In Chinese, the characters to describe the type of intense intellectual bond that transcends words like “friendship” or “romance” mean: “Know yourself.” The term is pronounced zhiji in Mandarin, but the characters—and core meaning—remains the same across other dialects. To know yourself, in other words, depends on recognizing your image reflected in another. In turn, that person sees who you are, or can be, even beyond what you can fathom. You depend on their critique, their encouragement of an entirely new aesthetic way of being. You trust them enough to “know yourself.” English doesn’t have a similar word, but this is exactly the kind of bond that united Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, whose artistic friendship from 1911 allowed them to distill their own deepest intuitions, and overturn centuries of Western art and music tradition.
The recent Guggenheim exhibition “Kandinsky: Around the Circle” shows how Kandinsky arrived at abstraction and his spiritual painting technique through reference points often found in music. The show primarily paints this inspiration as individual: an accompanying description mentions how Wagner’s “Lohengrin” inspired Kandinsky’s “full commitment to the arts,” how a visit to Tunisia aroused a “bourgeois fascination with…simpler ways of life.” Yet “Around the Circle” does not go into detail about the depth of Kandinsky’s collaborations, particularly with Schoenberg. This is a missed opportunity, both to distinguish his approach from Primitivism or Orientalism, and to show the mutual way artistic collaboration actually works.
Fittingly, the feature of the show that reaches beyond a surface-level view of inspiration is in a musical commission from the composer Zane Rodulfo, titled “Around the Circle.” The piece opens with a meditative drone, alto flute and percussion sequence, creating a sonic space that stretches towards another plane. In an accompanying interview, Rudolfo links Kandinsky to his mentor, the Trinidadian artist and spiritual leader LeRoy Clarke, whose show “Fragments of a Spiritual” was at the Studio Museum of Harlem in 1968. In referencing and dedicating the piece to Clarke, Rodulfo shows the bidirectional dialogue that actually characterized Kandinsky’s work, beyond flashbulb inspiration or appropriation.
When Kandinsky and Schoenberg first heard of each other, both artists had already departed so radically from the traditional forms dominant in art and music since the Renaissance that they had nearly driven crowds of upper-crust art-lovers to riot. In Kandinsky’s case, the offending painting was “Composition II,” the second in a series of abstract canvases inspired by music, in which geometry and color were no longer means toward the representation of the world, but ends in and of themselves; in Schoenberg’s, it was his String Quartet No. 2, a piece that included a fifth part for a soprano singer despite being a “quartet,” and all but ignored the key signature printed at the start of the score.
So it wasn’t surprising that Kandinsky felt a sense of kinship with Schoenberg even before he first heard his music at a New Year’s’ concert in Munich. The concert poster outside had included a quote from Schoenberg’s recent Theory of Harmony. Dissonance, it said, was just a more remote form of consonance. The concert in Munich was packed with audience members curious to hear this put to practice, and the Blue Rider artists sat towards the back. The program included the quartet-that-was-not-a-quartet as well as Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11. Kandinsky fervently sketched in a notebook on his lap as he listened, responding to chords chosen not according to pre-set rules but exclusively the laws of personal intuition: a step away from tonality. Within the framework that centuries of classical music relied on, tonality is what made the structure of a piece clear and predictable for listeners; the intense opening of String Quartet No. 2 seems to rove with the kind of pain that can’t be pinned to a single source. Moments of resolution seem to squirm away—or were left open to the interpretation of Kandinsky’s pencil.
Tonality is a hinge term of art and sound, and at the time Kandinsky was himself starting to challenge tonality in painting. The term tone came into popular use for visual art in the 19th century as painters working directly from nature tried to reproduce the range of colors in a landscape. Tonality is the relationship between these tones: the way the quality of light casts all colors in a single fluid scheme, like a filter, not mismatched as if in collage. Instead, both Kandinsky and Schoenberg were interested in tonal contrasts. How unexpected relationships can reveal new inner meanings.
Fellow Blue Rider painter Franz Marc later wrote that the music reminded him of Kandinsky’s large “Composition”—which “permits no trace of tonality”—and of his “jumping spots” which, like Schoenberg’s quartets, “allow each tone to stand on its own.” Within two days of the performance, Kandinsky completed the painting “Impression III (Concert).” In thick bright shapes and brush-strokes, the painting surges with strident yellow against jet black. In Kandinsky’s color theory, yellow is a brassy trumpet’s middle C. And of black: “Against it every other color, even the weakest sounding, sounds stronger and more precise.” Something precise and new was emerging. Two weeks later, Kandinsky got hold of the composer’s address and wrote to Schoenberg directly, sending a portfolio of his work and apologizing for writing without a personal introduction.
