contrary, he highlighted the ‘Germanness’ of Expressionism. Fechter wrote: “The will at work within the […] efforts [of Expressionism] is essentially nothing new at all, but the same drive that has been operating in the Germanic world since time immemorial. It is the old Gothic soul that […] still lives on”.17 As Fechter put it, Expressionism originated from “the ancient metaphysical need of the Germans”.18 The Germanisation of Expressionism found its equivalent in the cover design of Fechter’s book, which showed the head of a saint by Max Pechstein (1881–1955). The apparent intention was to convey the inseparable unity of Expressionism, German artistry, and the “Gothic soul”.19

Even before the outbreak of the First World War, Expressionism “gained the aura of a future German national style”.20 This is remarkable, as the circle of The Blue Rider around Kandinsky and Franz Marc (1880–1916), which was a main current of Expressionism in Germany, included several foreign artists. Against such a background, the question arises as to what relationship Fechter saw between the Russian Kandinsky and the “old Gothic soul”.21 Significantly, Fechter did not address this issue in his monograph. However, an indirect answer can be found in one of his likely sources, namely, Wilhelm Worringer’s (1881–1965) important treatise of 1911, Form Problems of the Gothic. Just like his doctoral thesis Abstraction and Empathy, submitted in 1906 and published in 1908, Worringer’s Form Problems of the Gothic proved to be a popular success.22 In his study, Worringer transformed the term ‘Gothic’ from a stylistic label for medieval art to a supra-temporal “form will” (Formwille) that pervaded ‘northern’ or ‘Germanic’ culture.23 The “vehicle” of this Gothic “form will” was “the abstract line without organic moderation”.24 Consequently, the Gothic was described by Worringer as “in its innermost nature, […] irrational, superrational, transcendental”, since “wherever the abstract line is the vehicle of the form will, art is transcendental”.25 In turn, he suggested that naturalism in art — which was defined in Abstraction and Empathy as an “approximation to the organic and the true to life, but not because the artist desired to depict a natural object true to life in its corporeality […], but because the feeling for the beauty of organic form that is true to life had been aroused” — accorded with the classical harmony and rationality he associated with ‘southern’ or ‘Romanic’ culture.26

The oppositions which Worringer established between Gothic and Classical, north and south, and between abstraction and naturalism, coincided with the increased efforts of the Germans to create and highlight their own cultural identity as a result of the foundation of the German Empire in 1871. These efforts were marked in particular by a distancing from France and its art which was traditionally labelled as technically perfect, superficial, rationalistic, classical, sensual, and so on; by contrast, German art was considered to be authentic, profound, emotional, romantic, and spiritual.27 The latter traits were also assigned to Expressionism. It is in this context that Fechter interpreted Expressionism as an awakening of the Germans’ ‘Gothic soul’. To be sure, neither in Abstraction and Empathy nor in Form Problems of the Gothic did contemporary art play a determining role (Kandinsky was not mentioned in either of these texts). Nevertheless, Worringer’s writings were read as justifications or even manifestos of Expressionism and taken as a basis for the assessment of the new art.28 Three aspects of Worringer’s discourse were of special relevance with regard to the reception of Kandinsky: first, Worringer paved the way for a broader acceptance of abstraction by ascribing to it a historical significance in its own right; secondly, a moment of identification was created between German culture — as represented by the concept of a supra-temporal Gothic — and the ‘transcendental’ art form of abstraction; thirdly, according to Worringer, it was in the Orient that abstraction had been most purely preserved from classical influences. In Abstraction and Empathy he wrote: “With the Oriental, the profundity of his world-feeling, the instinct for the unfathomableness of being that mocks all intellectual mastery, is greater […]. Consequently the keynote of his nature is a need for redemption. […] as regards art, it leads [him] to an artistic volition directed entirely toward the abstract.”29 Worringer thus provided a cultural model in which the image of German art moved closer to abstraction and the east.

This shift in emphasis was also reflected very clearly in Fritz Burger’s (1877–1916) Introduction to Modern Art, published posthumously in 1917.30 Continuing the discourse that had been shaped by authors like Worringer and Fechter, Burger asserted: “Now German art is returning back again to the origin of European culture and discovering in the essence of the Middle Ages that world-embracing spirit by which it felt itself borne.”31 Furthermore, on the basis of a seemingly paradoxical equation of national (i.e., genuinely German) qualities with a nation-transcending spirit of the age, Burger stated in his preface “that Germany and its art have stepped into the centre of the modern art movement as its leader”.32

7.2 Old German woodcut and Vasily Kandinsky’s woodcut (1911) of Composition II. Double page from Fritz Burger, Introduction to Modern Art (Berlin and Neubabelsberg: Athenaion, 1917), pp. 4–5. Photograph in the public domain.

