Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, KANDINSKY ANEW series
Kandinsky’s important experiments with language have been overshadowed by his ground-breaking experiments in painting. But the beginning of the 1900s saw a flowering of new kinds of poetry and new thinking about words, and Kandinsky was an early, active participant.
In fact, Kandinsky’s experimentation with abstract language and sounds began so early that we can confidently embrace him as a pioneer in the field. Kandinsky’s theatre plays went farther in these directions than the stage had ever gone. His utterly original poems—from Sounds, a formidable volume of thirty-eight prose poems of 1913, to his poems published late into the 1930s—remain neglected gems of early poetry and are still new today.
From the start of his legendary Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, Hugo Ball, founder of Dada, included Kandinksy’s poetry in the melee, and gave a lecture calling Kandinsky “a writer of incomparable verses, creator of a new theatrical style…” Six years after Kandinsky’s death in 1944, the composer Thomas von Hartmann still called Kandinsky’s stage play, The Yellow Sound, "the greatest venture of stage art to this day.”
My guest writer for this month is Boris Sokolov, who for many years has made most distinguished contributions to our understanding of Kandinsky’s life and work. In his enjoyable article, Boris Sokolov gives a succinct account of Kandinsky’s innovations in matters of word and sound—in his volume of poetry, Sounds, and in his stage compositions, as well as in his writings laying out his theoretical basis. The Russian perspective Sokolov brings to his topic is of special interest: “how Kandinsky’s thinking and efforts shifted over time.”
Kandinsky’s Theater of the Word: From Sounds to Violet
by Boris Sokolov
Kandinsky’s experiments in literature and theater are closely related to his experiments in the realm of the word, sound, and their semantic correlations. His first work in this field is the series of woodcuts, “Poems Without Words” (1903), where symbolic “Russian” motifs are presented as wordless poetry. From 1907 and 1908 onwards, Kandinsky wrote and reworked various texts for the stage several times: at first, fragments in the manner of Maeterlinck, then entire scores with choruses and solos, singing and “alogical” sounds. Later, Kandinsky noted that he was the first to introduce a set of abstract sounds to the stage, as in the “Kalasimunofakola” in The Yellow Sound.
Kandinsky’s experiments with the theatrical qualities of the word can be discerned in greater detail in his poems, prose and theoretical writings. In the texts for the album Sounds (Russian version 1910, German 1912) one can find strange events that have a mysterious or esoteric meaning (the characters shouting in “Motley Meadow”), words divided into parts and reflecting the hero's feelings (“Gaze and Lightning”), and ecstatic, rhythmic passages resembling shamanic incantations (“See,” “Soft”). In the texts of this last kind, all the forms of utterance are brought together in a wave of emotional exultation: “Open wide the door! Or the fold will tear the roof right off”!
In his essay “On Stage Composition” (1912, 1918), Kandinsky states that every object and phenomenon “is beaming forth its own inner sounding,” and this sound “obtains a particular sonority at the moment that 芯utward function diminishes.” In the play The Yellow Sound, symbolic and absurd scenes create harsh contrasts, and Kandinsky uses choral singing and shouting. In the unfinished poetry cycle “Flowers without Odor” (1914), the artist uses folkloric themes as a pretext for imitations of sounds: “And from every side stones are rolling. Grrrrrrrr...... khhhhhh”; glossolalia: “The sound of the fleeing was as an alarm bell. So - und o-f fle-eing. Fle - e - e - e - e - ing. Le - e - ing. I - i – ing”; and sequences of alliterative words without any logical connection: “A freak struck with a narrow iron,” which in Russian repeats the
“ou” sound—“Ourod oudaril ouzkim outjugom.”
The liberation of the word and its hidden sound continued in Kandinsky’s last stage work, Violet Curtain or Violet (1914, 1926): “Ouff! So grandly sunk the wall! // Ouff! What a very lovely hole!”
1918 and 1926 saw a new phase in Kandinsky’s experiments. The artist felt unable to develop symbolic forms any longer, and therefore called for the pursuit of strong, if rough, artistic means. He suggested that lessons should be learnt from acrobats and eccentric actors, because they held a key to “impartial,” and therefore abstract, movement. He insisted that all the arts would be renewed in the “absorbing center” of the theater.
The search for “alogics” also influenced his play Violet, where banal dialogue and mimed scenes have a large role. In 1926, Kandinsky replaced the messianic finale of the piece with a dialogue on the forms and colors of everyday things, which ends with the words: “Green longing” (in Russian “a dreadful longing”). Kandinsky, however, was unable to find a form suitable for his new ideas, and could not find collaborators wishing to create “alogical” “synthetic compositions.” In 1928 he staged an “abstract” ballet Pictures at an Exhibition for the stage, thus coming back to the “poems without words,” more familiar to a painter.
Poem “Der Riss,” from Kandinsky’s Kl盲nge (1913).