color Beyond Kandinsky: Kandinsky and the Red Corners

The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky's classic text, On the Spiritual in Art. Inspired by this anniversary, this project set out to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.

Beginning on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011, a ten-day virtual symposium moderated by Taney Roniger and Eric Zechman was held in this forum. The symposium closed on the evening of Friday, April 8th. Below is the full record of the proceedings.

Panelists invited to participate were: Suzanne Anker, Laura Battle, Connie Beckley, Anney Bonney, Deirdre Boyle, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeff Edwards, James Elkins, Max Gimblett, Tom Huhn, Atta Kim, Roger Lipsey, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joseph Nechvatal, Daniel Siedell, Charlene Spretnak, David Levi Strauss, Alan Wanzenberg, and Pawel Wojtasik. For participant biographies and other project details, please visit our site:


March 30th–April 1st: Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now

April 2nd–April 3rd: Session II: The Changing Shape of Art

April 4th-5th: Session III: Art and Its Audience

April 6th–April 7th: Session IV: The Artist in Society

April 8th: Conclusions


Friday, April 8, 2011

Kandinsky and the Red Corners

Many thanks to Taney and Eric for their initiative and enthusiastic follow-through on a subject that while taboo and invisible in many circles seems like the elephant in the room to me.

I especially appreciated the generous contributions of Joseph, Jeff and Charlene and loved reading Barbara Braathen’s lively recollection.

Some thoughts researched, some imagined referencing the nature of spirit and icon painting, unfortunately written before I read Dan’s post. I am indebted to the scholarship of Peg Weiss, Carol McKay and Hans Belting.


Kandinsky was often teaching, telling stories, but he was secretive about the deeper content. To echo Charlene…

He was the first artist extensively trained as an ethnographer. And that partially set the terms of the recurring theme that has been reviewed several times in the symposium, but here again: the art and science dichotomy. When scientists admitted the atom was not, after all, the ultimate indivisible unit of life, Kandinsky seemed to take it as a personal/cataclysmic betrayal, saying:

The crumbling of the atom was to my soul like the crumbling of the whole world... Everything became uncertain… Science seemed to me destroyed; its most important basis was only a delusion, an error of the learned, who did not build their godly structures stone by stone with a steady hand in transfigured light, but groped at random in the darkness for truth and blindly mistook one object for another.

For him, science was analogous to positivism, materialism and later representational painting. He redirected his scientific aptitude in the service of a more systematic defense/canon of his artistic intuitions. That practice may have been seeded in 1889 when he discovered the shamanic tradition, possibly reclaiming his own heritage, almost by accident. Submitting a paper on “The Beliefs of the Permians and Zyrians” to a competition at the Russian Imperial Society, he won sponsorship for an expedition to the Vologda Province. The project would require a synthesis of scientific analysis and subjective insights that focused on the nature of spirit.

Kandinsky wrote in Reminiscences that:

Apart from my chosen specialization (economics…), I was strongly attracted…by various other disciplines…criminal law... the history of Russian law…peasant law…[and] ethnography… which, I promised myself initially, would reveal to me the soul of the people.

He had to probe deeply just to uncover Zyrian beliefs about the soul. He noted their concept of "Ort" (spirit) in the Ethnographic Review, defining it in a series of apparent self-contradictions. On one hand "Ort" could mean spirit (dukh) or soul (loi), but on the other hand Ort shouldn’t be regarded in the Christian sense as opposed to matter. Part of the Zyrian paradox centered on the substance of deities, the fact that they had specific elemental compositions. “All [Zyrian] Forest and Water Deities, etc. have a substantial form. All these beings can be seen and they can incur physical injury.” There simultaneously coexisted the natural, the supernatural and its darker side, sorcery.

Some believed that Orts were materialized tutelary spirits that accompanied people throughout their lives. Most agreed that Orts came to announce death whose arrival might be negotiated, that is–delayed. Orts could also leave physical marks, like bruises, on the bodies of those they were warning.

Zyrians believed shamans could occupy their material bodies after death and wander in the world. They shackled dead shamans’ bodies during burials in order to restrain them. Kandinsky included the belief that Shamans could predict and transcend death in his report. He had to make sense of the Zyrians more fluid interpretation of matter and spirit. Ethnography challenged him to extend his own objectivity towards intuition.

And something happened to Kandinsky in Vologda that lay outside ethnography’s academic grasp. The red corners at the heart of every Zyrian home introduced him to the syncretic practice of double faith, known as "dvoeverie".

I entered the living room for the first time and …stopped… on the threshold before the unexpected vision… every object [was]… covered with brightly coloured and elaborate decorations… the ‘red’ corner (‘red ‘is old Russian for ‘beautiful’) [was] thickly, completely covered with painted and printed pictures of the saints… I felt surrounded on all sides by the painting, into which I had thus penetrated.


Kandinsky experienced the medieval Christian icons contemporaneously with the rich residue of the shamanic, pagan beliefs that had preceded them. When he later borrowed the style and outer forms of the Finno-Ugric folk traditions, he tried to incorporate the sense of transformed space/time embedded in their cult images and the rituals that lay behind them, but in private. The Shamanic and the Christian influences were equally absorbed. His work would allude to their stories.

In his essay “The Storyteller” Walter Benjamin focused on Russian author Nikolai Leskov—not to bring him closer to the reading public, but to increase critical distance. Benjamin felt people were forfeiting their ability to tell stories: the art of exchanging experiences. And what was at stake specifically in Leskov’s tale of "The Sealed Angel" (1873) was not only the power of story, but also the redemptive capacity of the medieval Russian icon as the venerated image and the fact that in their history East met West.

Leskov’s novel was published thirteen years before Kandinsky went to Vologda. Its message that “the icons of the Old Believers… [were] an authentic [religious] tradition… symbols of their oppressed faith” reached a wide audience. Besides emphasizing the original image as the authentic one, the book promoted a populist re-identification with Russia’s past, something very much on Kandinsky's mind as well.

The saint’s image could trigger the memory of the saint’s story-the miracle communicated without being seen, without blaspheming the invisible reality of the sacred. Its “reduced but universally valid canon of forms reflected in the icon a super-ordinate canon of values…” The fusion of icon as spiritual image filtered through the displacement of story to thread Kandinsky’s early Munich paintings to his later non-objective abstraction. And this was the breakthrough period, the time of Concerning the Spiritual in Art’s publication that occasioned this symposium.

1 comment:

  1. Anney, thanks so much for this wonderful encapsulation of Kandinsky's involvement with ethnography, Orts, and icons. You've added yet another dimension to many of the topics we've touched on during this symposium. Your bringing up Kandinsky's interest in science and ethnography brings to mind another role for artist that hasn't been mentioned here: that of voracious polymath. Kandinsky's refusal to limit himself to any one area of study is truly inspiring and can serve as a model for those of us seeking further possibilities for the arts today.