THE SPIRITUALISM OF DER BLAUE REITER PAINTING
From 1911 it could be said that European avant-garde art was divided between two needs: the need for individual subjective expressiveness and a striving for order in a time of pending chaos. Both needs were rooted in a desire to escape through an inward journey into feelings or to an ideal structure. Both needs were part of the culture shock that swept Europe at the beginning of the century, as the implications of the Industrialization were sinking in. The avant-garde artists tried to create a new language to respond to these needs: the Cubists searched for a near scientific logic to the construction of the world and the Expressionists sought the answer in the irrational and a return to a more primal spiritual state.
Der Balue Reiter combined two currents: the general European Expressionism and French Fauvism and added to these currents an interest in inner and mystical construction, stemming from Theosophy. Despite the close affinity between Der Blaue Reiter and the Fauves, the approach to art making was radically different—the French artists were more interested in a formal extension of Post-Impressionism while the German artists were interested in mysticism, which was alien to the French. The French Fauves wanted to form an imaginative counter-reality through the formal elements to break up objective reality. In other words, the Fauves used Post-Impressionism to counter Impressionism and cultivated pictorial devices of pure color and pure line
The bridge between the mysticism of Der Blaue Reiter and the French Fauves was Vincent van Gogh. The Fauves were interested in the Dutch artist’s formal experimentations: the fact that he achieved expression through abstract pictorial means. The Germans responded to the symbolic aspects to his art and to the late artist’s desire to use painting to create what Jawlensky called “mood paintings.” It was Alexej von Jawlensky (1864-1941), who convinced Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), fresh from his years in France, to give up his notion that van Gogh’s art was pathological. Jawlensky felt that van Gogh’s art could best be thought of as a kind of “synthesis” or the harmony of form and color. By 1911, Kandinsky was listening intently to such ideas and made the logical step that if line and color were symbolic and expressive carriers of meaning then they were self-sufficient and it would be possible to give up the subject matter. Even van Gogh had thought of himself as a “musician in colors.”
Form and Color
Der Blaue Reiter’s spirituality was based upon three main intellectual aspirations. Fundamental to the movement was the unlimited freedom of all artistic endeavors. For these artists, synthesis meant the unity of stylistic development in terms of color, which was linked to mysticism. For Der Blaue Reiter, art was embodied in mysticism. The purpose of art was to express the innermost being of a human, living and feeling in harmony with nature’s laws of formation and growth. Abstract means, i. e. the use of form and color replaced imitation with simile: formal elements carried meaning and were a pictorial formula for the invisible, as Kandinsky wrote in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art of 1911.
In contrast to Die Brücke’s youthful eroticism and male concern with human body and human sexuality, expressed as the dialectic between spirit/mind and body, Der Blaue Reiter exposed the spiritual rather than the formal construction or composition of the world. Following over a decade of maturation and absorption of a variety of artistic influences, the years 1910 to 1912 was a decisive growth period for Der Blaue Reiter. These artists were carving out a space for themselves after an artistic struggle with Cubism, Orphism, and Futurism, all of which were interested in the dynamism of modern life. Der Blaue Reiter was less involved with the real world and used color as a tracer of movement and as a bearer of emotion. The artists moved away from objects to free arabesques of expression, which dynamized the surface. Color overwhelmed pictorial construction, which dissolved illusionary perspective, leading to a negation of surface.
Unlike the Cubists, the destruction of Renaissance perspective was not a rational dismantling of space and time through multiple perspectives. Der Blaue Reiter created an irrational picture space that was a non-space and was, unlike Cubism, free from reality. The result was the creation of new art form, rejected forms in nature and representation rejected. The picture’s quality resided solely in form, in line, shape, color, and plane, without reference to outside world. Form was then freed to become an expression of the artist’s inner needs. Form was an expression of content, dependent upon innermost spirit. Form was equated with matter and the artist’s struggle against materialism content. Once divested of academic concepts, content is the non-objective, the “inner sound,” or the spiritual, which creates appropriate form.
In the end, Der Blaue Reiter was not a school or a movement but a loose configuration of artists who were exploring spiritual outlets for art. Jawlensky worshiped van Gogh to the extent that he purchased The House of Père Pilon from the artist’s sister-in-law, Jo van Gogh-Bonger. Jawlensky, who was paying in installments, wrote gratefully to van Gogh-Bonger, stating that, “Never did a work of your blessed brother-in-law fall into more pious hands.” Franz Marc (1890-1916) described van Gogh as “the most authentic, the greatest, the most poignant painter I know.” Marc was concerned with the painting of animals, an interest that had waned since the Nineteenth Century, but his purposes were not descriptive but spiritual. In her book, Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism, Jill Lloyd explained that for Marc, the vibrating color and undulating forms of Signac and van Gogh “animalized” painting by which he meant “The inner pulsing life of an animal.”
The animals were painted in symbolic colors, especially the primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Marc devised an elaborate theory of art and its colors—blue ws masculine and spiritual and yellow was female and joyful—and used them to indicate the inner life of the animals, not the animals themselves. Like Marc, Kandinsky believed that colors had symbolic meanings, but his theories stemmed from his readings of Theosophy, especially those of Rudolf Steiner and Annie Beasant, a follower of Madame Blavatsky. Involved in the realm of the spiritual, Kandinsky ceased to even see reality itself and he replaced the objects that once populated his paintings with his “inner aspiration.”
In comparison the Jawlensky’s idea of synthesis, Kandinsky began to think in terms of parallels or “correspondences,” as the Symbolists called it—that color was like a musical leitmotif and belonged to a spiritual universe. As Sixten Ringbom explained it in “Transcending the Visible: The Generation of the Abstract Pioneers,” from 1911 on, Kandinsky “dematerialized” form through a series of paintings that ranged from what he termed “Impressions” or painterly interpretations of external nature to “Improvisations” which are expressions of the inner character or inner nature of the object and finally, to the “Improvisations” which Kandinsky described as “feelings.” Thus, the artist explained his transition from representation to abstraction. However, for decades, this transition was explained in terms of formal development, not as a spiritual journey for the artist in search of the deeper meaning of art. Not until The Spiritual in Abstract Painting, 1890-1985) was published in 1987 did the habit of formal analysis release its grip. Although Kandinsky’s works, Concerning the Spiritual in Art and From Point to Line to Plane, were easily available, this exhibition catalogue and the essays were revelations for art audiences and art historians. Created on the eve of the Great War, abstraction had content, and spiritual content at that.
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