Wassily Kandinsky & Michel Henry’s Seeing the Invisible

Abstraction is nothing, rigorously pursued. Arithmetical zero is its sign. To perceive, think, and do nothing. To be nothing. Zero alone – in its infinite formulations – attains such exemption from indignity.
…….– Nick Land, Abstract Manifesto

Kandinsky is the inventor of abstract painting, the one who sought to overturn the traditional conceptions of aesthetic representation and to define a new era in this domain—the era of modernity.
……..– Michel Henry, Seeing the Invisible

Wassily Kandinsky was born on December, 16th (4), 1866 in Moscow, in a well-to-do family of a businessman in a good cultural environment. In 1871 the family moved to Odessa where his father ran his tea factory. There, alongside with attending a classical gymnasium (grammar school), the boy learned to play the piano and the cello and took to drawing with a coach. “I remember that drawing and a little bit later painting lifted me out of the reality”, he wrote later. In Kandinsky’s works of his childhood period we can find rather specific color combinations, which he explained by the fact that “each color lives by its mysterious life”.

In Seeing the Invisible, we discover an admirer of Kandinsky in the philosopher Michel Henry, whose central thesis is that Kandinsky’s abstraction is more than just a particular movement in painting; instead, it reveals the deep truth of all art. All art is really ‘abstract’, which is to say that it is freed from any adherence to the external, visible world.1 As Davidson remarks in the preface to Henry’s work on Kandinsky, abstract art overturns our conceptions about painting and art in general, because it seeks to express the internal aspect of phenomena, in other words, to paint the invisible. Freed from all mimetic activities, its central preoccupation is the question of how to paint the invisible, instead. That is, how can the visible artistic means of painting—graphic forms and colours—be used to depict a wholly different, invisible reality? (SI, p. x)

This sense of “painting the invisible” of seeking to make visible the invisible non-being within the folds of the phenomenal object as if to reveal the secret life or energetic chaos just below the surface qualia of the sensual profiles that flit across our eyes like so many dust particles on a bright morning is to realize that abstract art as Land remarks “knows nothing, it can turn blindness to a vision of the abyss. It evokes an apprehension of non-apprehension, or a perception of the imperceptible as such”.2

Kandinsky Henry tells us provided an explicit theory of abstract painting, exposing its principles with the utmost precision and clarity. So, the painted work is accompanied with a group of texts that at the same time clarify his work and make Kandinsky one of the main theorists of art. (SI, p. 2) He’ll remark on such minds as Kandinsky’s that like others he sought from art is knowledge, a true or ‘metaphysical’ knowledge, capable of reaching beyond the external appearance of phenomena in order to lead us to their intimate essence.” (SI, p. 3) He’ll ask: How can painting bring about this ultimate revelation? What… is the nature of Being implied by painting and to which painting gives us access, making us contemporary with the Absolute and, in a certain sense, staking a claim to it?

For Kandinsky in his theoretical writings the terms Internal/External take on the basic elements of two modes of appearing that operate across all aspects of existence. As Henry will describe it the External rather than referring explicitly to something that is external tells us instead the way in which this something manifests itself to us. He’ll explicate it this way:

This manner consists in the fact of being placed in the exterior and being positioned before our regard, such that it is the fact of being placed before and in the exterior. Here exteriority as such constitutes manifestation and visibility. The exteriority in which every thing and every content becomes visible, becomes a phenomenon in terms of an external phenomenon, is the exteriority of the world. The world is the visible world, because the world means exteriority and because exteriority constitutes visibility. An external phenomenon is never seen or known in virtue of its particular properties—because it is big or small, structured or formless, etc.—but because it is external and for this reason alone. Since belonging to the ‘world’ signifies exteriority, it is manifested in exteriority and exteriority is equivalent to manifestation. Kandinsky says that the ‘way’ is not bound up with the phenomenon at random, because it is in this way—exteriority—that it can become a phenomenon and can be shown. (SI, p. 6)

On the other hand is the Internal mode of appearing which is, in some sense, a “more ancient and more radical way of being given. Like the External, the Internal does not refer to some particular thing that would be revealed inwardly; instead, interiority refers to the very fact of being revealed in this way. What does this most original ‘way’ of being given and ‘being lived’ consist of? This is an inescapable question, even though ‘being lived internally’—the ‘way’ on which Kandinsky will construct his aesthetics—cannot be stated simplistically. It would then fall prey to a critique seeking to deny its existence—‘Nothing
of this sort exists!’, ‘Interiority is a myth!’ In other words, the External provided proof of itself and this proof, it seems, is itself. … The Internal will never be shown in this way, as something which can be seen because it is right there in front of us. It is the invisible—that which can never be seen in a world or in the manner of a world. There is no ‘inner world’. The Internal is not the fold turned inward of a first Outside. In the Internal, there is no putting at a distance and no putting into a world—there is nothing external, because there is no exteriority in it. (SI, pp. 6-7)

The important part here is the statement that the Internal is “invisible—that which can never be seen in a world or in the manner of a world,” there “is no putting at a distance and no putting into a world—there is nothing external, because there is no exteriority in it”.  Henry will then puzzle out the question:  In what way, then, can the Internal be revealed, if it is not in or as a world? Explicating it this way:

It is revealed in the way of life. Life feels and experiences itself immediately such that it coincides with itself at each point of its being. Wholly immersed in itself and drawn from this feeling of itself, it is carried out as a pathos. Prior to and independently from every regard, affectivity is the ‘way’ in which the Internal is revealed to itself, in which life lives itself, in which the impression immediately imprints itself and in which feeling affects itself. (SI, p. 7)

So for Henry this inner Internal revealing of appearance is not based on sight or seeing, but rather comes by way of the affective relations internal to the object-object relations as unfolded and carried across the breach of things by “pathos”.

I’ll not say more on this specific theme, and cut this meditation short. Yet, will leave on remaining quote from this interesting work by Michel Henry:

Being is thus not a univocal concept. Two dimensions traverse it and tear
apart its primal unity (to the extent that it would ever have one):

1. The dimension of the visible where things are given to us in the light
of the world and are lived by us as external phenomena, and
2. The dimension of the invisible where, without the light of this world,
even before the emergence of this horizon of exteriority that puts
every thing at a distance from ourselves and offers it as an object to us
(object means ‘what is placed before us’), life has already taken hold
of its own being and has embraced itself in the pathos of this interior
and immediate experience of itself that makes it alive. (SI, p. 7)

This sense of an antagonistic and contradictory universe ripped and torn by catastrophic forces of two dimensions of Being is striking. The realm of light and seeing, the External of the phenomenal realm of sensuous apprehension; and, the other, the Internal, the invisible, unseen and vanishing or withdrawing of things from the “light of the world,” where life embraces “itself in the pathos” of an interior and immediate volatility seems to align well with many current speculative philosophies.

I’ll come back to this in the future…


  1. Michel, Henry. Seeing the Invisible. Trans. Scott Davidson (Continuum, 2005)
  2. Land, Nick (2015-12-16). Chasm (Kindle Location 8). Time Spiral Press. Kindle Edition.