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Kandinsky’s Composition and Zheng Xie’s Bamboo

An Aesthetic Dialogue Between Western and Eastern Abstractionism1
Ai 艾 Xin 欣
p. 11-29


In the treatise On the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky divided the creation of art into three categories, the ultimate one of which is called Composition. In this article, I argue that Kandinsky’s classification is similar and comparable to the principle of semi-abstract Chinese freehand brushwork summarized by Zheng Xie in the Inscriptions on Painting - Bamboo. In an attempt to clarify the core of Kandinsky’s strategy of abstraction, i.e. the transformation from painting to writing, I then connect it with the evolution of Chinese characters and the aesthetic theory of Chinese calligraphy, which is also in accord with Kandinsky’s idea of internal necessity and the spirit in art. Through this aesthetic dialogue across time and space, this article aims to bring a new dimension to the understanding of Western abstractionism from the perspective of the oriental philosophy of art.

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  • 1 This work was supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of the PRC ( (...)
  • 2 Kandinsky 1982 (1910-1911): 87-88.

1From 1909 to 1911, Wassily Kandinsky (1886-1944) created five paintings entitled Composition, and he completed the sixth and seventh of the series in 1913 before returning to Russia due to the outbreak of the First World War. These seven Compositions fully reflect the maturity of his theory of abstractionism and became crucial works of the abstract art movement of the early 20th century. From the composition of the paintings, use of color, line drawing techniques and spiritual meaning, we can catch a glimpse of Kandinsky’s idea of pure abstraction, which he sets out in the treatise On the Spiritual in Art. The phenomenal world and natural objects appear to be gradually disintegrating in the seven Compositions. The evolution of the process of pure abstraction is accompanied by the simultaneous emphasis on the spirituality of the painterly form, namely, the outer element of the painting is conquered by the ever-increasing inner element. As a result, nature no longer floats on the surface of the canvas in the form of rigid imitation but gradually transmutes into a more abstract state that is coordinated with the inner element, as it is put by Kandinsky himself: “The most beautiful work is that whose external form corresponds entirely to its internal content (which is, so to speak, an eternally unrealizable ideal). Thus, in essence, the form of a work of art is determined according to internal necessity”.2

2The word “composition”, with its Latin origin – conpositiō, meaning combination and arrangement, not only presents itself as the title of Kandinsky’s specific series of paintings during the period, but it is also identified as the core element of his theory of abstract art – the principle of so-called “spiritual art”. The connection of the concepts of “composition” and “internal necessity” gave Western art a deeper metaphysical dimension while it was in the process of turning to complete abstraction in the early 20th century. Artists began to explore the higher spiritual meaning and essence of art in the ontic form of painting. Also, this pair of concepts pushed the mechanisms of Cubism into a mysterious realm, where the strategy of reconstructing visual culture via geometry was no longer dominant. Here, the rule-based and methodical creative logic of Western art does not seem to be effective anymore. Instead, Kandinsky has led to a certain Eastern way of thinking that transcends external forms and sinks into the territory of internal experience. Therefore, a better understanding and interpretation of the origin, expression and deep connotation of Kandinsky’s concept of composition has become the key to clarifying the motivation for the rise of Western abstract art.

The strategy of Composition

  • 3 Cheetham 1991: 72.
  • 4 See Golding 2000: 83-98.

3In Kandinsky’s aesthetic strategy of Composition, the result of the ontic purification of the painting is only the abstraction of the image, while its “inner content” is the main part, which expresses the internal necessity of the image. The “inner content”, or the metaphysical concepts behind the phenomenal world, is an area that has always been involved in religion and idealist philosophy, while art claims to have departed from the appearance, reference and additional content outside of the ontic artistic form, and matches its own internal needs by developing “pure abstraction” only at the beginning of the 20th century. However, Kandinsky’s emphasis on the absoluteness of the spirit is not the same as the absolute split of history and nature as Malevich and Mondrian claimed by introducing transcendental pure geometric forms into painting, but rather the maintenance of self-independence, the pursuit of innovation, and the adoption of the inheritance of previous religious, philosophical and artistic concepts at the same time. British scholar Mark A. Cheetham regards “absoluteness” and “relativeness” as the dichotomy of Kandinsky’s “pure abstraction” theory.3 These categories appear to be contradictory but at the same time serve as the two criteria in Kandinsky’s search for an aesthetic strategy in which he tries to achieve a balanced state between the two criteria. Therefore, we can understand that Kandinsky’s abstract strategy is based on the rational handling and transformation of nature’s imagery, rather than the thorough elimination of it. To him, the “inner content” of nature’s imagery is difficult to separate from its religious-cultural connotations.4

4Obviously, the self-construction of Kandinsky’s abstract theory is an attempt to explain the way in which his new art is generated in a state that is “in-between” spiritual and material, internal and external, absolute and relative. In the concluding section of his 1912 theoretical article On the Spiritual in Art, he classified the creation of “spiritual art” according to three categories based on differences in the source of form. The first is the direct impression of external nature, expressed in the linear-painterly form, and these pictures are called Impressions. The second is from the unconscious, which is made up of spontaneously arising expressions of inner psychological events, namely, the impressions of “internal nature”. This type is called Improvisations. The third is the expression of feelings that have been forming through a process of slow inner brewing. This type of picture is only completed after preliminary drafts are carefully processed and modified, and it is called a Composition. These three series are progressive and gradually internalized stages of artistic creation of which the third series, Compositions, is the most advanced. The pursuit of that stage is the goal of modern art in Kandinsky’s view:

  • 5 Kandinsky 1982 (1912): 218-219.

