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

Kandinsky in Russia:
The Language of Music

Nadia Podzemskaia


Lissa Tyler Renaud

Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series


We might be surprised by a painter’s preoccupation with sound.


What do we think about when we think about the painter Kandinsky and sound or music.

That he had the particular form of synaesthesia: he saw lines and shapes when he heard music.

That he wrote a play called Yellow Sound.

That he was friends with composer of “abstract” or “atonal” music, Arnold Schoenberg.

That he wrote a volume of poetry entitled Sounds.

That his Point and Line to Plane includes brief musical passages expressed in a painter’s points.

That he staged Mussorgsky's piano cycle, Pictures at an Exhibition.


Almost all of what we know about Kandinsky and sound or music is from his “art life” in Germany—his pre-war years in Munich, and then his Bauhaus years of the 1920s and ‘30s. But between those, he lived as an artist in Russia during WWI, the Russian Revolution, and famine. Information has been relatively scarce until recently, and as a result, we tend to know little about Kandinsky’s art life in Russia, or about his life in sound or music there.


The following article by Nadia Podzemskaia surprises us with new information about Kandinsky’s warm and creative relationship with Russian musicians, and with the people and culture around them. Podzemskaia fills a crucial gap in our understanding while introducing us to a new world of Kandinsky’s pleasures, inspirations, and enthusiasms.


I often come across confused references to Kandinsky’s works as “painted music.” Here he is, setting the record straight in 1939:

  • No, don’t think that “abstract” painting (which I prefer to call “concrete”) is “painted music.” Each art has its own means of expression (form), and an exact “translation” of one art to another is impossible.
  • I only want to make it understood that the manner of listening to a “pure” musical work is identical to that of seeing a work of “concrete” painting.

    The musical composition without words presents a purely musical world—without a literary narrative. The narrative (the object) is also lacking in a work of “concrete” painting.

Podzemskaia also provides us with some of the sources for the theoretical exchanges Kandinsky shared with the musicians in Russia. In giving us a glimpse of this larger context for his thinking, she informs our sense of Kandinsky’s work not only in Russia, but overall.


We are especially lucky to have Podzemskaia here in English about On the Spiritual in Art, the subject of her elegant, long-awaited book in Russian, hot off the press!





Kandinsky in Russia: The Language of Music

by Nadia Podzemskaia



In January of 1911, Kandinsky, with his friends from the Munich New Artist's Association (Neue Künstlervereinigung München, NKVM), attended a Schönberg concert in Munich. Everyone noted the kinship between the music of one and the painting of the other. An intense correspondence between Kandinsky and Schönberg followed. The painter and the composer met each other in person in September of that year. The dialogue with Schönberg confirmed for Kandinsky his ideas about construction based on alogic or the principle of anarchy, which he was developing at the time. The latest additions to the first German version of his treatise On the Spiritual in Art, at the end of 1911, bears witness to this. Thus, the acquaintance with Schönberg came just at the moment Kandinsky was finalizing his theory of painting.


In fact, the history of On the Spiritual in Art shows: at all stages of his work on this treatise—in both German and Russian, between 1909 and 1921—even while Kandinsky's theory of painting was receiving mixed responses from painters, it always aroused lively interest in musical circles.


Kandinsky had difficulty finding a publisher in Germany for his russified German-language text. Even in Russia his writing style was warmly criticized, and the aborted collaboration with the Futurists on the pamphlet A Slap in the Face of Public Taste in 1912 foreshadowed his complicated relationship with the avant-garde. Between 1919 and1921, Kandinsky's writings struck readers as anachronistic, grounded in Symbolism. In fact, in Russia's artistic life after the revolution, even though he held positions of the highest rank, he was still seen as “foreign.” In 1920, for example, to the surprise and indignation of more “radical” artists, he preferred to form relationships with more "moderate" artists, such as Robert Falk and Ilya Mashkov, or with younger art historians and musicians who appreciated his ideas.


Among the latter was Evsei Shor (1891-1974). Kandinsky had met Evsei in Moscow in July 1913. He was the son of the pianist David Shor, founder of the famous "Trio of Moscow," an important personality in the diffusion of musical culture in Russia. Evsei was the academic secretary and lecturer at his father’s “Studio Beethoven.” Before The Great War, he founded, with Grigorij Angert, the Iskusstvo (Art) publishing house, whose mission was to make known in Russia new ideas in the different arts, to present them to Russian readers from the perspective of their relationships and links with classical art. These young Moscow publishers were oriented towards German culture and wished to publish On the Spiritual in Art in Russian. In his 1913 letters from Moscow to Munich, Kandinsky told Münter with great enthusiasm about his new publishers: "Angert is my publisher. Very nice, as he is different from [his German publisher] Piper!! A cultured musician, he does not want his publishing house to take care of the business end, only the ideas." The artist immediately reached so great an understanding with his young publishers that following the signing of the publishing contract for On the Spiritual in Art in Russian, he launched with Iskusstvo several other projects. All these projects were blocked and finally destroyed by the outbreak of WWI and the events that followed.


