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Music to Stir the Slumbering Spirit

Composition No. IV (1911) by Wassily Kandinsky. Located in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf, Germany. (May be viewed at

It is safe to say that modern art divides opinion into violently opposed camps. One sings its praises, the other denounces it without reservation, and they’ve been doing it since the beginning.

Take Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky. He believed that his brand of abstract art was the shining herald of a new artistic and spiritual order. This new aesthetic was set to enlighten a sterile and literal-minded culture incapable of connecting with the vital heart of art:

Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. (Kandinsky, On the Spiritual in Art, Introduction)

Fan that feeble light and you’ll see a painting like Kandinsky’s Composition IV.

Then there’s this: “[Kandinsky’s work] reminded me of nothing so much as fragments of refuse thrown out of a butcher’s shop upon a bit of canvas” (Royal Cortissoz, Art and Common Sense, 159). For anti-modern critics then and now, far from being a sign of hope, modern art betrays aesthetic, moral, and spiritual decadence. It is an irredeemably ugly and useless exercise that does away with the skill and imagination required by true art, and certainly contains nothing to nourish the mind or soul of the religious person.

Room for Discovery?

No doubt both sides are unduly extreme in their assessments, but what can we say justly about modern art today? While the arguments against it are possibly well known even outside the art world, and those in its favor impassioned if often bafflingly esoteric, it must be said that most generalizations about the protean forms of modern art are untenable. There are so many exceptions and counter-examples that the field must be examined on an artist-by-artist, or even piece-by-piece basis. So if we venture to examine Kandinsky’s painting, for example—and I confess that I am positioned firmly in the ground between each camp—we may discover that some of our preexisting opinions will stand confirmed, but it’s just possible that we will be surprised with new insights and appreciation.

“Appreciation” here is key, because while the word can extend to genuine aesthetic “enjoyment” (as in, “I like modern art”), it can be satisfied by “understanding” and “acceptance.” With that in mind, readers tempted to reject modern art like Kandinsky’s out-of-hand might recall the Catholic teaching that every being has some positive worth. Nothing is completely lacking in the good or the beautiful—even modern art. Admittedly, it will remain difficult for some to perceive any good or beauty in the distorted abstractions and apparently uncoordinated blobs of paint that characterize this, and so much of modern art, but let us try.

Color Plays the Soul

How then might we begin to appreciate Composition IV? Our task is facilitated by Kandinsky himself, who provides earnest if not entirely systematic guidance in his seminal book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In it he declares that true art possesses an inner life, an essential emotion or Stimmung that causes the sensitive soul to “vibrate” in sympathy with it. Color is the primary expression of this inner life, form the shape the color takes. “Generally speaking, color is a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul” (Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual, Chapter V).

Each hue produces a different psychic effect. The colors in Composition IV are mostly the primaries, red, yellow, and blue, with some green and orange, punctuated by bold black lines and broad expanses of white. Kandinsky says yellow is a disturbing and earthly color that moves aggressively toward the viewer; its opposite, blue, is profoundly spiritual and retreats away. The mixture of the two produces green, “the most restful color that exists.” White is the joyful silence before birth, full of future potential; black the silence of death, without hope. He speaks similarly of other colors, though he grants that his associations are provisional and will be modified, even nullified, by the actual form the colors are given.

The Shape of Experience

Form—shape by itself or combined with color—also has the power to vibrate the soul. The question about form is whether it should imitate natural, material objects, or abstractly describe non-material, spiritual entities. Both are acceptable for Kandinsky, though he says no material object can be perfectly reproduced by art, while purely abstract forms are—”at present”—”beyond the reach of the artist.”

Abstraction for Kandinsky represents the future of art. In his mind, the discovery of the electron and the nuclear model of the atom called into question both the solidity of matter and the reliability of materialistic science itself to explain reality. Abstraction would take the artist beyond the illusory appearance of things to their unchanging substance; realism would tether his soul to matter. In a famous incident, Kandinsky encountered one of Monet’s Haystack paintings and did not immediately recognize what subject was represented by the colors. At the time irritated by Monet’s “imprecision,” he later concluded that the colors spoke more meaningfully to his soul than the particular forms they represented. Human life encompasses emotional, intellectual, and spiritual experiences which have no visible shape. Modern artists contend that such experiences are best recorded by abstract means; indeed, since the only really important thing about art is its Stimmung, the artistic choice of which form to paint rests entirely on its effect on the soul, not its resemblance to any outward form. Copying nature becomes a useless distraction, since “the more abstract [the] form, the more clear and direct is its appeal” to the soul (Kandinsky, Chapter VI).

