Kandinsky and the Inner Tensions of the Point

Visual Music by Maria L. Berg 2023

I’ve reached an interesting and complicated point in my study. I want to create images that express contradictory abstract nouns and evoke emotion. But how will I photograph those images if everyone has different definitions for abstract nouns and everyone perceives images differently? How do points, lines, and colors on a two-dimensional surface evoke emotion at all?

This exploration will be ongoing, probably for a long time. I’ve been reading widely and while re-reading Abstract Art by Anna Moszynska noticed a reference to a text called Point and Line to Plane written by Wassily Kandinsky. I had recently looked at a picture book called The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock which talks about Kandinsky having synesthesia. I’m glad I read that before Point and Line to Plane because it helps make sense of how Kandinsky talks about visual elements making sounds.

The Science of Art

In Point and Line to Plane which was first published in German in 1926, Kandinsky is attempting to create and explain a science of art. He sees every experience as a duality of external and internal.

Every phenomenon can be experienced in two ways. These two ways are not arbitrary, but are bound up with the phenomenon—developing out of its nature and characteristics: Externally—or—inwardly. . . . Aside from its scientific value, which depends upon an exact examination of the individual art elements, the analysis of the art elements forms a bridge to the inner pulsation of a work of art.

Wassily Kandinsky

When explaining his idea of an outer experience he titles the section “Shock.”

Sometimes an unusual shock is able to jolt us out of such a lifeless state into vigorous feeling. Frequently, however, the most thorough shaking fails to revitalize the deadly condition. The shocks which come from without (sickness, accident, sorrow, war, revolution) wrench us violently out of the circle of our customary habits for a shorter or a longer time, but such shocks are, as a rule, looked upon as a more or less violent “injustice.” Therefore, the desire to re-establish as soon as possible the traditional habits, temporarily abandoned, outweighs all other feelings.

And here’s his explanation of Inner experience:

Disturbances originating from within are of a different character; they are brought about by the human being himself and, therefore, find in him their appropriate foundation. . . . There, the receptive eye and the receptive ear transform the slightest vibrations into impressive experiences. Voices arise from all sides, and the world rings.

Kandinsky’s ideas of inner and outer experiences make me think of the emotions of the artist while making art and the emotions of the observer when experiencing the art. No matter how precisely an artist has used different elements in an attempt to evoke a specific emotion, or experience, the viewer may see something completely different.

In Art and Visual Perception by Rudolf Arnheim, Arnheim says:

I shall mention in passing that the theory of empathy has afflicted generations of aestheticians with a host of pseudoproblems. One asked : Are the feelings expressed in sights and sounds those of the artist who created them or those of the recipient? Does one have to be in a melancholy mood in order to produce, perform, or apprehend a melancholy composition? Can “emotions” be expressed in a Bach fugue or a painting by Mondrian? These and other similar questions become incomprehensible once one has understood that expression resides in perceptual qualities of the stimulus pattern.

And in Modern Painters, Volume 1 (of 5) by John Ruskin he says:

He alone can appreciate the art, who could comprehend the conversation of the painter, and share in his emotion, in moments of his most fiery passion and most original thought. And whereas the true meaning and end of his art must thus be sealed to thousands, or misunderstood by them; so also, as he is sometimes obliged, in working out his own peculiar end, to set at defiance those constant laws which have arisen out of our lower and changeless desires, that whose purpose is unseen, is frequently in its means and parts displeasing.

So what is the relationship between the emotions of the artist and the emotions of the observer?

In Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures by Eric R. Kandel, Kandel explores art through neuroscience. He talks about the viewer’s experience when viewing art as a creative act itself which is called “the beholder’s share.”

“Riegl emphasized an obvious but previously ignored psychological aspect of art: that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only do we collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional figurative image on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the visual world, we interpret what we see on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegl called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement.” Based on ideas derived from Rigl’s work and on insights that began to emerge from cognitive psychology, the biology of visual perception, and psychoanalysis, Kris and Gombrich went on to develop a new view of this concept, which Gombrich referred to as the beholder’s share.

Kris, who later became a psychoanalyst, started things off by studying ambiguity in visual perception. He argued that every powerful image is inherently ambiguous because it arises from experiences and conflicts in the artist’s life. The viewer responds to this ambiguity in terms of his or her own experiences and conflicts, recapitulating in a modest way the experience of the artist in creating the image. For the artist, the creative process is also interpretative, and for the beholder the interpretative process is also creative. Because the extent of the viewer’s contribution depends on the degree of ambiguity in the image, a work of abstract art, with its lack off reference to identifiable forms, arguably puts greater demands on the beholder’s imagination than a figurative work does. Perhaps it is these demands that make abstract works seem difficult to some viewers, yet rewarding to those who find in them an expansive, transcendent experience.”

Outside the Box by Maria L. Berg 2023

The How-tos of Evoking Emotion

Searching for the actual how-to of evoking emotion with art, I found a couple of paragraphs in The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum:

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the ramifications of lines, forms, and contrasts on the emotional content of an image. This is of the utmost importance because even the most technically perfect print is meaningless without emotion.

. . . jagged lines are far more active than curved lines, which themselves are more relaxed. High contrast is far more active than low contrast. Middle gray tonalities impart the quietest, most relaxed mood of all. So jagged, sharp lines or even tightly curving, twisted lines combined with high contrast will be intensely active and highly charged. Gently curved lines along with softly modulating tonalities will impart a quiet, relaxed mood.

Any thinking photographer will use this universal language to his or her advantage. If you want a quiet, reverential mood, you’ll do well to work with curved lines, rounded forms, and subdued contrast. Soft light, gray tones, and pastel colors on rounded hills impart the feeling of a gentle, pleasant, livable landscape, whereas strong sidelight on sharp, craggy rock spires imparts excitement and adventure, perhaps even a feeling of foreboding.

So certain lines and colors, tones of color and lighting can evoke calm or excitement. That’s a start.

Kandinsky begins his scientific study with the geometric point. But he quickly moves from the idea of a mark of a pen or a brush to a surface to the written word. He says the geometric point is “the ultimate and most singular union of silence and speech.”

The geometric point has, therefore, been given its material form, in the first instance, in writing. It belongs to language and signifies silence.

In the flow of speech, the point symbolizes interruption, non-existence (negative element), and at the same time it forms a bridge from one existence to another (positive element). In writing, this constitutes its inner significance.

Externally, it is merely a sign serving a useful end and carries with it the element of the “practical-useful,” with which we have been acquainted since childhood. The external sign becomes a thing of habit and veils the inner sound of the symbol.

The inner becomes walled-up through the outer.


As you can see, even a point, the smallest visual (and written language and speech) element is itself a contradiction with both negative and positive elements of both inner and outer significance.

He says that by moving the point from where one would expect to see it, once can reveal its “inner tensions.” I absolutely love his examples and think it may be something to think about in the coming month of poetry:

Let the point be moved out of its practical-useful situation into an impractical, that is, an illogical, position.

Today I am going to the movies.
Today I am going. To the movies
Today I. Am going to the movies

It is apparent that it is possible to view the transposition of the point in the second sentence still as a useful one—emphasis upon the destination, stress upon the intention, loud fanfare. In the third sentence the illogical, in pure form, is at work. This may be explained as a typographical error—the inner value of the point flashes forth for a moment and is immediately extinguished.


So how does this help me with my images? Kandinsky got me thinking about focusing on basic elements. I haven’t contemplated the point’s inner tensions before; its sounds and silences, its illogical positions.

Next week, I’ll contemplate the line.

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