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Memories of a Very Early Witness

Jelena Hahl-Fontaine

Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series


“I consider your work definitive and unmatched in the field… ”


That was what I wrote to Dr. Jelena Hahl-Fontaine in March of 2018.¬≠


“I really am much too late in saying what an enormous influence your work has had on me. You've been... my idol! Already in the late 1980s, I flew to Los Angeles to hear you lecture at the Schoenberg Center.When you walked out onto the stage, wearing a beautiful suit, you arrived at your place, turned to the audience, took a watch on a stick pin out of your lapel and slowly placed it on the podium in front of you, to keep track of time. 


“In a 1997 essay, ‘Kandinsky, Sch√∂nberg and their Parallel Experiments,’ you mention the little piece of music [composed by Kandinsky] that you played that day on a cassette recorder.


“Please accept my deepest thanks for your incomparable work on Kandinsky, which has been so important in my life.”


In my May introduction to this series, I wrote: “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.”


Indeed, Dr. Jelena Hahl-Fontaine (formerly Hahl-Koch) has connected more “dots” than any other Kandinsky scholar. Kandinsky’s involvements in art, music, theatre, dance, writing; his historical context, personal life, travels and thinking—all find their right place under her charming, multi-lingual, fearless scrutiny. I have revered her work since the 1980s, flying to her lectures and amassing a library of her books and articles. For me, her willingness to contribute, first to the essays I collected under the title Kandinsky Beyond Painting in 2018, and now to this “Kandinsky Anew” series, is a marvelous part of the story of my long Kandinsky life.


In that same May letter, I asked: Do you perhaps have anything to say on Kandinsky that you've never said, or might say differently outside a strictly scholarly setting?”


And to my delight, this is what she sent me:




Memories of a Very Early Witness


When I was still a student, in the mid-1960s I began to archive Kandinsky’s bequest, which had come through his partner, Gabriele M√ľnter, to the St√§dtische Galerie (City Gallery) im Lenbachhaus in Munich. His numerous manuscripts, with various “scenic compositions” from 1908 on—in Russian (which I translated) and in German—fascinated me as examples of a synthesis of the arts. The sense of this “synthesis” was similar to what Alexander Skrjabin [Scriabin] had intended, and was in any case more complete than Richard Wagner’s: from the early Giants, The Green Sound, Black and White, up to the final The Yellow Sound, the only play Kandinsky found complete enough to publish in his Blue Rider Almanac in 1912.


My studies in various archives—the Getty and Norton Simon museums, Yale Music Library, the Tretjakov gallery in Moscow, a 12-year long cooperation with Nina Kandinsky, etc.—added to complete the picture. When the Lenbachhaus exchanged copies with the Centre Pompidou, where Nina Kandinsky had later given other manuscripts, the process of the artist’s ideas became clearer and more logical.


I was able to observe a path towards more and more abstraction in the stage plays, exactly parallel to the development of his art: to add the elements of time and movement to his images, change the lighting, experiment with neighboring forms of art… Paintings of the same period in Chicago and Amsterdam proved to have a direct connection (see the illustrations in my Kandinsky-Forum III and my monograph Kandinsky of 1993). Less and less comprehensible “action” could be observed in the stage plays, human figures were soon used only as carriers of color, their movements were without “logic,” and so on.


Two long stays in New York and Garches near Paris with Olga de Hartmann (the singer, widow of the composer Foma Gartman/Thomas de Hartmann) were quite a revelation. Olga herself had been an active partner in Kandinsky’s project in 1908-1912; we find mainly her handwriting in the manuscripts—along with the more naive, almost childish handwriting of her husband. I was mainly interested in the old recording of Hartmann's music for The Yellow Sound, and Olga played the very poor quality recording on a "spiral system," which I copied somehow.


Author’s Note: For this, I am hoping to find some technically competent young helpers to get something useful out of this recording. …A cooperation is planned to publish the letters between Kandinsky and the Hartmanns, in Russia first, since the language is Russian.


Just a few personal words, since otherwise this might never be known: Olga was then far over 80, her face full of wrinkles, but it was the most beautiful face I have ever seen: a pure soul! And how extremely sensitive she was: once she simply started crying, sobbing, when she told me that Nina Kandinsky, when already rich in Paris, did not want to take her mother to live with her. Olga herself had taken her old father, a widower, to live with them.  – Thomas de Hartmann's book on Gurdjieff, to which Olga also contributed, shows their spiritual quest. She also told me that she had never gotten her menstrual period, so she could not have children; Thomas had answered her father when asking to marry her, "Music is our child." Although I strictly refused to join her when she wanted to introduce me to a Gurdjieff circle, she herself must have felt some basic interest, at least in general spiritual (not esoteric!) matters; indeed, her dedication in their book proved prophetic…


With Munich’s museum director, Hans Konrad R√∂thel, I had almost finished a theater volume, which was to be published in 1981/2 at Benteli Publishers in Switzerland. But only the first volume, with Kandinsky’s autobiographical writings, was published in 1980, and the rest was hindered by Paris “colleagues”… But all my materials became part of the Paris project, where many years later a large and thorough edition (with the added help of Natasha Avtonomova, Moscow) was finally published. In 1980, I edited a complete volume of Kandinsky’s correspondence with Arnold Schoenberg, and since their letters touched on the subject of The Yellow Sound and Schoenberg’s Lucky Hand, I included those plays in the book. After immediate translations into English, French and Japanese, at the end of 2017, a smaller Russian edition came out at Grundrisse [publisher] in Moscow.


