Art to Heart Homily


Wassily Kandinsky: Composition VII

©2002 by Jeff Dugan



It’s been said that two little words can start an argument just about anywhere*, if those two words are “modern art.”  Clearly, this is one of those paintings that might elicit such a furor.  So let’s begin by simply admitting to ourselves that most of us, from our current perspectives, can’t make heads or tails of this image.  From where we sit, it seems like nonsense at best and vaguely threatening at worst.  And believing that people can actually appreciate something like this without being self-delusional, really takes a leap of faith.

So let me help you make that leap.

Wassily Kandinsky wanted to be free from depicting the things we can lay our hands on because he wanted to portray truths and emotions more profound than those encompassed in a simple object.  He wanted art to be able to go straight into your heart with a power and immediacy like that of music.  And so in many ways, he used musical metaphors for his art.  This painting is called a “composition.”  Others were “improvisations.”  In the painting, he chooses orange not because it signifies a citrus fruit, but because it expresses a specific emotion that can’t necessarily be put into words.  He chooses black lines not to draw a shape, but because of the depth of feeling they add, and the way they direct the motion of the painting.  He uses these colors like a composer uses notes, and spreads them across his composition in collections that have a certain visual “rhythm.”  But no color stands entirely on its own.  Instead, Kandinsky places one color next to another so that there’s an energy that comes from the combination.  A red next to a green, for instance, creates a very different feeling inside of you than a red next to an orange.  This is something like a visual analog of musical harmony and dissonance.  And with his entire orchestra of colors and textures, Kandinsky’s composition leaps and twirls and dances across the canvas like a grand symphony.  When we begin to appreciate the painting’s essence, like music, it can touch our hearts in a way that a picture of, say, and apple, cannot. 

Now, even with that understanding, it takes some time and some experience to get a full appreciation for something like this.  And even then, you may still think it’s all a bit silly, trying to do with colors what is already so much more easily done with sounds. 

But what about the deaf viewer, who has always read about how wonderful music is, but has never been able to hear it?  Surely this person will be able to experience something truly profound, perhaps even life-changing as the result of Mr. Kandinsky’s willingness to pour all of himself into his task, and even to face the world’s ridicule in doing so.

In a way, Kandinsky’s task is similar to the mission that Christ gave to each one of us.  We are surrounded by a world full of people who ridicule us and have no perspective from which to understand why we love our Lord with such devotion.  From where they sit, the gospel seems at best like nonsense, and at worst like some kind of threat, and so they assume that Christians must all be self-delusional.  They may have heard about the gospel all their lives, but they’ve never actually felt God’s love and grace in their hearts.

And it’s our job, using colors like love and perseverance and sacrifice, to sing the songs of heaven to those who have ears, but do not hear.

* John Russell, The Meanings of Modern Art, Harper & Row (1981), p. 14.

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