7.3 Vasily Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913. Oil on canvas, 195 x 300 cm. State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. As published in Will Grohmann, Kandinsky (Paris: Éditions Cahiers d’Art, 1930), plate 13. Photograph in the public domain.

In the first section of the first chapter of his Introduction, which appears as a parable on modern culture, Burger told of a generation of people (Geschlecht) who searched for “the new, great, expansive home of the human spirit” and eventually found “a new cosmic life”: “The material and everything carnal fade before the primal force and primal sense of being; in the twilight of the gods of the past the spirituality of the soul celebrates a great resurrection.”33 Up to this point, Burger’s narrative is illustrated with three old German woodcuts and three woodcuts from Kandinsky’s volume of poems Klänge (Sounds) (1913), together with the artist’s Composition VI from 1913 (figs. 7.2 and 7.3). Their selection and combination was apparently devised by Burger himself.34

While the reproductions of old German woodcuts can be readily explained by Burger’s tracing back of contemporary German art to the spirit of the Middle Ages, their juxtaposition with Kandinsky’s woodcuts deserves closer examination. In fact, the extensive visual presence of Kandinsky’s work right at the beginning of the first chapter is surprising, given Burger’s conviction as to the leading role of German art.35 However, a nexus between the cultures of Germany and Russia — and, at the same time, between those of medieval Europe and the Orient — is indeed implied in Burger’s book, since he asserted that “Nordic thinking” was derived partly from “Oriental” thinking.36 With this in mind, it becomes clearer what Burger meant by his statement that Germany and Russia “step into the circle of modern culture side by side. What links them is their Asiatic heritage”.37 But how should this “Asiatic heritage” be conceived with respect to Kandinsky’s art?

The concept of modern culture that Burger developed with recourse to Asia (or the Orient) and to the European Middle Ages was founded upon two pillars: the first of these was the unification of humanity into one universal community, while the other was its spiritualisation. Besides the Germans, Burger found the most determined champions of this new cultural standpoint among the Russians. Thus he regarded Kandinsky’s abstraction, represented by the painting Composition VI, as one of the “most radical formulations of modern ideas”.38 In this radicalness, Burger found confirmed his view that in the case of the Russians the “elemental force of primal instincts is not fettered by civilising chains, as is the case with the peoples of the west; it reaches much more easily, though perhaps also more carelessly, into the world of cosmic expanses”.39 When Burger wrote about the Russians, he was clearly merging the spiritual with the primitivist discourse: “There, more than anywhere else, the noblest religious instincts of the Europeans are wed with raw animal force”.40 However, to Burger, looking to the east was tantamount to looking back to the origins of his own culture, which he saw as being in the Middle Ages. He declared that “we begin to develop an increased interest in the artistic achievements of those periods in which the sacred faith in a higher culture and spiritual community never allowed the differentiation of a personal knowledge and will to become the guiding cultural factor: the world of the Middle Ages and of the Oriental cultures”.41

Kandinsky’s woodcuts and his Composition VI embodied “Asiatic spirit”42 in contemporary dress — the “Asiatic spirit” being conceived of not as the ‘Other’, but as a cultural source that was recollected by Expressionism and German culture as a whole. Even though the reproduction of Kandinsky’s woodcuts may have been intended to fulfil a function complementary to that of the old German woodcuts (signifying ‘Russia, Orient, present’ as opposed to ‘Germany, Middle Ages, past’), their meanings converged on a higher level. To Burger, they both testified to the cultural ideals he propagated: unity and spirituality.

Burger was not the only art historian to see basic commonalities between the German and the Russian art of his day. Another account which invoked the German-Russian cultural affinity was that of Eckart von Sydow (1885–1942) in his book German Expressionist Culture and Painting (1920).43 Von Sydow observed “a deep chasm” between German and Russian Expressionism on the one side, and French Expressionism on the other.44 He deduced this from the examples of Marc and Kandinsky, in opposition to Henri Matisse (1869–1954). In the programmatic statements of Marc and Kandinsky he detected a “vigorous tension between reality and metaphysical truth”, while the artistic credo of Matisse, as explicated in his ‘Notes of a Painter’ from 1908, included “the striving for balance, the ideal of calm”.45 Von Sydow wrote: “In France it was […] the will to change the artistic form that asserted itself […]. […] In Central and Eastern Europe, however, there is a totally new feeling of a deepening inwardness and a new will to new religiousness”.46

As Hausenstein and Burger had done before him, von Sydow contrasted western rationalism with eastern mysticism. The position of Germany within this cultural map was described by him as follows: the “German soul” was “wedged” between “the predominant naturalism of the west” and “the radical abstraction of the east”.47 In the German Expressionist culture of his time he discerned a propensity for abstraction and mysticism which he felt found its purest manifestation in Russia:

But where […] is the breakthrough of abstract tendencies taking place today? […] It is in the Russian spirit that the new European religiousness has grown: Dostoevsky and Tolstoy! It is out of Russian artistry that the longing for the pure arabesque as an expressive art form has arisen: Kandinsky! […] And now: is the Russian spirit not the refuge of mystic spirituality of all kinds and variations?48

Interestingly, Kandinsky seems to have shared the cultural model represented by von Sydow and others — at least to some extent. An example of this can be seen in his article ‘Abstract Art’, published in 1925.49 It illustrates how Kandinsky himself confirmed and sought to influence the ‘spiritual’ interpretation of his work. At the beginning of his article, Kandinsky referred to a “transvaluation that very gradually abandons the external and very gradually turns toward the internal”, which was “the natural herald of one of the greatest spiritual epochs”.50 In this context, Kandinsky pointed out “a shift in art’s center of gravity, signifying at bottom the transition from the Romanic principle to the Slavic — from West to East”.51 In Kandinsky’s essay, the contrast between the ‘internal’ and the ‘external’, and between abstract and figurative art, corresponded to the cultural difference between the Slavic east and the Romanic west. As with von Sydow’s interpretation, Germany was seen by Kandinsky as lying amidst this field of forces and as having made a recent move towards the east. The content of Kandinsky’s essay demonstrated that since the outbreak of the war in August 1914 and Kandinsky’s subsequent forced departure from Germany, his understanding of the spiritual value of his art had not fundamentally changed. This is important, as during Kandinsky’s return to Russia from 1915 to 1921 he had been faced with the emergence of Constructivism and its non- or anti-spiritual stance.52

The conflict between the secularity of (proto-)Constructivism and the continued emphasis on the spiritual in Kandinsky’s art was reflected in Konstantin Umansky’s (1902–45) New Art in Russia (1920).53 This, for the first time, gave the German public a broader overview of the developments in Russian art which had taken place since 1914, that is to say, during war and revolution. With regard to Kandinsky’s reputation in Germany, Umansky stated: “If anyone deserves the epithet of the ‘Russian messiah’, it is Kandinsky.”54 The ‘spiritualisation’ of Kandinsky at this point stood in sharp contrast to the almost programmatic criticism of western views on Russian art which Umansky offered at the beginning of his book: “In the west, people have always been very inadequately informed about Russian art. In the European imagination the Oriental artist lived as a barbarian, unaffected by all ‘higher’ culture, or as a messiah, surrounded by the gloriole of primal creative power (‘ab oriente lux’).”55

It is this way of seeing Russian art that Umansky set about to correct, or at least to complement. Thus, according to Umansky, the “absolute Expressionism” of Kandinsky and the Suprematists, in which “the ‘spiritual in art’ triumphs” “pause[s] at the threshold of the art to come”.56 In contrast, Vladimir Tatlin’s (1885–1953) “machine art” of the counter-relief (fig. 10.3) — “a triumph of the intellectual and material, the negation of the spirit’s right to isolated autonomy” — was described as feeling itself, quite rightly, to be “in perfect harmony with the ethos of the time”.57

If, as Umansky suggested, Tatlin’s material constructions were more up to date,58 Kandinsky relentlessly continued to promote his own version of modernism founded upon the spiritual. Even in the 1920s, the artist insisted on “a mysterious law” that reigned over the elements of art: “What is that secret, elusive, miniscule ‘plus’, invisible to us today, which, like a flash of lightning, has the immeasurable power of turning a correct, precise, but still dead construction into a living work? Here, perhaps, coincide questions about the soul of art and the soul of the world, to which the human soul also belongs.”59

In around 1919, Kandinsky’s art shifted to that of a more geometric style (fig. 7.4). The response of the German critical community to this development and its relationship to the ‘spiritual’ in his art is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, as an initial hypothesis, it seems arguable that the ‘spiritual’ reception of Kandinsky’s Munich period found a continuation in that of his Bauhaus period (1922–33), such that, at least to some of those who were supportive of the artist’s work, this was still considered to carry a spiritual message.60 What is more clear, however, is that in the 1920s Kandinsky was faced with polemical attacks on his person and his work which were based on anti-modernist, anti-communist, nationalist, and/or racist beliefs. After Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933, such views became political reality. In Nazi Germany, Kandinsky’s abstract art was seen as symptomatic both of his Russian origin and his activities at the ‘Bolshevist’ Bauhaus. This was accompanied by a process which can be termed the ‘de-spiritualisation’ of Kandinsky: firstly, by politicising his work and associating it with communism; and, secondly, by pathologising it and declaring it to be an expression of mental illness. Both these elements characterised the presentation of Kandinsky’s work within the exhibition, Degenerate Art, that opened in Munich in 1937: featuring the slogans “Crazy at any price” and “Works by Kandinsky [who] before 1933 [was a] teacher at the communist Bauhaus in Dessau”, the exhibition’s audience was able to view several works by Kandinsky which were arranged in a bizarre, step-like manner.61

7.4 Vasily Kandinsky, Multicoloured Circle, 1921. Oil on canvas, 138 x 180 cm. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT. As published in Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky (Cologne: DuMont Schauberg, 1958), p. 285. Photograph in the public domain.