Here, reason, the conscious, the deliberate, and the purposeful play a preponderant role. Except that I always decide in favor of feeling rather than calculation […] we are approaching the time when a conscious, reasoned system of composition will be possible, when the painter will be proud to be able to explain his works in constructional terms.5

  • 6 Henry 2009: 92.
  • 7 See Ringbom 1970: 78-85.
  • 8 Ashmore 1977: 331.
  • 9 Short 2009: 43-54, 183-185.

5It can be seen that Kandinsky succinctly summarized the artist’s three different methods for processing natural objects into the three categories impression, improvisation, and composition, which correspond to the direct senses, the unconscious, and consciousness, respectively. Combined with his understanding and admiration of spirituality in art, Kandinsky made a clear aesthetic judgment, seeing composition as the superior member of the group. Looking around the existing studies, we have found quite a lot of discussion about how Kandinsky sees the invisible and assimilates nature as an abstract visual phenomenon. In the analysis of aesthetics of abstractionism, Michel Henry took Kandinsky as an example to reveal the phenomenological nature of abstract painting. Such nature has nothing to do with the visible world, rather it gives visibility to the inner and invisible life. Kandinsky’s abstract paintings give evidence to the quality of pictorial art as such. It is by composing (lines, graphic forms, colors) rather than representing (the external nature) that an artist can grasp the real shape of things. And once the pictorial composition becomes exteriorized, the indefinable subtlety and primitive emotional power inside it is soon lost. Thus, only under the guidance of the interior consciousness, the matter and the external world would enter into the composition and are transformed into an invisible pathos.6 Besides, there are also some more specific and insightful explorations about the aspects of spiritualism and the core concepts of abstractionism shown in Kandinsky’s artworks and theoretical writings. For instance, Sixten Ringbom conducted a detailed empirical investigation into the complex source of Kandinsky’s color theory, and discovered its connection with the theosophical color mysticism.7 Jerome Ashmore summarized the role of the idea of “inner sound” in Kandinsky’s “spiritual art”. First, it represents synesthesia, mainly between auditory and visual senses; second, it indicates various states in the “pure painting” such as “movement”, “tension”, and “inclination”; third, it represents the remarkable characteristics of the spiritual dimension of the universe.8 Christopher Short went a step further by expounding the source of Kandinsky’s concept of artistic synthesis, i.e. Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, theosophy and symbolism, revealing the utopian spirit behind his “spiritual art”.9

  • 10 The Chinese character ¯Ý is literally translated as “chest” or “breast”. However, in the context of (...)

6These existing studies have reminded us that in our understanding of Kandinsky’s classification of “spiritual art”, we should avoid misinterpreting these three concepts as merely the title of a specific series of his abstract works, or separating them from their original connotation and interconnection. On the contrary, we must go deep into the internal motivation and the intimate pulse of visual elements in abstract art to grasp the meaning and relationship of these three categories. However, if we jump out of the barriers of Western art and culture, we will find more new dimensions to discuss and understand Kandinsky’s abstract works and theories. From my point of view, Kandinsky’s classification of impression, improvisation and composition, is highly original and strikingly comparable to the classical statement of “bamboo in the eyes” (眼中之竹), “bamboo in the mind” (胸中之竹)10 and “bamboo in the brush” (手中之竹) in Inscriptions on Painting (板桥题画) of Zheng Xie (郑燮, 1693-1765), who was a well-known Chinese freehand brushwork painter and art theorist in the Qing Dynasty. He writes:

  • 11 Zhang 1988: 32.

Once, while lodging at a riverside hostel in early autumn, I got up in the morning to look at the bamboos and saw the mist, sunlight and shadows floating amongst their sparse branches and dense leaves. Greatly inspired, I wanted to paint them. However, the bamboos in my mind were not the same as those I had seen in the eyes. After preparing my ink and laying out my paper, I lifted the brush to paint. Suddenly the bamboos had changed. They did not resemble the bamboos I pictured in my mind. Having a conception before starting to paint is a guiding principle; however, the potential for variation outside that principle is what is interesting, and this does not apply to painting alone.11

7In Zheng Xie’s view, the “bamboo in the eyes” is the natural form of bamboo, and it is an objective reality that is perceived visually. It floats in natural light and shadow, giving the viewer a direct, external impression. Next, the artist is inspired, gaining an impulse to create and beginning to conceive an artwork. The natural image that had previously been visually captured gradually internalizes as an experience, which leads the mind to form an artistic image. At this point, bamboo is no longer an objective, natural material but is the embodiment of the artist’s spirituality, and it has achieved a qualitative improvement. Then, the “bamboo in the mind” intends to jump out at the artist’s further thoughts and brewing, and so he “prepares the ink and lays out the paper, lifts the brush to paint” and the “bamboo in the mind” finally becomes the “bamboo in the brush”. The ultimate painterly bamboo has changed significantly and opened a huge gap compared to natural bamboo – via the artist’s inner awareness, refinement and processing, the bamboo on the paper should be a transformed, artistic bamboo. It is by no means a dumb imitation of natural objects but a highly spiritual aesthetic imagery.

