roger rothman

Figures Without a Ground: Kandinsky, Schoenberg, and the Dissonance of German Modernism

I. Kandinsky's "bad luck"

Picasso's good luck was to have come to French modernism directly, without the intervention of any other kind of modernism. It was perhaps Kandinsky's bad luck to have had to go through German modernism first... (Clement Greenberg, 1957)[1]

Clement Greenberg, renowned as the most significant mid-century American art critic and arguably the most articulate champion of modernist abstraction, might well have been expected to embrace the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky as, at the very least, precursors and models to the paintings of the New York artists that he most admired. After all, Kandinsky was among the few painters in the early 1910s to have developed a language of non-figurative painting, and was among the fewer painters yet to have maintained a long-lasting commitment to abstraction.[2] Given Greenberg's commitment to the New York school of abstract painters (and Jackson Pollock, in particular) one might be temped to dismiss the critic's assessment of Kandinsky as a painter with the "bad luck" to have reached abstraction through German rather than French modernism as a clever, yet transparent attempt to counter those critics who would say that Pollock et al. were simply reiterating a pictorial practice that had been developed fifty years earlier. And while I think there is some substance to the view that Greenberg was rather strategic in his critique of Kandinsky, I also believe that his point is indeed valid. In fact, I would argue that Clement Greenberg's seemingly disingenuous, even facile dismissal may indeed tell us far more about the inner workings of Kandinsky's paintings than the mass of criticism written on their behalf. What follows here is thus an attempt to justify Greenberg's criticism of Kandinsky's work.

My concern here is not the critic's final assessment, not his emphatic, unequivocal "thumbs down" as it were. Instead, my interest here is in the way in which Greenberg reached this concluding assessment, in particular, in the sense that underlies his claim that Kandinsky's painting was, in some fundamental way, "unFrench." In the end, Greenberg's analysis (if not his final, evaluative assessment) can tell us far more than he may have intended; it can, I believe, shed considerable light not only on what was truly at stake for Kandinsky, but also, and perhaps more importantly, what distinguishes much of French modernism (in practice and discourse) from its German counterpart. Indeed, it can offer us a wedge not only into Kandinsky's paintings, but also, into the music of Kandinsky's contemporary and occasional collaborator,
Arnold Schoenberg. For, as I argue below, Kandinsky's paintings were developed out of a profound and complex understanding of advanced German music, one that, I believe, has been misrepresented for some time. And insofar as Kandinsky's paintings and Schoenberg's compositions can be said to articulate two of the core components of German modernism, then the internal structure of their work suggests the operation of a logic and ambition fundamentally at odds with the logic of French modernism articulated by Greenberg.

For Greenberg, Kandinsky's works failed for a single reason&emdash;they did not sufficiently acknowledge the guiding role of the canvas as ground. As he put it: "Kandinsky, in principle, seems to have paid ample homage to the new awareness that easel-painting takes place on a flat, continuous, finitely bounded surface, but he lacked an intuitive grasp of the consequences of these facts in actual practice."[3] In his reference to flatness and continuity, Greenberg is clearly referring to his earlier analysis of French Cubism, wherein one is confronted with a relatively uniform flatness (or near flatness) such that figure and ground, sitter and setting, merge into a single, shallow undulation. In his reference to a "finitely bounded surface," he is suggesting that in Kandinsky's works, the framing edges fail to determine the subsequent shape of the figures within. Here Greenberg could have pointed straight away to the myriad cubist works in which one finds the framing edge to be determinative of the internal figuration. As a result, claimed Greenberg, Kandinsky's paintings appeared to him to be "pocked with 'holes.'"[4] As he scanned the painting's surface, the supporting field sometimes seemed to drop out, as if there were no ground upon which to support the figural motifs. The even shallowness of Cubist space was ruptured, the picture plane had gaps and splits, vacancies that to Greenberg were tokens of neglect. This odd effect&emdash;in which "the sense of a continuous surface was lost "&emdash;was the result of having ignored the basic lesson of Cubism and in so doing, having conceiving of pictorial space as nothing more than simply "an aggregate of discrete shapes."[5] In this, Greenberg could well be describing any number of Kandinsky's works, but as we shall see below, perhaps the most significant, is the work the painter himself held above almost all his other early abstractions&emdash;Painting with White Border (Bild mit weissem Rand, 1913, 55 1/4 x 78 7/8in., Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum).