Thinking back to Küchler’s review of the Kandinsky retrospective of 1913, it is easy to realise that the Nazis rested their art policy on long-cherished resentments against the avant-garde.62 Terms such as “madness of colours and shapes”, with which Küchler had labelled Kandinsky’s art, were characteristic of the Nazi view on abstraction. Whereas in 1913 such views against abstraction had been challenged by Kandinsky’s supporters, in the 1930s they were enforced by a totalitarian regime that did not brook opposition. Thus Kandinsky was now officially branded a communist agitator or, worse still, an insane lunatic.

In his autobiographical text, ‘Reminiscences’ (1913), Kandinsky stated: “Art in many respects resembles religion.”63 Both in religion and art, belief plays a crucial role. Accordingly, the prophets of art are hailed by some as harbingers of a promising future, while others denounce them as maniacs or deceivers. The same can be said of the reception of Kandinsky in Germany. In the eyes of his contemporaries, Kandinsky’s art swung between the extremes of artistic revelation and artistic decline. The direction in which the pendulum swung seems to have been determined, in particular, by two factors: first, the authors’ view on Russian culture in relation to their own German culture; and, second, the authors’ attitude towards abstraction as a means of visual communication. The ‘spiritual’ interpretations of Kandinsky’s work in Germany which have been discussed in this chapter all have in common that they do not immediately relate Kandinsky’s art to the religious traditions of Russia, for instance, icon painting. Rather, commentators of the period traced Kandinsky’s work back to their sweeping ideas of an eastern or Russian spirituality.64 Moreover, Kandinsky himself had an influence on the interpretation of his art in Germany: at least for some beholders of abstraction, his notion of the ‘spiritual in art’ — however this was understood — filled the semantic gap which the representational object had left.

1 Wassily Kandinsky, ‘On the Spiritual in Art’ (1912), in Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, ed. by Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), pp. 114–219 (p. 131). Unless otherwise noted, all translations from the German are my own. All emphasis in quotations is in the original text. The first English translation of On the Spiritual in Art by Michael T. H. Sadler, entitled The Art of Spiritual Harmony (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), can be read online:

2 Eva Mazur-Keblowski, Apokalypse als Hoffnung: Die russischen Aspekte der Kunst und Kunsttheorie Vasilij Kandinskijs vor 1914, Tübinger Studien zur Archäologie und Kunstgeschichte, 18 (Tübingen: Wasmuth, 2000), esp. pp. 97–111, 133–48; Melanie Horst, ‘Kandinsky’s Early Woodcuts: Polyphony of Colours and Forms’, in Kandinsky: Complete Prints, ed. by Helmut Friedel and Annegret Hoberg (Cologne: Wienand, 2008), pp. 11–31 (pp. 24–26).

3 Mazur-Keblowski, Apokalypse als Hoffnung, pp. 105, 120–21.

4 Wassily Kandinsky, Über das Geistige in der Kunst, insbesondere in der Malerei, rev. new edition, second edition (Bern: Benteli, 2006). For the English text, see Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, pp. 114–219 (see note 1).

5 Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, p. 219. “Epoche des großen Geistigen” (Kandinsky, Über das Geistige, p. 147).

6 See, for example: Sixten Ringbom, ‘Art in “The Epoch of the Great Spiritual”: Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 29 (1966), 386–418; Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980); Noemi Smolik, Von der Ikone zum gegenstandslosen Bild: Der Maler Vasilij Kandinskij (Munich: Neimanis, 1992); Verena Krieger, Von der Ikone zur Utopie: Kunstkonzepte der russischen Avantgarde (Cologne: Böhlau, 1998); and Mazur-Keblowski, Apokalypse als Hoffnung.

7 In so doing, I draw upon an article by Charles W. Haxthausen entitled ‘“Der Künstler ohne Gemeinschaft”: Kandinsky und die deutsche Kunstkritik’, in Kandinsky: Russische Zeit und Bauhausjahre 1915–1933, ed. by Peter Hahn (Berlin: Bauhaus-Archiv, Museum für Gestaltung, 1984), pp. 72–89. On the question of the spiritual in German art and art criticism of that time see also Rose-Carol Washton Long, ‘Expressionismus, Abstraktion und die Suche nach Utopia in Deutschland’, in Das Geistige in der Kunst: Abstrakte Malerei 1890–1985, ed. by Maurice Tuchman and Judi Freeman (Stuttgart: Urachhaus, 1988), pp. 201–17.

