Type/Face: Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Benjamin on language and perception

Annie Bourneuf

IN Walter Benjamin’s writings of the 1930s on the transformations of the artwork and perception in modernity, in the texts most often cited in art history, it is the technological media of film and photography that are central. For instance, in Benjamin’s most frequently cited text, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, painting serves as film’s foil: Benjamin contrasts the masses’ ‘extremely backward attitude toward a Picasso painting’ to their ‘highly progressive reaction to a Chaplin film’.1

An engagement with contemporary visual production may be found in Benjamin’s writings of the 1910s and early 1920s as well. But in these earlier writings, painting and the graphic arts are the focus. And when he mentions particular artists, it is most often those associated with Der Blaue Reiter: Paul Klee, August Macke and Wassily Kandinsky.2 Even the objects in Benjamin’s study around this time appear to signal his affinity with Blaue Reiter aesthetics: Gershom Scholem mentions that in 1917 these included a ‘Bavarian blue glazed tile, depict[ing] a three-headed Christ’ – a choice that resonates with the reproductions of Bavarian folk art in Der Blaue Reiter almanac (1912) – and a reproduction of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, which exemplified the spirit of Gothic art for so many Expressionist artists.3 Benjamin held the publications of the Munich group in high regard as well. In a 1920 letter to his friend Gershom Scholem, Benjamin reports that he read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and comments: ‘This book fills me with the highest respect for its author, as his pictures command my admiration. Indeed it is the only book about Expressionism without prattle; of course not from the standpoint of philosophy but rather from that of a doctrine-of-painting’.4 It seems that he had by then already acquired Der Blaue Reiter almanac, which he called ‘irreplaceable’.5 Why was Benjamin interested in Kandinsky’s prewar writings at this moment? For one, he was reading up to ‘come to terms with Expressionism’ in order to write a review (now lost) of Ernst Bloch’s The Spirit of Utopia (1918).6 Benjamin’s friend Erich Gutkind, with whom he lived for part of 1920, was likely another impetus for Benjamin’s interest.7

It is hardly surprising that Benjamin’s interests shifted from Macke and Kandinsky to film and photography, paralleling major reorientations in the German avant-garde. (His interest in Klee’s art, however, never ceased and it seems that his décor elaborated on his earlier interests rather than reflecting the new ones: in a 1931 letter, he remarked ironically on the ‘saintly images’ that hung on the walls of his ‘communist’s cell’: still the Bavarian three-headed Christ, plus a Saint Sebastian and the two Klees he had acquired in the early 1920s.8) Benjamin’s earlier writings on art, aesthetics, colour, painting and fantasy, which might be seen as in dialogue with Der Blaue Reiter, have received much less attention from art historians than his later writings on film and photography.9 More broadly, Sigrid Weigel has remarked that scholars have not attended enough to the fact that ‘painting, the history of art, and a discussion of modernist art play foundational roles for [Benjamin’s] way of thinking’, a relative neglect she calls ‘all the more remarkable when it comes to Benjamin’s reception by art scholars.’10

In the case of Benjamin’s writings on art from the time of his most intense interest in Der Blaue Reiter, part of the reason for their relative neglect lies in the fact that many of the writings in question are fragmentary. (Some have not survived, such as Benjamin’s ‘short essay’ on August Macke’s paintings.11) Moreover, they are cryptic and closely related to the esoteric language philosophy Benjamin developed in his crucial 1916 essay ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’. Whilst Benjamin’s Brechtian and Marxist orientation in the 1930s gave the concepts he developed then at least the appearance of digestibility into the theoretical apparatus of Anglo-American art history, Benjamin’s early language philosophy could hardly be less assimilable: it draws on Johann Georg Hamann’s theological understanding of language as mediating between man and God, and attacks all conventionalist understandings of language as ‘bourgeois’.12 More broadly, as Weigel writes, Benjamin’s thinking about art might well be seen, in general, as tied up with ‘the afterlife of religion’, with his dialectical mode of thinking about secularization that never allows art to be either identified with cult nor simply separate from it.13 Benjamin’s early writings on art in the vicinity of his early essay on language – whose ‘postbiblical’14 thinking is impossible to overlook, and touching on the works of the Blaue Reiter group, of artists who were themselves to varying degrees and in manifold ways involved with projects of reenchantment – pose serious difficulties for anyone who would like to find in them detachable concepts for the study of the art and art theory about which he wrote. Perhaps that is why there have been so few attempts to analyse Benjamin’s writings in relation to the art and writings of Der Blaue Reiter.

