In the historical course of its development, the art of painting has witnessed cardinal changes in its techniques and objects. By the end of the nineteenth century, artists have developed a manner of painting that was often too enigmatic and obscure to the general public.
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Therefore, written explications were provided by the artists themselves, concerning their vision of art, its essence, mission, and techniques. This paper focuses on tracing connections between Wassily Kandinsky’s colored woodcut on paper Archer, Paul Klee’s watercolor The Sick Heart and the theoretical ideas outlined in Kandinsky’s work “Concerning the Spiritual in the Art” and Henry Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter”.
In his contemplation of the art, Kandinsky mentions the primitives as those reflecting not the external image but the internal, hidden essence of things (87). In this sense, his Archer provides a perfect illustration of the idea: it is not exactly the outward appearance of the depicted objects (which are quite uneasy to recognize) but rather their inner message that is captured in the painting (Kandinsky). In the mass of colors, the viewer is able to discern the main object of the picture, the archer, long after the first glance is cast at the painting.
Such interpretation of painting has common grounds with Matisse’s idea that the artist should not bluntly copy the nature, but must take effort to “interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture” (134).
The same phenomenon of the objects’ external shape reinterpretation is observed in Klee’s watercolor: though preserving the initial shape of the key objects in The Sick Heart, Klee transforms the rest beyond recognition so that the onlooker has to decipher their essence and consequently recognize their form (Klee). The mysteriousness of the depicted objects suggests yet another parallel with Kandinsky’s idea of elite art created by the “non-understood artist” and unavailable for understanding by the lower public (88).
The major emphasis in Kandinsky’s Archer is obviously placed on colors, and this is not accidental. In his theoretical work, Kandinsky develops a theory of color to which he ascribes two effects: physical and psychological (92). According to their impact on the onlooker, colors can be divided into bright and dull, warm and cold, soft and hard, prickly and smooth (Kandinsky 92).
Archer provides a convincing illustration of that theory, with its semantic spheres expressed by means of contrasting colors: while the archer and the castle are depicted in warm, active, and bright palette, the hostile background is represented in darker and colder colors (Kandinsky).
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Supporting the idea that at the physical stage of color perception the eye seeks repose in dark color, Kandinsky provides this restful background in his picture; on the other hand, the sharp contrasts and the general state of warfare depicted in the canvas occur to the viewer only later, at the psychological state of perceiving the painting.
The importance of color in the painting is emphasized by Matisse in his “Notes of a Painter” as well. Contradicting the impressionists’ interpretation of color as the reflection of a transient moment, Matisse claims the importance of harmony and dissonance of color for the general success of the painting (132).
Colors should be carefully selected and combined so that they support and sustain each other (Matisse 134). These ideas can be discerned in The Sick Heart, featuring a whole array of warm and cold tints that let the semantically important objects stand out more or less sharply against a monochrome background (Klee). Such use of color allows perceiving the objects as more or less significant for the general arrangement.
All in all, it is apparent that despite the individual peculiarities intrinsic to each artist of the time, the overall trends in their painting style conform to the theoretical ideas laid out in the contemporary fundamental writings on art.
Kandinsky, Wassily. Archer. 1908-09. Serge Sabarsky Collection, New York.
—. “Concerning the Spiritual in Art.” Art in Theory, 1900 – 1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1993. 86–94. Print.
Klee, Paul. The Sick Heart. 1939. Serge Sabarsky Collection, New York.
Matisse, Henry. “Notes of a Painter.” Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics. Ed. Herschel B. Chipp. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1970. 130–137. Print.