It seems there is no end to the unexpected places I find interest in Kandinsky. We might not be surprised to find him in books on synesthesia, glass painting, poetry or folk art—but then there are also references to him in various sciences, education, museum studies, or in autobiographical accounts by people I didn't know he knew, or by scholars in subjects far afield from either art or art history. Each of these brings with it a completely new way of feeling the impact of his work.
About five years ago, it was exciting and refreshing for me to come across guest writer Lee Edgar Tyler, whose perspective on Kandinsky I couldn't even have imagined. Dr. Tyler had studied medieval literature with the great classicist, John Miles Foley, and specialized in comparing different oral traditions, especially—but far from exclusively—those in the Balkans. These fields are not central to mine, and the language used in them is unfamiliar to me. Maybe I am the last to know: one who studies in the field of comparative literature, who practices the comparison of literatures, languages, and cultures, is known as a "comparatist," and thus we find the word in the title of this essay.
Luckily for me, Professor Tyler was also a musician, art collector, reciter of Shakespeare sonnets by heart, deeply knowledgeable about the Bauhaus, with a fervent interest in early German modern dance. He had lived in Bavaria, as did Kandinsky, and was fluent in, among other languages, German; he was a gifted translator. All these together, along with his companionable temperament, explain how he came to be a support for me in my Kandinsky work—as a researcher, translator, and cheerleader, sharing my conviction that any effort related to Kandinsky's theatre ("stage operas") and poetry qualified as worthwhile and grand. He was willing to grapple with any "unique" or "idiosyncratic" text by Kandinsky—"There might be an idiom hiding in there," he wrote of a knotty poem. He called his generous work on the in-progress translation of Kandinsky's play, Violet, "a joyful undertaking," and the play itself, "genuinely remarkable."
This collaboration has ended with Lee's sudden and too-early death on October 15th.
Lee wrote the following essay in a voice utterly different from ones we usually encounter in discussions about Kandinsky. As if in tune with Kandinsky's own interdisciplinary thinking, Lee pulls down the wall between literary theory and pictorial art, and surprises us with a most unconventional introduction to his subject.
Lissa Tyler Renaud
Oakland, CA, November 2020
Kandinsky and Dance Photographs:
Applying a Comparatist Methodology
Lee Edgar Tyler
This essay applies a comparatist methodology to Charlotte Rudolph's Bauhaus-era photographs of the German expressionist dancer, Gret Palucca—photos Kandinsky used to illustrate his theories as expressed in his 1926 Point and Line to Plane and Dance Curves: On the Dances of Palucca.
The essay explicates Kandinsky's development of a "dialect" or "idiolect" of the standard method of dance description. What he developed was partly inventive and decorative, and partly constrained by forms of dance annotation. These freedoms and constraints are similar to the ones that oral traditions place on poets: lots of room for individuality, but very strict rules. I suggest a "reading" of Kandinsky's work with Rudolph's Palucca photos that is informed by this commonality of oral traditions and dance.
In the late 1980s and for a couple of years, while I was managing editor of the journal Oral Tradition, my mentor John Miles Foley approached me as a sounding board. He was working out a methodology for comparing ancient and medieval texts that show "oral derivation" (the Iliad, Odyssey, and Beowulf) with the two living oral traditions of the Balkans, the Christian and the Muslim (the Muslim songs are occasionally in excess of the length of even the Iliad and Odyssey). Foley's work is primarily encapsulated in his book Immanent Art (1991). It forms the basis of my methodology regarding Kandinsky.
Although art historian Ernst Gombrich did deal with the relationship of the literary and pictorial arts from the perspective of "reception theory," practically nothing has been written that ties literary theorist Wolfgang Iser—a bit more on him below—or Foley in particular, to pictorial art. Especially in terms of a "set of cognitive categories"—or categories we use for organizing our knowledge—which is what I find most significant about Kandinsky's works under study. As for a narrative of my own thought processes as I undertook the task: suffice it to say I unwittingly applied the comparatist's methodology (understandable, since it's my training) and came to the realization that it worked to shed light when applied to Kandinsky. And was delighted! A "eureka" moment.
To elucidate that method: Foley takes Iser's approach to written texts and applies it to oral tradition, and to perform the task of comparing them, he invented the following principles:
1. Tradition Dependence: The consideration of the poetic "rules" that govern the structure of the work on a general, tradition-specific level.