Greenberg's view of modernist painting developed out of the teachings of Hans Hofmann. "Pocked with 'holes'," is, in fact, Hofmann's phrase. Greenberg's criticism of Kandinsky in particular was also Hofmann's.[6] And during the 1940s and 1950s, this particular criticism was so pervasive that even figurative painters agreed with the critic. For instance, Fairfield Porter, despite the fact that he often spoke out against Greenberg's monolithic formalism, nonetheless concurred that Kandinsky's pictorial fields were disconcertingly irregular. As Porter put it, the works were "full of dead areas&emdash;usually the darks, which in both his early realistic paintings and his abstract landscapes do not connect with the rest of the surface."[7] While this may well strike us as rather anecdotal "evidence," it highlights, rather clearly in fact, the discursive space within which Greenberg developed his critical method.

I submit that these three mid-century American critics and painters have, in fact, seen Kandinsky right. They were (and I think still are) the best students of Kandinsky's work&emdash;at least of its formal properties. They criticized the work, but they did so from a position of great care and close examination. The "holes" that all three perceived marked the places where the ground dropped out, where all one could sense was figure. Their irritation led them to articulate what others have overlooked: the deep figurality of Kandinsky's abstraction, its desire to conceive of the entire space of the painting as an enormous mass of figures without a ground.

II. The "Tone" of French Modernism
The poet (and friend of almost every significant French painter of the first two decades of the 20th century)
Guillaume Apollinaire was perhaps the most important early critic to have insisted on the centrality of the ground in modernist painting. For Apollinaire, the canvas-as-frame was to serve as the primary organizational principle in the same way as the blank page served poets after Mallarmé. As he wrote in his 1913 essay On Cubism: "the object is the inner frame of the picture and marks the limits of its profundity just as the actual frame marks its external limits."[ 8] No longer was painting to begin with perceived reality&emdash;at stake now was the internal logic of pictorialization. And this meant that the motifs represented would have to come second to the boundary conditions set by the canvas. (fig. 2)

Apollinaire's view was reiterated and expanded by Picasso's dealer, Henry Daniel Kahnweiler, who was, with the poet, one of the most perceptive critics of Cubism at the time. To Apollinaire's stress on the framing role of canvas shape he added the crucial dimension of flatness. Here too, Kahnweiler insists that the painter begin with the ground and not the figure:

Representation of the position of objects in space is done as follows: instead of beginning from a supposed foreground and going on from there to give an illusion of depth by means of perspective, the painter begins from a definite and clearly defined background. Starting from this background the painter now works toward the front by a sort of scheme of forms in which each object's position is clearly indicated, both in relation to the definite background and to other objects.[9]

The new conditions are unequivocal: it is now the ground that forms the figure. Where traditional, illusionistic painting had placed the figure in the position of dominance, Cubism worked the reverse.

If we continue to historicize the discourse of abstraction, if we go back&emdash;beyond Apollinaire and Kahnweiler&emdash;to its earliest stages, we find that in almost all cases, defenders of abstraction developed their position by appealing to the relationship between painting and music. The analogy between music and modernist painting was useful because music was seen by most (and perhaps still is) as by nature more "abstract" than painting. Music is less representational and thus gains its meaning in other ways: it proceeds by a rigorous logic, internally developed, between the central pitch (the key tone or "tonic") and those pitches that surround it (this structure applies to both harmony (simultaneous pitches) and melody (pitches in time). For the early apologists of anti-realism, such as the Symbolists, it made sense to appeal to the self-contained structure of music when defending paintings that broke with the traditions of representation.