My aim here is decidedly not to find in Benjamin a way of theorizing Der Blaue Reiter, but, more modestly, to illuminate both some of the more obscure passages in Benjamin’s early writings and his rather belated interest in the art and art theory of Der Blaue Reiter, one of the odder moments of the group’s afterlife. It is at once clarifying and productively estranging to see Benjamin’s writings as in dialogue with the art and writing of his contemporaries, in conversation with certain aspects of Expressionism. What might Benjamin have learned from Kandinsky? What parts of Concerning the Spiritual in Art might have been generative for him? There are several different places where such an inquiry might begin. Heinz Brüggemann has demonstrated that the concerns of Der Blaue Reiter provoked Benjamin’s fascination with colour – especially as it appears to children, in children’s book illustrations and elsewhere – as a nonconceptual mode of perception.15 Or one could start with Benjamin’s explicit engagement, in a fragment of 1920, with a passage of Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art on ‘the eternally artistic’ element in an artwork and his reservations about Kandinsky’s conception of ‘eternal value’.16

Although these might well seem more promising starting places, as there are explicit references to Kandinsky in Benjamin’s writings on these matters, I will focus instead on the previously unprobed node of Benjamin’s and Kandinsky’s shared interest in techniques of focusing on the sensuous aspects of ordinary, postlapsarian verbal language. For Benjamin’s interest in the Expressionist artists he admired was bound up with his theory of language.17 In what follows, I will explore resonances between some of Kandinsky’s prewar writings – his essay ‘On the Question of Form’, published in Der Blaue Reiter almanac, as well as his Concerning the Spiritual in Art and a poem in Kandinsky’s book of poems and woodcuts titled Sounds (also published c. 1912) – and Benjamin’s rethinking of the relation between language and visual perception around 1920, specifically in a few of the textual fragments that the editors of his Gesammelte Schriften have gathered under the rubric ‘On the Philosophy of Language and Epistemo-Critique’.18 Passages in Benjamin’s writings seem to try out procedures Kandinsky proposes for defamiliarizing words, perceiving them as if they were incomprehensible; we can see how Benjamin may have responded to, and transformed, Kandinsky’s proposals.

In an outline for a philosophical exploration of language (which at that time he planned to write as his ‘second dissertation’, as was required to pursue an academic career in Germany), Benjamin listed terms for various aspects of language (symbol, meaning, sign, representation) followed by one question: ‘How do works of art relate to these (e.g. Klee)?’19 This concern with the relation between language and the visual arts was not an afterthought. Benjamin’s 1916 essay ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’ asserts that ‘there is a language of sculpture, of painting’ and that these are founded on ‘certain kinds of thing-languages’.20 Benjamin thinks through the relations among human verbal language, the languages of sculpture and painting, and ‘thing-languages’ in a reading of the book of Genesis. Before man’s expulsion from paradise, writes Benjamin, verbal language, too, was in contact with ‘thing-language’, which passed from the thing into its human beholder through a receptive mode of looking. After the Fall, sculpture and painting remain in contact with thing-language although verbal language does not. Benjamin insists that all things, animate and inanimate, participate in language, for it is essential for everything (Benjamin’s examples include a lamp, a mountain and a fox) to communicate its ‘spiritual contents’ (geistigen Inhalt) to man.21 For Benjamin, the language of things is dumb, soundless and material; it is only man, who, by naming things, can translate this unspoken language into spoken language – or so it was before the Fall, when human language lost contact with thing-language.22 Benjamin’s early theory of language is extremely complex, but there is at least an affinity between his notion of things communicating their mental contents to man, and of sculpture and painting as modes of receiving this communication, and Kandinsky’s notion of visual art as potentially revealing the ‘inner sound’ in all things.

