Kandinsky and Theosophy
Catherine Wathen – USA
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), the father of modern abstract painting, is arguably the most famous and influential artist of recent times. He was also deeply influenced by Theosophy. In 2009, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, one of the chief repositories of his art, has staged a major exhibit of his work to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1959 opening of its building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The artist’s spiritual roots were explored in John Algeo’s essay on “Kandinsky and Theosophy” (H. P. Blavatsky and The Secret Doctrine, ed. Virginia Hanson, 217-35, Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988), from which the following extracts are taken:
That Kandinsky knew of and had a high regard for the Theosophical worldview is demonstrated by this remark in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art: “Mme. Blavatsky was the first person, after a life of many years in India, to see a connection between these ’savages’ and our ‘civilization.’ From that moment there began a tremendous spiritual movement which today includes a large number of people and has even assumed a material form in the Theosophical Society. This society consists of groups who seek to approach the problem of the spirit by way of inner knowledge. The theory of Theosophy which serves as the basis to this movement was set out by Blavatsky in the form of a catechism in which the pupil receives definite answers to his questions from the theosophical point of view [The Key to Theosophy, 1889]. Theosophy, according to Blavatsky, is synonymous with eternal truth.”
Kandinsky found all things, even supposedly dead matter, vital and alive. . . . For Kandinsky, the perception through art of the inner life of things was akin to a mystical experience: “Even dead matter is living spirit.” . . . Blavatsky writes [SD 1:274]: “Everything in the Universe, throughout all its kingdoms, is conscious . . . . There is no such thing as either ‘dead’ or ‘blind’ matter” . . . . The omnipresence of life in matter is both a Theosophical doctrine and a principle of art in Kandinsky’s theory and practice.
Kandinsky’s theory of abstract art—that the realism of surface appearances is misleading—is the artistic correlate of the Theosophical doctrine of maya—that the world of perception is an impermanent illusion in comparison with the underlying noumenon.
Kandinsky views history as a succession of periods of culture, each with its own unique style of art and its own unique characteristics. The Theosophical view of history, the primary subject of the second volume of The Secret Doctrine, is fully in accord with Kandinsky’s view. . . . Past cycles represent not lesser forms of culture and intelligence than ours, but different forms. . . . Blavatsky herself repeatedly emphasized that modem Theosophy is no new idea or innovation, but merely a restatement of an ancient teaching that can be seen in the writings of earlier cultures.
In ancient times and modern ones alike, humanity has been blessed with certain persons having “a deep and powerful prophetic strength” and “a secret power of vision,” persons who see and point the way to others. In a famous metaphor, Kandinsky likened humanity to an acute-angled triangle, whose base consists of the mass of humanity. At the apex of the triangle are a few beings, and ultimately often a single one: “His joyful vision cloaks a vast sorrow. Even those who are nearest to him in sympathy do not understand him. Angrily they abuse him as charlatan or madman.”
Kandinsky’s triangle of humanity is Theosophical in two ways. First, it envisions humanity as consisting of persons at different stages of progress, at different stages of intellectual evolution. And second, it envisions each level of humanity as aiding and assisting those who are less advanced, helping them to progress, along with the self-sacrificing individual of sorrows or bodhisattva at the top, who lives only to raise the rest of humanity to greater spirituality—that is, to greater self-awareness.
The consequence of the upward movement of the triangle and the labors of the bodhisattvas at its apex is the gradual improvement of the human condition. Kandinsky quoted with approval Blavatsky’s vision of the future betterment of humankind at the end of The Key to Theosophy: “The new torchbearer of truth will find the minds of men prepared for his message, a language ready for him in which to clothe the new truths he brings, an organization awaiting his arrival, which will remove the merely mechanical, material obstacles and difficulties from his path.” And then Blavatsky continues: “The earth will be a heaven in the twenty-first century in comparison with what it is now,” and with these words ends her book.”
For Kandinsky, the improvement of the world and the human condition is the purpose of art. That improvement can result only from an increase in self-awareness, that is, an increase in spirituality. Like Blavatsky, Kandinsky saw both universal and human history as governed by an evolutionary impulse that responds to purpose as well as causes.
