What follows is the first part of one variant of a lecture I have given in many countries—to theatre professionals and conservatory students, theatre historians, theatre critics, and more. Versions have also been published in Korean and Chinese.
Many people know that Kandinsky was a painter. Most of those people associate Kandinsky with the earliest abstract painting. Some people vaguely know his work was connected with "spirituality."A few people know he did more than just paint, or that he wrote a book about art. But not nearly enough people have had the pleasure of knowing Kandinsky's wonderful writings for the theatre.
Kandinsky wrote about the theatre, and for the theatre, roughly between 1908 and 1940. These writings can be loosely grouped into: 1. dramatic theory, 2. plays, and 3. theatre training programs and reform. Since his death in 1944, these have all been neglected. He led a nomadic "life in art," spanning World War I, the Russian Revolution and World War II. Sadly, this means that documentation was lost, and close colleagues were scattered across the globe, or did not survive.
But during his lifetime, Kandinsky's colleagues and publishers, and many theatrical innovators of the time, knew Kandinsky as a profound and original force in the theatre. A few examples: when World War I began, Kandinsky was planning to write a theatre book, and to start a theatre with an international group of artists. In Switzerland, Hugo Ball gave a 1917 lecture on Kandinsky at his Dada cabaret, and praised him as "a writer of incomparable verses, the creator of a new theatrical style." In 1918, in Russia, when the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment was forming a Department of Visual Arts [IZO NKP], it published Kandinsky's essay on the theatre, and made him head of a special Theatre and Film Section. In 1929 in Germany, painter-choreographer Oscar Schlemmer asked Kandinsky to take over his position as Head of the famous experimental Bauhaus Theatre.
Kandinsky, "Succession" (1935). Speaking in signs and symbols.
So: Kandinsky was involved in interesting theatre-related projects. But for now I am focusing on the writings.
Let me make a few points first.
Kandinsky's life was a synthesis of disparate elements. He spent important years in Russia, but did his best-known work in Germany, and his final work in France. He worked in a broad range of fields: he made historic contributions as a painter, wrote art criticism and taught painting—he also wrote poetry, dramatic theory and plays, and worked for reform in art and theatre education. He also had background in law, economics, and ethnography; he played the piano and cello; at various times he designed clothing and jewelry, wall murals, and briefly, even dishes. Kandinsky was very aware that this inter-media activity would confuse critics and historians. Towards the end of his life he wrote: "Oh! I remember very well: when I started 'writing poetry,' I knew I would become 'suspect' as a painter… they used to look 'askance' at the painter whenever he
wrote—even letters." It was in the theatre that Kandinsky found a place to join—to "synthesize"—his areas of training and interest.
Kandinsky's success as a painter has also made him "suspect" as a theatre artist. Art historians tend to think of Kandinsky's theatre work as a painter's experiment, or think he was transferring his painted images from canvas to stage. But Kandinsky didn't believe this transfer was possible, or desirable. "Each art," he said, "has its own means of expression… and an exact 'translation' of one art to another is impossible. Fortunately." Theatre historians pay little attention to Kandinsky's theatre work, lumping it together with the later "performance art," or what has come to be called "visual theatre." But performance art rejects so many aspects of the traditional theatre that Kandinsky held dear. Critic Michael Kirby observed: "In the [avant-garde] theatre, 'suspension of disbelief' is not operative, and the absence of character and situation precludes identification." Kandinsky took a conservative stance towards these
fundamental dynamics of the theatre. He was dedicated to the picture stage, and to inviting the audience into a world that was not their own. Kandinsky thought of himself as bringing new life to the conventional stage, not abandoning it.
Kandinsky's name is associated with the avant-garde movements now, but his ideas about the theatre were already considered old-fashioned in Russia in the 1920s. In the introduction to their 1982 Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, co-editors Lindsay and Vergo spoke to this: "[Kandinsky's art] differs so radically from traditional art that people are inclined to think him altogether estranged from the past. But Kandinsky's writings correct this impression by revealing how deeply his thinking… was rooted in European thought and values." True, his conclusions about the theatre are far from conventional, but the stage "revolution" he envisioned had firm roots in the sensibilities of the past.