8 Kurt Küchler, ‘Kandinsky: Zur Ausstellung bei Louis Bock & Sohn’, Hamburger Fremdenblatt (15 February 1913), p. 13. “Bei Louis Bock & Sohn hat wieder einmal einer jener unglückseligen Monomanen ausgestellt, die sich für die Propheten einer neuen Malkunst halten. […] Wenn man vor dem greulichen Farbengesudel und Liniengestammel […] steht, weiß man zunächst nicht, was man mehr bewundern soll: die überlebensgroße Arroganz, mit der Herr Kandinsky beansprucht, daß man seine Pfuscherei ernst nimmt, die unsympathische Frechheit, mit der die Gesellen vom ‘Sturm’, die Protektoren dieser Ausstellung, diese verwilderte Malerei als Offenbarungen einer neuen und zukunftsreichen Kunst propagieren, oder den verwerflichen Sensationshunger des Kunsthändlers, der seine Räume für diesen Farben- und Formenwahnsinn hergibt.”

9 Haxthausen, ‘Der Künstler ohne Gemeinschaft’, p. 73.

10 Wilhelm Hausenstein, [no title], in ‘Für Kandinsky: Protest’, Der Sturm, 3 (1913), 278–79 (p. 278). “die absolute Logik der Formen und Farben”; “eine Fülle der irrationalsten Sinnlichkeit […] einer Sinnlichkeit, die spiritualisiert ist”.

11 Wilhelm Hausenstein, Die bildende Kunst der Gegenwart: Malerei, Plastik, Zeichnung (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1914).

12 Ibid., pp. 299–300. “‘[Über] das Geistige in der Kunst’ ist nach unserem literarischen Maßstab eine schwache Leistung […]. Aber das ist es gerade, daß wir nicht das Recht haben, an diese Dinge den gewohnten Maßstab anzulegen, der auch im besten Fall noch immer etwas westeuropäisch Rationelles hat und für die Mystik, die unsinnige Mystik, das unverständliche Stammeln der russischen Seele nicht zureicht.”

13 Ibid., p. 302. “der letzte Grund der Malerei Kandinskys, das, was wir an seinem Schaffen als Reichtum empfinden, ist jene wundervolle russische Seele”.

14 Ibid. See also Hausenstein, [no title], p. 278.

15 Paul Fechter, Der Expressionismus (Munich: Piper, 1914). Fechter used the term ‘Expressionism’ in a narrower sense, to refer to the recent movement in German art which was spearheaded by the group The Bridge (Die Brücke) in Dresden and the circle of The Blue Rider in Munich, and, in a wider sense, to refer to modern art as a whole, including Cubism and Futurism. The remarks cited here relate to his chapter III.1, on Expressionism in the narrower sense. Ibid., pp. 21–29.

16 Ibid, p. 25. “Ausschalten alles Äußeren”. “Er [Kandinsky] findet das künstlerisch Verwertbare, Unmittelbare rein nur in sich, in der Versenkung in die Tiefe der eigenen Seele, in die weder Vorstellung, noch Begriff einen Zugang haben, in der das farbige Chaos herrscht und das Erlebte noch ungeformt, gestaltlos, ferne jedem vorstellenden Verstand […] rein als seelisches Material zu finden ist.”

17 Ibid., p. 28. “[D]er Wille, der innerhalb der […] Bestrebungen [des Expressionismus] am Werke ist, ist im Grunde genommen gar nichts Neues, sondern der gleiche Trieb wie der, der in der germanischen Welt von je wirksam gewesen ist. Es ist die alte gotische Seele, die […] noch immer fortlebt”.

18 Ibid., p. 29. “[d]em uralten metaphysischen Bedürfnis der Deutschen”.

19 Magdalena Bushart, Der Geist der Gotik und die expressionistische Kunst: Kunstgeschichte und Kunsttheorie, 1911–1925 (Munich: Schreiber, 1990), p. 105.

20 Ibid., p. 8.

21 It should be noted that Kandinsky’s abstract art was termed by Fechter as ‘intensive’ Expressionism and characterised as secondary compared to the so-called ‘extensive’ (figurative) Expressionism represented by the German painter Max Pechstein. Fechter, Der Expressionismus, pp. 24–28. Nevertheless, the posed question remains.

