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Kandinsky: The Sounds of Colors
June 19-26, 2020

Painters have always recognized the power of music and the profound influence it has on their own work.  For Kandinsky, music became a model and a key source of both inspiration and innovation.  

Convinced that colors could be “heard,” Kandinsky was fascinated by synesthesia. It appeared to confirm and build on his own theories about art and the powerful effects of color. He believed that color, like music, evoked emotions and was a language that could communicate with everyone. It is likely that his ideas were also influenced by the Theosophy movement of Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky, according to whom spirituality was about to take on a central role in the affairs of mankind. As in Theosophy, Kandinsky believed that behind the chaotic natural world lay a pervasive harmony and perfection. Since Kandinsky’s theory of color was intimately linked to his religious faith and spiritual yearning, the artistic experience for him was essentially a mystical one. It was a means by which a search for ultimate truth could be conducted through an internal spiritual quest. Believing that behind all material things lay a soul, it was no longer enough to simply represent the material world. The fundamental principle of every artistic creation should therefore be that of “internal need,” establishing genuine contact with the human soul and revealing a superior reality inaccessible to reason. He concluded that the way to gain access to this inner essence of things was through color, which had the capacity to make the soul resonate.

In Kandinsky’s view of synesthesia, sensory impressions were communicated directly to the soul. So intrigued was he by the similarities between the shades of the spectrum and tone colors that he tried to place them in a systematic order. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, the work in which his analysis and theory of color is explained, he asserts that “color is a means of exerting a direct influence on the soul.” During the famous performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin that so affected him, he described seeing “all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost insane lines were sketched in front of me.”

The theory itself, in which the idea of movement is fundamental, concerns six colors divided into three pairs of opposites, which are in turn divided into four great contrasts. The first contrast is between yellow and blue, representing the earthly and the celestial as well as proximity and distance. Their mixture cancels out these two movements to produce green, the color of immobility.

The second contrast is between white and black whose properties are static and fixed. They therefore become poles towards whose extremities all other movements tend. Their mixture engenders grey, immobility without hope.

Red reveals itself through an analysis of grey; the darker the grey the more despair triumphs, but when lightened, it can reveal hidden hope.

The third contrast is thus established between red (dynamic movement) and green (immobility and the spiritual extinction of the first yellow/blue contrast). Red can either move towards the tangible and corporeal  (that is, yellow) or towards the spiritual and immaterial (blue).

This leads to the fourth and final contrast, which is that of orange and violet. By adding yellow to red to form orange, the movement inherent in red becomes an expansive, irradiating one. Yet red also adds a note of seriousness. Violet, on the other hand, proceeds from red’s retreat (provoked by blue), and has a tendency to distance itself from the spectator. Violet is therefore a “chilled” red, both in a physical and psychic sense.

Kandinsky did not claim that his theory had any strict scientific validity, but rather based it upon his own personal feeling and spirituality and the cultural trends of the time.

As in all other aspects of his life, at the heart of Kandinsky’s color theory is a spiritual journey; yellow and blue, the corporeal and the spiritual, provide the ideal space in which that journey can proceed. White and black, birth and death, are the time during which the journey takes place. Red; pure movement, represents the driving force. Orange and purple are the possible stages on the journey. Finally, green corresponds to a refusal to undertake the voyage.

Continuing the theme of movement so fundamental to his theory of color, Kandinsky experimented widely in the field of both inter-sensory and multi-sensory observation of movement. He believed in a fundamental connection between the senses: this would allow consonances and dissonances to be perceived when colors were seen in combination with music and dance performances. In 1909, Kandinsky created the abstract musical drama "Yellow Sound" (first performed in New York in 1914) in which the main actor is the color yellow. The score’s composer, Thomas von Hartmann, and the dancer Sacharov, collaborated with Kandinsky in an experiment of which Kandinsky left the following description:
"I myself had the opportunity of carrying out some small experiments abroad with a young musician and a dancer. From among several of my watercolors the musician would choose one that appeared to him to have the clearest musical form. In the absence of the dancer, he would play this watercolor. Then the dancer would appear, and having been played this musical composition, he would dance it and then find the watercolor he had danced."

One of Kandinsky’s most important and faithful companions on his spiritual and artistic journey was the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose Theory of Harmony (1911) preceded publication of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art by a year. Schoenberg’s development of the twelve-tone scale and his other innovations led to atonal music, tore apart traditional rules, and marked a clear break with the way music had previously been composed. In a similar way, Kandinsky’s painting changed from being essentially figurative to a much freer, more expressive, abstract idiom. As Schoenberg had done, Kandinsky sought to cast off the shackles of convention. Schoenberg used “unresolved dissonance” to confound expectations in his works which no longer reached a traditional “musical destination.” Kandinsky managed to “compose pictures in which a large number of themes could be understood concurrently. Furthermore, like Schoenberg, his work appeared to preclude the previously required “resolution” which might traditionally have been expected. Yet, perhaps most importantly, Kandinsky’s work engaged the viewer physically, emotionally and psychologically.

The first decades of the twentieth century therefore witnessed simultaneous revolutions in music and painting. As Schoenberg was liberating music by abandoning tonal and harmonic conventions, Kandinsky too was conducting his own revolution in the field of painting by abandoning the traditional representation of nature.

“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.
It is evident therefore that color harmony must rest
only on a corresponding vibration in the human soul;
and this is one of the guiding principles of the inner need.”
(Kandinsky in Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912)