By the time of Apollinaire and Kahnweiler, the analogy between music and painting had been, for some time in fact, a commonplace of aesthetic discourse. When Robert Delaunay&emdash;one of the very first to elaborate a non-objective version of Cubism&emdash;sought to defend his practice, he had at hand a ready metaphor. In 1913, Delaunay wrote to a colleague: "We find a craft which must serve for a new aesthetic... such as simultaneous contrasts, complimentaries and dissonances."[10] With this, the painter defined his practice of placing one color next to another as similar in structure to that of most nineteenth century music, in which pitches were coordinated so as to yield moments of "consonance" and "dissonance." In music since Bach, consonances and dissonances were determined by their particular relation to the key tone or tonic. Tonal music proceeds through various degrees of dissonance&emdash;each of which is determined at the outset by the guiding tonic. Tonal music invariably returns, at the end of the piece, to the tonic where the dissonant tones are resolved. Tonality thereby frames the musical composition, gives it structure&emdash;and therefore sense.

This internally consistent, self-justifying system was just what Delaunay needed to see his way out of pictorial representation. "I played with colors as in music one can express oneself through a fugue of colored phrases," recalled Delaunay in 1939.[11] In a letter from 1926, Sonia Delaunay made the analogy even more precise. She claimed that, for example, red-orange and blue-green are "consonant" relations and green and red are "dissonant."[12]

I have made this excursus from Greenberg back through Apollinaire and Kahnweiler to Baudelaire and then forward up to Delaunay because it is only in mapping this field that we can begin to see the eccentricity of Kandinsky's work. Greenberg's perception of the surface as "pocked with 'holes'" belongs to a discourse with a long history&emdash;one in which abstraction was first developed and defended through its relation to music. It is crucial that we understand that this analogy was based on the particular logic of tonal music. And this is crucial because we find&emdash;when we turn to Kandinsky&emdash;that German music no longer functioned with tonality intact. Since Wagner, German art music developed in such a way that, by the second decade of twentieth century, tonality was defunct. Its decline was slow and complex, by the end, tonality had collapsed in on itself.[13] For French modernism, tonality may have held on as a viable method; for German modernism, tonality was dead. And the figure who killed it&emdash;for Kandinsky and others&emdash;was Arnold Schoenberg.

III. Schoenberg's Anti-Architecture
On January 1, 1911, Kandinsky attended a concert in Munich to hear Schoenberg's Second String Quartet, Op. 10 (1907-8) and Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11 (1909).[14] Kandinsky was so enthralled that, two weeks later, he mailed a letter of introduction to Schoenberg (who was then living in Vienna) and included a portfolio of some recent work. "You do not know me, of course," he wrote, "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."[15]

What impressed Kandinsky as much as the music was the way Schoenberg wrote about it.[16] The January concert had included an announcement poster in which Schoenberg outlined his compositional technique and justified its novelty by referring to the development of late 19th century music and its consequences for the present. In the poster Kandinsky read the following:

Dissonances are only different from consonance in degree; they are nothing more than remoter consonances. Today we have already reached the point where we no longer make the distinction between consonances and dissonances.[17]

Schoenberg insisted that he was merely locking shut a door that had been closing over the course of the last few decades. He was now compelled to compose music without the structuring function of tonality. The effect of these new conditions was highlighted by Schoenberg in a letter to Richard Strauss: "I can promise you something really colossal, especially in sound and mood. For that is what they are all about&emdash;completely unsymphonic, devoid of architecture or construction, just an uninterrupted change of colors, rhythms, and moods."[18, author's emphasis]

From roughly 1908 to the onset of World War I Schoenberg worked with this "colossal" anti-architecture. But this method was not without its problems. Most importantly, without the structuring principles of the tonic&emdash;of the movement away from and back to consonance&emdash;Schoenberg and his pupils (Anton Webern and Alban Berg) had given up the most important tool with which to create large musical works. The works produced during this period often shrunk considerably, some to as short as thirty seconds.[19] It was only at the beginning of the 1920s&emdash;with the development of the twelve tone method&emdash;that Schoenberg found an adequate solution to the problem of sustaining musical continuity. As he recalled in 1949,