  • 12 Ibidem: 31.

8Zhang Shaokang (张少康) points out that the transformation process of Zheng Xie’s “bamboo in the eyes” to “bamboo in the mind” is similar to the saying, “emotion is exposed by materiality” (情以物兴) mentioned by Liu Xie (刘勰, 465-520) in his The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons (文心雕龙), which can be understood as the spontaneous care or response of the artist’s mind to natural impressions. The metamorphosis from “bamboo in the mind” to “bamboo in the brush” often involves the artist’s continuous polishing and revision of the artistic imagery, because no material means can represent the idealized image perfectly – only a certain aspect of it can be highlighted according to the characteristics of different art forms, such as painting and music. For example, a painted image can visually reflect the “floating” state of bamboo leaves, but it cannot convey the rhythm of the bamboo leaves in the breeze, which music can communicate.12

9Now, let’s return to Kandinsky’s classification system. His primary impression series conveys the artist’s observation and impression of external nature. This resembles what Zheng Xie says about “bamboo in the eyes”. But unlike Zheng Xie, Kandinsky’s impression can be expressed on the canvas directly in a linear-painterly form, which is similar to the en plein air sketches of impressionists that capture objective reality by depicting fleeting light and shade. The “bamboo in the eyes”, however, does not directly reflect an artistic creation, but serves as a prelude and condition for the next phase of “bamboo in the mind”.

  • 13 Similarly, based on Freudian psychoanalysis, American art critic Donald Kuspit regards the subconsc (...)

10The second stage, improvisation, reflects the inner nature that is hidden in the depths of the mind. The natural image observed by the naked eye at this time has transmuted into the inner subconscious, constantly precipitating and fermenting in the artist’s heart, and it can unpredictably take a perceivable form at any moment, which allows it to be a form of expression for the artist.13 This phase of the internalization of natural phenomena, which is a prelude for rational processing, resembles what Zheng Xie called the “bamboo in the mind”. Just as in the case of the stage of an impression, improvisation can also be directly presented through artistic practice, but such practice is subconscious and emotional, similar to expressionist paintings that can be interpreted by psychoanalysis. The “bamboo in the mind” is still waiting for conceptual imagery to develop into an image on a concrete painterly plane, which is an important transitional phase between the natural object and the artistic imagery.

11At the third level of the composition series, the previous images of the subconscious that were incorporated into the artist’s emotions are finally transmitted onto the painterly plane under the guidance of rationality and consciousness and through the artist’s skilled hand, the paintbrushes in his hand, and the paint of the brush tip – this is just the concept of “the bamboo in the brush” in the context of Zheng Xie. The artist can put down his brush in his hand and announce the completion of the painting only after he has constantly revised and polished the preliminary draft and come to believe that the image of the picture matches the image he wants to express. Compared with the previous two phases, composition is the most sensible and the most spiritual. It has experienced the “streamlined” processing of eyes, emotions, subconsciousness and hands, and possesses a more advanced “humanity” that greatly exceeds the “semi-finished artistic products” of impression and improvisation, hence it is a complete and highly artistic creation that integrates nature and personality.

  • 14 These two canons are originated from Xie He’s (谢»®, active 550-535) Six principles of Chinese paint (...)

12It can be seen from the above that Kandinsky’s model of impression, improvisation and composition and Zheng Xie’s theory of “bamboo in the eyes”, “bamboo in the mind”, and “bamboo in the brush” are structurally similar. What’s more, both eventually pursue the “interest outside the principle” (趣在法外), i.e. aesthetic considerations beyond questions of mere craft; and both show a “potential for variation”, or inspirational artistic ideas. The notion of “composition” which refuses to imitate the external nature and embodies the inner spiritual needs that Western art started to pursue only at the beginning of the 20th century is actually the creative principle that traditional Chinese literati painting and freehand brushwork has followed for hundreds of years – “rhythmic vitality” (气韵生动), “artistic composition” (经营位置)14 and the idea of xieyi (写意).

  • 15 Zhang 1988: 33-34.
  • 16 Kandinsky 1982 (1912): 218.
  • 17 Zong 1981: 159.

13The main discrepancy between the two classification theories lies in the difference in creative practice: each part of Kandinsky’s three-step classification can be directly translated into actual artworks, while amongst the three types of bamboo of Zheng Xie, only the final stage “bamboo in the brush” can be reflected by the practice. The reason for this difference lies in the fact that ancient Chinese painting theory emphasizes “having a conception before starting to paint” (意在笔先). Only when the imagination has been fully used and the overall imagery of the painted object has already been formed in the mind can the painting be done.15 During the evolution from the second stage (improvisation - “bamboo in the mind”) to the third stage (composition - “bamboo in the brush”), it is difficult for the artist to use the art of painting alone to fully express the imagery in his or her mind (the question mentioned by Zhang Shaokang above), but Kandinsky presented a brilliant solution – he integrated the abstract thought of music and musical synesthesia, which contains painterly colors, into the three stages of artistic creation. The three painting stages are simultaneously understood as three different “symphonic types”: “the melodic element is used only occasionally, as one of the subordinate parts – thus taking on a new form.16 In the gaps where the painting’s ontic elements are difficult to express, the melodic elements that permeate the painterly plane immediately complement these deficiencies through the association with sound. Therefore, in Kandinsky’s composition series, painting and music can be present as a unity – they work together to fully express the imagery the artist had in mind. Although we cannot say that Chinese painting possesses Kandinskian “musical synesthesia”, the emphasis on “rhythmic vitality” in traditional freehand brushwork also endows the painting with a certain degree of “musicality”. As Zong Baihua (宗白华, 1897-1986) states, the drifting and smooth lines and the free composition of brushwork in Chinese painting make it seem like a tune of music, suggesting the momentum and movement of the imagery.17

