Paris was the uncontested cultural capital of the Western world until after the 2nd world war. It is thus not surprising that the evolution of the art of painting took place in Paris or in relation to Paris.
Starting just before the first world war, a mostly Germanic and Northern trend will revitalize what had started in France with Gauguin and matisse that will unleash one of the most exciting approaches towards painting. Cubism and futurism were surely of their time, but as latin movements they concentrated much of their energy on form while germanic tastes more inclined towards content fomented a very vibrant search for the eclosion of its expression.
The theoretical content of this search to define expressionism is absolutely remarkable and stands firmly valid till today while as much can't be said about what has been written about impressionism, cubism, futurism, surrealism, dadaism and other schools of painting. To try to illustrate the content of their theories, I'll leave the principal protagonists use their own words in a discussion that I now shall moderate. (Citations from Herschel B Chipp. Theories of modern art. University of California Press)
LAODAN: How do expressionists explain their search for a different kind of painting?
NOLDE: " I was no longer satisfied with the way I drew and painted during the last few years, imitating nature and creating form all done preferably with the first stroke, the first brushfull of paint. I rubbed and scratched the paper until I tore holes in it, trying to reach something else, something more profound, to grasp the very essence in things. The techniques of impressionism suggested to me only a means, but no satisfactory end. Conscientious and exact imation of nature does not create a work of art. A wax figure confoundingly lifelike causes nothing but disgust. A work becomes a work of art when one re-evaluates the values of nature and adds one's own spirituality."
KIRCHNER: "The ideas of our predecessors are no longer ours. We are less fond of works which for centuries have been identified with the names of the great masters. Artists wise in the ways of their times created sculptures and paintings for palaces and popes. ... It is a sign of our times that every piece of pottery or dress or jewelry, every tool for living has to start with a blueprint. Primitive people begin making things with their fingers, with material in their hands. Their work expresses the pleasure of making. What we enjoy, probably, is the intense and often grotesque expression of energy, of life.
... There is enough art around that is over bred, pale and decadent. This may be why young artists have taken their cue from the aborigines.
... Glory be to our strong, healthy German art. And this painter much preferred the holy German madonnas, invested with the souls of Grunewald and others, over the latin, superficially presentable paintings of rafael, which fit so well into the milieu of doges and popes".
LAODAN: Whow Mr. Kirchner those are strong words, but do cubists not also refer to the aborigines for their inspiration? What distinguishes you germanics from Picasso, Braque and others?
KANDINSKY: "The irresistible urge of today to reveal the purely compositional -to unveil the future laws of our great epoch- is the power which forces artists to strive toward one goal in different ways.
... The searching to express the compositional in a formula is the cause for the rise of so-called Cubism. This "mathematical" construction is a form which must sometimes lead -and with consistent use does lead- to the nth degree of destruction of the material cohesion of the parts of the things (for instance, Picasso).
The final goal also in this direction is to create a picture which is brought to life -becomes a being- through its own schematically constructed organs. If this course can in general be reproached, it is for no other reason than the use of the number here is too limited.
... Why should one diminish artistic expression by exclusive use of triangles and similar geometrical forms and bodies?"
LAODAN: This makes sense to my 21st century ears Mr Kandinsky. To summarize, you are saying that Cubism by focusing on an exclusive artistic form is limiting the freedom of artistic expression and avoiding all preoccupations for the content of the art work. How are you understanding this problem of the artist's freedom in terms of the form of artistic expression?
KANDINSKY: "The form is the outer expression of the inner content.
Therefore, one should not make a deity of form. And one should fight for the form only insofar as it can serve as a means of expression of the inner resonnance. Therefore, one should not seek salvation in one form.
... Since the form is only an expression of the content and the content is different with different artists, it is then clear that there can be many different forms at the same time which are equally good. Necessity creates the form. ... Thus, the spirit of the individual artist is mirrored in the form. The form bears the stamp of his personality.
... Full freedom shall prevail: one shall consider valid every form, deem correct (= artistic) every form which represent an inner content. ... The form (material substance) in general is not the most important, but rather the content (spirit).
... This is the way the form has to be appreciated and understood. One must approach (artist) a work in such a way that the form has an effect on the soul. And through the form, the content (spirit, inner resonnance). Otherwise one elevates the relative to the absolute.
In practical life one will hardly find a person who, if he wants to go to Berlin, gets off the train in Regensburg. In spiritual life, getting off the train in Regensburg is a rather usual thing. Sometimes even the engineer does not want to go any further, and all the passengers get off in Regensburg. How many, who sought god, finally remained standing before a carved figure! How many, who sought art, became caught on a form which an artist had used for his own purposes, be it Giotto, Raphael, Durer or Van Gogh!