The method of composing with twelve tones substitutes for the order produced by permanent reference to tonal centers, an order according to which every unit of a piece being a derivative of the tonal relations in a basic set of twelve tones, the Grundgestalt is coherent because of this permanent reference to the basic set.[20]

The twelve tone technique marked a return to compositions with an "architecture." In this respect it functioned like traditional harmony, giving shape to the overall design, and unity to its various internal components. What distinguished the twelve tone system was that it, unlike the traditional harmonic system, provided unity and structure without hierarchy:

The method of composing with twelve tones purports reinstatement of the effects formerly furnished by the structural functions of harmony... But the regular application of a set of twelve tones emphasizes all the other tones in the same manner, thus depriving one single tone of the privilege of supremacy.[21]

The development of the twelve tone system marked the end of Schoenberg's so-called "free atonal" phase. It marked the end of a phase of musical composition in which melodic and harmonic "figures" lacked a structuring "ground." With the twelve tone system, Schoenberg reinstated a framing field within which musical motifs could be understood as coherent. But in the early teens, when he first broke with tonality, his means were decidedly different. And it was in this earlier context that Kandinsky developed his own break.

Thus, when we read what Kandinsky wrote to Schoenberg in 1911, it should not surprise us to see him reject what for all French abstractionists (and their apologists) was the guiding method: "Up to now the painter has thought too little in general. He has conceived his work as a kind of coloristic balancing act."[22] Kandinsky understood that, as he ventured into abstraction, he lacked the most significant, compelling and productive metaphors with which to justify his actions.

Here we begin to see the formal, structural consequences of the split between what Greenberg called French and German modernism. It involves the split between the reduction of the figure to the ground on the one hand, and, on the other, the gradual collapse of the ground to the point where what remained were figures-without-a-ground. It makes sense that Greenberg found Kandinsky's works "pocked with holes." They were. But, for Kandinsky, no other mode of composition was viable. The founding metaphor of abstraction, that of tonality, had caved in on itself.[23]

IV. Kandinsky's Atonalism
In May of 1913&emdash;three years after Schoenberg's Munich performance&emdash;Kandinsky completed one of his most ambitious works to date.
Painting with White Border was one of a series of works he referred to as "Compositions"&emdash;works which he distinguished them from the more realistic works he called "Impressions" and "Improvisations."[24] Kandinsky himself considered it a breakthrough piece and in June of that year wrote a lengthy description of it later published in Der Sturm, the journal published by the Berlin gallery owner Herwarth Walden. Walden&emdash;at the time one of the foremost critics of German Expressionism&emdash; also recognized its importance. He had it in his home for a number of years before it arrived in New York and entered the Guggenheim collection in 1937.

In his description Kandinsky noted his various problems completing this painting. It lingered in his studio, half-finished for over five months. The entire right side, in particular, gave him trouble, and his preparatory sketches show that he had left this side empty, thereby giving the composition an imbalance that would seem to have been most efficiently corrected by simply cropping off the offending blankness. But rather than remove it, Kandinsky chose to build it up, to make it all the more palpable. In the drawing, the white border was made of the blank, untreated page&emdash;it served here as a place of passivity at the far end of a an active sketch. But in the finished painting, the white border was built up with thick, dense oil paint. The lopsidedness that characterized the drawing had in the end grown even more extreme. The right edge now extends well leftward toward the top and bottom&emdash;a far more prominent invasion of the interior. At the bottom, it bulges up to the center of the field, cutting into the interior brushstrokes and compressing the neighboring colorpatches. In this way, the edge&emdash;which by all account ought to lie beneath the interior components&emdash;here resists its expected role as support. As it moves rightward toward the far end of the canvas it thins out, as if spilling off the canvas entirely. From there it moves back leftward, and runs up and out the top of the picture. "Since this white border proved the solution to the picture," he recalled, "I named the whole picture after it."[25]