  • 18 In the manifesto From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, Malevich proposed and discussed the chara (...)
  • 19 Kandinsky once stated that his artistic utopia “may come by the year 2000” (Hahl-Koch 1993: 331).

14Because of his desire to incorporate musical sensibility into his painting to improve the accuracy of the transition of the imagery in his mind, Kandinsky’s works after 1909 moved toward a dual form of “pure abstraction” in both spirit and technique. However, we must see that the unique way of Kandinsky’s abstraction is fundamentally different from that of Malevich and Mondrian. The latter two rejected all previously existing schools of art directly in their theory and practice of the new ism, excluding every possibility for art to convey a natural image. In particular, Malevich insisted that the new art should “start from zero”, evaporate every imagery completely,18 push paintings to the pure state as mathematics, and create them in an extremely sober manner. This is why the geometric abstraction of Suprematism and De Stijl is called “cold abstraction”. Kandinsky, on the other hand, does not agree with this radical and subversive artistic revolution. He believes that the realization of artistic utopia cannot be accomplished in one stroke but is a gradual process.19 Therefore, his so-called “warm abstraction”, i.e., expressionism, is actually a gentle improvement of realistic art, a pursuit of an “in-between” state of resemblance and dissimilarity on the basis of adding the spiritual element of art. Influenced by symbolism, his expressive lines and colors still metaphorize religious themes and allusions. It’s just that the nature presented on the painterly plane is already a nature that has undergone internal spiritual processing and is highly aesthetic. In contrast to the semi-abstract Chinese freehand brushwork corresponding to Zheng Xie’s theory, Kandinsky’s composition, emphasizing color synesthesia and spirituality, appears to be more abstract and more expressive, but at the same time it has not yet reached, nor does it seek to achieve, the formal purity of Malevich and Mondrian’s geometric abstraction.

Fig. 1. Wassily Kandinsky, Motley Life, 1907, tempera on canvas, 130 × 162.5 cm, Lenbachhaus, Munich

Fig. 1. Wassily Kandinsky, Motley Life, 1907, tempera on canvas, 130 × 162.5 cm, Lenbachhaus, Munich

Fig. 2. Wassily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939, oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

Fig. 2. Wassily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939, oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
  • 20 Golding 2000: 82.

15Using the mathematical addition-subtraction method, John Golding subtly summarized the different abstract paths of Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian, arguing that the abstract approach of Malevich and Mondrian was a one-step reductiveness and distillation, i.e., a process of simple “subtraction”. Dissimilarly, Kandinsky chose to first proliferate the image, fill the picture with diversified imageries, and then let the imageries subduct and exclude each other, finally making the painting surface as “a single, throbbing whole”20 – this is obviously first doing “addition” and then “subtraction”. However, Golding did not elaborate on his own statement but merely defined Kandinsky’s “addition-subtraction” handling of the painterly image as a process from 1907’s Motley Life (Fig. 1) to 1939’s Composition X (Fig. 2) – the last painting of the Composition series. And through the comparison of Kandinsky’s and Zheng’s theories above we can come to understand Kandinsky’s “addition-subtraction” handling and its intention. From the first stage of “spiritual painting” (impression - “bamboo in the eyes”) to the second stage (improvisation - “bamboo in the mind”), the treatment of external nature by the mind is to add subjective ideas and aesthetic innovation based on different cultural contexts to it, making it an “inner nature” hidden in the mind. In the process from the second stage (improvisation - “bamboo in the mind”) to the third stage (composition - “bamboo in the brush”), in order to present the mature inner imagery in the final work, one must abandon some of the numerous possible images, constantly polishing and modifying, simplifying them into basic compositions, colors, and lines that are close to the more musical and spiritual features, in other words, to achieve the “greatest common divisor of imagery”. Kandinsky’s “addition-subtraction” model of abstraction not only applies to the three-step classification of impression - improvisation - composition, but also applies macroscopically to his entire creative career after 1907, which is especially obvious in the first seven items in the Composition series during 1909-1913.

From painting to writing

  • 21 Ibidem: 82, 96.

16Now let’s turn to the specific methods Kandinsky used in creating abstract artworks. John Golding states that in terms of form, Kandinsky further abstracted lines on the basis of breaking perspective principles and highlighting the “inner weight” of color, trying to make lines achieve the same level of abstraction as color.21 He canceled the function of lines in sketching and limiting the specific figurative image, leaving only the images to have just an ideographic function similar to hieroglyphics and writing. Therefore, the lines here are in an “intermediate state” that not only depicts the appearance of the object (as painting) but also conveys the meaning of the object (as writing).

