Bordering the western edge of Paris is the suburb of Neuilly. Desirable and fashionable because of its rich and famous residents, nevertheless, and quite indecently, Neuilly has a cemetery, which is called a Community Cemetery. Officially known as Neuilly-sur-Seine Community Cemetery, it houses a number of once upon a time famous individuals. Now though, for the most part, they are forgotten. For death, like God, is no respecter of persons. No matter whom one was in life, no matter how famous, no matter how illustrious, no matter how ample one’s bank account, once dead, well, you’re dead.
Despite the term ‘community,’ Neuilly-sur-Seine Community Cemetery is anything but common. This is France, remember, not some suburb in Kansas City. Neuilly’s cemetery is glamorous, well-tended, and hosts magnificent tombs and mausoleums byronically punctuated by shrubs, flowers, and majestic old trees. It is beautifully serene. Unfortunately, while the cemetery floats like a foam sea of green and white, it is surrounded by an industrial park – steel and glass kitsch, which is deader than the citizens of the cemetery.
Beneath a white slab, which has now dimmed to gray due to the ravages of time and sunshine and weather, rest the dense bones of a man who was born in Moscow, who later took up residence in Munich, and finally settled in France.
His name: Wassily Kandinsky. And no, it is not Vassily, which I much prefer. The correct transliteration from the Russian is Wassily, which sounds as if Elmer Fudd is attempting to speak his name. It just seems wrong.
To proceed, though:
A painter, and art theorist, Kandinsky was the creator of abstract art. He painted Picture With A Circle – the first abstract expressionist painting – in 1911.
If you view his paintings chronologically, you can see the steady metamorphosis of his style as it slowly changes from representational to purely abstract.
In person, he was a handsome man: dark hair over well formed, almost Eurasian features. He wore rimless glasses and, auspiciously, sported a ‘soul patch’ just below his bottom lip.
Kandinsky, like most creative artists, was spiritually inclined. And a bit of a whacko. “Music is the ultimate teacher,” he wrote in response to the works of Richard Wagner, who, Kandinsky believed, pushed the musical envelope to its limits in Lohengrin.
Philosophically, Kandinsky was a theosophist. Theosophy, literally, means ‘the wisdom of God.’ So Theosophy is an attempt to explain the existence of mankind and the universe, while acknowledging God’s existence. This means Kandinsky believed that all creation, whether by God or by man, is a linear and geometrical process, beginning with a single point. In God’s case, this single point was Himself – His internal necessity. In Kandinsky’s case, this point was color. So Kandinsky married geometrical forms to the rudimentary point of color. This marriage became his “internal necessity.”
Remarkably, Kandinsky was a psychological synesthetic, which is where one type of stimulus produces a secondary, subjective sensation. In other words, color not only produced an emotional response in him, a kind of vibration of the soul, but the stimulus of color took on form, and vice versa. Kandinsky, then, saw color as shape and shape as color. In his ophthalmic nerve there was a dynamic between the two modalities. This gift is a miracle of the mind, a kind of genius few people have.
Van Gogh had it or something like it. For Van Gogh could distinguish twenty-two shades of black. This is a mystery beyond my comprehension.
When Kandinsky’s “internal necessity” found its way onto canvas, via form and color, it produced, according to Kandinsky, a spiritual communication between the person standing in the gallery looking at the painting and the painter. This was Kandinsky’s way of saying that art is visceral. It punches you right in the gut. If it doesn’t, then the spiritual aspects of the painting have failed, and the artist’s vision is not visible.
Many of Kandinsky’s abstract paintings were abstract expressions of specific Orthodox Christian themes: death, flood, baptism, apocalypse, rebirth. In a very real sense, then, his abstract art expresses primo geniture. For all of Orthodox Christianity revolves around the first born Son of God, who is also called the Son of Man.