“You do not know me, of course,” the painter wrote in the letter, “however, what we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common that I feel completely justified in expressing my empathy. In your works, you have realized what I, albeit in uncertain form, have so greatly longed for in music. The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions is exactly what I’m trying to find in my paintings.”
This was a deep compliment coming from Kandinsky, who was born into a family of pianists, had studied piano and cello, and knew music intimately. Unbeknownst to him, however, Schoenberg was himself an accomplished painter. In fact, the String Quartet No. 2 Kandinsky heard at the concert was partially a response to Schoenberg’s wife having an affair with his painting teacher, the Viennese expressionist Richard Gerstl. Schoenberg wrote back within a week with no less than seven exclamation marks and two expressions of thanks for the art portfolio, which gave him “very, very much pleasure.”
“I am sure that our work has much in common—and indeed in the most important respects: in what you call the ‘unlogical’ and what I call ‘the elimination of the conscious will in art.’…Art belongs to the unconscious! One must express oneself! Express oneself directly! Not one’s taste, or one’s upbringing, or one’s intelligence, knowledge or skill. Not all these acquired characteristics, but that which is inborn, instinctive.”
“You do not know me, of course, however, what we are striving for and our whole manner of thought and feeling have so much in common that I feel completely justified in expressing my empathy.” The artistic kinship between Kandinsky and Schoenberg… Click To Tweet
If friendship is a means of knowing yourself, it involves faith in precisely what cannot be known: an instinctive belief that the other is the complement to your own unconscious, going beyond concrete facts or commonalities. The feeling of something deep within you being enacted, spoken, painted, played before your eyes in another person.
One senses in the cadence of the letters that there is more to their trumpeting identification than dual artistic backgrounds. Something more than the fact that the avant-garde is often a lonely and exhausting place, requiring trusted emotional support on top of the kind of self-possession characteristic of that era’s manifestos. Both Kandinsky and Schoenberg got that already from their colleagues and wives. What went unspoken was that Schoenberg, an Austrian Jew, and Kandinsky, a Russian of Finno-Ugric and Mongolian descent, likely recognized each other as outsiders in a culture where populism was taking hold. As Kandinsky scholar Peg Weiss points out, both critics and friends tended to see them this way. On the rare occasions their work was not met with scathing criticism (in Kandinsky’s case, a painting was likened to a failed Persian carpet design), both were praised for “primitive” and “Oriental” qualities—a blanket epithet for Jews and people of Eastern origin. Both Munich and Vienna had only become multiethnic in the mid-19th century, and tensions roiled beneath every interaction. The angry response to both artists’ works was likely rooted in other, deep-seated anxieties.
Within a month, the two artists took their relationship to the next level by requesting photo portraits of each other, and wrote fervently of further things in common. With modest caveats, Schoenberg offered to send a few of his paintings, and that February, Kandinsky wrote back rapturously, putting the work in the context of a book he was trying to publish with no success, his now-classic art theory text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Describing the two extreme poles of abstraction and purest realism, Kandinsky commends Schoenberg for the latter in his self-portrait. His realism isn’t an end in itself, Kandinsky writes, but a means towards inner abstraction. He then compares this approach to Schoenberg’s daring compositional use of parallel octaves—forbidden since the time of Bach in part because individual voices become indistinguishable to the listener and create a thin sound. Implied in Kandinsky’s reference is that parallel octaves, these indistinguishable voices, liberated a new truth.
During pivotal periods in each man’s career, they took each other’s work seriously and offered rigorous critiques bare of racial stereotypes. In doing so, their relationship forged a space to explore the artistic “instinct” that others might have reduced to their outsider “upbringing,” the distinction Schoenberg made in his first letter. Months into their correspondence, Schoenberg praised “Romantic Landscape,” but added “the other pictures are not hung very advantageously.”
“There is something I cannot reconcile myself to: the format, the size. I also have a theoretical objection: since it is only a question of proportions, for example,
Black 24 white 120
By red 12 yellow 84
…. Practically expressed: I feel these color-weights less, because they disappear too much from my field of vision. (A few escape me entirely.) I had to stand far away, and then of course the picture is smaller, the equation ‘reduced.’”
