The Spiritual in Abstract Art

Wassily Kandinsky is commonly credited with being the first painter to venture wholly into the realm of abstract art. However, Swedish artist Helga af Klint was making abstract paintings in 1906, while Kandinsky did not abandon recognizable imagery until 1910. [1] Her abstract works were not shown until twenty years after her death, as stipulated in her will. She did not believe her contemporaries were ready to appreciate their full meaning.

The point here is not to set the record straight, however, but to identify what moved Helga af Klint to create abstract paintings. Like Mondrian and Kandinsky, two fathers of abstraction, Klint was drawn to abstraction by an awareness of the spiritual. [2] This suggests that something deeper than the avant-garde tendencies of a few rebellious men led to the birth of abstraction. These men were not looking to challenge traditional notions of art just for the fun of it. Their own spiritual convictions and the cultural landscape they operated in led artists of vastly different styles and backgrounds to turn to abstraction as a necessary way of depicting a transcendent reality.

A keen sense of a spiritual mission was present in many of the early abstract painters. This carried on into the movement of abstract expressionism with artists like Newman and Rothko who also had a strong sense of the spiritual purpose of their work. However, this spirituality was not synonymous with the traditional beliefs of the church. Mysticism, theosophy and the occult all had strong influences on these artists. Klint considered herself a medium, holding séances and claiming that her paintings came from communications with a higher form of consciousness. Mondrian’s zeal for discovering a new artistic language did not arise until he converted to theosophy. His artistic vocation was inseparable from his religious goals. Kandinsky, also a theosophist, aimed to free man from the “nightmare of materialism” by awakening man’s soul through his paintings. [3]

While all three developed different abstract aesthetics, they had similar goals. Their work ranged from chaotic and improvisational to minimally geometric, but they all sought to show the deeper reality beyond the physical world and to change the culture with a spiritual enlightenment created by their paintings. [4] These are remarkably optimistic and intentional goals considering that current conceptions often associate abstraction with art about the unintelligibility of the world, the private angst of the artist, an abandonment of traditional values, and the reflection of an existential worldview.

In his essay “A History of Modern Art,” contemporary art critic Daniel Siedell concludes with,

“The history of modern art is not simply the history of sexual liberation and licentiousness, l’épater les bourgeoisie, and attacking traditional values and mores. It is the utopian projection of a new world, a better world, a perfect world, redeemed and perhaps saved. These aspirations presuppose a relationship between the aesthetic and the spiritual.” [5]

In the same essay he quotes a Utopian Socialist Henri de Saint-Simon, who saw avant-garde artists as an advance team of elite cultural combatants who were preparing society for a utopian future,

“What most beautiful destiny for the arts, that of exercising over a society a positive power, a true priestly function, and of marching forcefully in the van of all the intellectual faculties, in the epoch of their greatest development! This is the duty of artists, this is their mission.”

The contemporary art world should be encouraged and inspired by this kind of purposeful zeal. Art is not just a tool for self-expression, it is a powerful vehicle for communicating vision and building a better world. Artists of faith in particular should emulate the artists of the past in both their dedication to the truth and their fearless exploration of new ways to communicate reality. While they may have been motivated by strange or erroneous occult beliefs, these past artists still serve as excellent models of the connection between vocation and religion. They are a reminder that art and faith are not exclusive categories and that strong belief should be a source of passion, inspiration, and strength.

Contemporary artists such as Makoto Fujimura, Bruce Herman and Delro Rosco are, in fact, doing this. They marry conceptual depth with a progressive effort to depict the limitless expanse of truth and mystery facing mankind and are firmly grounded in their faith. Artists like these help to change the world through their faithful attempts to tell the truth about the world through their art and their presence in their communities. Like Klint, Kandinsky, and Mondrian, they have a spiritual mission and not only make profound art, but are able to write and talk about their faith, process, and vision.

Abstract art is an ideal vehicle for communicating spiritual realities for several reasons. It removes viewers from the world they think they know and allows them to focus their contemplation on symbols, the experience of a work, or its meditative character. Kandinsky said, “the spirit is often concealed within matter to such an extent that few people are generally capable of perceiving it.” Abstraction allows for an exclusive focus on the experiential or conceptual realms, which are the primary concerns of the spiritual. However, just because abstraction reveals something beyond the physical realm does not necessitate it being a gnostic rejection of the material world.  Artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian, Fujimura or Rosco may be working with a clear understanding that it’s just “paint on canvas,” but their art, no matter how spiritual, remains firmly in the realm of aesthetic experience. Therefore, there is an equal emphasis placed on the visual experience and transcendent significance.

In abstract art, great beauty can be created with nothing more than paint on a canvas. After all, the beauty of the physical world is abstract. Trees and mountains are beautiful because of their form, color and texture, not because they look “just like trees or mountains.” The abstract painter is bearing witness to the beauty of nature. When writing about Presence/Absence, a largely abstract body of paintings, Bruce Herman said,

“I’ve tried and failed in countless times to capture this place in straightforward landscape painting, but like Eliot, I’ve discovered that I am not here to simply record or verify or instruct. I am here to pray, to witness.” [6]

Many viewers, especially those who have not studied art history, find it difficult to appreciate abstract art. “My kid could do that.” is a common, though unfair and untrue response, and many believe abstraction to be a sign of an artist’s lack of skill, a lack of any kind of clear meaning, or an embrace of ambiguity and existentialism. While this is sometimes the case, it is also a language of vibrant possibilities, particularly for artists of faith, and should been seen as a sign of artists who are dissatisfied with the status quo and are trying to create a new language for the betterment of culture and to more clearly communicate truth.

1.http://www.hamburgerbahnhof.de/exhibition.php?id=40476&lang=en

2. http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Kandinsky—the-birth-of-abstraction-5112

3. Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky

4. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1065

5. God in the Gallery by Daniel Siedell

6. http://bruceherman.com/texts_essays_presence_absence.php

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3 Comments

Filed under Art, Art Meditation, Essays, Faith, Jacob Rowan Studios, Painting

3 responses to “The Spiritual in Abstract Art

  1. Pingback: Truthful and fearless, that’s what’s he said. | seetheprettylights

  2. Awesum! Fantastic post! Intuitive, Spiritual, Symbolism! Got Great insights into my art! Thanks a Lot! All the Best from Rizwana!

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