2. Genre Dependence: The consideration of the poetic "rules" that govern the genre of the work, such as epic narrative, lyric, incantation, etc.
3. Text or Performance Dependence: The consideration of the particular text(s) of the work: where it was performed, the singer (if known), the manuscript (if it's a written work), etc.
[There are some other things that only deal with oral traditional texts and are irrelevant to my study regarding Kandinsky.]
Now, as to Kandinsky's drawings of Palucca, we can see very clearly, one could almost say at first glance, that the Tradition is the Western tradition of abstraction in expressionism (although they're not purely abstract, but representational), specifically the Bauhaus in the 1920s. But what does this mean and more importantly how does it inform our "reading" of the drawing. Of course it ties in to Kandinsky's Point, Line, and Plane. And in terms of Genre Dependence, these works are pretty much sui generis, yet tied to the fact that Kandinsky was in many ways his own "tradition."
In the area of Genre Dependence, of course, Kandinsky was undertaking something new; as I've mentioned before, the situation he faced was very much like an oral poet creating a new song in its constraints. He was constrained by the already-existing "shorthand" for dance, and also by his subject matter, just as the oral poet is constrained by his poetic language and the need to fit generally commonplace words into a meaningful narrative. This, to me at least, is the most important aspect of my study.
Text or Performance is in this case the application of the methodology to the individual works.
In 1926, Kandinsky published two works which articulated the status of his theories on form: Point and Line to Plane, and Dance Curves: On the Dances of Palucca. These were published about halfway through the lifespan of the Bauhaus, and I am convinced that it was his tenure at the institution that planted the seeds of his ideas expressed in Point and Line to Plane and in Dance Curves. The Bauhaus was an interdisciplinary school, and as such studied modern dancers and often collaborated with them, which Kandinsky naturally found attractive. Dance Curves is an essay containing four drawings referencing four photographicimages of the dancer and choreographer Gret Palucca, all of which were the work of the important German dance photographer, Charlotte Rudolph. Kandinsky wrote that his works demonstrate the "simplicity of the whole form" and
the "construction of the large form." Although I haven't seen it mentioned, in my opinion Rudolph's photographs are masterful precisely because of the moments of motion (and emotion) she chose to capture. It was because of these choices that the photographs served Kandinsky well in his quest for subject matter to illustrate his theories.
Being a comparatist—that is, someone coming from comparative literature—I naturally considered the comparatist's three "elements" first articulated by Foley, with whom I had studied: Tradition, Genre, and Text or Performance. In fact, I applied these elements to both Palucca and Kandinsky in an effort to see what, if any, distinctions I should draw between the two. In a comparatist's terms, the Tradition element is the Bauhaus (especially for Kandinsky, and although Palucca was not a member of the faculty of the Bauhaus, she was the leading figure in abstract German expressionist dance). This is significant, in that a key component of the Bauhaus esthetic was the "minimization of subject matter," which will play an important role in my discussion below. Dance Curves is sui generis, or at least was upon its creation. Not only had no one
ever worked with photographs of a dancer to create line drawings of their subject before, but Kandinsky was also doing it for the express purpose of using dance to articulate his own theories of composition and form. And the Text or Performance element bears examination, as neither Palucca nor Rudolf expected the photographs to see the use to which Kandinsky put them. Is there a tension here? If so, what is its character?
My plan here is to apply these elements to a single Kandinsky drawing of a single Rudolph photograph, and I suggest that my readers do the same with the other photos. In such endeavors, there is no "right" response (although there can conceivably be wrong ones). Different readers will, and should, have different responses and place different emphases on different aspects of any work of art, especially the expressionism of Kandinsky. Before undertaking this application, a few more words about the methodology.
In his Immanent Art, John Miles Foley was wrestling with the problem of a critical approach to oral performances and oral-derived texts, specifically from a comparatist point of view; in it, he adopted the "reader receptionist" theories of Wolfgang Iser, who held that literature exists as art only when a reader actively engages it. Otherwise, it is an artifact, a closed book on a shelf in a library. Foley adapted Iser's notion of the "Implied Reader" to an "Implied Audience," and made appropriate adjustments to his studies to accommodate the inherent differences between readership of literary texts (which is an exceedingly private affair) and the aural reception of narrative songs by a group audience in primarily oral traditional cultures. This is both public, in that the people are grouped together, all listening to a singer perform; and private, as each individual has his or her vision of the events
narrated by the song going through his or her mind as the performance progresses.