The moments in Kandinsky’s writing that I propose may also have been important for Benjamin’s circle around Kandinsky’s notion of the ‘inner sound’ of everyday human words, as well as of things. Referring to Kandinsky’s book of poems, Sounds, the media theorist Friedrich Kittler asserts that the ‘sounds’ of Kandinsky’s title were ‘not romantic primal sounds, but ‘inner sounds’ that remain when one has repeated words until they become senseless – a proven and oft-employed means of simulating aphasia’, a way of ‘isolat[ing] the sound images of words physiologically’.23 For Kittler, Kandinsky is not a neo-Romantic but rather an exemplary figure for the generation of writing in the wake of the media-historical shifts around 1900, the advent of phonography, film, the typewriter and psychophysics. But although Kittler draws a sharp distinction between the ‘romantic primal sound’ and the physiological ‘sound image’, they may not be so separable for Kandinsky. Kandinsky’s prewar writings insist that, in works of art, a prior spiritual content seeks to manifest itself in ‘material form’.24 As in his painting, so too in his poetry, Kandinsky appears to understand the elements of the work (whether paint or letters) as sensory stimuli that produce spiritual effects.

In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky turns to the poetry and drama of the Belgian Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) to develop his own distinction between the abstract, immaterial, inner sound of a thing that affects the soul directly, as opposed to its material outer existence.25 Most of all, Kandinsky wants to draw attention to Maeterlinck’s device of repeating words. If a word is repeated often enough – a ‘favorite childhood game’, in Kandinsky’s words, as well as ‘a proven and oft-employed means of simulating aphasia’, as Kittler says, using the language of psychophysics – the connection between the word and the object it names is severed, such that the ‘pure sound of the word’ is revealed, which directly affects the soul, writes Kandinsky.26 In Sounds, Kandinsky tries out this device. Sometimes the effect recalls repetition in nursery rhymes or baby talk, pushed to an extreme: ‘There was a long table. Oh, a long, long table. Right / and left at this table sat many, many, many people, / people, people, / people’.27

In a passage in ‘On the Question of Form’ that parallels his discussion of word repetition, Kandinsky writes about the possibility of separating two different ‘effects’ from a printed letter: besides its function as an instrumental sign, an element of a communication system, the reader may look even at a letter of Kandinsky’s own text as a ‘thing’ with its own visual form, an arrangement of curved and straight lines that has, Kandinsky asserts, some affective dimension (it might appear ‘“gay,” “sad,” “striving,” “striking,” “defiant,” “ostentatious,” etc’.) He proposes that displacing a dash from its usual place as a punctuation mark in a text allows the viewer to separate it from its ‘practical and purposeful significance’. Displacing it still further by removing it from the page altogether and putting it onto a canvas, writes Kandinsky, would turn the reader into a viewer, preparing that viewer to feel its ‘inner sound’ – as long as the viewer does not fall back into another ‘practical-purposive’ mode of understanding it by seeing it ‘as a means of delineating an object’. (If viewers do see it as delineating, they may recover from the ‘practical-purposive’ by reminding themselves that a line may have an ‘exclusively purely pictorial significance’.28) Kandinsky’s poem ‘Different’, also from Sounds, thematizes this way of looking at a written sign (now a numeral – ‘a big 3 – white on dark brown’ – rather than a letter or punctuation mark) so that it loses its referential value to become a visual form (figure 6.1). While many people, the poem continues, assumed that the numeral’s top and bottom curve were the same size, actually the top is ‘just a / little, little, little / bit’ bigger than the bottom (words are repeated here, too), and although it seemed to be ‘look[ing] to’ the left, actually it is out of plumb and leans slightly to the left, so that it looked not only to the left but also ‘just a tiny bit down’ (figure 6.2).29 The close visual observation of the ‘big 3’ – which, the poem suggests, might continue still longer, discovering further nuances of proportion and position (so the last line implies: ‘But then again maybe it was different’), in counterdistinction to the glance that merely reads it – has a strange effect: such careful looking personifies the numeral, remaking it into an upright, human-like form, even endowing it with a gaze of its own. The German verb used in the poem each of the three times that the numeral is said to ‘look’ is ‘guckte’, which, implying an active, curious, penetrating look, might better be translated as ‘peeped’ or ‘peered’, and is thus usually the act of a person or other animate being.30 There is, just as in the case of ‘peep’ and ‘peer’ in English, also a sense of the verb typically used to speak of inanimate things: it can also mean to protrude, to be just visible, and in this sense is usually accompanied by a prepositional phrase indicating what is partially concealing the object, parallel to English constructions such as ‘the crocuses peeped up through the snow’, but this sense doesn’t seem applicable to the fully visible numeral.31 It seems rather that the numerical protagonist of Kandinsky’s short poem is not only looked at, but that it itself can actively look, rendering it an animate agent.