Kandinsky, "Composition X," (1939). Two figures with texts or scores.
Part 1: The Theoretical Writings
In one sense, classical dramatic theory revolves around the issue of the theatre's function. Aristotle thought the theatre had a civilizing function; the medieval theatre served a religious function. Shakespeare created a theatre celebrating language and the imagination; for Racine, the theatre was a laboratory for examining the human core. Other dramatists pivotal to the development of the drama have envisioned theatres that were entertaining, moral, poetic, psychological, anthropological or political.
Kandinsky's theatre reflected elements of all of these to different degrees, but for him, the primary function of all art was spiritual—that is, focused beyond the material world. He wrote, "Art [is] that creative force which expands the prison house of our being and allows a vision of eternity…" Kandinsky thought people move in a world so rich in experience, perception and sensation that they couldn't possibly organize all of it. He saw a gap between the amount of universal "data" we can receive, and how much we can fully absorb. Art, then, is a kind of language for systematizing all the intuitive information that ordinarily escapes us. Art translates everything around us into a lexicon, maximizing our experience of the world.
In modern dramatic theory, one of the issues at the crux is the changing relationship between language and the visual image. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a new world of noise. By the 20th century, the ancient song-poems, the verses of Shakespeare, the cadences of Romanticism no longer expressed the experience of life—its soundtrack the industrial machine, with its superficial rhythms. The sounds of war drowned out the language of words, and in its place, the language of visual images came into a new prominence.
In this jagged new world, Kandinsky's objections to the conventional theatre joined a chorus of complaints: that the theatre had become nothing more than an offshoot of the literary tradition! That the poetic tradition was responsible for the withering of all theatrical means except language! That the drama was being simply peeled off the written page, without being fully translated into a three-dimensional, theatrical art!
Kandinsky, "Serious-Joke" (1930). A stage that looks like no other.
In this context, Kandinsky created the theatre he called the Synthesizing or Monumental Art, in the sense of fusing or integrating all the arts. Although he had agreed with everyone about the theatre's problems, the solutions he found were very different from theirs. Others struggled over which art form should unify the theatrical elements of the new theatre. Very broadly put: Wagner thought music should be the primary art form; Appia's primary element was light; Edward Gordon Craig's was scenic design. Kandinsky's theatre sidestepped this discussion. He believed all the arts should be separate and equal—not unified, but distinct languages. Where others looked for parallels between the arts, Kandinsky thought of them in dynamic opposition to one another; where others tried to mirror one art in all the others, Kandinsky wanted to find a contrapuntal relationship
between them. The different "grammars" of the art languages, and their common goals, formed the matrix of his Synthesizing Art.
For Kandinsky, the unique power of the theatre is that it synthesizes—or melds, blends—more languages of expression than other art forms do. His synthesis included everything from the structure of the building to the elements of the performance itself. They work together: the building creates tension and the performance releases it. Kandinsky means this: the drama of the theatrical play actually begins outside in the street. The theatre building is a magnet that draws the public all the way from outside the building to its powerful center in the inner reaches of the stage. First, the open doors of the building "suck…in streams of people": as unrelated people pass into the lobby, they become related to one another by their common purpose and space: that room unifies the individuals into an "audience." Inside the theatre, the seats unify the audience
further—organizing them into rows, pointing them all in the same direction, focusing all of their combined receptive attention on a single point: center stage. When the theatre structure has concentrated all this tension to the maximum, the performance begins.
In a charming prose poem from 1912, Kandinsky described the suspenseful tension as the audience waits for this:
The rope came down and the curtain went up. We had all been waiting so long for this moment. The curtain hung. The curtain hung. The curtain hung. It hung down. Now it's up. As it went up, we were all so overjoyed.
Then, each moment that unfolds on the stage is a small release of tension, and these releases then trigger bigger releases or responses in the audience. In that audience response is the ultimate release of all the powers of all the arts.
Kandinsky, "Contrasts" (1937)
To be continued…