Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, "Kandinsky Anew" Series
Scholars have painted a picture of Kandinsky as isolated and somewhat friendless, but that picture is far from accurate. Perhaps his friendships haven't been of interest to art scholars, since he did not limit his companions to prominent painters, or to professional contacts with art dealers, collectors, and publishers. Nevertheless, he had lively friendships with interesting people of all kinds and ages, and important bonds with family members. He also had close connections to artists in disciplines beyond painting, such as the focus of this month's entry in the series, composer Thomas de Hartmann. Their splendid friendship also encompassed Hartmann's wife, Olga, a singer about whom we will hear more in an upcoming entry.
The source of our expanded sense of Kandinsky's life beyond the narrow version we have received, is his letters. A public figure's private letters are not published without the coordination and stalwart participation of multiple parties, and as a result may languish for decades or indefinitely. This leaves art scholars, of course, with a very partial idea of an artist, and we've seen some deeply misleading biographical "information" over time. Some of Kandinsky's letters have gradually emerged in print, such as those with Gabriele Münter and Josef Albers. We can also read Kandinsky's published correspondence with, among others, composer Arnold Schoenberg, thanks to the efforts of the co-author of the entry that follows, Jelena Hahl-Fontaine [Hahl-Koch].
Luckiest for us, Dr. Hahl-Fontaine has had exceptional, multinational access to Kandinsky's unpublished letters, not least as Curator of the Kandinsky Archive in Munich at Lenbachhaus, the world-class museum that houses an astonishing Kandinsky collection received directly from Gabriele Münter in 1957.
Together, we offer an account of Kandinsky's singular friendship with Hartmann, and a look into the letters between them.
Kandinsky and His Closest Friend,
Thomas de Hartmann
Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud
Wassily Kandinsky's unpublished letters offer a view of his deeply human side, and the sweetness of his nature—both important revelations since he is generally regarded as intensely private, even remote.
He wrote his most open and intimate letters to his longtime partner, the painter Gabriele Münter, and to his closest friend, "his" composer, Thomas de Hartmann. His vast correspondence with Münter lasted until their relationship ended in 1914. That correspondence may never be published in full, but your co-author, Jelena Hahl-Fontaine [Hahl-Koch], included many of their letters on art in her 1993 monograph, Kandinsky. Kandinsky's correspondence with de Hartmann lasted until his death in 1944. These letters are now being assembled from archives in Munich, Moscow, Paris and New Jersey, and will finally be published in Russia.
The composer Thomas de Hartmann (in Russian, Foma Gartman) was born in 1875 in Russia and moved to Munich in 1908 to study with renowned Austrian composer, Felix Mottl. Although Russian, he was the nephew of the German philosopher, Eduard de Hartmann. He had studied with eminent composers Taneyev and Arensky at the conservatory, after which he became known, as early as 1907, for his music for the ballet "The Pink Flower." The music was a success, but not a scandal, so we cannot consider de Hartmann as revolutionary as Schoenberg.
Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, not long before Kandinsky met them.
At that time, Kandinsky had just started work on his experimental plays—or "stage compositions"—and was in search of an open-minded musician to collaborate with. When he met the young de Hartmann at the celebrated salon of painters Marianne von Werefkin and Alexey Jawlensky, Kandinsky immediately felt a connection with Thomas, as well as with his wife Olga, who was a singer. The three became very close, lifelong friends. Nina Kandinsky (m. Kandinsky 1917-1944, his death) confirmed that Thomas remained Kandinsky's only "Duzfreund"—that is, they addressed each other with the German "Du" and the Russian "Ty," instead of the usual, formal "Sie" and "Vy." Thomas and Wassily were very soon calling each other "Tomik" and "Vasja."
Their familiarity knew no limits: Once the artist had to buy underwear for his friend, who had stayed longer than expected in a village outside Munich. Another time, he expedited the de Hartmanns' furniture when they moved to Moscow, and Olga sent back a detailed drawing of what their new home looked like. Hartmann searched for Persian miniatures for his friend, and another time sent him one of the "rider" figures Kandinsky liked so much, probably an ancient sculpture.
Since the two couples lived just a few houses apart on the same street, they visited each other constantly. And once when Kandinsky needed information about the characteristic sound of every musical instrument, Thomas, who was away at the time, wrote him: "Just look in my study for Nauman's book ..." The letters contain continual thanks to Kandinsky and Münter for all sorts of help. In Kandinsky the de Hartmanns found a partner: "We had discussions about art, music and theory, but we also laughed a lot. One should not mistake Kandinsky for an utterly serious person, no, he had a sense of humor."