22 Bushart, Der Geist der Gotik, pp. 20–21. Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraktion und Einfühlung: Ein Beitrag zur Stilpsychologie, second edition (Munich: Piper, 1909). English: Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style (Chicago, IL: Elephant Paperbacks, 1997); Wilhelm Worringer, Formprobleme der Gotik (Munich: Piper, 1911). English: W. Worringer, Form Problems of the Gothic, authorised American edition (New York: Stechert, [1918]),

23 Worringer, Form Problems of the Gothic, pp. 43–45. (Worringer, Formprobleme der Gotik, pp. 27–29).

24 Worringer, Form Problems of the Gothic, p. 65. (“da auch hier die abstrakte organisch ungemilderte Linie Träger des Formwillens ist” (Worringer, Formprobleme der Gotik, p. 49)).

25 Worringer, Form Problems of the Gothic, pp. 93, 64. (“ihrem innersten Wesen nach irrationell, überrationell, transzendental”; “[w]o die abstrakte Linie der Träger des Formwillens ist, da ist die Kunst transzendental” (Worringer, Formprobleme der Gotik, pp. 77, 48)).

26 Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, pp. 27–28. (“die Annäherung an das Organisch-Lebenswahre, aber nicht, weil man ein Naturobjekt lebensgetreu in seiner Körperlichkeit darstellen wollte […], sondern weil das Gefühl für die Schönheit organisch-lebenswahrer Form wach geworden war” (Worringer, Abstraktion und Einfühlung, p. 26)); Worringer, Form Problems of the Gothic, pp. 92–93 (here, ‘romanisch’ is not translated as ‘Romanic’ but as ‘Latin’) (Worringer, Formprobleme der Gotik, pp. 76–78).

27 Thomas W. Gaehtgens, ‘Zur Rezeption der französischen Moderne in Deutschland von 1870 bis 1945’, in Französische Kunst — deutsche Perspektiven: 1870–1945. Quellen und Kommentare zur Kunstkritik, ed. by Andreas Holleczek and Andrea Meyer, Passagen, 7 (Berlin: Akademie, 2004), pp. 1–24 (pp. 9–13); Andreas Holleczek, ‘Deutsch-französisch: Der gesuchte Unterschied’, in ibid., pp. 85–91.

28 Bushart, Der Geist der Gotik, pp. 20–25.

29 Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, p. 46. (“Bei dem Orientalen ist die Tiefe des Weltgefühls, der Instinkt für die aller intellektuellen Beherrschung spottende Unergründlichkeit des Seins größer […]. Die Grundnote seines Wesens ist demzufolge ein Erlösungsbedürfnis. Das führt ihn […] in künstlerischer Beziehung zu einem ganz auf’s Abstrakte gerichteten Kunstwollen.” (Worringer, Abstraktion und Einfühlung, pp. 46–47)). In order not to complicate matters, I refrain from elucidating the difference that Worringer made between the abstraction of ‘Gothic man’ and that of ‘Oriental man’. See Worringer, Form Problems of the Gothic, p. 68; Worringer, Formprobleme der Gotik, p. 52.

30 Fritz Burger, Einführung in die moderne Kunst, Handbuch der Kunstwissenschaft: Die Kunst des 19. und 20. Jahrhunderts, 1, 29th and 30th thousand (Berlin and Neubabelsberg: Athenaion, 1917).

31 Ibid., p. 47. “Nun greift die deutsche Kunst wieder auf den Ausgangspunkt der europäischen Kultur zurück und entdeckt im Wesen des Mittelalters jenen weltumfassenden Geist, von dem sie sich selber getragen fühlte.” See also ibid., p. 102.

32 Ibid., p. VII. “daß Deutschland und seine Kunst in den Mittelpunkt der modernen Kunstbewegung führend getreten ist”.

33 Ibid., pp. 1, 6. “der neuen großen, weiten Heimat des menschlichen Geistes”; “ein neues kosmisches Leben”; “Das Materielle und alles Fleischliche versinkt vor der Urkraft und dem Ursinn des Daseins, in der Götterdämmerung der Vergangenheit feiert das Geistige der Seele eine große Auferstehung.”

34 At Easter in 1915, Burger wrote to his wife Clara from Strasbourg: “Today I worked all day at home on my introduction. It is a shame that it will receive no approval from you at all, because German woodcuts alternate with woodcuts by Kandinsky to illustrate the text.” (“Heute habe ich den ganzen Tag zu Hause gearbeitet an meiner Einleitung. Es ist schade, daß sie Deinen Beifall gar nicht finden wird, denn es wechseln deutsche Holzschnitte mit Kandinskyschen zur Illustration des Textes ab.” Cited in Rolf M. Hauck, Fritz Burger (1877–1916): Kunsthistoriker und Wegbereiter der Moderne am Beginn des 20. Jahrhunderts (doctoral thesis, LMU Munich, 2005;, p. 213).

