Creative breakthroughs rarely come like a bolt out of the blue. Usually the artist (or any creative person) begins almost unconsciously to head in certain directions, impelled by some heart-felt conviction. Over time, these vague cravings gather momentum; eventually, the tide becomes irresistible, and some crisis point is reached.
And out of this crisis comes the decisive breakthrough. The old forms wither, and something new arises. We see this pattern repeated over and over again with all types of creative people. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) is considered one of the most important artists of the twentieth century. He was one of the very first “abstract” artists. That is, he was one of the very first to paint in a purely abstract way, without seeking to depict any actual physical form. Abstract art is for us today nothing revolutionary. We have grown up with it, and see it everywhere. But at the dawn of the twentieth century, things were very different. Conventions that had existed in painting and sculpture were not so easily challenged. There was a general consensus that norms in painting should be adhered to.
But Kandinsky didn’t see things this way. He proposed to take painting in a radical new direction. Most of his early paintings (c. 1903-c. 1912) at least made an attempt to depict actual physical objects. But over time, right before the First World War, his thinking began to change dramatically. At first it was a slow process. And then the need to change direction became more strident.
This is how creative breakthroughs happen.
There were four specific events that made Kandinsky decide to abandon completely the painting of physical objects. These were:
- His awareness of modern quantum theory with its revolutionary “randomness”
- A chance encounter with a painting by the artist Monet
- Seeing a performance of the Wagner opera Lohengrin
- Observations learned from painting his own pictures
The first of these factors is easy to understand. At the turn of the century, the imagination of the entire world was set on fire by the discoveries of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, and many others in the field of atomic physics. What had seemed so “real” and “material” now seemed almost illusory. Kandinsky would later say:
Everything became uncertain, tottering and weak. I would not have been surprised if a stone had dissolved in the air in front of me and become invisible.
These feelings echoed the sentiments of many other thoughtful people. As for the second factor, the seeing of a picture by Monet, it came about in 1895 at an exhibition of French Impressionists in Moscow which Kandinsky was attending. The painting in question showed several haystacks. When he first laid eyes on it, he was annoyed that the picture was so vague and diffuse; he could barely discern what it was supposed to depict.
But eventually he was overpowered by the raw brilliance of the colors Monet had used. His mind was now opened up to the new possibilities of painting. Objects were not so important, after all. As he relates it:
Painting acquired a fairy-tale power and splendor. And unconsciously the object was discredited as an indispensable element of painting.
The performance of Lohengrin was another stepping-stone along the path to the breakthrough. Kandinsky had a capability which is now called synesthesia: that is, the ability to perceive colors as sounds, and vice-versa. To him this was a very real sense perception. The musical tones of the opera must have somehow fired up the synapses of his mind, and helped take it in new directions.
This fact shows just how important it is for creative people to expose themselves to different types of sensory experiences, arts, and activities. Kandinsky vividly described how he made the final break with representational art around 1910. It was a relatively minor event in Munich, where he was living at the time. This was how he described it:
It was the hour of approaching dusk. I came home with my paintbox after making a study, still dreaming and wrapped up in the work I had completed, when suddenly I saw an indescribably beautiful picture drenched with an inner glowing. At first I hesitated, then I rushed toward this mysterious picture, of which I saw nothing but forms and colors, and whose content was incomprehensible. Immediately I found the key to the puzzle: it was a picture I had painted, leaning against he wall, standing on its side…Now I knew for certain that the object harmed my paintings.
This was how Kandinsky achieved his conversion to abstract art. It did not come at once; it happened gradually, but steadily. The creative mind will be ever on the lookout for new horizons, for new vistas. It will not be content to be idle and stagnant. It will try to connect various lines of inquiry, to link various fields of endeavor, and to discern patterns or universal lessons, if it can; and where it cannot, it may create them. This is the essence of creativity, that elemental force which has its own logic, its own rules, and its own irresistible momentum that carries us forward, forward to our ultimate purpose.