6.1 Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Anders’ (first page) from Klänge (Munich: R. Piper, 1913).

6.2 Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Anders’ (second page) from Klänge (Munich: R. Piper, 1913).

In Benjamin’s fragments on the philosophy of language written around 1920 – during the same period when he was reading Kandinsky, as we know from the letter cited above – he proposes similar experiments in defamiliarizing written language by focusing on the graphic shape of the letters. He writes that instead of mentally intending the meaning of a word, one can, by looking at it repeatedly, focus on what he calls the ‘word-skeleton’.32

Peter Fenves is one of the few scholars who has investigated Benjamin’s idea of the ‘word-skeleton’ in depth. Fenves relates it to Benjamin’s engagement with Husserl’s phenomenology and sees the ‘word-skeleton’ as a ‘“frontal assault” on the concepts of phenomenology’.33 As Fenves explains, Husserl attempts in his Logical Investigations to disentangle expression from indication by examining, in Husserl’s words, ‘expression in the solitary life of the soul’, in line with his ‘premise … that expression owes its origin to a living subject, who, by animating certain sensible complexes, lends them meaning’.34 The point of Benjamin’s concept of the ‘word-skeleton’, according to Fenves, is to speak of the ‘general loss of meaning’ that occurs whenever one supposes, as Husserl does, that a word derives its meaning from a ‘living soul’, a ‘living speaker who gives a skeletal word ‘flesh and blood’ by using it for a determinate purpose’.35 To refuse this model of meaning, Benjamin asserts instead that everything speaks. For Benjamin, as Fenves writes:

The phenomenon of language not only cannot be located in the situation of soliloquy; soliloquy has to be replaced by its opposite, namely universal loquacity. There is meaning in the proper sense of the word only when everything speaks. The theory of meaning should thus begin with panlogue rather than monologue. And so, pace Husserl, the starting point for any logico-linguistic investigation is not the elimination of the communicative character of language but its infinite expansion. Everything must be able to speak.36

Fenves does not make a connection between Benjamin’s writings on the ‘word-skeleton’ and interest in Kandinsky. Yet his analysis suggests that part of what was important for Benjamin in Kandinsky’s writings was likely Kandinsky’s vision of ‘universal loquacity’ from – to borrow Benjamin’s words on Kandinsky that I quoted above – the ‘standpoint … of a doctrine-of-painting’. Kandinsky often envisions the world as such a panlogue: ‘The world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually effective beings’.37 But Benjamin does not simply take up Kandinsky’s panlogue as a weapon to wield against Husserl’s philosophical attempt to theorize language ‘in the solitary life of the soul’. Rather, Benjamin at once seems to borrow from Kandinsky’s thinking on language and, at the same time, turns it on its head.

As already discussed, Kandinsky’s descriptions of the viewing of a number or a letter implicitly anthropomorphize it. In ‘On the Question of Form’, Kandinsky speaks of examining a letter as a ‘corporeal form’, a ‘being with its own inner life’ that we might see as, for instance, ‘gay’ or ‘sad’, ‘striving’, ‘defiant’, or ‘ostentatious’.38 This quasi-physiognomic viewing of the letter as expressive seems to depend on viewing it as like a human body, expressing emotion through stance and gesture. Although commonly acknowledged that Kandinsky and Marc were influenced by Wilhelm Worringer’s counterposing of abstraction against the naturalistic aesthetics of empathy, the kind of viewing that Kandinsky speaks of directing at the letter is the kind of viewing – more often associated with artworks and the natural world – that we might in fact well call empathic.39 It has been noted that whereas Worringer sought to hold abstraction and empathy apart as opposed poles of aesthetic experience, Kandinsky – who was well aware of theories of empathy developing out of Robert Vischer’s work via Theodor Lipps (and perhaps not only through Worringer’s summaries of Lipps’s thinking) – attempted to combine them.40 Vischer, who coined the term Einfühlung (literally ‘feeling-into’, translated into English as ‘empathy’) and whose work put it on the philosophical agenda, spoke of the form of an object as expressive by virtue of the viewer’s projection of his own bodily form into that of the object.41 ‘I project my own life into the lifeless form’, wrote Vischer, ‘just as I quite justifiably do with another living person’; thus, for instance, ‘In the branches of a tree we spread our arms longingly’.42 Kandinsky’s descriptions of the viewing of a written sign as expressive seem to depend on this kind of empathic viewing.