Because Schoenberg later invented the twelve-tone technique with its tone rows, today he is often thought of as an irrepressibly logical composer. Mathematical, cerebral. The kind of man who analyzes expressionist painting through color-weights. The most damning insult coming from Kandinsky, on the other hand, was: “It does not make me vibrate spiritually.” Yet both knew how to recognize and elevate a strong emotional undercurrent in art through their own language. Take the fact that Schoenberg vehemently rejected the term “atonal”—preferring pantonal or polytonal. A man who regularly faced antisemitism, his desire was to make all parts of a piece equally expressive and important, no tone subjugated by another. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, which came out months after Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony, Kandinsky echoes the poster quote: “The greatest external difference becomes the greatest internal equality.”
Rejecting the protocols of tonality, only the artist knew which tones to strike. In a different section of Concerning the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky wrote, “Color is a means of exerting a direct influence upon the soul. Color is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings. The artist is the hand that purposely sets the soul vibrating by means of this or that key. Thus, it is clear that the harmony of colors can only be based upon the principle of purposefully touching the human soul.” Although the passage is technically about color, the ideas apply just as well for Schoenberg’s approach to music.
Both painter and composer believed that the role of the artist was to predict the future through these intuitions. This was what was at stake in their critiques of minutiae like ratios. Numerology and theosophy were being discussed in the cafés of Munich and Vienna, and Schoenberg and Kandinsky took these practices seriously. It is striking, then, that as the clock ticked towards the largest war the world had ever seen, both men were creating art that evoked apocalypse, giving voice to unnerving dissonance, urging visions of unity.
They were spending the summer in homes rented to be near each other and exchange work at a faster pace when the war broke out in 1914. The two were separated—Kandinsky returned immediately to Russia and Schoenberg joined the military. An eight-year silence halts the rhythm of their correspondence. Still, one feels their presence in each other’s work and writing. In a proposal for the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow, Kandinsky outlined “parallelism” in sound and art, citing the reaction to Schoenberg’s use of parallel octaves in his compositions like “the lash of a whip.” In the fall of 1914, Schoenberg started a War-Cloud Diary, sketching and analyzing the colors of the sky in Kandinsky-esque terms to try to predict the fate of his country, and perhaps conjure his remote friend.
September 24, about 10:45 am: Icy-cold mood, like in a circus before a very daring stunt: silence, tension, no wind,”
September 25, 6:20 pm: not quite clear; to the right dazzling: like a radiant hope. To the left gloomy: gray, with some red (evening glow) extending in front
6:40 pm: the red-golden gleam by which I am always favorably impressed between the two houses behind the tree
7:40 pm: cloudless, stars: victory sky.
After famine, fear, death, utter rupture of world-view and the loss of Kandinsky’s son, the two only managed to get back in contact in 1922. Neither could know how the other had changed over the near-decade that had passed. Kandinsky was offered a position at the Bauhaus, and wrote to his friend, saying he was disappointed to hear that Schoenberg was not in Berlin and would not be returning. He said he did not know why this was the case.
“Letters are such an awkward substitute. I had hoped that we would see each other very often and discuss so many questions. Everything has really changed since our time together in Bavaria.” He signed the letter, as always, Your Kandinsky.
“How often I’ve thought of you with anxiety during these eight years!” Schoenberg replied. “And how many people I have asked about you, without ever getting any definite and reliable information.” He describes the war starvation in Vienna, but most of all, “the overturning of everything one has believed in. That is probably the most grievous thing of all.”
Kandinsky did not reply until nine months later, after finishing “Through-Going Line,” a life-affirming piece of vital reds and yellows. His tone was warm, blaming the new breakneck pace of life after the war, and then offering Schoenberg a job as director of the Bauhaus music school.
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The bond of knowing yourself, of belief, risks a more painful breaking. Because in the end how much do you really know someone? Or know what history’s modulations will make of them? Like Kandinsky, Schoenberg had spent his career believing firmly in the artist’s ability to predict the future through unconscious instinct. In the economic devastation after the war, antisemitism was at a peak in Vienna, and Hitler’s hatred was in fact partially inspired by watching the Viennese bourgeoisie harass Jewish intellectuals. Schoenberg saw the thousands of Eastern European pogrom refugees coming through the city, the newspapers on café tables with daily headlines about “the Jewish Question.” History had made it so that he could no longer identify solely as an “artist.” And in that moment, Alma Mahler had confided to him that Kandinsky was an anti-Semite.