The three Russians, Kandinsky and the de Hartmanns, aimed to create a Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis or melding of all forms of art, where the different components would remain independent from one another, while the result would be more than just the sum of each contributing part. They began their work together on a staged version of Longo's ancient Greek pastoral novel, Daphnis and Chloe, then moved on to the first draft of what was then called Riesen [Giants]—what later came to be called Der Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Sound]. Kandinsky's partner, Gabriele Münter, who was often present at the work sessions, reported that in February 1909, she and Kandinsky had "visited the Hartmanns in Kochel [south of Munich] for about two weeks. Hartmann (very interesting—very talented) and Kandinsky were creating the music for Riesen together." In fact, from the
beginning Kandinsky and the composer were interested in working simultaneously on "Movement, Color, Music, Voices," as shown in several unusual documents with musical staffs.
Hartmann's musical staff showing simultaneous lines for
Movement, Color, Music, and Voices, ca. 1909. With his sketch.
Musical Notation and Sketch, ca. 1909.
In the handwriting of both Kandinsky and Hartmann.
Hartmann later recalled:
These activities led Kandinsky to write his stage play Der Gelbe Klang [The Yellow Sound], a work that must be regarded as one of the greatest experiments in this field. The text was published in Der Blaue Reiter. I wrote the music for it, though it was only a rough draft since the music's definite form was to depend on the type of theatre [...]. I took the play to the Moscow Artist's (sic) Theater, but they turned the play down. Not even there was it understood.
One might wonder what would have happened if Hartmann had approached a different theatre. The head of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT) that Hartmann approached was the brilliant Konstantin Stanislavsky, but it was rather one of his actors, Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose earliest directorial efforts were inspired by Symbolism—as was Kandinsky's The Yellow Sound —who would perhaps have shown more interest. This may surprise readers who know Meyerhold as the radical cornerstone of Russia's post-Revolutionary avant-garde theatre, but around the time of Hartmann's visit to MAT, Meyerhold was still known as "one of the most fervent advocates of Symbolism in theatre."
Hartmann's letters of that time were full of urgings when Kandinsky was not finding a theatre for their production. Hartmann recalled: "Precisely at that moment we were joined by a gifted young man who understood what we were after. This was Alexander Sacharoff, later to become a famous dancer." Alexander Sacharoff was the first male expressionist dancer who, soon after Isadora Duncan's own, started his career in 1910 in Munich. As Hartmann wrote for Sacharoff's debut program, he was sure that Sacharoff's new methods would considerably transform the modern dance. Kandinsky described the work that he, Hartmann and Sacharoff did together, in a 1921 account so often repeated that it has become iconic:
I experimented with a young musician and a dance artist. The musician selected from a number of my paintings one that seemed to him to have the clearest musical content. He improvised this painting in the dancer's absence. Then the dancer joined us and translated the music into dance. Then he had to guess which painting he had been dancing.
Alexandre Sacharoff in two moments from his "Greek" dance, 1910.
With Kandinsky's difficulty interesting a theatre in their project, it is no wonder Hartmann turned to writing the music for their mutual young friend instead. Sacharoff had been set to play the main role as Daphnis in that first stage play of Kandinsky's, but now Hartmann used that music for a solo dance for Sacharoff. Indeed, Kandinsky did not find a theatre director anywhere who was open-minded enough for a stage play of his until Germany in 1914, when he met director Hugo Ball, later the founder of Dada. But that was too late; the World War intervened.
Of course Kandinsky and the de Hartmanns stayed in touch. Once, they met by happy chance in Moscow, and Kandinsky wrote to Münter: "… the sweet little Madam kept repeating: You here, you here, what a joy!! And Tomik could not stop kissing me. We stayed together for thirteen hours, and what a good, bright, almost stormy joy that was… […]. And so lovingly did they speak about you."
Kandinsky's closest friend, Thomas de Hartmann.
Portrait by Gabriele Münter.
Kandinsky seems to have had a gift for relating to colleagues and friends who were much younger, and he considered them all as serious partners. For The Blue Rider Almanac, for example, Kandinsky's co-editor was the much younger Franz Marc (b. 1880), and Kandinsky also asked young Hartmann to contribute. Hartmann chose the topic "Anarchy in Music." His ideas showed obvious closeness to those of his older friend, even using Kandinsky's term for an artist's sensation of internal compulsion: "In art in general and especially in music every means is right which has its source in inner necessity."