Whereas Kandinsky’s writings implicitly anthropomorphize the written sign, Benjamin does so explicitly. In a passage in which he questions the philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt’s comparison of the word to the human individual, Benjamin proposes that one might instead see the word as ‘a person’s skeleton [Knochengerüst am Menschen]’, for instance.43 He speaks of the word’s graphic shape as the ‘word-skeleton [Wortskelett]’: like a human skull, ‘the word grins’.44 For Benjamin, this visual image of a word is expressionless, ausdruckslos, and meaning is not to be found in it, as opposed to the appearance of meaning in the spoken word.45

There are two moments in Benjamin’s and Kandinsky’s descriptions of looking at writing: first, it is perceived as a graphic image, disjoined from its ordinary task of encoding communicative sound. Second, this visual shape is anthropomorphized, seen as bearing physiognomic meaning, legible like the human body or face.46 Since reading writing is generally understood to require readers to see so differently, to switch off whatever capacities they may have for such physiognomic empathy with the thing seen, this is a peculiar move. For Kandinsky, it seems that talking about the expressive qualities of the letter serves to point out that even here, even in the case of the most instrumentalized and arbitrary sort of sign, one can see otherwise, in a way that reveals the expressive side of everything – even a letter or a ‘cigar butt’ or a ‘spent match’, to cite two more of Kandinsky’s examples of things that might seem to be nothing but ‘dead matter’ but are in fact ‘living spirit’, and thus capable of producing an effect on a receptive viewer.47 The examples he chooses are illuminating: for Kandinsky, it seems, a letter is like a spent match (not merely a manufactured everyday instrument, but one that is dead, used up, something that has entirely exhausted itself in its use) – that both can be seen as ‘living’ is, for Kandinsky, testimony to the potency of a mode of seeing that can enliven even such dead things, can view even them as ‘being[s] with [their] own inner life’.48

For Benjamin too, writing is perceived as graphic image, and then anthropomorphized so that it may be seen physiognomically. However, for Benjamin, this physiognomy is expressionless in the extreme, and this expressionlessness is figured as deadness, like the grin of a skull that is expressionless for it is not backed by any expressive subject within, and yet an object that one cannot help but read physiognomically, for it has a face. Benjamin’s analogy of the visual shape of the word to a skeleton may appear to be only a repetition of an opposition of dead letter to living spirit, yet the analogy, if read in dialogue with Kandinsky’s writings, also foregrounds the reverse movement of enlivening that occurs in the artist’s texts.49 Benjamin in these notes seems to take on Kandinsky’s terms to bend them backwards; he too posits the possibility of such anthropomorphizing viewing of the graphic shape of letters, but so as to emphasize their deathly expressionlessness – which he seems to conceive in part within Kandinsky’s terms, by inverting them.

As a postscript to this speculative discussion of Benjamin’s engagement with Kandinsky’s writings, I turn to one of Benjamin’s last works, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’ (1940). In this essay, so many years after the writings discussed above, Benjamin returns to the notion of the word as something that can be looked at anthropomorphically, even empathically, that we also find in Kandinsky. Here, in his discussion of aura’s decay, Benjamin writes that:

Experience of the aura … arises from the fact that a response characteristic of human relationships is transposed to the relationship between humans and inanimate or natural objects. The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To experience the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us.50

In his footnote to this discussion of aura as experienced when the viewer endows that which he views with a gaze of its own, Benjamin adds: ‘words, too, can have an aura of their own. This is how Karl Kraus described it: “the closer one looks at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back [Je näher man ein Wort ansieht, desto ferner sieht es zurück].”’51 One might well think back to Kandinsky’s numeral 3, which also actively looks – but always to the left, not towards the reader. Although Benjamin cites the Austrian critic Kraus, making no mention of Kandinsky, one might see this footnote as going back to Kandinsky and to the conceit of the painter’s poem – that the characters of writing, marks made to be seen, looked at closely, might themselves acquire, or be given, the ability to see. But here the direction of the gaze of the written marks, is, so to speak, turned, rotated outwards to confront the viewer – suggesting how Kandinsky’s conceptions of language and perception might be taken in directions that Kandinsky himself did not pursue.


