The subtitle of this book is “A Guide to the Garden of Eden, by Vasily Kandinsky.” The Garden of Eden, if you recall from your Sunday school days, was where Adam and Eve lived before they were expelled for eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. The name has stuck as a metaphor for an innocent, blissful state.
The book is a collection of poems by Kandinsky about his garden in Bavaria. The poems are all about colors and shapes, which are “the language of the spirit.” He writes in abstractions; he is dealing with deep issues, but he doesn’t offer any concrete advice on how to make good paintings.
The word guide suggests that his poems are like a tourist guidebook. That’s not right; they don’t tell you what to look at or how to see it. There is no step-by-step plan for putting colors and shapes together into good paintings.
Kandinsky’s writings are more like a description of the state of mind you need in order to make good works of art.
Kandinsky’s book is a guide to the Garden of Eden. It explains how to get there and what to do when you arrive. Like the Bible, it is full of true stories. Unlike the Bible, it is also full of instructions.
The instructions are quite precise: in fact they are recipes. But like all recipes they leave out certain things, such as “the joy that cooking brings” and “the pleasure of eating it.” These things are so important that everyone knows them but no one can explain them.
And the recipe for getting to Paradise has the same problem: it leaves out some important things. The first thing it leaves out is knowledge. You need to know where you are going; and more than that, you need to know why you want to go there at all.
In Kandinsky’s writing about the garden, he is as specific and scientific as possible. He carefully plants each tree and shrub. He records their progress over time. He measures the water and nutrients they consume. He studies the soil, the climate, and their placement in the garden. And he records his observations of the plants’ growth, health, and interactions with one another.
He compares his results with other gardens but is careful to leave out any subjective judgments or emotions. He describes his observations in prose that is beautiful and poetic without being flowery or vague. And he writes with great care, knowing that others will judge him by this work.
The Garden of Eden was a huge success: it won prizes at Moscow’s All-Russian Exhibition of 1910, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, and many other exhibitions around Europe.* Its fame helped Kandinsky establish himself as an expert in gardening as well as painting.
But like all scientific experiments, it contains a valuable lesson for us even today: we can count on nature to be orderly even if we can’t understand why it works that way. The Garden of Eden is a beautiful example of how order arises from chaos by simple rules that are easy to state but impossible for us to anticipate fully or control completely
The Garden of Eden is a garden. It’s also the name of a painting.
The Garden was painted in 1911, by the Russian avant-garde artist Vasily Kandinsky, and so it’s an example of what we might call kinetic art: art in which movement and time are important elements.
But when I say “kinetic art,” what I mean is that it has a function; it’s not just a decoration. The Garden was designed to be looked at from two different points of view: if you stand at one end, you see cool colors; if you stand at the other end, you see warm colors.
The Garden of Eden is one of the most enigmatic paintings by one of the most enigmatic painters in history. It’s also one of the most beautiful and unforgettable.
The basic idea of this painting is that its canvas has been transformed into a kind of organic, living surface onto which Kandinsky has blotted and smeared paint. The result is something like a cross between a Rorschach test and an inkblot test.
The central figure is a single tree, growing increasingly abstract in its branching structure as it rises toward the top of the canvas. Its trunk forks twice, becoming two large trunks with distinctive “bark” patterns that dominate the upper half of the painting. To their left we see an array of six flowers or buds (only five are visible), which together form another kind of double-tree structure — again, with more abstraction at higher levels. At the bottom right there are two more trees that begin to appear only after we look at them for some time; they grow out from behind a patch of blue that seems almost like water, but which is clearly intended as a solid shape.
As with other abstract artists, Kandinsky’s message here is less literal than personal. The garden of Eden he paints is his own; it reflects
For Kandinsky, the appearance of a work of art in the mind of the artist was an act of divine grace. The artist could not create; God created through him. The result was a revelation, an apparition that had to be recorded as quickly as possible before it passed away. That is why his pictures don’t look like anything. They’re meant to look like what they represent in your mind.
The same idea can be applied to nature, he says later. The artist tries to see things as they are rather than as they appear to be. He tries to see them as they would appear if God were present. And so one day he finds himself looking at a tree, and suddenly “the living light streams out of it.” He sees it not just as a tree but as “the very image of life,” and he realizes that if “I remain alive, I must also be unchanged.” Suddenly everything is alive: “my whole being vibrates with joy at the miracle of life.”
In the second decade of the twentieth century, Kandinsky created a new artistic genre. He called it “composition” and considered it to be related to literature.
Nude Descending a Staircase is one of the greatest works of art in this genre. It was first shown in Paris in 1912, at an exhibition of works by the European avant-garde, which included cubism, futurism and synchromism. The art critic Louis Vauxcelles called the work a “poster for a fireworks display,” criticizing the painting for its lack of unity, form and subject matter. In fact, Nude Descending a Staircase is a series of images that can only be compared to fireworks.
In this piece, Kandinsky depicts movement through space with an endless variety of angular lines that are constantly changing color and intensity. The artist’s technique is based on improvisation: he never uses preparatory sketches or drawings. The composition is completed after the artist has composed it in his mind.
In the center of this work is a woman dressed in red moving in space. She moves downward through different levels (a staircase), as if she were disintegrating or being torn apart by some force. At times, she seems to lose control