This Introduction is the first entry for my new series in Scene4, entitled Kandinsky Anew. It is dedicated to new perspectives on Kandinsky’s “life in art,” mostly beyond painting—with emphasis in the fields of theatre, poetry, music, dance and architecture, and on other topics that contribute to our seeing Kandinsky anew.
In 2017, I started actively gathering and requesting professional, historical, and other thoughtful writings on Kandinsky’s wide-ranging works, activities, and thinking. The resulting pieces—by artists and researchers, practitioners and close observers—form a lively, expansive, and challenging collection of essays and articles. Along with creating a kind of repository for significant new materials on Kandinsky, the pieces for Kandinsky Anew are also selected to interest and surprise the general public’s multitudes of Kandinsky aficionados. Readers of Scene4 saw a successful “test balloon” for this idea in the April 2019 issue: my interview about Kandinsky with the eminent Peter Selz, Still “Mr. Modern Art” at 100.
Over the years, Kandinsky studies have thrived under the care of a tight-knit group of intrepid scholars who publish and confer. But Kandinsky seems to me to be everywhere. In my reading, for example, his name appears unexpectedly in books on a wide range of topics: philosophy, popular science, physics, neuroscience, history, Asian studies, in personal memoirs of people in far-flung places, and more. Then, too, I know more than a few people who are neither scholars nor authors evoking Kandinsky’s name, but who nevertheless offer important perspectives, being among the most interesting thinkers on Kandinsky, having dedicated much rumination to the deeper meanings of his life and work. I am delighted to feature their writings in Kandinsky Anew.
As we all know, the Internet is a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, non-specialists and specialists alike have spread a narrow version of Kandinsky, rife with misinformation, some of it scurrilous. Did he play the violin, break with his parents on becoming an artist, was he a devotee of theosophy, was he anti-Semitic, was he tragically isolated in Paris? No; all no. On the other hand, the Internet allows us access to rich materials, even global ones,we could not otherwise see: documents, articles, videos, visual resources. This has changed the way Kandinsky can be studied and understood, and you are likely to find pieces based on an unusual selection of these.
In 2000, I wrote in a column about Kandinsky for Scene4:
I was very much struck over twenty years ago when I came across a remark made by Chaliapin (d. 1938), the great Russian basso. He said that he had learned more about acting from his friends who were painters than he ever did from stage actors. Around the same time, I also stumbled on an anecdote that seemed to me to be related: when a young Martha Graham saw a non-figurative painting of Kandinsky’s in 1922 she is said to have said, "I will dance like that."Comments such as these seem to me to be fruitful areas of inquiry; clearly the fine arts have something to say to the performing arts.
“Now Upwards!” 1931
Watercolor, wash and ink on paper, 48.1 X 61 cm.
The Hilla von Rebay Collection
Indeed, Kandinsky the painter had a great deal to say to the performing arts. From my perspective as a theatre practitioner and scholar as well as an art historian, it is ironic that Kandinsky’s long-time, stage-related work receives more attention from outside the field of theatre than inside it. More than anything, this speaks to the theatre’s historically fitful relationship with its avant-garde. Kandinsky’s contributions to the stage are every bit as revolutionary as his contributions to painting, but have never been seriously mined for their treasures. Note that Kandinsky was well-read in both classical and contemporary dramatic literature (Goethe, Kleist, Ibsen, Chekhov, Maeterlinck, et alia), and well aware of experimenters of his time, such as Isadora Duncan, Dalcroze, and far beyond. His messages to the theatre still await the level of legitimacy from the theatre that they receive elsewhere. And the
same can be said of his historic contributions in other fields, too.
All re-constructions of history are connect-the-dots endeavors. In Kandinsky’s history, some connectable dots are missing altogether; some “dots,” pieces of information or contexts, are still hidden or passed over—matters without which the true picture of his life and work remains partial.
Kandinsky’s years in Russia, from the outbreak of WWI to his joining the German Bauhaus in 1922, have been a somewhat weak link in our knowledge. Compared to information about his time in Germany and France, information about his “Russian Years” has been far less freely available to us. This has gradually changed in the years since the December 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union.
And thereby hangs a tale from my own experience. When I began my formal doctoral studies of Kandinsky in the early 1980s, Kandinsky was little known inside Russia. To see a stage work of his, it was to Germany I went, to see the reconstruction of his Dessau staging of “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Materials pertaining to his work and life in Russia—still incomplete today for various reasons—circulated tenderly among devotees, in hit-or-miss translations, sometimes at great expense or arriving in the mailbox in dog-eared photocopies from distant countries. Russian speakers in the West were luckier, but for the rest of us, by expanding one’s search farther and farther afield, one could collect quite an impressive amount of clandestine documentation. Then in Moscow, in January of 1991, I saw one of the first exhibitions of the
avant-garde artists who had fallen foul of official ideology after the 1917 Revolution, and whose work—including Kandinsky’s—had been thereafter unknown.
On that same 1991 trip, with my translator in tow, I knocked on the door of Kandinsky’s Moscow apartment and was greeted by a quite ordinary tenant who claimed not to know Kandinsky’s name. On the way down the stairs, to my astonishment I could see where someone had tentatively removed a small area of paint on the wall, below eye level and partly obscured by a hand railing, exposing what was clearly Kandinsky’s folk-style decorative painting underneath. It took several more years before the word was out, and there were efforts made to preserve that same painted wall and others on the stairwell, as well as to add to the building’s exterior a beautiful plaque stating that Kandinsky had lived there:
By 2010, when I gave a talk on Kandinsky’s theatre works and poetry at the St. Petersburg State Theatre Arts Academy (now the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts), the difference was palpable. My audience was hearing the information for the first time, but afterwards, there was eager discussion, and an invitation to give an impromptu class on Kandinsky’s spatial analysis for directors and actors in the Advanced Directing Studio. Where Kandinsky is concerned, certainly we are now collectively in a different era of understanding than we were in the 1980s or ‘90s.
Today, Kandinsky’s theatre and other work outside of painting is the subject of fascination in countries around the world, generating not only conferences, publications, and dissertations, but also exhibits, stage works, collaborations, discussions and friendships. Hopefully, the writings for Kandinsky Anew can give the world new perspectives on Kandinsky, covering a dynamic spectrum of historical and creative thought by theoreticians, practitioners, and thinkers—multi-disciplinary, multi-generational, and multi-national.
Wishing you a reading experience as unconventional and adventurous as Kandinsky himself was.
Lissa Tyler Renaud
Oakland, California, April 2019
Cover Image behind type:
“A Fluttering Figure” 1942, oil on wood
26 X 20 cm. Pompidou Center
Note: An earlier, different version of this article was developed for Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.