Anna Yampolskaya - Aesthetical experience as tranformative: Henry and Maldiney on Kandinsky

This is one of the papers from our 2017 Annual Conference, the Future of Phenomenology. Information and the full conference booklet can be found at

I compare how two leading French phenomenologists of the last century – Michel Henry and Henri Maldiney – interpret Kandinsky’s heritage. Henry’s phenomenology is based on a distinction between two main modes of manifestation – the ordinary one, that is, the manifestation of the world and the “manifestation of life”; for him Kandinsky’s work provides a paradigmatic example of the second, more original, mode of manifestation, which is free from all forms of self-alienation. This is why Kandinsky’s paintings do no show us anything, but rather provoke in us certain impressions, certain feelings; they should be experienced, lived through. Henry claims that this living-though of the work of art is transformative; it is a kind of ascetic practice or mystical experience that goes beyond the distinction of the subject and the object. Maldiney also recognises in Kandinsky’s work an attempt to provide an access to an a-cosmic and a-historic experience of one’s inner self; yet for Maldiney this is not a positive characteristic. For Maldiney, the key distinction is not between modes of phenomenalisation, but between two dimensions of meaning (sens): the ordinary one, that he calls “gnostic” (gnosique), and “pathic”. This pathic dimension of meaning can be reached only in a personal contact with the living-world in its nascent state. According to Maldiney, there is no radical self-transformation which is not a transformation of one’s being-in- the-world and one’s meaning of the world (and vice versa). My access to myself cannot bypass my relation to the world, and so Kandinsky’s paintings cannot induce a true transformation of self. The disagreement of Henry and Maldiney on Kandinsky doesn’t unfold on the level of the phenomenological description of the concrete aesthetic experience, but rather on the level of metaphysics.

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