Then I finally published, in 2010, Die B√ľhnenexperimente [The Stage Experiments] in the series Kandinsky-Forum III. I have also been invited over the years to give lectures on this interesting subject: twice at the Tretjakov Gallery, the Conservatory Leningrad, twice at the Schoenberg Center in Los Angeles, in Montpellier, Munich, Sidney, Bogot√†, Brussels, Dijon, Basel, Chicago, and more.



Kandinsky’s The Yellow Sound project with his close friend, Foma Gartman [Thomas de Hartmann], left notes and an early recording on
a “spiral system.” In 1914, Hugo Ball, later the Dadaist, wanted to
stage it in Munich, but it did not happen because of the outbreak of
World War I.


The first staging of The Yellow Sound took place in Southern France and then in the fine Th√©√Ętre de Chatelet in Paris in 1971, on the initiative of Nina Kandinsky and her new close friend, Claude Pompidou, the wife of the president. With the exception of myself, only rich and famous representatives of the Paris political and cultural society were invited; they had to pay a lot, since it was a “benefit” performance. At the piano was scenographer Polieri (no, not the more famous pianist Pollini) who was in charge; he had already staged The Yellow Sound in Beaume, in Southern France, just before Paris. The evening in Paris started with the minute-long projection of the face of Kandinsky, then the face of Polieri—and then many more times, Kandinsky and Polieri… Kandinsky and Polieri. Which shows the enormous ego of Polieri. He played whatever had nothing to do with Hartmann’s music … Also, the stage play was rather far from the ideas of Kandinsky. Film projection was used for the flight of the red birds. Result: not good, but “luxurious,” especially when at the end every woman was given a beautiful yellow rose …


In 1982, I was invited by the Guggenheim Museum to help with a more thorough staging of The Yellow Sound. Hartmann’s music was used, but since it contained only fragments (and the idea was to have a full-evening event!), the composer and professor at Harvard, Gunter Schuller, “completed” it: too bombastic, I found. I was also against the stage director, Jan [Ian] Strasfogel, whose ego seemed too dominant to follow Kandinsky’s intentions. When he finally decided that the Giants had to have huge hats with geometrical “Bauhaus”-like forms, I quit the cooperation and only gave a lecture at the Guggenheim Museum.


Then I heard that the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke had written something, inspired by The Yellow Sound. When he came to Brussels to direct his own compositions, I confronted him: I don’t remember my words, but he understood that I found his idea inadequate, since he did not even know Hartmann’s music. But he answered very nicely and modestly: “No, Kandinsky is a giant!” So he did not mean to be equally important (and Schnittke's later music I began to love very much, so I was completely consoled).


When later I was asked to contribute my materials to a project to stage Pictures at an Exhibition in Berlin in the early 1980s, I gladly sent copies to Mr. Ruprecht, since I had a complete copy from Felix Klee, Kandinsky’s young helper in Dessau (I just recently did the same for the Moscow project, "Planeta Kandinsky"). And that Berlin production—which is of course easier to do than The Yellow Sound, since Kandinsky has written many more details for it than for the earlier play—I found quite perfect and impressive. In Moscow, in November of 2017 the former assistant of Rupprecht, Mr. Birr, explained how meticulously they had proceeded in Berlin; it has been a huge amount of work and a really extremely exact reproduction of Kandinsky's performance in Dessau in 1929. And we are all happy to hear that Mr. Birr can still continue to show this reconstructed performance even now.


Impact on German Expressionist Drama

Since Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art had become an appreciated and admired manifesto of modernism, his next publication, The Blue Rider Almanac, was also widely read by all culturally interested people. So The Yellow Sound, which he included along with an explicatory text to it, became well known. And since the artist, in this neighboring non-professional domain, felt free to experiment—more than in his “own" art and more than any professional drama-author dared to do at that time—this shocking, almost abstract play had an enormous influence on the German expressionist development of drama and opera. To name only one: Lothar Schreyer, of Herwarth Walden’s famous circle “Sturm” in Berlin, was quite influenced and also wrote his interpretation of Kandinsky’s play… Schreyer’s work, which is hardly performed anymore, I had studied in the archives of Marbach/Germany; and when at last a performance was to take place at the Wuppertal Museum, I sent my materials.


*  * *



Jelena Hahl-Fontaine (formerly Hahl-Koch)
PhD, Art History and Slavic Studies, Heidelberg. Teaching: Universities of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Bern, State University of Texas, Austin, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Curator: the Kandinsky-archive, Lenbachhaus, Munich. Publications: Kandinsky/Arnold Schoenberg letters; the monograph, Kandinsky; the Kandinsky Forum I-IV, etc.; also texts on Jawlensky, Sacharoff, Bechtejeff, Russian Avant-garde, etc. Lectured widely: Europe, America, Australia.



Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the booklet for the Moscow conference (Nov. 25-26, 2017) organized by Nadia Podzemskaya and entitled “Kandinsky et le th√©√Ętre-performance: Dialogues avec l’art contemporain.” Dr. Hahl-Fontaine expanded the piece for inclusion in Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives, ed. Lissa Tyler Renaud, Dramaturgias journal, Brazil (2018). The version here, for my “Kandinsky Anew” series in Scene4, updates the expanded version.


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Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine

Lissa Tyler Renaud, lifelong actress, M.F.A. Directing, Ph.D. Dramatic Art (thesis [with Art History]: Kandinsky and the theatre), U.C. Berkeley, 1987; founded the Actors' Training Project studio for training based on Kandinsky's work. Since 2004, training actors, directors and scholars; lecturing, and publishing widely–as visiting professor, master teacher, invited speaker, actor-scholar, recitalist–around the U.S. and Asia; in England, Mexico, Sweden, Russia. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. 
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2019 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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