The most bizarre aspect of this "solution" is that it ends up making the painting look as if it has been ripped in two. The intrusiveness of its upward crush at the bottom and its slicing exit at the top&emdash;as well as the distorting effect of its scale in relation to the far smaller and localizable events to the left&emdash;makes this section of the canvas look like it belongs to another painting altogether. In addition, only a minimal effort has been made to enfold it into the rest of the canvas. The bit of scumbling in the bottom right and the loosely horizontal lines near the top barely serve to suture the edge to the rest of the painting; they look more like lip-service paid to a now defunct mode of compositional cohesion.

As we saw in Apollinaire's writings, the treatment of a painting's edge was also crucial to the structure of a Cubist work. For it is at the outer limits of the painting's surface that the figure/ground tension seems to slacken. At times, Picasso and Braque dealt with this by changing the painting's shape. An oval canvas softens the edges and thereby almost automatically harmonizes figure and frame. Mondrian, too, fixated on the edge, sometimes turning the canvas on one of its corners, and at other times vacillating between compositions in which the black lines extend to the outer limit of the canvas and others in which they stopped a fraction of an inch short. Kandinsky responded differently. He began with the realization that it is at the very edge of the canvas that blank ground takes on a figural aspect. The empty space of the ground becomes, at the far right of Painting with White Border, obdurate and imposing; it invades the interior field as yet another figure.

While the edge was the last thing Kandinsky dealt with&emdash;the element that "proved the solution"&emdash;the first was the center. In his description, he draws attention to the fact that, rather than construct a work with a single, dominant center around which other motifs would act as complementaries, he began with the idea of using two different focal points, each displaced from the actual center of the canvas. They were to be set off against each other, attenuating their individual force by overproduction. The traditional hierarchical relation between center and periphery was to be overcome, not by neutralizing the center but by multiplying it. The field would be leveled not by subtraction but by addition:

The╔ center on the left [is made up of a] combination of standing forms, which approach the second center, with pure, powerfully sounding touches of color; the red somewhat runny, the blue self-absorbed... The other center, on the right [is composed of] broad, curving brushstrokes... [and] zigzag forms, which bestow upon the rather melancholy character of this curved shape the overtones of an energetic "inner boiling"... These two centers are separated, and at the same time linked, by numerous more or less distinct forms, which are in part simple patches and areas of green.[26]

Like the perspectival point at the horizon, and like the tonic, the center of a painting functions as a focal point. It establishes a hierarchy, whereby all motifs near the center appear as more dominant than those at the edge. Thus, unless countered in some way, the center will end up serving as the dominant aspect of the composition. Thus, in his early phase of Neo-Plasticism, Mondrian worked to produce paintings with no center.[27] By contrast, when Kandinsky dealt with the problem he did so by working with multiple centers. Where the edge was managed by increasing its density, the center was managed by increasing its number.

In this he followed the same logic as did Schoenberg; tonality collapsed because its principal device&emdash; the dissonances&emdash;grew ever more extreme to the point where one could no longer speak of a dissonance at all ("nothing more than remoter consonances"). The power of the dissonance had, by its overextension, fallen in on itself. As Schoenberg remarked with regard to Mahler's huge blocks of dissonance: "gigantic structures clash against each other; the architecture crumbles."[28]

But, beyond the edge and the center, there is an even more fundamental component to Kandinsky's "atonal" abstractions. It belongs to the treatment of the motif itself, to the "figure" as the word is typically understood. For it is the recourse to a figure without a field that generated the logic of the edge-as-interior and the center-as-multiple.

