June 19, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Kandinsky, New Objectivity, and ripping apart the furniture

This is a post by GREGORY HOLLIN who helped organise the Circling the Square conference and these are his reflections on some of the online discussions that followed on blogs and in comments.

Circles, Squares, and nonrepresentational forms in Munich

Recently I visited Munich and, at the behest of a friend who knows far more about these things than me, spent a morning wandering around the Lenbachhaus art gallery[i]. The top floor of this spectacular building is largely taken up with paintings from the Blue Rider movement, which was active around Munich from around 1910-1914. Perhaps the most famous member of the blue riders was Wassily Kandisky and the Lenbachhaus offers a fantastic array of his work.

As you walk around the rooms of the Lenbachhaus you can see Kandisky’s work change quite remarkably; in the first years of the twentieth century, in paintings such as Der Blaue Reiter (1903), you can clearly make out stylised, yet certainly recognisable, buildings, trains, and – of course – horses. Ten years later, however, when Kandisky was fashioning his ‘impressions’ and ‘abstractions’, the outside world, at least in any recognisable form, completely disappears in a haze of colour. In the words of the Lenbachhaus, Kandisky’s improvisations:

 offer an especially clear illustration of his personal path to abstraction: to Kandinsky’s mind, abstraction meant a sustained effort to conceal and encode representational content in order to convey spiritual ideas in physical form by unfolding their “inner harmony.””[ii]

Kandisky is not turning away from the outside world here, and the Lenbachhaus note that although these paintings “…appear largely nonrepresentational…they were inspired by impressions of nature outside of him”. The impressions are, nonetheless, undoubtedly harder to read, nonintuitive, and (as the aforementioned friend discovered) can leave the uninitiated impressed but slightly confused.

What was particularly interesting about this gallery, however, was that the Blue Rider movement was, quite deliberately, juxtaposed with paintings from the New Objectivity movement. These paintings could not have been more different. Christian Schad’s Operation (1929) shows appendix surgery in photorealistic detail. Josef Scharl’s The Fallen Solider (1932) brings to mind Otto Dix (another artist associated with this movement) in its stark depiction of death in the trenches during World War 1. Without claiming that I’m offering anything like a definitive, or indeed accurate, reading of these works it seemed to me that these artists, who had grown up and often served during WW1, were saying: ‘it is all well and good to play with these experimental forms, aiming to reach a deep truth or new understanding through nonrepresentation, but The Somme is too important for that. The Somme must be shown in the cold, horrific light of day for the mass slaughter that it was’.

Circling the Square in Nottingham

Shortly after I’d returned from Munich I helped out at the conference we held here in Nottingham entitled Circling the Square[iii]. As anyone who attended that conference (or who has followed the ensuing blogs) will know, there has been a great deal of discussion regarding the types of knowledge, and the forms that knowledge is presented in, in relation to both the natural and social sciences. One strand of this debate has been a strident criticism of social scientific attempts to ‘deconstruct’ the facts of the natural sciences, in particular quantum physics and global warming. To me, much of this criticism strikes a chord with New Objectivity: it is fine for social scientists to warble away when concerning themselves with inconsequential areas of study, but the straightforward, empirical reality of quantum physics cannot be denied (as a contributor to this blog has told me, our microelectronics industry would be in poor shape without it) and global warming, like death in the trenches, should not be denied – the consequences are just too dire for the kind of obscurantism we associate with social scientists (and blue riders…).

In a lovely article[iv], Derek Edwards and colleagues refer to these two arguments, respectively as ‘furniture’ (the reality of which cannot be denied) and ‘death’ (the reality of which should not be denied) arguments against relativism. These types of questions certainly provoke soul-searching among social scientists: should I deconstruct the claims of climate scientists if I believe in this mode of analysis, or does the potential uptake of those arguments by climate sceptics necessitate that I stop? Does my refusal to apply post-structuralist theory to quantum physics demonstrate a laudable restraint or a failure of nerve? Is there space for a blue rider in Verdun?

Of course, I don’t have answers to these questions but, in the hyperbolic fall out of this conference, it’s interesting to see parallels elsewhere. Indeed, I think that is one of the values of social scientific analyses in these areas; these methods and theories might help us think about some of these issues – or ourselves – differently, provide new insights, or perhaps simply provide some pleasure. What is more, it is perhaps worth remembering that, in the Lenbachhaus circa 2014, there remains space for both.


[i] http://www.lenbachhaus.de/index.php?id=10&L=1

[ii] http://www.lenbachhaus.de/collection/the-blue-rider/kandinsky/?L=1

[iii] http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/conference/fac-sci/circling-the-square/index.aspx

[iv] Edwards, D., Ashmore, M. & Potter, J., 1995. Death and Furniture: The rhetoric, politics and theology of bottom line arguments against relativism. History of the Human Sciences, 8(25-49), pp.25–49.

Image: Lenbachhaus Museum, Munich: wikimedia commons

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