Part 1 left off in 1914, when Kandinsky was about to have his play produced and was planning a book on the theatre. Instead, war was declared and, as an enemy Russian in Germany, Kandinsky ended up at gunpoint before escaping on a ship in the night, in the company of Russia’s great theatre innovator, Konstantin Stanislavsky.
Part 2 takes us from then to the end of his theatre life and glimpses what part of it survived him soon after.
This is not a biography of Kandinsky’s life, but of his Theatre Life. It lifts out of his biography the chronology, the main shape of, his involvement with the theatre, with some references to other art forms in this everything-but-his-paintings story. Because I am focusing on this “breathless” theatre outline, I haven’t given personal or professional context for what you will read—not the hundreds of his artworks left behind in WWI, not the confiscation of his property in the Russian Revolution or the death of his child in the 1921-22 famine, not the many paintings of his destroyed by the Nazis in the 1930s, and then more in Allied bombings in WWII. This is a man who died in 1944 knowing that a large part of his life’s work had been lost and destroyed. But he never stopped doing what theatre work he could until months before his death.
If nothing else, I hope readers will come away sure that Kandinsky, along with being a ground-breaking painter, was active in his time in bringing renewal to the theatre in ways that can still inspire us today.
When Hugo Ball opened the legendary Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916, Kandinsky's work played a part. The second night of the Cabaret, for example, featured Kandinsky's poems and a song by Wedekind. These Dada evenings included the works of a fascinating combination of artists: in the following month (March), for example, "two humorous pieces by Chekhov" were performed, and Hans Arp read from Jarry's Ubu when a Lautréamont text did not arrive in time. Debussy, Turgenev and simultaneous poetry were all presented without regard to critical distinctions, as if artists were at peace with one another while the rest of the world was at war. When the Cabaret put out its one journal issue, a poem of Kandinsky's was included.
The Cabaret closed, and the following year Ball and Tristan Tzara opened the Galerie Dada, which had Kandinsky's paintings among those on the walls, and a cafe called the Kandinsky Room. The connection between Kandinsky and early Dada has been virtually ignored by scholars—a great loss to historians of theatre, arts and culture. Less than a month after the March opening, Hugo Ball’s diary shows he offered a lecture on Kandinsky that included this passage:
Kandinsky is one of the great innovators, purifiers of life. The vitality of his intent is astounding and just as extraordinary as Rembrandt's was for his age, as Wagner's also for his, a generation ago. His vitality embraces equally music, dance, drama, and poetry. His significance rests on the fact that his initiative is equally practical and theoretical. He is the critic of his own work and of his epoch. He is a writer of incomparable verses, creator of a new theatrical style, author of some of the most spiritual books in recent German literature.
The next week, three of Kandinsky's poems were read, and later that night Kokoschka's Sphinx and Strawman was performed, with Hugo Ball and his wife, poet and cabaret artist Emmy Hennings, in the title roles. As late as 1919, as Dada was coming to a close in Zurich, Kandinsky's poems were still a part of the brouhaha.
In the meantime, on fleeing Germany in 1914, Kandinsky had had to travel through multiple countries to return to Russia. After the October Revolution of 1917, he was involved in the reorganization of cultural programs under the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment (NKP), which had been created by the Revolutionary government. In 1918, a Department of Visual Arts (IZO) was established under NKP, and Kandinsky was invited to become a member. When a Theater and Film Section was added, Kandinsky was made the director of it. This section published a journal, Visual Arts, of which Kandinsky was named editor. He published his essay "On Stage Composition" from the Blue Rider Almanac in the first issue of the journal.
In 1920 Kandinsky wrote a series of articles for the IZO NKP journal, Artistic Life. In one of them, he urged the creation of an international art congress that would include artists from the fields of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, literature (especially poetry), and "all branches of the theater, including the intimate stage, variety, etc., right up to the circus"; all of these artists would collaborate on the creation of a “monumental art.”