His religious propensity explains why Kandinsky was enthralled by the color white. And the color white, of course, is the color of radiated, transmitted, or reflected light containing all of the visible rays of the spectrum of color. Sometimes white is called ‘achromatic,’ which means that it does not display any of the prismatic colors. In other words, all the primatic colors are there at the same time but none are displayed individually. Instead, the displayed result is white, because all the colors are present simultaneously.
Morally and spiritually the color white represents that which is pure, spotless and innocent. It is something or someone who is free from evil, a kind of white magic – the magic of primo geniture, the magic of human connection.
Kandinsky’s 1942 painting, Reciprocal Accord, is one of my favorites. I agree with the old adage of painting: ‘if you can’t make it good, make it red. And if you can’t make it red, make it big.’ To me, it follows as a self-evident truth that the best thing to do is to make it red and big.
Reciprocal Accord is not red, but for Kandinsky it was quite large, measuring 114 cm by 146 cm. Or in God’s feet and inches almost, but not quite, four feet by five feet; oil and lacquer on canvas.
And if music could be distilled into paste and came in tubes like paint, then Reciprocal Accord is the visual representation of classical music. It’s as if the planets of the universe left their orbits, and lined up in two lines, and the music of the cosmos dances between and around the planetary orbs.
Kandinsky was the first. He began abstract expressionism as we know it today. His work numbers among its constituents a subtle hallucinizer which blinds us, the modern viewer, to its essential element: his fascination with geometric forms. Strictly speaking, these forms are more representational than abstract, which somehow diminishes their power on the ophthalmic nerve.
As time passed, Kandinsky’s abstraction became more and more rudimentary, which of course, it was, since he was the first. His sons and daughters – in an artistic sense – have climbed upon his giant shoulders, gazed into the Empyrean, and jumped out into new realms of abstraction. With the result that Kandinsky’s elements have coalesced into nobler forms.
Make no mistake, though, Kandinsky was a true innovator, an enchanter, conjuring something totally new and putting it on canvas with a brush and oil paint.
Kandinsky, like Rumpelstiltskin, was an alchemist. Rumpelstiltskin turned straw into gold. Kandinsky turned form and color into the ineffable – a religious or spiritual connection between man and the color of the divine.
Today, the best of Kandinsky’s disciples is Gerhard Richter, Europe’s most famous living artist. The operative word being ‘living.’ Richter is also wealthy from his art, as he should be.
In his abstract art, Richter portrays a more real reality. His huge canvases strike the observer’s eyes with almost overwhelming visual sensibility. Somehow, out of the smeared and scraped paint, spaciousness emerges and envelops the viewer. This space carries with it the sense – the feeling – of temperature, especially cold, and of density and texture. In his ‘winter months’ series, November, December, January and February, you shiver from the cold, see the white snow as it accumulates on wet, black streets; sense the slickness of the ice, like melted diamonds poured out of a bucket.
As is usually the case, with great talent comes great egotism and sheer force of personality. He has small command of the social graces. Richter ridicules his peers, and cows art critics with his intellect and presence. Neither trait is endearing.
Richter, by design or by happy happenstance, is a whiz at self-promotion. Flamboyant and outrageous, inscrutable and contradictory, he knows how to use these characteristics to personal advantage and to leverage his art.
For example, he states, “For basically painting is idiocy.” And “Accept that I can plan nothing.” Such statements appeal to the mediocrity in the average person while simultaneously aggrandizing the person who makes the declaration. It is this kind of posturing that has made him the enfant terrible of the art world. In this respect, Richter is like Muhammad Ali. Through constant outlandish declarations he has revitalized art, just as Ali saved boxing from its oncoming death.
Like Rumpelstiltskin, Richter is daring you to guess his real name. Too, just like Rumpelstiltskin, he is the stereotypical, insensitive mad-genius. And in his sublime craziness Richter, just like Rumpelstiltskin, spins golden beauty from the common straw of paint daubed on canvas. Rumpelstiltskin made thread of gold, Richter inverts space, drawing forth depth from a flat surface.
This is true magic.