Kandinsky Anew | Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Dame Helen Mirren
on Kandinsky and Acting

Introduced by Lissa Tyler Renaud




It has always seemed to me that the processes of acting and painting have much in common. Maybe this commonality accounts for the interest so many actors have had in painting, and the affinity actors so often feel for painters.


Numerous actors, past and present, with very public lives in the theatre or in film, also have  or have had private lives as painters. Some had training and even art degrees before turning to acting, and others came later to painting seriously, and have gone on to exhibit.


Here are just a few of the countless well-known actors who also paint or painted:


Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Depp, Sylvester Stallone, Lucy Liu, Marilyn Monroe, Dennis Hopper, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Billie Dee Williams.


If we expand our parameters to include other kinds of performers—singers, musicians, and so on—or other countries!—the lists get exponentially longer. Just to give a feel:


Janis Joplin, Kanye West & Kim Kardashian, Paul McCartney, and Joni Mitchell.


We also find actors with serious work in visual arts such as sculpture, design, and ceramics.


By the same token, there are a large number of actors or popular media figures who don't themselves paint but have substantial—even world class—painting collections. The list is long, but among the most familiar now are:


David Bowie, Bill and Camille Cosby (Renoir, Rembrandt, Picasso, Matisse, and so on), Ellen DeGeneres, Madonna, Steve Martin, Jack Nicholson (Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Botero, Bouguereau, Modigliani, Magritte, Warhol, and so on), Barbra Streisand, and Oprah Winfrey.


As an aside: Streisand, who stopped performing live a long time ago due to her struggles with stage fright, nevertheless gave a 2016 concert so she could add a Modigliani to her collection.




My special interest is in Kandinsky's approach to painting as it can be applied to acting. He was a master teacher, and the way he talked about the process of painting is how I experience and teach the process of acting. This way of studying and working has galvanized a gratifying number of my theatre colleagues and students in countries around the world for several decades. By now, there is a broad network of actors who mention Kandinsky's name in a rehearsal room as if it were a secret handshake.


Imagine my pleasure, in 2011, at coming upon a new video from the Museum of Modern Art, "Helen Mirren on Vasily Kandinsky." In it, the world-renowned actress, Dame Helen Mirren, talks about her love of painting in general, and of Kandinsky's work in particular. I am especially interested in her comments about the parallels between Kandinsky's process as a painter and hers as an actress.


Mirren highlights the tension in any artistic creation—in painting or acting—between what is random in it and what is purposely organized. In Kandinsky's paintings, what appealed to her at first as instinctual and improvised turned out to be planned, deliberate, "thought out" and "constructed." As a teacher, Kandinsky noted that you can't base a work of art on emotions because emotions change all the time; instead, what is needed is a stable, dependable structure to support the artist's freedom. Mirren finds the parallel between this idea and her own experience of creating the appearance of naturalness and spontaneity by working within a stable, technical form.


Surely intentionality—the sense that the artist selected and intended what we see—is a key to paintings and performances that captivate so many of us.


The transcript of Dame Mirren's remarks follows:


*    *    *





Helen Mirren on Vasily Kandinsky


Painting, actually, is what I love the most. Literally, paint on canvas, or paint on wood, or paint on anything. It's what gives me the most pleasure in my down time. It's great just to go into an art gallery—just ignore everything, and go to one painting. And just spend five or ten minutes with that painting. Unfortunately, I always like to look at paintings really close—the guards always get rather nervous when I'm in a gallery. I want to experience the painting as the painter did, and when you get into that world—you know, basically sort of this far away [gestures from her nose to extended arm]—you need to be that far away because that's where the painter was. Now I'm in his or her space, and I'm experiencing it the way they did, and I love that. I always feel I can feel the painter, feel the struggles and the thought or the anger or the joy or whatever it is. You know, my dad very much wanted to be a painter—he was actually a cab driver—he loved painting, and I, actually I own a couple of his paintings—they're not very good, they're sort of, you know, copies of, of French Impressionist style. But he, um, he loved painting, and I think I inherited that to a certain extent from him. And my, um, entertainment as a young girl was never to go to pop concerts or that sort of thing. I used to love to go to the local art gallery and just walk around.


Brilliantly, you [the interviewer] put me in front of my favorite artist, Kandinsky. And they are my lovely friends [referring to the Kandinsky paintings on the gallery walls]. You know, it's not often that you'll see four magnificent Kandinskys like that, in a row in a museum—that's an amazing thing to see. There's a sense of chaos, and randomness, and, and like the universe, you know, it's random but it's organized, in this incredible contradiction. And when I first saw a Kandinsky, I assumed that it was just improvisational, it was just instinctive and improvisational, and wild, and, and of the moment—I loved it for that reason. And it wasn't until I went to see a retrospective of Kandinsky's that I learned that actually his work is incredibly worked out and— not "controlled," but, um, you know, it's far from improvisation. It's, it's a very thought about, constructed image. You know, that's the connection with my art. It's, you have… it's very technical, you know. Whether it's on the stage or on film, it's highly technical. But within this extreme form—technical form—you have to give an impression of improvisation, and of naturalness, and of it being invented there and then, in the moment. And to me that was perfectly what Kandinsky represents as an artist. There is that process that Francis Bacon describes so well, of learning what he calls "the good accident." And that's very much a part of what I do, is learning the good accident in acting. As an actor, you know, I'm always very jealous of painters, and indeed, of singers. Because a song can travel straight into the heart, the way a painting can. What I do has to be processed through the brain: people have to follow the story, it has to make sense. A song, just the note of a song, can make you feel something; likewise, a painting can do the same thing…



Filmed by Lost and Found Films, and included here with their permission. 


Lissa Tyler Renaud | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

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

©2020 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine

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