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kandinsky’s horse

Here are two paintings from different stages in the career of Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the Russian-born painter considered a pioneer of abstract art. He is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

'Der Blaue Reiter' ('The Blue Rider'), 1903


'Lyrical' (1911)


Most striking about the paintings, when juxtaposed, is the difference in the quality of mimesis. The viewer can see, in the later painting, Kandinsky’s imminent departure from an aesthetic that prized representation over abstraction. But maybe of more significance is the recurrence of the horse as a subject and a symbol – in other words, Kandinsky’s thematic consistency as opposed to his changing aesthetic. Notice how the blue wings on the horse in ‘Lyrical’ recall the blue cloak of the rider in ‘Der Blaue Reiter,’ and how the momentum of the horses in both paintings suggests urgency and purpose.

In ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art,’ his treatise on form and color, Kandinsky associated the color blue with interiority and spiritual longing, describing it as “the typical heavenly color” and as possessing the “power of profound meaning.” In this sense – that his conception of symbolic values tended toward the absolute – the shifts in Kandinsky’s aesthetic were secondary to the constancy of his vision; they were manifestations of a restlessness that was technical rather than essential.



9 thoughts on “kandinsky’s horse

  1. one of the things that’s interested me about certain modern art movements like blue rider or the futurists was how self concious they were about forming alliances, setting forth manifestos, etc. are there parallels to this now? the one thing i can think of is flarf, though i dont know enough about it to say much. there does appear to be a measure of self conciousness in flarf and a sort of setting out of the ethics and aesthetics of it, though i could be wrong?

    1. I think the absence of such movements is itself a symptom of such extreme self-consciousness. We’re simply too aware of how short-lived such movements are to take ourselves seriously. It’s been said many times before, but it’s relevant here, and, I think, still true: we suffer from an acute irony with regard to our own position in the “history of art.” We know that, however strongly we might believe something, it is rooted in and limited by historical context and, once the context shifts, will itself no longer be relevant, except as an historical footnote. Though this has certainly been the case for a while now, I would argue that we are still not quite comfortable with it, or rather, we haven’t figured out a way of dealing with this awareness, aside from becoming essentially apolitical and completely hermetic. Academic, in other words. If the only thing an artist must do is “be true” to his or her “own vision,” one is able to at least gain a kind of confidence about one’s aesthetic decisions. The price for this is, of course, isolation and personal despair. But hey! Maybe that makes us stronger artists.

      1. Possibly. But there are dozens and dozens of contemporary manifestos—including many famous ones that were produced well into the late 1970s (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, for instance). See the Caws’s anthology for many more.

        After 1979, I’m not as aware of any high profile /literary/ manifestos, but I’m not sure they don’t exist. I suspect, rather, they’re just not well-known yet. (Who else but the Surrealists were reading their own manifestos in the 1920s?) The literary history of the past thirty years is still very much being written.

        Meanwhile, there are many other more recent manifestos, in other media, some of which have been somewhat high-profile. Dogme 95, for instance. Or Stuckism.

        Maybe young urban American writers are too ironic to write manifestos, but they are not the entirety of the writing world (although they often think they are—Williamsburg to Manhattan, right?).

        That all said, one of my favorite books of the late 1970s is Dick Higgins A DIALECTIC OF CENTURIES: NOTES TOWARDS A THEORY OF THE NEW ARTS, which includes his brilliant anti-manifesto manifesto, “Against Movements.”

        Cheers, Adam

      2. i feel goddamed privledged to have a community of artists of all kinds around me who are overwhelmingly supportive and collaborative, but i do see what you’re saying. though, well, i don’t know how irrelevent any of the modernist movements are–dada, futurism, fauvism, whatever–they seem exceptionally relevent still, both aesthtically and politically.

        1. You’re right, Joseph. I’d guess I’d certainly admit they’re still “relevant.” But do people passionately believe in them anymore? Maybe I’m missing the point of a capital-M Movement. Perhaps the authors of manifestos aren’t always ideologically tethered to the ideas set forth in the manifesto in the way Marx was to the Communist Manifesto. I mean, Adam brings up Dogme 95, and yes, there are “Dogme” films made, but it’s with a kind of playful adherence–the filmmakers who’ve Dogme films have done, and continue to do, non-Dogme films. And that’s what I think of when I think of movements, today: instead of a set of rules you adamantly hold to, arguing that it is a pathway to elevated consciousness or social advancement, it’s a kind of pose, a fashion that you can adopt for a while, until it becomes tiresome, or as part of your repertoire.

          1. Are the earlier manifestos categorically different, though? Not every Surrealist agreed with Breton’s view of things (to Breton’s great chagrin and consternation). Were the Dadaists not tongue-in-cheek? The Oulipo Manifestos from the 1960s are rather playful.

            Meanwhile, today’s Stuckism folk seem quite serious. I thought at first they were kidding, but then I realized that they have absolutely no sense of humor.

            I think there’s always been a mix. One of the reasons why Caws’s anthology is so valuable is that it explodes the clichéd image of “the manifesto.” it’s a form, like any other, with a tradition and a history, sure, but home to a wide variety of works. Some serious. Some not.

            I’m sure there are some very earnest writers out there making manifestos today. (Now’s their chance to speak up! Because surely they’re reading this.) …The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E folk all strike me as deathly earnest, and committed to their lockstep ideals, and their group identity, even today.

            Not everyone’s ironical, even though it seems that way sometimes. (And thank god for that.) And even if everyone were ironical, that doesn’t mean one can’t buck the trend and write a manifesto and stick to it. Who cares what everyone else thinks. (That’s the point of a manifesto.)

            Let’s you and I make a non-ironical manifesto, Shya! I want to call for the return of sincerity in art.

  2. i think you’re right, joe. and i think these movements (flarf included) are important to the degree that they speak to something beyond the sphere of the arts – socially or politically, for instance. art doesn’t need alliances of artists to ensure its own vitality – it is disinterested in itself – but artists tend to be aware of the political climates in which they live, and their groups are born out of this awareness, often because the artists themselves feel threatened or wronged. that these groups serve to create a ‘space’ in the cultural consciousness as much as they serve to indulge or improve the work of the artists who belong to them, is evidence, i think, of the fact that they have as much to do with politics as with art.

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