Form or Spirit: the Great Wave and the Transverse Line

Hello! I wrote a paper about art in college (nearly 10 years ago now). I’m pretty proud of the work even now (though I could probably argue with myself about it). It’s not my normal writing but I wanted to share it all the same. Hope you enjoy it!

Kandinsky argued that each work of art was a result of its zeitgeist (Kandinsky, 9). The zeitgeist of the post world war was to delve into the meaning of life and art. In abstract painting this is done by reducing art to simplest form; just colors and lines on a plane. Hokusai, a contemporary of Kandinsky from the other side of the planet, also emulated this idea but instead of focusing on just form preferred content (Ficke, 25). Is the work of the Japanese print masters not as emotionally powerful or as good of art as the abstractionist? To better understand the argument of content and form one must understand the art theory of Kandinsky and Hokusai and their works.

All art, for Henry and Kandinsky, is a blending of two forces (indeed a thesis and its antithesis if you will): the external and the internal (Henry, 36). The external is the visible portion of a work of art. It can be broken into smaller parts and each part examined individually (44). While the internal is the “form itself” or content of a work of art. The means of art are defined as form; this is the color or linear structures of the piece (22). Henry thus believes that painting is content (the spirit) given shape or expression (23). When the forces of external and internal meet they create the composition.

If one were to remove the soul or essence or content of a painting, one would render the work of art into pure form (Henry, 43). That is to say that if one takes the characters and settings from a painting then it becomes just color and shapes. A traditional painting with concrete form and content is objective while an abstract painting without definite form and content is subjective (42). The traditional painting tells the observer what they are seeing but the abstract painting allows the observer to create the meaning themselves.

To the Kandinskyain, art—good art—should feed the soul and make it resonate (Kandinsky, 11). This is different from the act of living in which the individual immediately (and perhaps subconsciously) experiences life (Henry, 7). What makes art stand out is that it freezes a moment of pure experience (of life, emotion, and ideas) and forces the observer to fully realize the “inner sound” or content of the artwork (Kandinsky, 13); though the reason the art is made is often for greed or vanity.

This means that most art is empty. A large volume of art has very little for the casual observer to connect with (Kandinsky, 13). In fact when art tries to show the struggle of the middle class (Banksy) or even muscular men and busty women (Dave Gibbons) it loses what the causes of the art (suffering, pain, and evil) in the obscurity of the content (Kandinsky, 14). The exterior is the Superman in his red and blue (Henry, 7) but the object is the violence that freedom needs to protect itself from evil (9).

Because this life of art is invisible, hidden under the form, its meaning is distorted by the perception of it (Henry, 10). Because abstract art rids itself of content in a direct sense it is able to make its form the content (12). In this way, an abstract painting can imitate nature in that it can be understood directly by the viewer without the perception of the content (13).

In Kandinsky’s work Transverse Line the viewer can experience the jumble of emotion and the feeling of movement. Looking into composition one can understand the plight of being an artist in modern life… but is that really what is going on? Maybe it is the ocean during a storm or the mountains at dusk. It is completely objective to the viewer. Kandinsky would argue that each color was important and held special meaning to him and it embodied an idea, but to the observer, it is just some lines and forms with a splash of color. Unlike the works of Hokusai, we cannot truly understand it.

The bulk of western understanding of Japanese art comes from the attraction of the love of the stranger (Ficke, 26). Though not fully understood in terms of context, an American can look at woodcuts of samurai and understand the power and honor of an ancient warrior (Henry, 9). One element of Japanese art that is immediately understood is the general lack of realism (Ficke, 33), the subjects of the woodcuts are generally distorted with little to no background behind each figure.

During Hokusai’s third period of art (widely regarded as his most influential) he became obsessed with displaying the subject matter of his art as stylistic (Ficke, 365), that is surreal, to evoke the spirit of the content. During this period he painted his 36 Views of Fuji (366). Of this series was the famous “Wave” or The Great Wave off Kanagawa that depicts the stormy waves around Mt. Fuji (Hloucha, 29).

Looking the Wave one is first taken in by the intense blue and then drawn in with the drowning boats into the fury of the sea. We can feel the fear and respect those in the boats must feel for the sea (Ficke, 370). If one used Kandinsky’s theory of art this work would endeavor to explain that the blue was calming—but the ocean is anything but calm. This theory does not translate into a work like Hokusai’s. In fact, there are only shades of blue and yellow.
Both Kandinsky’s and Hokusai’s graphic works evoke powerful emotion but by different means. To follow one school of thought to its end does not create a better art or a higher art but rather just art. Their differences aside they are both still art.

In conclusion, the form and the content cannot in and of itself create good or bad art. It is the blending of the two elements that create art worth giving attention to. The pure form of Kandinsky is empty and the pure content of Hokusai does not follow the rules of color. That does not make the Wave bad art, just a different sort of abstraction. True art causes an experience, interplay of perception and the physical world. Art is not color or content, it is both intertwined together.

Works Cited

Ficke, Arthur Davison. Chats on Japanese Prints. London: T.F. Unwin, 1915.

Henry, Michel. Seeing the Invisible: on Kandinsky. London: Continuum, 2009. Print.

Hokusai, and Joe Hloucha. Hokusai. 3rd ed. Prague: Artia.

Kandinsky, Wassily. On the Spiritual in Art;. Trans. Hilla Rebay. New York: Pub. by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, for the Museum of Non-objective Painting, 1946.