35 By contrast, in Burger’s view Kandinsky was Russian through and through.

36 Burger, Einführung, p. VII. “nordisches Denken”; “das orientalische [Denken]”. See also ibid., p. 102.

37 Ibid., p. 52. “treten in den Kreis moderner Kultur Seite an Seite ein. Das, was sie bindet, ist asiatisches Erbe”.

38 Ibid. “radikalsten Gestaltungen moderner Ideen”.

39 Ibid. “Diese elementare Gewalt ursprünglicher Instinkte ist nicht wie bei den Völkern des Westens durch zivilisatorische Ketten gefesselt, sie greift viel leichter, freilich wohl auch leichtsinniger in die Welt kosmischer Weiten hinein.”

40 Ibid., p. 51. “Mehr als anderwärts liegen da verschwistert die edelsten religiösen Instinkte der Europäer mit roher animalischer Gewalt beisammen.”

41 Ibid., pp. 115–16. “beginnen die künstlerischen Leistungen jener Zeiten für uns erhöhtes Interesse zu gewinnen, in denen der heilige Glaube an eine höhere Kultur und Geistesgemeinschaft die Differenziertheit des persönlichen Wissens und Wollens nie zum leitenden Kulturfaktor hat werden lassen: die Welt des Mittelalters und der orientalischen Kulturen”.

42 Ibid., p. 51. “asiatischen Geist”.

43 Eckart von Sydow, Die deutsche expressionistische Kultur und Malerei, Furche-Kunstgaben, 2 (Berlin: Furche, 1920).

44 Ibid., p. 134. “eine tiefe Kluft”.

45 Ibid. “lebensvolle Spannung zwischen Wirklichkeit und metaphysischer Wahrheit”; “das Streben zur Ausgeglichenheit, das Ideal der Ruhe”.

46 Ibid., p. 135. “In Frankreich war es […] der Wille zur Veränderung der Kunstform, der sich geltend machte […]. […] In Mittel- und Osteuropa aber ist es ein ganz neues Gefühl der Vertiefung der Innerlichkeit und ein neuer Wille zu neuer Religiosität”.

47 Ibid., p. 136. “Tatsache, daß dem überwiegenden Naturalismus des Westens die radikale Abstraktheit des Ostens gegenübersteht […]. Zwischen beiden eingekeilt lebt die deutsche Seele”.

48 Ibid., p. 143. “Wo aber geschieht heute […] der Durchbruch abstrakter Tendenzen? […] In russischem Geiste erwuchs die neueuropäische Religiosität: Dostojewskij und Tolstoi! Aus russischer Künstlerschaft erhub sich die Sehnsucht zur reinen Arabeske als Ausdruckskunst: Kandinsky! […] Und nun: ist nicht der russische Geist die Zufluchtsstätte mystischer Geistigkeit aller ihrer Arten und Abarten?”

49 W. Kandinsky, ‘Abstrakte Kunst’, Der Cicerone, 17 (1925), 638–47. English in Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, pp. 511–18.

50 Ibid., p. 512. (“Umwertung, die das Äußere sehr langsam verläßt und sich dem Inneren sehr langsam zuwendet”; “der natürliche Vorgänger einer der größten geistigen Epochen” (Kandinsky, ‘Abstrakte Kunst’, p. 639)).

51 Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, p. 512. (“eine Verschiebung des Kunstzentrums, die im letzten Grunde den Übergang vom romanischen zum slawischen Prinzip bedeutet — vom Westen zum Osten” (Kandinsky, ‘Abstrakte Kunst’, p. 639)).

52 See Maria Gough, The Artist as Producer: Russian Constructivism in Revolution (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 11, 30–32.

53 Konstantin Umanskij, Neue Kunst in Rußland, 1914–1919 (Potsdam: Kiepenheuer, 1920).

54 Ibid., p. 20. “Wenn einer, so verdient Kandinskij den Beinamen des ‘russischen Messias’.”

55 Ibid., p. 3. “Über die russische Kunst war man im Westen immer sehr mangelhaft unterrichtet. In der Vorstellung Europas lebte der orientale Künstler als ein von aller ‘höheren’ Kultur unberührter Barbar oder als ein Messias, umgeben von der Gloriole schöpferischer Urkraft (‘ab oriente lux’).”