Fig. 3. Wassily Kandinsky: Composition IV, 1911, oil on canvas, 159.5 × 250.5 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf

Fig. 3. Wassily Kandinsky: Composition IV, 1911, oil on canvas, 159.5 × 250.5 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
  • 22 Washton Long 1980: 109-110.

17The image of the horse has permeated Kandinsky’s Composition series from the very beginning. At first, it directly reflects the relevant contents of Revelation;22 it then continues to exist as an essential element of the series and at the same time gradually became a test field for the abstraction of lines. In Kandinsky’s other works in 1911, such as The Rider (Lyrical) and the woodcut cover for Der Blaue Reiter Almanac, we can see a similar handling of the lines of horses to that in Composition IV (Fig. 3). In these works, the contour line is further separated from the image of the horse without creating a sense of depth. The lines are extremely simplified, and only some of the features thought to be most typical of the horse are retained – the long triangle-shaped head, slender neck, limbs, and mane. Kandinsky’s strategy of abstracting painterly lines is very similar to the evolution of Chinese hieroglyphic characters from Oracle Bone Script (甲骨文) to Small Seal Script (小篆). We use the following table to make a comparison:

  • 23 Wang 2010: 1-2.

18The Chinese character 馬 (Ma, Horse) in the period of the Oracle Bone Script depicts the horse’s general outline, and it still looks like a “painterly horse”. In the Seal Script, the horse’s head, trunk, limbs, mane and tail have all changed into smooth strokes, which is more conducive to the writing of this pictogram, so the “painterly horse” that is close to nature transformed into the “calligraphic horse”. The characters that had a direct association with natural objects thus turned into imagery with certain meanings. In this process, the status of the image is gradually surpassed by the status of meaning until it finally develops into a logogram. According to paleographer Wang Guiyuan (王贵元), the decisive factor in the evolution of Chinese characters is the transformation of the character pattern from representing the image of a thing to representing the pronunciation (sound) and meaning of the word. During the Oracle Bone Script period, the sole purpose of a glyph was to reflect the concrete image of a thing; in the late Warring States period (战国时代, 475 BC-221 BC), the glyph gradually became a symbol to represent the pronunciation and meaning of the word. Since phonemes and morphemes are non-figurative, abstract, and generalized, the character pattern is required to be abstract and generalized correspondingly. Coupled with practical needs such as fast writing, Chinese characters have changed from “painting” to “writing”.23

19The abstraction of Kandinsky’s horse image is quite similar to the transformation of the ancient Chinese characters from “painting” to “writing”. If we say that the contour line of the horse in Composition II of 1909 still defines the range of color blocks that are unique to the horse, then in The Rider and Composition IV of 1911, the color of the horse body and its surroundings are not different. Outlines can be drawn in an extremely simplified and smooth manner, just like writing a hieroglyphic character, and the image of the entire horse tends to be symbolized. At the same time, the idea of “inner sound” and the “melodic elements” contained in the colors and lines are also highlighted.

  • 24 Chiang 1973: 117.
  • 25 Ibidem.
  • 26 Ibidem: 125-126.

20We have also seen that when “writing” the horse image in Composition IV, Kandinsky’s brushstrokes are different from the past, communicating a sense of movement and direction. All of the lines are created in one shot and do not need to be repeatedly improved. The effect of this approach is that each part of the horse looks more dynamic and has more motivation to expand outwards, making it appear vibrant and lively. This is also similar to the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy that emphasizes the “common origins of calligraphy and painting” (书画同源). As Chiang Yee (蒋彝, 1903-1977) says: “The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is essentially the beauty of plastic movement, not of designed and motionless shape”.24 In conveying this movement, writing also needs to take into account the balance of the image (character); this balance “is achieved by instinct, and derives from the writer’s aesthetic vision”.25 In Kandinsky’s case, the purpose of abstracting lines and depicting images by “writing” instead of by “painting” is also to achieve a balance between the painterly form, content and the inner spirit of the artist. This balance is not a fixed state but is instead like music: constantly changing and flowing. Therefore, lines also have start and end points like musical phrases, and there is also a certain movement trend in those lines. Chiang Yee divided the movement of Chinese calligraphy into two kinds: one is “activity in stillness” (静中之动) and the other is “activity in action” (动中之动). There is no strict boundary between the two, and they usually complement each other. The former is the direction, shape, and composition of the strokes. Without destroying the recognition of the characters, the strokes contain the trend of “organic growth”; the latter is the movement of the brush during writing.26 We can see that Kandinsky’s “writing” of lines in Composition IV is also presented in the form of “organic growth” – the lines freely spread over the canvas, loosely depicting horses, mountains and human figures. As a result, the “inner nature” breaks through the shackles of “external nature” and continues to grow in the painting through “calligraphic nature”.

  • 27 Weiss 1985: 137-145.