Kandinsky's method of dealing with the motif can be glimpsed in his treatment of the forms on the upper left-hand corner of Painting With White Border. The troika, a three-horse sled derived from Russian church imagery, appears here as a barely decipherable hieroglyph: three diagonally placed, loosely parallel lines determine the body of each horse, and the head is formed as a shimmering oval at the end of each line. We know from Kandinsky's writings that these three capped lines have been derived from the image of the troika, but without this knowledge the motif is unreadable. There is no doubt that it suggests the representation of something, but the image lacks particularity. It points to something beyond itself without actually revealing what that something else is, as if the capped lines were the consequence of some entropic process, in which well-differentiated elements lose their internal complexity to yield an undifferentiated lump. "It sounds as if someone had smeared the score of Tristan while it was still wet,"[29] wrote one critic about Schoenberg's early compositions&emdash;the sentiment applies here too. What we have here is something like a collapsed signifier: neither fully self-referential, nor functionally representational. The result is something like a signifier in the process of loosing its capacity to signify, a signifier in entropy. A crumbling sign. A squeal.

To make sense of the troika's condition as a collapsed signifier, we need to turn away from music to language. For it is in language&emdash;in the production of signs, of "representations"&emdash;that Kandinsky's abstracted motifs were meant to resonate. "It seems to me," wrote Mondrian to van Doesburg in 1920, "that the only way to deepen word and meaning is by the juxtaposition of opposites... Only nouns have opposites, don't they?"[30] This is Saussurian linguistics at its most fundamental: words are defined not positively, in terms of their positive relation to ideas or things in the world, but by their negative, oppositional relation to other words. According to Saussure, language works not by establishing an identity between a word and an idea or a thing, but by establishing a non-identity between a word and all the other words in the given language that stand opposed to it. We understand the word "cat" not by matching it with the animal in the world but by opposing the word "cat" with all those words which oppose it&emdash;"dog," "fish," etc╔[31] Mondrian conceived the task of advanced painting in a similar way: rectangles of color create their own internally "meaningful" system not by being matched with elements from the world outside the painting (not by representing ideas or things) but by being placed in opposition to other rectangles with different proportions and colors. In this way, Mondrian's work would take on the completeness and order of the linguistic system.

Although Kandinsky was not as explicit as Mondrian, his notion of the "inner necessity" of motifs does suggest a relationship between his method of abstraction and the structure of language. However, the "inner necessity" of images such as the troika cannot be understood in relation to Saussurian linguistics, but to an aspect of language that this analysis overlooks. A different logic is at work here, one which concerns such things as participles, articles, accent marks, exclamation points, and other more or less marginal words and diacritical marks, referred to as intensives.[32] Intensives are linguistic devices&emdash;effects, or residues of language&emdash;rather than signifiers per se. Intensives do not function by opposition, but by a kind of internal force: they stretch or shrink a given meaning, as do exclamation points and question marks, as do words such as 'quite,' 'perhaps,' and 'absolutely.' More precisely, intensives translate meaningful words into affective words. For example, the German word sehr (very) is derived intensively: it stems from the Old German word ser (painful). Over time, the original meaning was lost, and now retains only its general condition, its latent affect. The final signifier&emdash;now compressed and de-differentiated&emdash;now only vaguely recalls its origin. It is as if everything about the word 'painful' had been rubbed out, leaving only the exclamation point tacked to the end of the cry. What is at work here is not an exterior movement between the word 'painful' and its opposites&emdash;'pleasurable,' 'painless,' 'soothing,' etc.&emdash;but rather an internal movement within the word itself.

And the troika, like the intensive, is the product of an internal movement. Although derived from earlier paintings where the horses are clearly recognizable, in Painting with White Border, all that is left is a group of capped lines&emdash;the near-mute residue of a once articulate image. And what is true of the troika is true of all the painting's motifs&emdash;the white border, the multiple centers, the three "witnesses" at the middle-left, the "rider" above the white bar at center, the "peak" at the upper left corner... In a crucial sense, Painting with White Border is the product of an enormous intensive, or a series of multiple intensives, the result of an internal process whereby the articulate collapses into a state of meaningless affect. If for Mondrian pictorial autonomy is fashioned as pure self-referentiality, for Kandinsky it is fashioned as pure affectivity without any referentiality at all.[33]

V. Figural Time: The Blaue Reiter
In May of 1912, Kandinsky and Marc completed their year-long work on the Blaue Reiter Almanac. A slightly altered second edition appeared two years later, and although the two intended to publish a number of subsequent volumes on related themes, the revised edition of 1914 was all that followed. That same year the group dissolved and the members dispersed.