After the start of the war forced Kandinsky to return from Germany to Russia, he continued his friendship with Evsei Shor, and with a whole circle of art historians and musicians who took part in a project on the science of art, which occupied the painter in 1919-1921. Their collaboration in Moscow, in particular in the framework of the Institute of Artistic Culture and later of the Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences, is still a little-known but important page which sheds new light on the Russian years of Kandinsky.


It is meaningful that Kandinsky found "his editors" in the Russian music world. He was introduced to it by a young composer, Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956), whom he had known in Munich since the end of 1908, and with whom he immediately became very close. It is with Hartmann that Kandinsky had put in place the experiments with different combinations of musical sound, pictorial color and dance movement—the last thanks to Aleksandr Sakharov, a dancer with a background in painting, who joined them. From these experiments, begun in the winter-spring of 1909, came the stage compositions— the innovative plays for the theater. None of these were performed during Kandinsky's lifetime—although in a June 24,1912 letter to Hartmann, held in the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art, Kandinsky said he hoped to “catch” Meyerhold for The Yellow Sound. But produced or not, these experiments were of crucial importance for the development of Kandinsky's painting and the theory that accompanied it from 1909-1910 on. The "liberation" of color was the result of a whole process at the heart of which was the need to systematically compare painting with music, studying the essence of color in relation to sound, and its effect on the listener.


Kandinsky, page from Xylographies, 1909.
With musical motif, a woodcut, Flame (1907), and a list of contents.


It is indeed thanks to his creative dialogue with Hartmann, during their work on the stage compositions, that Kandinsky was able to transpose his theoretical thinking on TheLanguage of Colors (Farbensprache) into On the Spiritual in Art (Über das Geistige in der Kunst) in the summer of 1909.


Also in 1909, Kandinsky became acquainted with a presentation made to the Theosophical Congress in Budapest by Aleksandra Unkovskaya, who talked about her method of teaching music to children using color. Kandinsky immediately saw in this method proof of the kinship between sound and color. Unkovskaya's writings can be found in Münter's archive in Munich. Kandinsky hoped to go to Kaluga to meet the musicologist, and at the same time in Moscow to make the acquaintance of Skriabin, whose music he had heard with Hartmann and his wife Olga. At the time, Skriabin's "Prometheus" was only known through a few private concerts, and immediately became the subject of lively discussions in Moscow. As a result, in the 1910 version of On the Spiritual in Art, in a note on synaesthesia, he referred to Unkovskaya's method, and in the 1911 version, he added a reference to Leonid Sabaneev's recent article on Skriabin's "Prometheus."


In 1910, Hartmann introduced Kandinsky to musician and theorist Boleslav Yavorsky (1877-1942). "The best disciple of Taneyev, the most left-wing revolutionary in composition," Kandinsky wrote to Münter. It would be hard to imagine a more complimentary way to describe him: Hartmann had studied counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev while Taneyev was finishing his famous book Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style(pub. 1909), and initiated Kandinsky into these theories. Kandinsky soon learned more when he and Yavorsky met, and Yavorsky organized a conference where the ideas in On the Spiritual in Art were, for the first time, publicly presented by the artist and discussed in a close circle of musicians. Among them were Nadezhda Briusova, Evgenii Bogoslovsky and of course Yavorsky. Kandinsky wrote to Münter that he had read his text for two hours, with two breaks, in front of a "particularly attentive" audience that included Yavorsky and his disciple Briusova (sister of the poet Valeri Briusov); he had had a very interesting discussion with both of them.


Under the influence of all these musical impressions, as well as of his meeting with Schönberg, Kandinsky proposed to Franz Marc that they integrate into The Blue Rider Almanac a large section devoted to music. Originally, it was to have contained an article by Hartmann on Yavorsky, as well as a text by Unkovskaya and one by Briusova. This plan was modified; in the final publication, Russian music was covered by Hartmann's article "Anarchy in Music" and Sabaneev's article on Skriabin’s "Pometheus," the latter translated into German by Kandinsky with the help of Hartmann and reviewed by Schönberg.