Although he did not develop the concept in detail, Kandinsky posited the existences of subtle worlds of matter, in which feeling and thoughts have form and existence as material entities: “Thought which, although a product of the spirit, can be defined with positive science, is matter, but of fine and not coarse substance.” . . . The existence and nature of worlds subtler than the physical is one of the most characteristic Theosophical doctrines. Kandinsky held that the ability of art to modify the nature of those subtle environments, either directly or through the response of human beings to the physical art work, was the means by which it could further evolution.
Kandinsky repeatedly talked of “vibration” as the method by which we respond to our surroundings. So in his autobiography he remembered events in his early university life that “made the strings of the soul sensitive, receptive, especially susceptible to vibration.” In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he talks about color, form, and the object itself as involving a “corresponding vibration in the human soul.” It is easy to take such talk as metaphor of a kind prevalent in turn-of-the-century discourse. However, vibration is the Theosophical explanation of how feelings and thoughts are influential on living beings, and Kandinsky could not escape being aware of that.
The Theosophical view of all matter—dense and subtle—as vibrations at different frequencies within an ultimate substance provided Kandinsky with an explanation of how art could affect humanity and the world. The vibrations within our psyches and minds respond to the vibrations around us, and in turn influence those outer vibrations. Our feelings and thoughts respond to those of others, and help to shape the atmosphere of feelings and thoughts in which we all live.
Kandinsky develops . . . a circular color chart containing the six main chromatic variations. Of this chart he says: “As in a great circle, a serpent biting its own tail (the symbol of eternity, of something without end) the six colors appear that make up the three main antitheses.” In this comment, Kandinsky uses the serpent swallowing its own tail, which forms part of the seal of the Theosophical Society, with the same basic symbolism it has in Theosophical use.
Kandinsky . . . believed that in each person is an inner Notwendigkeit—need, necessity, inevitability, essentialness—which ultimately determines all outward forms and actions. That inner essential is what the Hindu tradition refers to as the swadharma of a being—its self-nature or inner foundation. In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky speaks of it in these words: “The Universe is worked and guidedfrom within outwards.”
Kandinsky’s pervasive recognition of inner and outer realities echoes the Theosophical distinction between the esoteric and the exoteric. The very title of Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine shows how essential is the concept of esoteric, hidden, or inner reality to Theosophical thought. As with Blavatsky, Kandinsky’s inner meaning is not something deliberately hidden to keep it from the vulgar crowd, but rather a truth whose perception requires a form of knowing that has to be developed.
For Kandinsky, art was more than a pastime, more than a livelihood, more than a profession, more than a form of expression. For Kandinsky, art was the means by which the artist comes to know the world and himself, and the means by which he serves his fellows, helping them also to such knowledge. For Kandinsky, art was a form of yoga. The artist is not “king of the castle but rather a servant of a nobler purpose. He must search deeply into his own soul, develop and tend it, so that his art has something to clothe, and does not remain a glove without a hand.”
Every artist has a threefold responsibility, which is (1) to exercise the talent he has—to express the inner necessity within him, (2) like every person, by actions, feelings, and thoughts to create a spiritual atmosphere, and (3) to use his artistic ability specifically to shape that spiritual atmosphere: “Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul—to, in fact, the raising of the spiritual triangle.”
Kandinsky was a Theosophical artist not only because his practice was influenced by Theosophical models, not only because his theory reflects Theosophical concepts, but especially because his motive for the practice of his art was to improve the human state. For Kandinsky that was the purpose of art. That is also the essence of Theosophy.
Kandinsky quotations are mainly from Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M. T. H. Sadler (New York: Dover, 1977), a reprint of the first English translation of 1914.
Studies presenting evidence for a Theosophical basis of Kandinsky’s art are Sixten Ringbom’s “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, and The Sounding Cosmos, Acta Academiae Aboensis, ser. A, 38 (Abo, Finland: Abo Academy, 1970); and Rose-Carol Washton Long, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980).