But what does narrative, written or sung, have to do with Kandinsky's drawings of Rudolph's photographs of Gret Palucca's dances? It was Ernst Gombrich whose 1972 book Art and Illusion applied an approach to pictorial art, concluding that the representation of reality in drawing and painting is "a transposition, not a copy." As he convincingly demonstrated, pictorial arts make no attempt to "photograph" their subjects, but rather transpose them into a "limited, agreed-upon code" through which the viewer reconstructs a representation of reality. As Gombrich himself expressed it:
The artist cannot copy a sunlit lawn, but he can suggest it. Exactly how he does it in any particular instance is his secret, but the word of power which makes this magic possible is known to all artists—it is "relationships."
The interaction of these relationships is not merely a convenient method of representation, but rather a set of cognitive categories; as Gombrich mentions, the invisible and immaterial "contract" between artist and viewer demands that both participants perceive according to these categories, and in fact cannot share perception without them. Thus it is that Kandinsky can draw, with a mere five angular lines, a representation of Palucca's pause in a dance accessible to any person who is aware of the "rules" Kandinsky followed.
As I mentioned above, in this methodology's terms, Kandinsky's Tradition was the Bauhaus (within the broader tradition of German expressionism, which fits like a Russian doll into the tradition of Western art); and inherent in the Bauhaus tradition is the "minimization of subject matter." He employs a mere five lines, only two of which are angular, to represent Palucca's figure: A single, short line for her feet; the two, angular lines for her body; and two short lines for the bend of her right arm. The angles of the two body-lines correspond to Palucca's pose in only the most general way possible (her bent knees and lifted left arm). The angle of her right elbow is portrayed by the two short lines, which together appear as a downward-pointing arrow. There is no hint of the position of her face and head; indeed there is not even a hint in Kandinsky's drawing that they
exist. Yet the depiction of Palucca's pose is complete. The question is posed: What is the significance of the absent head in a drawing confessedly intended to demonstrate the "simplicity of the whole form"?
Now, this single work is part of an ensemble of line drawings accompanying photographs; the other three have lines suggesting or representing the position of the face and/or the attitude of the head. What we can say with certainty is that the missing head in this case is deliberate and atypical. It remains to me one of the many mysteries associated with Kandinsky's art.
As I mentioned in the introductory portion of this essay, Dance Curves was sui generis, at least when it was first published. No one had ever worked from photographs of a dancer to produce line drawings before. We are therefore fortunate that Kandinsky produced four such drawings, which permits comparisons, and questions that might be profitable, although ultimately unanswerable.
There is a second generic consideration, in that Kandinsky used the technique evident in Dance Curves while he was a teacher at the Bauhaus: His classroom was very near the dance studio, so he took his students to draw the dancers using only lines and points, and gave them only ten seconds to complete each drawing. While this fact is interesting from a pedagogical point of view, I do not consider it essential from a critical perspective: I see it as evidence that Kandinsky's experimentalism extended to his teaching, but the works of Dance Curves would be worthy of a critical approach without it. I'm looking for the Performance element… is it here?
There is, however, a fifth such drawing incorporated in From Point and Line to Plane: Palucca is jumping, facing the camera, arms and legs spread. There are five points separate from the line drawing, denoting her feet, hands, and head. Her body, enlarged by her clothing, is denoted by a circle; her arms and legs by arcs. It is Kandinsky's only drawing of Palucca via Rudolph's photography that incorporates a completed circle. It is also the only one that uses points to denote body parts. I feel that this drawing can serve for comparative purposes even though it is not incorporated into Dance Curves, but that it must be set apart (as Kandinsky did set it apart) both structurally, as noted, and aesthetically. It is the only drawing he accomplished of Palucca "in action," as she is momentarily suspended at the height of her jump, whereas the other four drawings show her (more or
less) in repose in the course of her dance.
There must always be a tension between a three-dimensional subject and its transposition to a two-dimensional drawing, even in photography. It is, I think, important to consider that Kandinsky's Dance Curves plays against this tension as his drawings minimalize their subject matter, most of which have no corresponding elements in the drawings. By the association of lines with the poses of a dancer, Kandinsky captures what is, to him at least, the essence of a distinct and separate art form.
* * *
Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in
Kandinsky Beyond Painting, collected essays
invited and edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud for Dramaturgias journal, Brazil.