... The most important thing in the question of form is whether or not the form has grown out of the inner necessity. That is, one may not make a uniform out of a form. Works of art are not soldiers. With a given artist, a given form can be the best at one time and the worst at another. In the first case, it has grown in the soil of inner necessity; in the second, in the soil of outer necessity, out of ambition and greed."
LAODAN: So by using a kind of mathematical formula to compose the form of their works the cubists are dressing those in the uniform of their school which eliminates their freedom of choice and thus eliminates their capacity to impact, their own inner content, on their viewers' soul. This is an incredible weakness indeed and I'am wondering if this weakness to reach the soul of their viewers has not been what ultimately drew cubist painters away from content to concentrate about exclusively on the form of their work.
I also appreciate the distinction that you make between a visual form grown out of inner necessity and another out of outer necessity. There is indeed great confusion in our societies due to the presence of so many quasi counterfeits by painters who have no urge for expressing their inner content that in any case is often absent. I agree with you that what gives value to a work is its content and the form should be considered the artist's freedom.
KANDINSKY: About the cubist I have to say that "The fearfull clinging to one form leads finally and inevitably into a dead end. The open feeling leads toward freedom. The former is to restrict oneself to the material substance. The latter is to follow the spirit: the spirit creates one form and goes on to others." About the outer urge, "the farther into the past we look, the fewer deceptions and sham works we find. They have mystheriously disappeared. Only the genuine artistic beings remain, that is, those which possess a soul (content) in their bodies (form).
Further, ..., if we draw the conclusion from the independent effect of the inner resonnance, we see that this inner resonnance will gain in intensity if the outer, practical-purposeful import which suppresses it is removed. Here lies the one explanation for the marked effect of a child's drawing upon the impartial, the untraditional observer. The practical-purposeful element is foreign to the child since he looks at each thing with unaccustomed eyes and still possesses the unclouded ability to register the thing as such. Thus the inner resonance of the object reveals itself of its own accord and without exception in every child's drawing."
LAODAN: You spoke about the need for total freedom by the artist about the form in which he wishes to present his content. Generally speaking if we consider that form is like a straight line, one end of the line should be realism and the other should be its opposite non-realism, I guess we could also call it abstraction. Practically, all the forms possible are located along this straigh line representing form. My question is how do you see the difference between all the possible forms along this line?
KANDINSKY: As you just showed through the image of the line form there are two poles.
"Those two poles open two roads which lead finally to one goal. Between these two poles lie many combinations of different harmonies of the abstract with the real.
Both of these elements were always present in art, where they were to be designated as the 'purely artistic' and the 'objective'. The first expressed itself in the second, whereby the second served the first. It was a varied balancing which apparently sought to achieve the acme of the ideal in absolute equilibrium.
And it seems today that one no longer finds a goal in this ideal, ... Art has apparently put an end to the pleasant supplementing of the abstract with the objective -and conversely.
On the one hand, the diverting support in the objective is taken away from the abstract, and the observer feels himself floating in the air. One says: art is losing its footing. On the other hand, the diverting idealization in the abstract (the 'artistic' element) is taken away from the objective, and the observer feels nailed to the floor. One says: art is losing its ideal. These reproaches grow from inadequately developed feeling. The practice of giving the most attention to form, and the behavior of the observer which springs from that -that is, the clinging to the usual form of equilibrium- are the blinding forces which leave no clear path to free feeling.
... The 'artistic' brought to the minimum, must be recognized here as the most strongly working abstract.
... The 'objective' brought to the minimum, must be recognized in the abstraction as the most strongly working reality.
Here we have touched one of the most essential laws: the external magnifying of a means of expression leads in certain circumstances, to the diminishing of the internal power of the same." And the opposite is also true, the external reduction of a means of expression leads in certain circumstances, to the increase of the internal power of the same.
"Thus we finally see: if in the great realism, reality appears strikingly large and the abstract strikingly small and if in the great abstraction this relation seems to be reversed, in the last analysis (= aim) the two poles equal each other. Between these two antipodes the sign of equality can be placed:
Realism = Abstraction
Abstraction = Realism
The greatest external difference turns into the greatest internal equality.
... "As a matter of principle it has no significance at all whether a real or abstract form is used by the artist. Since both forms are internally equal the choice muist be left to the artist, who must know best himself by which means he can materialize most clearly the content of his art. Abstractly put: in principle, there is no question of form."