I am grateful to Mark Haxthausen for his suggestions on this chapter, in particular, and, more generally, for sharing so generously his thinking on Kandinsky and Benjamin. Any faults in this chapter are, of course, entirely my own. I also thank Ursula Marx of the Walter Benjamin Archiv, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, for her assistance.

1Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 36.

2Heinz Brüggemann’s Walter Benjamin über Spiel, Farbe und Phantasie (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007) is the most comprehensive study of Benjamin’s early writings as in dialogue with the art and theory of the Blaue Reiter. Brüggemann focuses on this dialogue with respect to important issues of colour and childrens’ perception, and does not discuss the particular connection I hypothesize here between Benjamin’s and Kandinsky’s writings on language and perception. See also Marcus Bullock, ‘In a Blauer Reiter Frame: Walter Benjamin’s Intentions of the Eye and Derrida’s “Specters of Marx”’, Monatshefte, 93:2 (2001), pp. 177–95.

3Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: New York Review Books, 2001) p. 47. Scholem goes on to mention that Benjamin had made a ‘special trip to Colmar’ to see the altarpiece, and that what particularly fascinated Benjamin in its panels was ‘what he called das Ausdruckslose, their quality of expressionlessness’. On Benjamin’s idea of the expressionless, see note 45 below. See Benjamin’s statements on Grünewald in a short text titled ‘Socrates’ (1916): ‘Grünewald painted the saints with such grandeur that their halos emerged from the greenest black. The radiant is true only where it is refracted in the nocturnal; only there is it great, only there is it expressionless, only there is it asexual and yet of supramundane sexuality’. When he writes at the end of this paragraph that ‘For [human beings] genius still remains not the expressionless one who breaks out of the night, but rather an expressive, explicit one [ein Ausdrücklicher] who vibrates in the light’, one might speculate that although Benjamin’s interest in Grünewald might well be situated in relation to the Expressionist enthusiasm for the painter, his interpretation of Grünewald, on the other hand, reacts strongly against the dominant Expressionist understanding of his art. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 52–3. On Benjamin and the Isenheim Altarpiece, see Sigrid Weigel, Walter Benjamin: Images, the Creaturely, and the Holy, trans. Chadwick Truscott Smith (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), pp. 219–24. On the Expressionist reception of Grünewald, whom the art historian Max Deri, writing in 1922, hailed as ‘The strongest, the greatest, and most agitated of the Expressionists in the European past’, see Peter Selz, German Expressionist Painting (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 16–19, and Anne Stieglitz ‘The Reproduction of Agony: Toward a Reception-History of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar after the First World War’, Oxford Art Journal, 12:2 (1989), pp. 87–103.

4‘Dies Buch erfüllt mich vor seinem Autor mit höchster Achtung, wie dessen Bilder meine Bewunderung wecken. Es ist wohl das einzige Buch über den Expressionismus sonder Geschwätz; freilich nicht vom Standpunkt der Philosophie –, sondern einer Lehre-von-der-Malerei’. Benjamin, Briefe, ed. Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, vol. 1 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1964), p. 229. Benjamin, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910–1940, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 156; translation slightly altered.

5Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 2, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 488. Benjamin writes that he ordered the almanac from the publisher when he was living in Switzerland, which would imply he acquired it between 1917 and 1919.

6Bloch later described his Marxist-messianic book as a ‘first work … of a new, utopian kind of philosophy’, whose ‘revolutionary Romanticism’ he developed in his later work. The section on ‘The Production of the Ornament’ dwells on Expressionism in the visual arts, mentioning Marc and Kandinsky. Ernst Bloch, Spirit of Utopia, trans. Anthony A. Nassar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 27–33, 279.

7Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 123.

8Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, vol. 4 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), p. 62.

9The volume edited by Andrew Benjamin on Walter Benjamin and Art (London: Continuum, 2005), for instance, has as its explicit focus ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’.

10Weigel, Walter Benjamin, p. 207. Weigel notes, of course, that few studies of Benjamin fail to discuss the important place of Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I and Klee’s watercolour Angelus Novus in Benjamin’s oeuvre, but these are special cases. A number of art historians have, however, drawn most productively upon two very early texts by Benjamin, ‘Painting and the Graphic Arts’ and ‘On Painting, or Sign and Mark’, both written in 1917. Signal examples include Yve-Alain Bois, ‘Piet Mondrian, New York City’, in Painting as Model (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), pp. 178–9, 308, and ‘The Semiology of Cubism’, in Lynn Zelevansky (ed.), Picasso and Braque: A Symposium (New York, 1992), pp. 186–7, 217; Michael Fried, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 174; and Rosalind E. Krauss, ‘Horizontality’, in Bois and Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), pp. 93–4. Benjamin, The Work of Art, pp. 219–25; see also Doherty’s illuminating introductory essay, pp. 195–215.