When an Institute for Artistic Culture (INKhUK)was established the same year, with Kandinsky at its head, he designed a program for just such a collaborative effort. He presented his program at the First Pan-Russian Conference of Teachers and Students at the State Free Art and Industrial Art Studios, one studio of which he had been teaching since 1918. This program assumes that there is a "science of art." In other words, Kandinsky believed that there are synthesizing principles of art that can be taught, and that these principles, in conjunction with the principle of "inner necessity," are the artist's means, his goal in turn being a synthesizing or unified art form. While the concept of "inner necessity" is the basis of Kandinsky's originality, this notion of "synthesis" is the crux of his genius. Elsewhere I have written about Kandinsky’s training of the synthesizing
artist, "synthesis" being the second of Kandinsky's great guiding principles.
Six months later, in December of 1920, he delivered a report to the first Pan-Russian Conference, a meeting of all of the heads of art sections under NKP. In his report he stated that his Institute was founded "for the purpose of studying ... synthetic [unified] art," and gave as an example the early watercolor/music/dance experiments he had done with Hartmann and Sakharoff in Munich [described in Part 1]. However, Kandinsky’s program was not accepted by his colleagues within the Institute itself, and he resigned shortly thereafter. He adapted part of the program a few months later for the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences. There, he was chairman of a subcommittee on "physio-psychology" and the visual arts. This time the plan was accepted, but it was not carried out because Kandinsky returned to Germany before the end of the year.
That year, 1922, the Popular Theatre in Berlin offered to produce Kandinsky's Yellow Sound. But Kandinsky took seriously the notion that the theatre is collaborative: he turned down this opportunity because Thomas von Hartmann was unavailable to work on the music with him. In 1923, a theatre article by Kandinsky entitled "Abstract Synthesis on the Stage" was published at the Bauhaus, where he had accepted a teaching job. True to the spirit of the school's architectural emphasis, this short article takes off from a discussion of the relationship between the audience and the architecture of the theatre building itself, and concludes with the briefest summary of the "theater laboratory" program he had envisioned while still in Russia.
In 1926 Kandinsky published another article, "Dance Curves: The Dances of Palucca," in which he did an extraordinary analysis of the choreography of this German dancer, Gret Palucca. He also addressed her work again in his major book Point and Line to Plane of the same year.
1927 saw two publications of Kandinsky's theatre-related writings. The first was "And, Some Remarks on Synthetic [Unified or Fusion] Art," which, the casual implication of the word "remarks" notwithstanding, includes a historical analysis of the gradual separation of the arts and suggests possibilities for their reunion, as always, in the theatre. The second publication was an excerpt from his play, Violet, written thirteen years earlier. Oskar Schlemmer, who edited the issue of the Bauhaus journal in which Violet appeared, was also responsible for the famous theatre experiments of the Bauhaus Stage Workshop. At some point, Schlemmer also became interested in producing Yellow Sound; Kandinsky wrote wistfully in a letter of 1937, "[b]ut once again it didn't work out... Such things have their own destinies." In fact, we can see in the Prospectus for the Bauhaus Books
that publication of the text of Violet in its entirety was also announced by the Bauhaus, but it, too, "didn't work out."
In 1929, Schlemmer’s extraordinary Bauhaus Theatre was pushed out of the Bauhaus for lack of “relevance,” and to make way for the students to write their own productions about matters of social justice. Schlemmer wrote in his diary: “Kandinsky openly shows his sorrow at the end of the Theatre in its present form. I asked him if he wasn’t tempted… Kandinsky certainly saw many of his own ideas realized on my stage; after performances he would let me know through his wife how close I was to his conception.”
But for Kandinsky, the next project did “work out.” In 1928, Kandinsky accepted an invitation by the Friedrich-Theater in Dessau to stage Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Finally, after twenty years of writing plays and theoretical articles for the theatre, as well as experimenting and lecturing on its behalf, Kandinsky brought his creative imagination to bear in actual theatrical production. And he did so with a conception of such brilliance and sophistication that it boggles the mind to think of what he might have accomplished if his life had not spanned the two world wars which uprooted him in one way or another for most of his adult life.
Kandinsky designed all sets and lighting for the piece, along with a complex array of props which were suspended above the stage, and which also moved. In two of the sixteen scenes he devised from the music, he also used dancers, and also designed their costumes. Felix Klee, the son of Paul Klee (who was also teaching at the Bauhaus), was a stage manager and production assistant at the theatre. The original of the prompt book that he kept is now at the Pompidou Center in Paris: it includes the musical score with all lighting and fly cues for backdrops and props, as well as his later notations for the choreography.
