The most influential artist to fall under Madame Blavatsky’s spell was Wassily Kandinsky, often credited with being the first abstract artist. In his highly influential book On the Spiritual in Art (1911), Kandinsky affirmed the neo-Platonic doctrine that “everything has a secret soul”—the stars, moon, woods, flowers. The pathology of modern society, he said, consists in its failure to discern the soul in all things: “In this era of the deification of matter, only the physical, that which can be seen by the physical ‘eye,’ is given recognition. The soul has been abolished.”
The reason Kandinsky rejected realism in his art was that he associated it with materialism. If artists follow the rule to paint “only what the eye sees,” then clearly they are limited to material objects. Kandinsky decided that the way to get rid of materialist philosophy was to get rid of material objects in favor of abstraction. Abstract art, he said was “less suited to the eye than to the soul.” It would liberate the mind from “the harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy,” becoming “one of the most powerful agents” of spiritual renewal. Kandinsky’s style is called biomorphic abstraction because its forms echo the curved lines of living things.
Yellow, Red, Blue, 1925
Horse and Eagle
Art as an agent of spiritual renewal
To support his Theosophy-inspired spiritualism, Kandinsky appealed to the rise of atomic theory. Newton had presumed that the atom is a hard, solid mass, like a tiny billiard ball. The term atom literally means something that cannot be further divided (Greek: a = not, tomos = cut). But in 1911 Ernest Rutherford shot atomic particles at a paper-thin sheet of gold foil, and was amazed to discover that most of the particles went right through! Only a few zinged off in various directions—which told him that atoms consist mostly of empty space, with a tiny nucleus in the center. Suddenly, the world of ordinary experience seemed like an illusion. The floor beneath your feet, which seems so solid, is really mostly empty space. The quantity of matter it contains is miniscule. It holds you up mostly by fields of force within the atom.
Many seized on the new atomic theory as scientific support for philosophical idealism (the doctrine that reality is ultimately mental,not material). “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a machine,” exulted physicist James Jeans in 1931. “Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter . . . we ought to rather hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”
Kandinsky likewise heralded the new physics as the end of materialism. “The collapse of the atom model was equated, in my soul, with the collapse of the whole world,” he wrote. “Suddenly the stoutest walls crumbled. . . . Science seemed destroyed: its most important basis was only an illusion.” Indeed, is there even “such a thing as matter?”
The world seemed to be dissolving into invisible forces, which seemed akin to spiritual forces. Franz Marc, whose Horse and Eagle is shown above, used lines of force in his paintings to suggest those invisible energies, which he incorporated into a pantheistic view of nature. In his words, “I want a style [expressing] a sensitivity for the organic rhythm of all things, a pantheistic empathy with the vibration and flow of blood in nature.” Historians often lump together all forms of abstraction. Yet geometric abstraction, with its straight lines and right angles, was formalist (lower story). Biomorphic abstraction with its rounded organic shapes, was expressive (upper story). As Gene Edward Veith notes, even as art grew abstract, it continued to show the same bifurcation into “the formalistic and the expressive” modes.
We can recognize the same divide in architecture (below). Whereas formalist architecture had produced austere glass-and-steel boxes, inspired by ideals of geometry and balance, expressionist architecture produced organic or biomorphic shapes, with a sense of movement. (…)
(Pearcey, Nancy, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning, B&H Books, p. 198-200.)