56 Ibid., pp. 20, 22. “absolute[n] Expressionismus”; “[d]as ‘Geistige in der Kunst’ triumphiert”; “mach[t] […] Halt an der Schwelle der künftigen Kunst”. Founded by Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935) in around 1913 or 1915, Suprematism was a movement of non-representational painting characterised by geometric colour planes which appear to float in a monochromatic, seemingly endless picture space. See Tatjana Gorjatschewa, ‘Suprematismus und Konstruktivismus: Antagonismus und Ähnlichkeit, Polemik und Zusammenarbeit’, in Von der Fläche zum Raum: Malewitsch und die frühe Moderne, ed. by Karola Kraus and Fritz Emslander (Cologne: König, 2008), pp. 16–28 (pp. 16–17). Like Kandinsky’s concept of art, Malevich’s Suprematist theory was strongly metaphysical and intuitionistic, and the later Constructivists distanced themselves from this. See Hubertus Gaßner and Eckhart Gillen, Zwischen Revolutionskunst und Sozialistischem Realismus: Dokumente und Kommentare. Kunstdebatten in der Sowjetunion von 1917 bis 1934 (Cologne: DuMont, 1979), p. 68.

57 Umanskij, Neue Kunst in Rußland, pp. 19–20. “Maschinenkunst”; “[e]in Triumph des Intellektuellen und Materiellen, die Verneinung der Rechte des Geistes auf isolierte Autonomie”; “in vollkommenem Einklang mit der Gesinnung der Zeit”.

58 See also Konstantin Umanski, ‘Neue Kunstrichtungen in Rußland: I. Der Tatlinismus oder die Maschinenkunst’, Der Ararat, 1 (January 1920; repr. Nendeln: Kraus, 1975), 12–14 (pp. 12–13).

59 Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, pp. 516–17. (“einem rätselhaften Gesetz”; “Welches geheime, heute unsichtbare, von der Beobachtung fliehende minimale Plus [hat] die unermeßliche Kraft […], aus einer korrekten, exakten, aber toten Konstruktion blitzartig ein lebendes Werk zu schaffen? Hier treffen sich vielleicht die Fragen der Kunstseele und der Weltseele, zu der auch die menschliche Seele gehört.” (Kandinsky, ‘Abstrakte Kunst’, p. 644)).

60 Will Grohmann (1887–1968), one of the foremost interpreters of Kandinsky in the Weimar Republic, wrote in a monograph on the artist: “Because what still distinguishes Kandinsky from the Constructivists in this period [around 1921–23] is his broad horizon. He does not even consider letting the means become the end; instead, they remain an expression of something spiritual, they are […] devised for purposefully touching the soul.” (“Denn was Kandinsky auch in diesem Zeitabschnitt [um 1921–23] von den Konstruktivisten unterscheidet, ist die Weite des Horizonts. Er denkt nicht daran, die Mittel zum Zweck werden zu lassen, sie bleiben Ausdruck eines Seelischen, sind […] erfunden zur zweckmäßigen Berührung der Seele.” Will Grohmann, Wassily Kandinsky (Brunswick: Kandinsky-Gesellschaft, [c. 1930/31]), p. 15.) The last words of this passage were derived from On the Spiritual in Art, where Kandinsky concluded: “Thus it is clear that the harmony of colors can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, p. 160. (“So ist es klar, daß die Farbenharmonie nur auf dem Prinzip der zweckmäßigen Berührung der menschlichen Seele ruhen muß.” (Kandinsky, Über das Geistige, p. 68)).

61 Mario-Andreas von Lüttichau, ‘Die Ausstellung “Entartete Kunst”, München 1937: Eine Rekonstruktion’, in “Entartete Kunst”: Das Schicksal der Avantgarde im Nazi-Deutschland, ed. by Stephanie Barron (Munich: Hirmer, 1992), pp. 45–81 (p. 61). “Verrückt um jeden Preis”; “Arbeiten von Kandinsky vor 1933 Lehrer am kommunistischen Bauhaus in Dessau”.

62 See also Christoph Zuschlag, “Entartete Kunst”: Ausstellungsstrategien im Nazi-Deutschland, Heidelberger kunstgeschichtliche Abhandlungen, n.s., 21 (Worms: Werner, 1995), pp. 25–31.

63 Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Reminiscences’ (1913), in Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, pp. 357–82 (p. 377) (“Die Kunst ist in vielem der Religion ähnlich.” (Kandinsky, ‘Rückblicke’, in Kandinsky: Autobiographische Schriften, ed. by Hans K. Roethel and Jelena Hahl-Koch, unchanged new edition (Bern: Benteli, 2004), pp. 27–50 (p. 46))).

64 It can only be mentioned here that these ideas were largely informed by the reception of Russian literature, in the first place by the writings of Fedor Dostoevsky (1821–81). In his essay ‘Abstract Art’ Kandinsky took the Germans’ “general enthusiasm for Russian literature, usually beginning — and this is particularly significant — with Dostoyevsky” as an indication of the asserted shift towards the internal and the spiritual (Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, p. 514). (“Es entstand erst eine allgemeine Begeisterung für die russische Literatur, wobei gewöhnlich — was besonders bezeichnend ist — mit Dostojewsky angefangen wurde” (Kandinsky, ‘Abstrakte Kunst’, p. 640)).