21During the creation of the Composition series I-IV from 1909 to 1911, Kandinsky was chairing the New Artists Association of Munich (Neue Künstlervereinigung München). However, as his artistic style became more and more abstract, he gradually came to disagree with other members of the association. In the middle of 1911, Kandinsky initiated Der Blaue Reiter group together with Franz Marc, August Macke and Alexej von Jawlensky. Kandinsky’s love for horses and knights is expressed in the pure abstract evolution of this stage. The reasons are related to the influence of German symbolism as well as his own Russian cultural background. Peg Weiss believes that gestures and movements in Kandinsky’s 1911 work and even the concept of Der Blaue Reiter itself are related to the several symbolic oil paintings entitled St. George created by Hans von Marées in 1881. In addition, the popularity of St. George in Russian folk culture also affected Kandinsky. In Der Blaue Reiter period, he was dedicated to portraying the image of St. George in the new century.27

Fig. 4. Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911, oil on canvas, 190 × 275 cm, Private collection

Fig. 4. Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911, oil on canvas, 190 × 275 cm, Private collection
  • 28 Kandinsky 1982 (1914): 399.
  • 29 For example, in comparison with Composition VI, Long has identified some of the hidden images in th (...)
  • 30 Kandinsky 1982 (1914): 398.

22Kandinsky’s rebellion against the symbolist tradition coincided with the year 1911, when he completed Composition IV and concentrated on writing On the Spiritual in Art. After achieving the abstraction of lines, he created Composition V (Fig. 4) at the end of that year, which reached an unprecedented degree of abstraction. In this painting, we can only see trivial, non-fixed-shape color blocks and black lines that are interlaced and calligraphic. But the abstraction of the painterly plane does not mean that the work must lack content. Kandinsky made it clear that he chose Resurrection as the theme of Composition V.28 However, the imagery associated with this theme is obscure, leaving only some abstract lines and colors as clues to the viewer.29 Lines and colors that do not transmit the image are responsible for creating an atmosphere related to the theme of religion. The abstract painterly form with its own spirituality has reached a pure stage and has completely risen to the metaphysical dimension. As mentioned above, since Composition IV, Kandinsky’s lines are no longer trapped by the use of imagery but instead show the trend of “organic growth”. In Composition V, the boundaries among different colors seem to have been lost. They seem to be placed in water, naturally spreading and blending with each other to “Let their pureness and true nature diffuse outward”.30 For the viewers, the perception of themes of the Composition series no longer happens through watching but rather through one’s inner subconscious, which aids one in realizing one’s more profound spirituality. So far, the concept of “composition” has achieved synchronization and unity in actual artistic practice and theoretical construction through Kandinsky’s strategy of abstraction for lines, i.e., the transformation from painting to writing.

The basis of visual cultural dialogue

  • 31 Elkins 2018: 141-143, 307-309.
  • 32 Ibidem: 131.

23Kandinsky’s special formal language of abstraction in painting, its similarity with writing and the possibility of analogy with other cultures have begun to arouse some scholars’ thinking and exploration. For example, James Elkins connected the color blocks and lines in Kandinsky’s abstract paintings that imply various objects with the symbols common in prehistoric civilization in order to understand the trichotomic images, in which there is an overlapping state of writing, picture and symbol.31 In other words, when abandoning the referred information and the object of imitation, and returning to the original and basic form itself, the boundaries between text, painting and sign become unclear. All three have become a kind of “language” full of “life force”. The vacillating meaning of pictures is a concept that is conducive to image research in Elkins’ view, because it breaks through the solid meaning and reference as well as the specific cultural territory, making art research full of vitality.32

  • 33 It’s just as Ernst Cassirer argued in his philosophy of symbolic forms that art could be defined as (...)

24Kandinsky’s abstract artworks provide us with a good example. The strategy of “writing instead of painting” brings the formal elements of painting into the field between writing, picture and symbol. The form thus becomes a universal language carrier,33 and through the processing of sentiment and consciousness it becomes a kind of spiritual artistic expression, that is, a cultural expression with “composition”.

  • 34 White 1988: 31.

25In philosophy of culture and modern art theory, the production of culture is closely related to symbolic form. A fundamental change in contemporary philosophical thinking is the so-called “linguistic turn” or “semiotic turn”. According to anthropologist Leslie A. White, all cultures and civilizations depend on symbols. It is because of the generation and use of symbols that culture can be produced and exist. It is because of the use of symbols that it is possible for a culture to be immortal.34

  • 35 Kandinsky cited many examples of Chinese art and culture in his theoretical writings, such as Point (...)

26Therefore, the choice to start with symbolic behavior to interpret the characteristics of regional culture becomes the key to understanding the formation of culture. In the current era of comprehensive globalization in all fields of human civilization, symbolic forms can serve as an important link between different cultures and provide the possibility of comparative cultural research. Through symbols, we can see the basic forms and aesthetic commonalities hidden in different cultures. It is on this premise that we are able to escape the context of Western culture and understand and interpret the aesthetic connotations and spiritual concepts of Kandinsky’s basic forms of abstract art from the perspective of Eastern civilization. To some extent, this also fits Kandinsky’s love for East Asian art and culture and the potential influence they had on his practice.35 We can say that the difference in cultural background does not prevent the “composition” style of the Western modern abstract art system and the “bamboo in the brush” style of Chinese freehand brushwork from sharing the similar and comparable artistic language and basic symbolic forms. More importantly, both emphasize the spirituality in artistic creation and pursue some kind of simple and meaningful “potential for variation” in the rhythm of pictographic writing.

  • 36 Cassirer 1986: 192.
  • 37 Langer 1986: 51.