11Benjamin, Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, p. 178.

12‘The human word is the name of things. Hence, it is no longer conceivable, as the bourgeois view of language maintains, that the word has an accidental relation to its object, that it is a sign for things (or knowledge of them) agreed by some convention. Language never gives mere signs.’ Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, p. 69.

13Weigel, Walter Benjamin, p. xxiv. See also Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘The Supposition of the Aura: The Now, The Then, and Modernity’, trans. Jane Marie Todd, in Walter Benjamin and History, ed. Andrew Benjamin (London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 3–18.

14Weigel, Walter Benjamin, p. xxii.

15See note 2 above. See also Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience (London: Routledge, 1998).

16Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, ed. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), p. 173. Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, p. 235. Doherty, ‘Between the Artwork and its “Actualization”: A Footnote to Art History in Benjamin’s “Work of Art” Essay’, Paragraph, 32:3 (2009) pp. 331–58.

17I explore a related connection concerning Benjamin’s early writings on Klee and on Cubism in A. Bourneuf, Paul Klee: The Visible and the Legible (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp. 66–82.

18Benjamin, ‘Zur Sprachphilosophie und Erkenntniskritik’, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1985), pp. 9–53.

19Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 1, p. 269.

20Ibid., p. 73.

21Ibid., p. 62.

22Ibid., p. 67.

23‘Thus Kandinsky’s poetry isolated the sound images of words physiologically with the exactness that his painting isolated colors and forms. That does not hinder Germanists from attacking him in the name of a linguistics that grew out of the same premises. But alexia seems to haunt the books of its forgotten investigators’, Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer and Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 216–17.

24A good example of the way Kandinsky links spiritual content to the material form expressing that content may be found at the beginning of ‘On the Question of Form’: ‘the spiritual value seeks its materialization. Matter is here a reserve of supplies from which the spirit, like a cook, selects what is n e c e s s a r y’. Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, p. 235. For an illuminating discussion of how contemporary critics took up Kandinsky’s idea, often turning it against his work (as failing to communicate the spiritual), see Charles W. Haxthausen, ‘“Der Künstler ohne Gemeinschaft”: Kandinsky und die deutsche Kunstkritik’, in Peter Hahn (ed.), Kandinsky. Russische Zeit und Bauhausjahre 1915–1933 (Berlin: Bauhaus-Archiv, 1984), pp. 72–89.

25Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, p. 147. Perhaps Kandinsky elaborates this opposition between a word’s ‘external sense as a name’, its denotational aspect, on the one hand, and its ‘inner sound’, on the other, in order to emphasize the great distance between what he means by ‘language’ when he speaks of a ‘language of forms and colors’ (the title of the sixth chapter of On the Spiritual in Art) and a commonplace understanding of language as a collection of signs joined by convention to ideas; using verbal language as an example clarifies that he is interested in effect, in ‘direct influence upon the soul’ rather than reference (or ‘practical and purposive significance’, as he writes in ‘On the Question of Form’, p. 246). I thank Mark Haxthausen for sharing with me his stimulating unpublished paper on ‘Kandinsky’s “Science of Art”’, in which he discusses how sharply Kandinsky’s thinking about language in On the Spiritual in Art diverges from that of his contemporaries. For another discussion of Kandinsky’s statements on Maeterlinck, see Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), p. 121.

26Kandinsky, Complete Writings on Art, p. 147. [Emphasis in original.] In all the quotations in this chapter, the emphasis is in the original text.

27‘Es war ein langer Tisch. Oh, ein langer, langer Tisch. Rechts / und links an diesem Tische saßen viele, viele, viele Menschen, / Menschen, Menschen, / Menschen’. Kandinsky, Sounds, trans. Elizabeth R. Napier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 128. Kandinsky asserts the value of children’s drawing as a ‘guide’ for the Expressionist artist in his essay ‘On the Question of Form’ (1912), in which he speaks of the child as seeing in a manner untainted by practical instrumentality: the ‘inner sound of the object’ expresses itself in every children’s drawing because the child ‘looks at each thing with unaccustomed eyes and still possesses the unclouded ability to take in the thing as such’. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc (eds), Der Blaue Reiter, trans. Klaus Lankheit (Munich: R. Piper & Co., 1984), p. 168.

