Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the art of painting has evolved from photographic-like depictions of objects and people to complex representation of a more abstract nature. Explaining the new art forms, many painters set down their artistic concepts and principles in treatises and essays, among the most renowned of which are Wassily Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in the Art” and Henry Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter”. Kandinsky’s and Matisse’s key ideas on the expressive role of color and composition, the elitism of art, and the painting as reinterpretation of reality by the artist, are reflected in such paintings as Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and Paul Klee’s The Sick Heart (1939).
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Both Kandinsky and Matisse pay special attention to the color issue in their writings. Kandinsky develops a whole theory, categorizing the color effect into two stages: the physical and the psychological effects of color (92). While the physical effects of color show themselves in a transient sensation which ceases its action as soon as one stops looking at the color, psychological effects render a far deeper impact on the onlooker since they engage a whole complex of senses including those of smell, sound, and touch (Kandinsky 92–93).
Thus the physical effect of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I according to Kandinsky’s color theory is harsh and tiring effect of the dominating bright yellow-golden color: the eye instinctively seeks repose in the calmer tints of the face (Klimt). The longer-lasting psychological effect of the portrait is quite the opposite: instead of focusing on the woman’s face, one’s mind’s eye recalls the warm glittering color of the dress and background and experiences a sensation of posh elegance characterizing the portrayed lady. As for Matisse’s vision of color, he observes that not only harmony but also dissonance of colors can produce pleasurable effects on the viewer (132).
And indeed, the palette of The Sick Heart is saturated with contrasting cold and warm tints that make various objects stand out against the homogeneous background and allow grouping those objects into semantic categories according to their color (Klee).
Klee’s The Sick Heart reflects yet another two key ideas of the writings. Kandinsky emphasizes the dissociation of true art from general plebs, the difficulty of perception of unique creations of “non-understood artist”, and Klee supports this artistic credo (Kandinsky 88; Düchting 75). Such attitude becomes obvious in The Sick Heart, which together with the heart itself contains a whole arrangement of mysteriously-shaped objects unintelligible to the general public (Klee). On the other hand, Matisse in his writings promotes is the importance of balanced composition for the overall success of the painting (132). This well-considered balance attracts the viewer in The Sick Heart, the proportionate composition of which builds up around the two central images: the wounded heart and the human head observing it (Klee).
Last but not least, one of Matisse’s key points is that the painter should not merely copy the nature, but must “interpret the nature and submit to the spirit of picture” (134). This principle of personal interpretation is embodied in the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I: the figure of the lady is installed into a background which resembles a typical home interior with an armchair but does not necessarily copy it (Klimt). Here Matisse’s artistic credo of not copying life but creating a full illusion of it reveals itself (Néret 60).
Though possessing bright individualities, the outstanding painters of the period reveal certain likeness in the principles underlying their creative work. The way Klimt and Klee interpret color and composition, the way their paintings reflect in practice Kandinsky’s and Matisse’s ideas on the nature and essence of painting prove without doubt that theory and practice of art are inseparable from each other. This interconnection of theory and practice, of reflective aesthetics and its application demonstrates the high professionalism of the artists discussed and makes their works the more valuable for deeper understanding of the art by the eager public.
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Düchting, Hajo. Wassily Kandinsky, 1866–1944: A Revolution in Painting. 2nd ed. Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, 2000. Print.
Kandinsky, Wassily. “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.
Klimt, Gustav. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. 1907. Neue Galerie, 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.
Néret, Gilles. Gustav Klimt: 1862–1918. Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, 2005. Print.