27For Ernst Cassirer, symbols are the basis of all human intellectual and conscious activities. As a form of symbols, artistic creation is the process by which the subject (artist) regards the object as a pure form and produces aesthetic value from it. Cassirer points out that the artist’s vision cannot passively receive and record the impression of things. Only through active and constructive activities can we discover the beauty of natural objects.36 On the basis of Cassirer, Susanne Langer expresses the symbolic form of art as an emotional or presentational symbol. This kind of symbol does not refer to specific things, but it instead expresses inner emotions and the subject’s experience through symbols, which it shows objectively.37 Based on this, looking at the Western abstract art movement in the early 20th century, we find that a major aesthetic-sociological goal of art pioneers, including Kandinsky, is to sublate and abandon the representation and imitation of the real world, to break the gap in specific cultural traditions, and to emphasize the linguistic symbol of art itself. In the context of the spirit of artistic self-discipline, abstract artists give the form in painting a metaphysical meaning and a dimension of personal interpretation, which, on the one hand, reveals the powerful plasticity of the abstract symbolic form; on the other hand, it gives the artwork common attributes from a certain cultural perspective.

28As one of the most representative figures of the Western abstract art movement in the early 20th century, Kandinsky developed an artistic practice that simultaneously allowed for the evolution of pure abstraction in and the maturation of abstract art theory. In the self-construction of the “significant form”, Kandinsky used the concept of “composition” to summon the universality and eternal inner emotion of art, that is, the “internal necessity” of art. Through specific abstract symbols, supplemented by the strategy of “pictographic writing”, this idea of “internal necessity” is expressed, and Kandinsky’s theoretical expression echoes the traditional Chinese aesthetics that also pursue a certain degree of non-figurativeness and an “in-between” state of resemblance and dissimilarity.

  • 38 Elkins 2010: 64-65.

29In the book Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, which compares the traditions of landscape painting between China and the West in different eras and historical contexts, James Elkins admitted frankly that the huge difference between Chinese and Western art makes any comparison seem quite problematic. And the discussion about how to understand another culture may seem merely an abstract philosophical debate. However, this kind of bold dialogue across time, space and culture is always beneficial. It gives us “the opportunity to contemplate an historically conscious tradition of art that is not a version of itself”.38

30Perhaps we can say that Kandinsky’s case reveals to us the shared symbolic mechanism behind different art cultures, which not only bring new cultural horizons and interpretative dimensions to modern Western abstract art, but it also opens the possibility of dialogue between different cultures in the East and the West.

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Ashmore, J. 1977, Sound in Kandinsky’s Painting, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, XXXV, 3: 329-336.

Cassirer, E. 1944, An Essay on Man: An Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture, New Haven, Yale University Press; An Essay on Man (人论), trans. by Gan Yang, Shanghai, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 1986.

Cassirer, E. 1977, Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Erster Teil: Die Sprache, Darmstadt, WBG.

Cheetham, M. 1991, The Rhetoric of Purity. Essentialist Theory and the Advert of Abstract Painting, Cambridge - New York - Port Chester - Melbourne - Sydney, Cambridge University Press.

Chiang, Y. 1973, Chinese Calligraphy: An Introduction to Its Aesthetic and Technique, Cambridge (MA), Harvard University Press.

Clunas, C. 1997, Art in China, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Elkins, J.1999, The Domain of Images, Ithaca, Cornell University Press; The Domain of Images (图像的领域), trans. by Jiang Qigu, Nanjing, Jiangsu Phoenix Fine Arts Publishing, 2018.

Elkins, J.2010, Chinese Landscape Painting as Western Art History, Hong Kong, Hong Kong University Press.

Giles, H. 1905, An Introduction to the History of Chinese Pictorial Art, Shanghai, Keloy & Walsh.

Golding, J. 2000, Paths to the Absolute: Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky, Pollock, Newman, Rothko, and Still, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Hahl-Koch, J. 1993, Kandinsky, New York, Rizzoli.

Henry, M. 1988, Voir l’invisible. Sur Kandinsky, Paris, François Burin; Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, trans. by Scott Davidson, London - New York, Continuum, 2009.

Lindsay, K., Vergo, P. (eds) 1982, Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, London, Faber and Faber.

Kuspit, D. 1989, A Freudian Note on Abstract Art, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, XLVII, 2: 117-127.

Langer, S. 1953, Feeling and Form, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons; Feeling and Form (情感与形式), trans. by Liu Daji et al., Beijing, China Social Sciences Press, 1986.

Malevich, K. 1995, Collected Works in Five Volumes (Sobranie sochinenii v pyati tomakh), vol. 1, Aleksandra Shatskikh (ed.), Moscow, Gilea.

Ringbom, S. 1970, The Sounding Cosmos: A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting, Åbo, Åbo Akademi.

Short, C. 2009, The Art Theory of Wassily Kandinsky, 1909-1928: The Quest for Synthesis, Bern, Peter Lang Publishing.

Wang, G. 2010, The Motivation and Mechanism of the Evolution of Chinese Characters, “Studies in Philology (China)”, (语文研究), 3: 1-6.

Washton Long, R. 1980, Kandinsky: The Development of an Abstract Style, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Weiss, P. 1985, Kandinsky and the Symbolist Heritage, “Art Journal”, XLV, 2: 137-145.