28Kandinsky, Complete Writings, pp. 245–7. [Emphasis in original.]

29Kandinsky, Sounds, pp. 71–2.

30The German is found on p. 126 of Sounds. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, s.v. ‘gucken’, http://woerterbuchnetz.de, accessed 30 November 2018.

31A typical example of this sense of the verb, from Wilhelm Heinse, is provided in the Deutsches Wörterbuch: ‘his shorn head peeped [guckte] comically out from his scarlet cloak.’ Ibid.

32Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, p. 15.

33Peter Fenves, The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. 133.

34Ibid., p. 135. See Edmund Husserl on ‘Die Ausdrücke im einsamen Seelenleben’, in Logische Untersuchungen, vol. 2 (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1901), pp. 35–7.

35Ibid., p. 133.

36Ibid., p. 135.

37Kandinsky, ‘On the Question of Form’, Complete Writings, p. 250, translation slightly modified. ‘Die Welt klingt. Sie ist ein Kosmos der geistig wirkenden Wesen’.

38Ibid., p. 245.

39Wilhelm Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style, trans. Michael Bullock (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997). See Peg Weiss’s illuminating discussion in Kandinsky in Munich: The Formative Jugendstil Years (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 159, n25, as well as Neil H. Donahue, Invisible Cathedrals: The Expressionist Art History of Wilhelm Worringer (University Park: Penn State Press, 1994), pp. 16–17, and Christopher Short, The Art Theory of Wassily Kandinsky, 1909–1928: The Quest for Synthesis (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009), pp. 67–73. See Empathy, Form and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893, intro. and trans. Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou (Santa Monica: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994) and Juliet Koss, ‘On the Limits of Empathy’, The Art Bulletin, 88:1 (2006), pp. 139–57.

40Christoph Asendorf, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity, trans. Don Reneau (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 203. On the possibility that Kandinsky may have been directly acquainted with the work of Lipps, who lectured in Munich from 1894 to 1913, see Weiss, Kandinsky in Munich, p. 159, n25 and 159–60, n29.

41Robert Vischer, ‘On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics’, in Empathy, Form and Space, p. 92.

42Ibid., pp. 104–5. [Emphasis in original.]

43Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, p. 26.

44Ibid., p. 15.

45The concept of the expressionless plays a major role in Benjamin’s writings around this moment, including his essay on ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ (composed in 1919–1922) and the related fragment ‘On Semblance’, Selected Writings, vol. 1, pp. 297–356 and pp. 223–5. Explication of this wider role lies beyond the scope of this essay. See Winfried Menninghaus, ‘Das Ausdruckslose: Walter Benjamins Kritik des Schönen durch das Erhabene’, in Uwe Steiner (ed.), Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) zum 100. Geburtstag (Bern: P. Lang, 1992), pp. 33–76.

46Although much later than the prewar texts I have discussed so far, and indeed written after major shifts in Kandinsky’s artistic practice and theoretical stance, it is interesting to compare Kandinsky’s discussion of seeing the graphic shape of a letter anthropomorphically, as a kind of expressive body, with his 1926 article ‘Dance Curves: The Dances of Palucca’, illustrated with four photographs of the German dancer Gret Palucca, each accompanied by Kandinsky’s ‘translation’ of her gestures and bodily positioning ‘into diagrammatic form’, arrangements of straight and curved lines. Kandinsky, Complete Writings, pp. 519–23.

47Kandinsky, ‘On the Question of Form’, Complete Writings, pp. 250, 257. For an interesting discussion of such a mode of perception as figuring not only in Kandinsky’s writings but also in contemporary writing about Kandinsky, see Riccardo Marchi’s analysis of Rudolf Leonhard’s 1912 text on Kandinsky in ‘October 1912: Understanding Kandinsky’s Art “Indirectly” at Der Sturm’, Getty Research Journal 1 (2009), pp. 60–3.

48Ibid., p. 245. [Emphasis in original.]

49See also 2 Corinthians 3:6 (‘der Buchstabe tötet, aber der Geist macht lebendig’ – ‘the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life’.)

50Benjamin, Selected Writings, vol. 4, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 338.

51Ibid., p. 354 n77.

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