Sunday, October 25, 2015

A View of All Saints

Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was a Russian artist probably most widely known as the painter who created the first abstract watercolor. Even if he wasn't an active worshiper as an adult, he was raised in the Russian Orthodox church, and his work often shows the influence of liturgy and religious practice. That is certainly true with his various interpretation of All Saints Day.

The collection of images below represent several different compositions around the theme of All Saints. The top images - variations on All Saints I - also have elements of the Last Judgment (especially the trumpeting angel at the left) and the crucifixion (note the crucified Jesus on the hill in the background near the bell of the angel's trumpet).
Kandinsky. All Saints I. 1911. Munich: Lenbachhaus Gallery. (Left) Oil on canvas. (Right) Reverse glass painting.
 
(Left) Kandinsky. All Saints Day II. 1911. Lenbachhaus Gallery. Oil on canvas. (Right) Kandinsky. All Saints II. 1911. Lenbachhaus Gallery. Reverse glass painting. For the Lenbachhaus Gallery, see: http://www.lenbachhaus.de/
All four images share common symbols and persons. The trumpeting angels present in All Saints I are also in All Saints Day II in the upper right and left corners, though their forms are more abstract in II. All Saints II (lower right), includes the pair from All Saints I, whose arms are companionably around each other. They are central figures in I and much smaller but still in the center of II. All Saints II also includes folkloric references to the Zyrian shaman Pam who rows off in a boat in the lower left corner of All Saints II. 

Siberian folklore, the Last Judgment, the resurrection of the saints, color, glass, paint...all of these are part of Kandinsky's conception of All Saints. At this point in his career Kandinsky is moving toward abstraction. It is important to remember that for Kandinsky abstraction was not just a desire to dissolve recognizable subject matter or forms. Kandinsky was seeking to make a spiritual statement. He believed that if the paintings were too easily understood they were not adequate equivalents for the spiritual world. He was trying to create in visual art the same opportunity that existed in music - to create a spiritual meaning that was not tied to the symbolic objects that tend to drive humans toward narrative. The experience of the painting was to be the spiritual experience. The painting did not exist only to point toward a story of something spiritual. 

Kandinsky's interpretation stands in stark contrast to William Bouguereau's use of All Saints Day as subject matter. Bouguereau, a 19th-century French Academic painter, has placed two women in black at the grave of a loved one. Two very different approaches to the same observance. These two painters are a reminder of the richness of approach and experience of every one of the saints of God. For Bouguereau's painting, click on the Facebook link below. 

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