“Dear Mr. Kandinsky,” Schoenberg’s letter begins, icy with the absence of the “my” that once began the phrase. Then he refuses the Bauhaus position. “For I have at last learned the lesson that has been forced upon me during this year, and I shall not ever forget it. It is that I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely even a human being (at least, the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.
“I have heard that even a Kandinsky sees only evil in the actions of Jews and in their evil actions only Jewishness, and at this point I give up hope of reaching any understanding.
“It was a dream. We are two kinds of people. Definitively! So you will realize I only do whatever is necessary to keep alive. Perhaps someday a later generation will be in a position to indulge in dreams.”
It is unclear to what extent Kandinsky was antisemitic, or how much he was caught in the cross-winds of outside forces. The Bauhaus was forced to keep a minimal Jewish quota, which his job offer to Schoenberg ignored. And Alma Mahler may have spread the gossip vindictively, in response to Kandinsky rejecting her as a lover. Yet though Kandinsky’s warmth towards Schoenberg seems to contradict the rumor, it is common to hold conflicting ideas about individuals, and the Jewish people as a whole.
Kandinsky’s paintings tended to reflect what was happening in his life at the moment of their creation, and days after receiving the letter, he made one of his most famous works, “Black and Violet.” Although abstract, the painting loosely depicts two geometric boats tossed vertical on a violet sea. A black mask approaching. “The Chinese use [violet] specifically as the color of mourning,” he had written in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
After finishing the piece, he began his reply. “I love you as an artist and a human being,” he wrote at the beginning of the letter, stating his indifference to nationality. He mentions that he has many Jewish friends—friend being a word that held immense meaning for him. “Why didn’t you write to me at once when you heard of my remarks? You could have written to me that you objected to these remarks.
“You have a frightful picture of the ‘Kandinsky of today.’ I reject you as a Jew, but nevertheless I write you a good letter and assure you that I would be so glad to have you here in order to work together!
“We, so few of us, who can be inwardly free to some extent, should not permit evil wedges to be driven in between us. This piece of work is also a ‘black’ work. One must resist it.” By refuting nationality, Kandinsky alludes to their old shared belief: that the two had a kinship of the unconscious that transcended all external rules and forms forced on them by society.
It is in Schoenberg’s response one week later that one feels the full rupture of their relationship. Together with the preceding letter, this correspondence was the only time he wrote about his experiences as a Jew directly. A rare, emanating pathos burns from every sentence. Intimacy and hurt, two tones at once:
When I walk along the street and each person looks at me to see whether I’m a Jew or a Christian, I can’t very well tell each of them that I’m the one that Kandinsky and some others make an exception of… And even this benevolent view of me wouldn’t be much use, even if I were, like blind beggars, to write it on a piece of cardboard and hang it round my neck for everyone to read. Must not a Kandinsky bear that in mind? Must not a Kandinsky have an inkling of what really happened when I had to break off my first working summer for five years, leave the place I had sought out for peace to work in, and afterwards couldn’t regain the peace of mind to work at all. Because the Germans will not put up with Jews! Is it possible for a Kandinsky to be of more or less one mind with others instead of me?
The letter is four pages long, pleading, scornful, betrayed, demanding why he cannot be seen as both Jewish and human, prophetically concluding that antisemitism will only lead to violence. It is left unsigned.
Respecting Schoenberg’s wishes, Kandinsky did not respond. Instead, that June he began a new painting. This was years before the Bauhaus was broken up by the Nazis and his paintings were burned after being shown in the infamous “Degenerate Art” show. Nearly a decade before he moved to Paris and went on to explore more Russian and Siberian tribal iconography in his work. A decade before Schoenberg emigrated to America, having sensed what was coming in Europe early, the way Kandinsky had the First World War. Before Schoenberg went on to sound his Jewish roots by writing “Kol Nidre” and “A Survivor from Warsaw.” Before these progressions that made them both similar and distinct, that June of 1923 roving without a clear center, Kandinsky went to his studio, the loss of his friend around him like a war-cloud, and painted “In the Black Square.”
Black: An eternal silence, without future and hope.
And at the center, a trapezoid white with possibility, pointing hopefully upward.
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A version of this essay is available in Spanish in Revista Nexos.