Soulseeking
The Path to Painting



soulseeking is a regular column at Stylus that hopefully does a bit of what the title suggests, in order to better understand what it is we fell in love with, and, if need be, go a little way towards getting that feeling back.


My girlfriend and I went to London the weekend before last, to visit the Tate Modern for the Kandinsky exhibition. I don’t know a great deal about art beyond "what I like" (yes to Klimt, no to Dali), but my girlfriend is just starting her final year of an art history degree, and thus knows her stuff. Wassily Kandinsky is, if I was pushed for an answer, the artist I'd name as my favorite, and has been for some time (a few prints on my walls, vague excitement when I see an image by him in a new context).

What attracts me is that, at least to my eyes, Kandinsky's art is like a visual representation of music, a synaesthetic frieze that expresses the sounds and emotions of music through color and shape. This isn’t surprising when you consider how he became an artist.

Kandinsky didn’t begin studying art and painting till he was 30, a few years older than I am now, and he begin by painting lucid, technicolor landscapes based around views of Murnau, the Alpine German town where he lived at the time. As his work progressed it became more figurative, less realistic, with images incorporated from Russian and German folk myths and tales. Two experiences profoundly directed his artwork: seeing a Monet painting of haystacks in Moscow and realizing that the color and composition of the work moved him more than the depiction of a physical landscape was the first. The second, and perhaps more profound, was a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, which led to Kandinsky's obsession with the way music elicits an emotional response without being tied to a recognisable subject matter.


The exhibition at Tate Modern was entitled “The Path to Abstraction” and dealt with the first half of Kandinsky’s career. As he moved from landscapes to figurative paintings certain visual motifs start to recur in his early-to-mid-period work—rowboats, buildings on hilltops, horses—and eventually disappear as colour, shape and movement become far more important than reproduction of physical forms. By midway through his career, Kandinsky's work was entirely abstract, with colourful, seemingly random melanges of colour interacting with swirling forms and lines that bore no relationship to shapes we might know from the real world. His later work, not covered by the Tate's exhibition, would become composed of strict, sharp geometric shapes, angles, circles and precise lines, many of his most famous pieces dating from this period.

For me just about every phase of Kandinsky’s career is worthwhile and fascinating—the early landscapes and figurative paintings are dreamlike, beautiful, drenched in vivacious colour and experiment with techniques and palettes in a way that keeps them all interesting, while his later, geometric work is compellingly precise but still expressive.

But the mid-period work, when he became free of form, flowing, improvisational… Kandinsky referred to many of his works as either “compositions” or “improvisations,” as if they were pieces of music rather than paintings, spontaneous or rehearsed by their nature. Art did not have to represent something for Kandinsky—it was something, in and of itself. This is precisely how I feel about music. A song doesn’t have to be about something; it is something. Its worth does not come from what it means, what it represents or relates to, but how it makes us feel, as human beings.


As well as an array of paintings, some medium-sized, a few massive canvases that hung grand and imposing, there were a handful of small (A4-sized) ink and watercolour sketches on paper hung as part of the exhibition. These modest sketches weren't well-known images, weren't the iconographic paintings that Kandinsky is known for, but they were probably the items in the exhibition that most excited me. Standing a couple of feet away from them, most of the rest of the people in the exhibition lured more to the grand canvases than the modest papers, I wanted to cry. Just because it made sense to me. And the sense was beautiful. It's a strange sensation.

I felt something similar when I read Nicholas Cook's Music: A Very Short Introduction a couple of years ago. Lester Bangs, Paul Morley, Robert Christgau, Simon Reynolds… their writing never did or meant much to me generally, but this little semi-academic textbook that I bought cheap in a campus bookshop, and these small, tossed-off sketches by a Russian man from nearly 100 years ago, made more sense to me about music and what it means and how important it is to me than anything or anyone else, bar music itself, ever had.

On a practical level, I think it's the way Kandinsky used space in a number of his works—white, empty space, and acres of it, even on an A4 sheet—and then shots, lines, swirls, and shapes of color and form within that space. This is what music is. In the piece below, the semi-circular ripples to me look like the sound of a bass drum, the twisted, waving black lines a melody, the spots of colours little moments of harmony, key-change etcetera. I—god this sounds pretentious in my head as I type it—hear music as a confluence of space, color, and shape, an empty space into which instruments emerge, move, and relate. Clearly with painting there is no linearity, no temporality, it's like a freeze-frame of a second of sound, but Kandinsky could occasionally capture this sensation in a painting and make it unfold, time unreeling as your eyes move around the image and discover new details, like layers of sound slowly being revealed in the mix as you grow familiar with a song.


I've never been particularly inspired to try and learn a musical instrument; it's always been enough for me to listen, primarily, and I guess write too. But now I find myself tempted to buy a canvas and some oil paints, to sketch some ideas and flesh them out with colour, to hang it from a wall and say "This is how I feel about music" assuming, of course, that I can capture with paint what I still can't get with words.


By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2006-10-09
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