The Almanac was the first modern manifesto to be published in Germany, and like its near contemporary, Marinetti's "The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism," (1909) it called for a cacophony of voices and images. Its pages included essays and artworks by Kandinsky, Marc, Burliuk and Macke, as well as reflections on modern music by Schoenberg, Hartmann, and Sabaneiev (on Scriabin). In addition, it presented dozens of what seem to be randomly chosen images, including: a Bavarian mirror painting of St. Martin, an anonymous German woodblock from the fifteenth century, a Chinese painting of two cats, a Japanese woodcut of an old man and a monkey, paintings by Arp, Picasso, Delaunay, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Matisse, two still-life drawings by children, four portraits by amateur painters, a wood sculpture of a male warrior from South Borneo, a mosaic from the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, an image of St. John by El Greco, examples of Russian folk-art, as well as artifacts from Brazil, the Easter Islands, the Cameroon, Mexico, New Caledonia, Guatemala and Alaska.

What most distinguishes the Almanac from the "Futurist Manifesto" is that its references were drawn not just from contemporary technology&emdash;trains, automobiles, gas lamps, buildings of glass and steel&emdash;but from all over: past and present, official and marginal, high art and kitsch. Whereas Marinetti called for an end to "look[ing] back... because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed,"[34] Kandinsky and Marc insisted that "the ray to the future," necessitated a some kind of "link to the past."[35] The result was a manifesto of historical and cultural discontinuity. That is, it insisted not that modernity is chaotic, but rather&emdash;and more paradoxically&emdash;that modernity is the moment when all of history becomes chaotic. Where Marinetti saw the past as having, "exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep," against which the present would "exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer's stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap,"[36] Kandinsky and Marc perceived the present as the moment when the past itself becomes feverish, striding, punching and slapping. For the Expressionists, modernity marks the moment when temporality itself has lost its meaning&emdash;its capacity to ground any moment as past or present. All things in all times now come together as an enormous lump, without a core, without a center, or substructure. The temporality of the Blaue Reiter Almanac, like the intensives of Kandinsky's paintings and the atonality of Schoenberg's compositions is bound up in the logic of the figure without a ground.


When, in 1938, Ernst Bloch looked back on the pre-war Expressionist movements he recognized their paradoxical intentions and saw them reflected in his own political theory. For Bloch, as for the members of Der Blaue Reiter, history was fundamentally non-synchronous: each historical moment&emdash;from traditional society to the medieval city-states to the space of contemporary capitalism&emdash;retains fragments of its previous moments as a sort of un-sublated remainder. Exploiting these remainders was the real task of avant-garde. Bloch insisted&emdash;at a time when Expressionism was deemed, by a large, a failure&emdash;that Blaue Reiter deserved to be reexamined. It was involved, he claimed, in something more substantial than simply the quotation of anti-capitalist themes (primitivism, folklore, etc.). More profoundly, it was an attempt to "exploit the real fissures in surface inter-relations and discover the new in their crevices."[37] The Expressionists did not use the past to reground contemporary culture within the frame of tradition; the past, as they employed it, was a device for breaking through the surface of today&emdash; "anticipations," as he called them. The past as figures set free in the space of the present, tearing into its apparent totality and anticipating, as free-floating fragments, a differently shaped future. "If anything," concluded Bloch, Expressionism "unearthed too many parallels rather than too few.... There is surely no denying that formalism was the least of the defects of Expressionist art. On the contrary, it suffered far more from a neglect of form, from a plethora of expressions crudely, wildly or chaotically ejaculated; its stigma was amorphousness."[38]