Kandinsky wrote to Münter that Yavorsky's musical theory was a "true sister" of his own theory of painting, a "direct construction based on the feeling and on physical and psychic action." In his 1910 article "Content and Form," for the first time Kandinsky developed his idea about a work of art as the center of a reciprocal relationship between artist and spectator: "The vibration of the soul of the artist must find a material form, a means of expression, which is capable of being picked up by the receiver." This relationship between the artist, the work of art and the viewer was presented as a chain: "Emotion - sensation - the work of art - sensation – emotion." This formula was based on the principle of the resonance of string instruments. In On the Spiritual in Art, he wrote that one must let the viewer "experience for himself the inner life of the picture, to let thepicture affect the spectator directly"—and he came to think of the work of art as a conversation: “If we carry on an interesting conversation with someone, we attempt to penetrate the depths of his soul; we seek an inner form, his thoughts and feelings. We do not worry about the fact that he employs words, which consist of letters, etc."


Kandinsky's approach to painting as a specific language must have found understanding in Yavorsky. At the time, he had already published his notes on the Construction of the Language of Music, in which he considered the languages of the visual arts and and music to be the two main and related expressions of life. Rooted in Bergson's philosophy, Yavorsky's approach founded a comparative study of music and the visual arts. Not only did Yavorsky leave a number of writings on painting (which remain unpublished), but he was also able to initiate his students into this kind of comparative exercise. Two of his followers at the time of the Great War, the historian and composer Aleksandr Shenshin and the historian and art theorist Aleksandr Gabritchevsky, were particularly close to Kandinsky in Moscow in 1920-1921. The sensitivity towards comparisons of the visual arts with music, refined in Yavorsky’s classes, allowed them to launch, with Kandinsky, comparative works in the framework of a new science of art.


Shensin's research on the synthesis of the arts particularly impressed Kandinsky. In December of 1920, in a report on the activities of the Institute of Artistic Culture held in Moscow, he spoke of it in these terms:

  • Experiments carried out have shown that art can be divided up into parts corresponding to certain mathematical relationships. The important work done in this direction by the composer Shenshin has demonstrated the possibility of translating from one artistic language into another. He took a Michelangelo tomb and a musical composition by Liszt on the same theme. Dividing the musical composition into its constituent parts, Shenshin obtained a certain correlation between the [numbers of] bars, which he translated into graphic form corresponding to the mechanical form that laid the basis of the work of Michelangelo."

This comparative study—which Shenshin presented in 1916 to Yavorsky, and then between 1920 and 1930 at several conferences—interested Kandinsky, who had dreamed for a long time of an opportunity to translate the languages of the various arts one into the other. In a letter to Jean Arp in 1912, he wrote that a complete understanding of a work of art was possible only for an artist capable of transposing the inner content of that work into an outer form of another art: "So you can play a picture, compose a piece of music as one composes poems, chisel a poem, dance a sculpture, paint a dance, etc. in all combinations.”


In the words of Yavorsky and Bergson, Shenshin defended the same idea as Kandinsky’s in several texts in the first years after the revolution—texts now held in the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art—that is, that the creative moment is an organic process, the work of art is a result of the artist's life and an expression of the fullness of his nature. In the inner world, time-duration and space are indivisible, and division occurs during materialization. But if the creative moment is preserved intact, the material forms will obey the same rhythm. So the same mathematical law can be found, and the arts can be translated into one another.


At the Institute of Artistic Culture in 1920, Kandinsky participated in experiments on the comparison of music and visual arts with Shenshin, Briusova and a young dancer and composer, Evgenii Pavlov. With Pavlov, he tried to build an experimental working group on dance and movement, paying attention not only to form/drawing, but also to color in motion. Experiments with movement, in a broader sense, were organized in parallel by the art historian Aleksei Sidorov. Kandinsky also took part in those.


One can find a direct connection between these experiments and Kandinsky’s pioneering work a few years later in Dessau on the Pictures at an Exhibition. In 1928, when the artist was able to respond very quickly to the invitation to stage the music of Mussorgsky, his readiness was in great part because the very notion of such a spectacle where shapes, color and the light were put into movement, dreamed of by him long before, had been elaborated on and given a solid theoretical basis in 1920-1921, in collaboration with young Russian musicians and art historians. 


Nadia-Podzemskaia | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Nadia Podzemskaia, research fellow, CNRS (ITEM, Paris), educated as a philologist and painter. Her research: on the writings of artists, their publication and interpretation. She has largely been working and publishing on Kandinsky, and on the theory and history of art of Russia in the first two decades of the 2oth century.

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 Nadia Podzemskaia and Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Note: Nadia Podzemskaia’s article, “Kandinsky and the Language of Music,” previously appeared in
Kandinsky Beyond Painting: New Perspectives,
ed. Lissa Tyler Renaud, Dramaturgias journal, Brazil (2018).

This article will be included in an easily accessible Index for the entire series.
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