White, L. 1949, The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux; The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization (文化科学人和文明的研究), trans. by Cao Jinqing, Hangzhou, Zhejiang People’s Publishing House, 1988.

Zhang, S. 1988, Aesthetic Thoughts of Zheng Xie, “Journal of Peking University (Philosophy and Social Sciences)” (北京大学学报-哲学社会科学版), 4: 27-35.

Zong, B. 1981, The Aesthetic Promenade, Shanghai, Shanghai People’s Publishing House.

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1 This work was supported by the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of the PRC (grant number: 2019QD012). I would like to thank the reviewers for their detailed comments and suggestions that helped to improve the manuscript.

2 Kandinsky 1982 (1910-1911): 87-88.

3 Cheetham 1991: 72.

4 See Golding 2000: 83-98.

5 Kandinsky 1982 (1912): 218-219.

6 Henry 2009: 92.

7 See Ringbom 1970: 78-85.

8 Ashmore 1977: 331.

9 Short 2009: 43-54, 183-185.

10 The Chinese character ¯Ý is literally translated as “chest” or “breast”. However, in the context of Zheng Xie’s discourse, it should be understood metaphorically as “mind” or “heart of hearts”. There is another related Chinese idiom ¯Ý¦³¦¨¦Ë, meaning “to have a well-thought-out plan in mind”.

11 Zhang 1988: 32.

12 Ibidem: 31.

13 Similarly, based on Freudian psychoanalysis, American art critic Donald Kuspit regards the subconscious as an important motivation for creating abstract art, and believes that the essence of abstract art lies in the complete separation from life and the return to the subconscious, through which the artist can release pure aesthetic pleasure. See Kuspit 1989: 117-127.

14 These two canons are originated from Xie He’s (谢»®, active 550-535) Six principles of Chinese painting (绘画¤»ªk) from the preface to his book The Record of the Classification of Old Painters (¥j画«~录, c. 550), and contain the same terms “rhythm” and “composition” that Kandinsky used extensively in his theoretical writings. Although there is never a total “non-figurativeness” in traditional Chinese painting, we can see the conceptual comparability of the two artistic phenomena. There are several other versions of translation, as well as debates about how to translate these canons. See Clunas 1997: 46. The version I use here was translated by Herbert Allen Giles. See Giles 1905: 28.

15 Zhang 1988: 33-34.

16 Kandinsky 1982 (1912): 218.

17 Zong 1981: 159.

18 In the manifesto From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism, Malevich proposed and discussed the characteristics of Suprematism as a kind of pure abstract art: “I have transformed myself in the zero of form… Things have disappeared like smoke…”. See Malevich 1995 (1915): 35-36.

19 Kandinsky once stated that his artistic utopia “may come by the year 2000” (Hahl-Koch 1993: 331).

20 Golding 2000: 82.

21 Ibidem: 82, 96.

22 Washton Long 1980: 109-110.

23 Wang 2010: 1-2.

24 Chiang 1973: 117.

25 Ibidem.

26 Ibidem: 125-126.

27 Weiss 1985: 137-145.

28 Kandinsky 1982 (1914): 399.

29 For example, in comparison with Composition VI, Long has identified some of the hidden images in the painting – angels in the upper left and right corners, peaks in the middle and upper part, cities and towers, and lower saints. However, she thinks that Composition VI represents the theme of The Last Judgement, which obviously does not coincide with Kandinsky’s account in the Cologne lecture (1914). See Washton Long 1980: 111-116.

30 Kandinsky 1982 (1914): 398.

31 Elkins 2018: 141-143, 307-309.

32 Ibidem: 131.

33 It’s just as Ernst Cassirer argued in his philosophy of symbolic forms that art could be defined as a language with an independent “grammatical system”; and he even regarded art as an ideal symbolic form that exhibits the highest and purest spiritual activity. See Cassirer 1977: 21.

34 White 1988: 31.

35 Kandinsky cited many examples of Chinese art and culture in his theoretical writings, such as Point and Line to Plane (1926), to illustrate the principles of the basic forms of art. Besides, the theosophical doctrines that Kandinsky admired were also inspired by Buddhism and Eastern culture.

36 Cassirer 1986: 192.

37 Langer 1986: 51.

38 Elkins 2010: 64-65.

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Indice delle illustrazioni

Titolo Fig. 1. Wassily Kandinsky, Motley Life, 1907, tempera on canvas, 130 × 162.5 cm, Lenbachhaus, Munich
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Titolo Fig. 2. Wassily Kandinsky, Composition X, 1939, oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
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Titolo Fig. 3. Wassily Kandinsky: Composition IV, 1911, oil on canvas, 159.5 × 250.5 cm, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
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Titolo Tabella 1
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Titolo Fig. 4. Wassily Kandinsky, Composition V, 1911, oil on canvas, 190 × 275 cm, Private collection
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Ai 艾 Xin 欣, «Kandinsky’s Composition and Zheng Xie’s Bamboo»Rivista di estetica, 80 | 2022, 11-29.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Ai 艾 Xin 欣, «Kandinsky’s Composition and Zheng Xie’s Bamboo»Rivista di estetica [Online], 80 | 2022, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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