LAODAN: You say that “form is the outer expression of the inner content” and you also say that “one must approach (artist) a work in such a way that the form has an effect on the soul. And through the form, the content (spirit, inner resonnance). Otherwise one elevates the relative to the absolute”.
We know for a fact that within a society ideas, values and beliefs are permanently changing. Seen through the window on our present, it is absolutely clear that science and technology are presently the leading force driving change. This change should thus reflect in the content of art works. And because form is the exterior aspect of content, art forms should be changing at the rhythm of content changes. How do you understand this dynamic of change?
KANDINSKY: As joy, as happiness, as fullfillment.
"The joy of life is the irresistible, constant victory of the new value. This victory proceeds slowly. The new value conquers the people quite gradually. And when it becomes undoubtable in many eyes, this value, which was absolutely necessary today, will be turned into a wall -a wall which is erected against tomorrow.
The changing of the new value (of the fruit of freedom) into a petrified form (a wall against freedom) is the work of the black hand.
The whole evolution, that is to say, the inner development and the outer culture, is then a shifting of the barriers. The barriers are constantly created from new values which have overthrown the old barriers.
Thus one sees that basically the new value is not the most important, but rather the spirit which has revealed itself in this value. And further, the freedom necessary for the revelations.
Thus one sees that the absolute is not to be sought in the form (materialism). The form is always bound to its time, is relative, since it is nothing more than the means necessary today in which today's revelation manifests itself, resounds.
The resonnance is then the soul of the form which can only become alive through the resonnance and which works from within to without."
LAODAN: So the resonnance, of the artist's inner content with his time is what will generate the form of his art work. In other words the art form is somehow generated automatically when the artist's ideas are in sink with his time. I guess that by artist you mean thinker, the act of thinking is indeed what generates the inner content. And further, I guess that for a thinking to be in resonnance with its time this thinking needs to be based on solid knowledge available at that time. Whatever irrationality could indeed not be accepted at any time and thus follows the reason why mastery of the knowledge of the time is a necessity in order for the thinker to be in sink with his own time. I feel Mr. Kandinsky that you just defined the relationship between form and content in a very enlightened way offering a very dynamic perspective on change in the history of the arts.
I'am interested to know if the mechanism you just enunciated for change in the arts could be extended to society at large, in other words, do you have a similarly interesting perspective on societal change.
KANDINSKY: "The evolution, the movement forward and upward, is only possible if the path is clear, that is if no barriers stand in the way. That is the external condition.
The force which moves the human spirit forward and upward on the clear path is the abstract spirit, one which must naturally ring out and be able to be heard; a summoning must be possible. That is the internal condition.
To destroy both of these conditions is the means of the black hand against evolution. The tools for it are: fear of the clear path; feer of freedom (which is philistinism); and deafness to the spirit (which is dull materialism).
Therefore, people regard each new value with hostility; indeed, they seek to fight it with ridicule and slander. The human being who carries the value is pictured as ridiculous and dishonest. The new value is laughed at and abused. That is the misery of life."
LAODAN: To put this in perspective in my own thinking, your internal condition corresponds to my idea of complexification of individual thinking that leads their individual carriers into restlessness. Joy being attained only when society at large will integrate their level of complexity.
I did not integrate the negative factor against complexification in my thinking but I think that your concept of external condition with its actice principle the black hand makes much sense.
Could you expand on those ideas?
KANDINSKY: "... the creative spirit (which one can designate as the abstract spirit) finds an avenue to the soul, later to other souls, and causes a yearning, an inner urge.
When the conditions necessary for the ripening of a precise form are fulfilled, the yearning, the inner urge acquires the power to create in the human spirit a new value which, conciously or unconsciously, begins to live in the human being. From this moment on, consciously or unconsciously, the human being seeks to find a material form for the new value which lives in him in spiritual form.
That is the searching of the spiritual value for materialization. Matter is here a storeroom and from it, the spirit chooses what is specifically necessary for it -just as a cook would.
This is the positive, the creative. This is the good. The white fertilizing ray.
This white ray leads to evolution, to elevation. Thus behind matter the creative spirit is concealed within matter. The veiling of the spirit in the material is often so dense that there are generally few people who can see through to the spirit. Thus especially today, many do not see the spirit in religion and in art. There are whole epochs which disavow spirit, since the eyes of people, generally at such times, cannot see the spirit. It was so in the nineteenth century and is, on the whole, still so today.
People are blinded.
A black hand is laid over their eyes. The black hand belongs to him who hates. He who hates endeavors, with all means, to hold back the evolution, the elevation.
That is the negative, the destructive. That is the evil. The black, death-bringing hand".