color Beyond Kandinsky: Steiner, Thought Forms, and Kandinsky

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


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Steiner, Thought Forms, and Kandinsky

The comments from Barbara Braathen that Taney posted yesterday have spurred me to post some information that I meant to put up during the first session, but didn’t have time to. I’d like to throw out some ideas and imagery related to Rudolf Steiner, Annie Besant, and Charles Leadbeater, and consider how/if they might have influenced Kandinsky.

Kandinsky was very open about his appreciation for Helena Blavatsky. He was a lot more elusive about Steiner. I just took a quick look back through the Collected Writings on Art, and couldn’t find a single mention of Steiner anywhere in the texts. However, his name comes up several times in the editors’ introductions, and—most importantly—they cite Kandinsky’s attendance at several of Steiner’s anthroposophical lectures in 1908.

Steiner’s lectures covered a broad range of theosophical topics. He would often elaborate on the occult connection between things like the planets and parts of the body, in a manner reminiscent of the systems of correspondence that became such a huge part of Renaissance magic (as in Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, or the 1620 magical calendar from Frankfurt that was once falsely attributed to Tycho Brahe). During these lectures, he would illustrate some of his ideas with colored chalk. The early drawings were lost, but in 1919 one of Steiner’s pupils got the idea to tape black paper to the surface of the chalkboard, so that the drawings could be rolled up after the talks were over. Over 1,000 of these drawings survive, along with notes and transcripts of the lectures. (I've included a couple here. To see a few paired with some of Steiner’s text and with commentary by a contemporary anthroposophist, check out this web page.

I’ve always been wary of giving too much weight to the Kandinsky/Steiner connection, but when I was going back through On the Spritual in Art, some resonances started to strike me. In the chapter where Kandinsky sets out his ideas on the movement and emotional tone of the colors, there’s a footnote in which he reinforces his assertion that yellow is inherently aggressive and has an unpleasant “sound” by citing the sourness of lemons and the shrill song of the canary. Earlier in the book, he discusses synesthesia (without actually using the term), but he seems to treat it as a spiritual potential inherent in at least the most sensitive of us, rather than the medical or psychological anomaly that many people consider it to be. I was reminded of Steiner’s way of connecting things, his frequent discussions of how the soul is affected by material and spiritual phenomena, and the way that colors were often a crucial part of this. His discussions of planetary influences on the body were often illustrated with specific colors for each planetary ray, and there’s a beautiful chalkboard drawing in which he uses a few quick slashes of light blue, yellow, and red to assert a connection between cosmic thoughts, memories, and dreams, and birds, butterflies, and bats, respectively (see above).

Steiner also spoke about the ability of color to alter spiritual perception. He claimed that meditation on a specific color would render that color transparent, so that one could see the spiritual entities lurking behind or within it. Such statements were couched in language that often sounds a lot like Kandinsky’s recurring image of the soul as a piano, with color as the force that hits the keys and vibrates the strings.

Though I don’t want to stretch comparisons too far or claim too much, I should probably also mention Steiner’s development of the hybrid art form eurythmy. Eurythmy attempted to blend colors, sounds, and spiritually significant gestures into a new dance form that would directly affect the deeper levels of the viewer’s soul. (Some of Steiner’s pencil sketches for eurythmy can be seen at this link, along with a few color images created using Steiner’s notes. For an example of eurythmy in action, check out this video.)

By 1926, Kandinsky had shifted his focus away from color and toward shape and form; this was the year that Point and Line to Plane was published. His only other published work that year was a piece called Dance Curves, in which he turned four photographs of the dancer Palucca into simplified schematic drawings (see below), with the idea of showing how the precision of her movements carries deep significance for those sensitive enough to recognize it (he states this idea much more vaguely and obliquely than I have, and the entire article—which is very brief—is pretty opaque). Though I’ve never seen anything to connect Dance Curves to eurythmy, the emphasis they share on precision and meaning in the body’s movement has always kept me speculating.

Not everyone is comfortable with this sort of tale-spinning. There are writers who try to downplay the Steiner-Kandinsky connection, under the assumption that it makes it too easy for Kandinsky to be dismissed as a serious artist. For a discussion of this, see this essay by artist, writer, and Studio International co-editor Janet McKenzie, written on the occasion of the 2006 Tate Modern exhibition “Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction.”

Finally, I should mention the 1901 book Thought Forms by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater. Besant inherited the leadership of most of Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society after the latter’s death, and Leadbeater was a clairvoyant who claimed the ability to see the shapes and colors of people’s emotions. Their book begins with a detailed chart that lays out the spiritual meanings of 25 colors (for example, red-orange is listed as “pride”), and then discusses the ethereal forms of a wide range of subjective phenomena, including things like ”greed for alcohol” and “listening to the music of Mendelsshon.” The book is illustrated throughout, and some of the more complex images begin to approach the complexity of some of Kandinsky’s paintings. (One of my favorites is the illustration for "appreciation of a picture," shown immediately above.)

Once again, without trying to claim too much, I'm very interested in the way that the specificity of Besant and Leadbeater’s system looks a lot like Kandinsky’s ideas on the distinctive “feel” of various colors. At least one writer of books on Theosophical history (Gary Lachman) has stated that Kandinsky owned a copy of Thought Forms, and that it was one of the most influential sources of his speculations on color.


  1. As subjective as the spiritual notion can be, I begin, with Steiner, to recognize changes in the notion's increasing emphasis on social progress - a progress that tends to carve a path out for our more scientific understanding of vibrational energy.

  2. @Joseph: as what is said, science has done a lot for art, including today's book by Lynn Gamwell. Some people in recent years have been questioning what art can do for science. To me, the former has much stronger impact than the latter. I want to know what others think.

  3. @Jeff. Is there any evidence of a Rudolf Steiner - Emanuel Swedenborg connection? I ask because a lot of this corresponds to a melting of the individual's limits, which were formerly sharply outlined, in favor of a new organization of awareness which Emanuel Swedenborg, principally, furnished Baudelaire. Swedenborg's unitary theory provided the metaphysical basis for many artists of Romanticism, including Turner, Constable and Friedrich.
    Swedenborg posited that matter consists of particles that are indefinitely divisible, and that these particles are in constant vortical (swirling) motion. Furthermore, these particles are themselves composed of smaller particles in motion, an idea which strongly resembles the modern conception of the atom as described in terms of a nucleus and its electrons. Moreover, Swedenborg wrote voluminously concerning what he saw to be the correspondence between the spiritual and the material planes (i.e., the viractual) and he consistently maintained that there was an infinite, indivisible power to life; an idea which reinforced the neo-Platonic sublime ideals of Romanticism thoroughly.

  4. Hi, Joseph. Sorry that it took me a while to reply; I was teaching classes today. Steiner definitely knew about Swedenborg's writings, but I don't know how deeply he studied them or how he was influenced by them. I've heard mention of an article or lecture by Steiner on Swedenborg, but I've never seen it. I just checked an online database of Steiner's writings and learned that it's called "Swedenborg's Power of Vision," but I don't if/where it's publicly available.

    My knowledge of both men's work is relatively shallow. I've only read Swedenborg's greatest hits (Heaven and Hell, Apocalypse Revealed, and a few shorter works). I've never taken the plunge into the Arcana Coelestia, though I've looked at small sections of it. My study of Steiner has mainly been limited to the book Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and some of his lectures on color.

    The parallel you describe between Swedenborg's theory on matter and contemporary ideas on atoms and subatomic particles is intriguing, and something I want to look into.

  5. Titus Lucretius Carus is said to be one of the earliest atomist. I wonder if he had anything to do with this lineage.