Soul Food

Even so, Composition IV is not a pure abstraction; the forms in the piece are actually highly abstracted versions of subjects Kandinsky had painted repeatedly in previous works, reduced to their pictographic essence. Moreover, despite its improvised appearance, the piece was preceded by several preparatory drawings and painted studies, made over the course of two months. For Kandinsky, a “composition” was a major work, like a symphony, “the expression of a slowly-formed inner feeling” to be painted only after a long process of maturation; he deemed only 10 of his paintings worthy of the title.

In this case, the two vertical black lines represent lances held by a pair of Cossacks with red hats; a third Cossack props his violet sword under his hand. Behind them rises a blue mountain surmounted by a castle. A rainbow on the left leads to a confrontation between two multi-masted ships. The tangle of black lines above them, like some intricate Chinese character, signifies a pair of embattled Cossacks, who wield their purple swords while mounted on rearing horses. On the right, two cloaked figures observe the scene from a yellow hill, which becomes a bed on which two lovers repose—or are they bodies? What we see is a battle—which indeed is the subtitle Kandinsky gave to this piece—but a battle that will end in peace.

But again, this kind of literal interpretation isn’t all that important. What’s important is the spiritual effect of the colors and forms themselves. Unfortunately, not everyone is sensitive to their vibrations. Kandinsky says such people appreciate art superficially, blandly noting the skill with which a work was made, or its history, or its subject matter, but they neglect its “inner [meaning], which is the life of colors,” so that “hungry souls go hungry away.” He blames their unfortunate insensitivity on the deadening materialism and rationalism of the age. It is the prophetic task of art to awaken their sleeping souls and raise them to higher a spiritual realm.

Many Wavelengths, One Spirit

This quasi-religious language may be surprising in the context of modern art. Kandinsky was a lifelong and apparently practicing member of the Orthodox church (though like many of his peers, he had an abiding interest in Theosophy). Yet Concerning the Spiritual in Art makes no overt appeal to Christian doctrines, and it is unclear what end Kandinsky has in mind for art: the alleviation of spiritual darkness through personal self-realization—salvation through aesthetic experience—or blessed union with God. There is also a latent Manichaeism in the drive toward total abstraction and the corresponding denigration of material reality. Later artists would justify their lack of technical skill on the grounds that “outer expression” is irrelevant in comparison to the inner meaning of their work (I’ve had students deflect criticism of their grammatical irregularities with the same argument: “You understood what I meant, didn’t you?). Though by no means unsympathetic to modern art, Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain called the project to create a “pure art” of abstract essences “the suicide of an angel by the forgetting of matter” (Art and Scholasticism, “The Frontiers of Poetry”).

Nevertheless, in the years before WWI, Kandinsky believed that a new spiritual age was dawning and that modern art was its herald. The end of atheism and despair was near, though the world might first have to pass through an apocalyptic battle or cataclysmic event: Kandinsky’s paintings from around 1910 to 1914 are filled with allusions to the Deluge, the resurrection of the dead, and the Last Judgment.

Prophets are frequently misunderstood, but merely being misunderstood doesn’t make one a prophet. For some, no amount of explanation will suffice to absolve Kandinsky’s painting from the charge of being a pathetic modernist joke, a painted insult that resembles “fragments of refuse.” Some modernists (like Marcel Duchamp) very deliberately intended their work to offend; Kandinsky was not one of them. But appreciation of his work is a matter of aesthetics, not absolute truth. The aesthetic “vibrations” of art like Kandinsky’s may be unheard by some not because of dull insensitivity but because their soul is tuned to other frequencies; this however is insufficient grounds to mock or disparage it.

Religious discourse must sound like similar nonsense to atheists. We say their hearts are “hardened” and we know that stones vibrate hardly at all to the words of faith. Yet we are confident that there are words, specific words known to the Holy Spirit, that will resonate in their souls to soften them. It is not impossible that for some people, and indeed for some people of faith, it will be the forms and colors of modern art—some art at least, and different kinds of art for each person—that, in Kandinsky’s words, will “express Mystery in terms of mystery,” and harmonize with their souls.

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