On behalf of the publication, Hartmann even tried, but failed, to persuade the famous composer, Alexander Scriabin, to contribute to the Blue Rider Almanac— though Scriabin did enlist a close friend of his to write in his stead. Thomas and Olga Hartmann also took the trouble to translate a long, specialized text on music for the Almanac, but later it had to be cut.
Thomas Hartmann generally did everything he could in support of Kandinsky. He wrote an article on Kandinsky for publication in Berlin that ultimately did not appear, and which now resides in the Kandinsky archives in Munich. Hartmann is also the one who connected Kandinsky to Hartmann's contemporaries in the Russian avant-garde community, where some of the most familiar names may be Mikhail Larionov and his lifelong partner, Natalia Goncharova, and the Burliuk brothers.
From Moscow, Thomas and Olga kept Kandinsky in Munich up to date on who was doing what. It was Thomas who described how the deliciously transgressive Mikhail Larionov had painted his face and walked through the streets of Moscow to shock the public, and how the other artists had followed him. And at the end of 1910/1911, Olga sent an amusing report and a sketch to show how all "the Munich artists" were represented in Moscow's first ever avant-garde exhibition, Jack of Diamonds [in Russian, Bubnovy valet]. In her letter, Olga gave her pithy opinions of the Russian and French painters in the show, and listed the number of works shown by each Kandinsky and Münter, by Jawlensky and von Werefkin, by Marc, as well as by others well-known to them. She wrote:
In front of Kandinsky's paintings the crowd is continually cursing. Tomik has tried to explain them to [art critic and painter] Goloushev, who was so interested that he asked him to come back tomorrow.
The close friendship between the three was interrupted
by World War I and resumed years later.
Kandinsky and the de Hartmanns were apart from 1914 until 1921. During those years, the war forced Kandinsky to return to Moscow and the de Hartmanns were traveling through Russia, Armenia, Georgia, and Turkey with Armenian spiritual teacher, George Gurdjieff. Until 1914, the friends continued to discuss music and art events, often enclosing programs with their letters. In the years that followed, their topic shifted to politics. In June 1933, Kandinsky described the troubling times in a letter from Berlin:
We might not be able to come to Paris soon, my income is quite modest. […] We need a pause from politics, which leaks into everything. My "Aryan" descent is being questioned, it is not officially recognized. But that is very important right now. Even worse is my artistic "radicalness," especially the "abstract" art. It is inevitable that exhibitions will be interrupted. But I am exhibited in America, even with some success. In Europe, already for two years now, selling a painting has been almost a miracle. But such miracles happen to me from time to time (both oil and watercolor, not too bad). - Your "Kriss" [a film for which Hartmann had composed music under a pseudonym] was suddenly shown in Berlin ...
Ultimately, it was not Germany but France that offered the Kandinskys permanent refuge. On December 16, 1933—Kandinsky's 67th birthday—Kandinsky and Nina finally left Berlin for their last emigration, to Paris, where once again they would be close to the de Hartmanns! In spite of what Kandinsky later called "a hard time with lots of worries and exertions," the artist did not lose his sense of humor when describing the state of their household:
We now live in an alpine landscape: smaller hills, medium-high mountains, the highest peaks of Mont Blanc—that is how our rooms look now. Deep valleys (suitcases, baskets, cases), slowly filled with clothes, books, painting materials, etc. Thus the mountains are melting […] What all there is to discover, old stuff; horrible, unnecessary, piled up during one's life [...] In any case, we hope to be close to you for Christmas.
For all the different kinds of support Hartmann had shown Kandinsky over the years—even now arranging for inexpensive tickets for a Toscanini concert in Paris—Kandinsky had all along reciprocated the support in the generous manner of a real friend. From the start, when artist-musician Nikolai Kulbin had an important avant-garde association in St. Petersburg, Kandinsky had recommended his new friend as a member, calling him "an outstandingly talented and deep personality." Now, so many years into their friendship, Kandinsky continued to express great interest in the concerts that Thomas and Olga gave, always congratulating them on their successes, particularly when Hartmann himself had conducted, or commenting on Hartmann's musical "colors." In 1936, he wrote ahead to Philadelphia to the celebrated conductor, Leopold Stokowski, to say that
Thomas would be sending him his works. He also organized, with a lot of patience, the meeting between Hartmann and Kandinsky's new friend, Christian Zervos, director of the legendary Cahiers d'Art, "by far the best art journal."
As Kandinsky had written to Münter decades earlier about Thomas de Hartmann: "Most certainly this friendship is not a passing one, but something eternal."