In 1930 Kandinsky published a brief description of his approach to this project. The structure of the music suggested the shape of each scene, and he translated each of his images from the music into form, color and light, taking into account "of course," he wrote knowingly, "the necessity of dismantling it." Pictures of sets, costumes, props and prompt book all show his understanding of this practical matter of theatre production.
Kandinsky’s wife, Nina, later wrote about this staging of Pictures at an Exhibition in her tribute to him, “The Living Kandinsky”: “The Friedrich Theatre where Dr. Hartmann was manager became a kind of studio for Kandinsky, an extension of his own, in which his forms and colors came to life in a new space. Kandinsky the magician, the creator of [fairylands], brought his spell here; he gave life to these creatures of an evening.”
More of Kandinsky's wonderfully performable poetry appeared in the important experimental journal transition in 1932. That same year, his longtime reservations about Futurism notwithstanding, he wrote to the Futurist Marinetti for a letter of support for the Bauhaus, which was, as usual, under threat of closure, and which in fact closed the next year. In 1933, after years of precarious standing, the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis for the last time and Kandinsky, uprooted again, moved to Paris, already in his late 60s. There, he received visits from Marcel Duchamp, who had also come to see him at the Bauhaus in 1929, and from Andre Breton. He owned books that were personally inscribed by Breton (Second Surrealist Manifesto), Tristan Tzara and Marinetti. He attended the Futurist conference of 1935. Four more of his poems were published in transition in 1938, and artist Sophie Taeuber-Arp included three of his poems in her journal, Plastique, in 1939.
Scholars refer in passing to two theatre projects in the last years of Kandinsky’s life. In 1939 he is said to have discussed a “proposed multimedia ballet” with Leonide Massine. Massine had choreographed Diaghilev's original “Parade” production of 1917, a collaboration that had involved Cocteau, Satie and Picasso. In March of 1944, Kandinsky became ill, but that same month he worked on the scenery for a ballet he planned to produce with Thomas von Hartmann, the same composer with whom he had collaborated on his very first theatre projects in Munich thirty-five years earlier. He stopped working altogether in June, and died in December.
Kandinsky left behind a body of theatre-related work that has never received the serious appraisal it deserves. As we have seen, his collaborators and publishers, as well as many theatre innovators of his day were not so nonchalant about his achievements. Even after his death, in a New York lecture of 1950, Thomas von Hartmann reminded his audience that Kandinsky was a theatre artist, calling Yellow Sound "the greatest venture of stage art to this day." Such votes of confidence from his contemporaries suggest that the theatre of today would benefit from giving Kandinsky's contributions some consideration.
Nina Kandinsky, his wife of twenty-seven years, confirmed in her 1976 memoir that her husband's “greatest ambition was to create a large-scale, multi-media ballet.” Although the opportunity was never granted him to realize his monumental, synthesizing stage art, he left ample theoretical writings to guide us towards his conception, and outlined a method of training for the theatre artist which is so fresh that the contemporary theatre cannot afford to ignore it. These writings themselves must stand in place of the performances that Kandinsky never achieved, and as his audience, he asked us to complete them in our imaginations.
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Note on images and information
A reminder that the Internet is bursting with materials that can readily supplement what you read here. For example, readers can easily do a search for Cabaret Voltaire, Oskar Schlemmer, Gret Palucca or Marcel Duchamp and instantly see what they look like and learn more. Also see <Kandinsky Yellow Sound> and <Kandinsky Mussorgsky>.
This series hopes to share images and information not at the fingertips.
Here, Ana Zugasti has created an ingenious presentation of the work Kandinsky did for Pictures at an Exhibition, pairing quite a few of his designs with recordings of the music each design accompanied.
Here, Ms. Zugasti offers a delightful introduction to Mussorgsky’s Pictures.
This photo is just one image from the reconstruction of Pictures with Kandinsky’s designs, staged for the opening ceremony (January 2019) of the festival in Berlin in honor of the centenary of the Bauhaus. What a pleasure to see Kandinsky’s drawing of this set built, on stage, and lit!
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.