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

Defending Kandinsky and Schoenberg:
On Letters and Gossip
Jelena Hahl-Fontaine
Edited and introduced by Lissa Tyler Renaud


This entry in my "Kandinsky Anew" series is for setting the record straight on poisonous gossip about Kandinsky's supposed anti-Semitism—a claim that persists in the Kandinsky universe in spite of every fact to the contrary. The accusation has proliferated from an apparently deliberate misreading of agonizing letters exchanged by Kandinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, who was Jewish, during a miserable chapter in their close friendship—a rift brought about by the notorious Alma Mahler. I will let Jelena Hahl-Fontaine, one of the world's most distinguished Kandinsky scholars, tell in her inimitable way the story of the rich Kandinsky-Schoenberg relationship.


As for the "notorious Alma": Socialite Alma Schindler Mahler makes appearances in many accounts by and of her contemporaries, both because she had so many affairs while married and not, and because she was so awful. Indeed, her awfulness is a boon for historians, who can count on her malevolence to liven up any plodding narrative. For her 2010 article in The Guardian, Sarah Connelly chose for her title the phrase familiar to many, "The Alma Problem,"and refers to her as "a very intriguing monster." Alma was apparently gifted as a composer; indeed, Connolly sang her songs with the London Philhamonic Orchestra. But Alma is hardly known for her talent, which pales before her legendary roguery. Connolly sums up the ways so many described Alma:

    Pathological cruelty, antisemitism, vanity and a sense that the world owed Alma Maria Schindler something in token for her brilliance and beauty were some of the traits her admirers and enemies alike recognised in Alma, traits also shared by her hero, Richard Wagner.

 In the memoirs of Nobel Prize winning writer Elias Canetti, he recounted a visit with Alma, during which he met her young daughter by Bauhaus founder Gropius, Manon, (Canetti would have a brief affair with Manon). ­­Explaining Manon's widely acknowledged beauty, Canetti quoted Alma as having said:

    Did you ever see Gropius? A big handsome man. The true Aryan type. The only man who was racially suited to me. All the others who fell in love with me were little Jews. Like Mahler. The fact is, I go for both kinds. 

For a striking contrast in tone, we have a long reply by Kandinsky to a letter from Schoenberg in 1936, many years after maddeningly distorted statements have continued to proclaim that their friendship was over. With Kandinsky in Paris and Schoenberg in Los Angeles, the two had kept track of each other through a mutual contact in Los Angeles, Galka Scheyer—Kandinsky asking after Schoenberg's concerts and Schoenberg wanting to see Scheyer's Kandinsky exhibition in L.A. Schoenberg had apparently asked if Kandinsky would be coming to America:

     Do you still remember, dear Mr. Schoenberg, how we met—I arrived on the steamer wearing short lederhosen and saw a black and white graphic—you were dressed completely in white and only your face was deeply tanned. And later the summer in Murnau? All our contemporaries from that time sigh deeply when they remember that vanished epoch and say: 'That was a beautiful time.' And it really was beautiful, more than beautiful. […] Yes, it would be lovely to come to America, even if only for a visit.




Kandinsky and Schoenberg exchanged
these photos soon after they met.


Defending Kandinsky and Schoenberg:

On Letters and Gossip


Jelena Hahl-Fontaine


At first I just could not believe it, and now I am beyond outrage! Someone either illiterate or simply full of hatred took half a sentence out of context from Kandinsky's letter to Arnold Schoenberg, Kandinsky's admired and beloved friend. And now this half-sentence circulates, slandering Kandinsky, compromising the image of one of the most tolerant, honest and warm-hearted of artists.


In 1980, I published the important Kandinsky-Schoenberg correspondence, which began in January of 1911. It showed clearly the mutual esteem of these two great innovators: they were the creators of abstraction and atonality; they both experimented with new forms of theatre, simultaneously but independently of each other; they discussed the possibilities for the synthesis of different art forms. Very early on, mutual trust and a real friendship developed between them. Both personalities are so positive, so likeable, that it was a pleasure for me to get well acquainted with them for my book, including by deciphering their quite "individualistic" handwriting, then finding and adding all the materials to support what they discussed in their letters.


The book is not hard to find for anyone with a sincere interest in knowing about their friendship: the 1980 German original was condensed in 2004; it has been in English since 1984 (trans. John Crawford), and is also in French, Italian, Japanese, and Korean; in 2017, a large Russian edition finally appeared.


Let me show you in what high esteem Kandinsky held his new friend. He wrote about him in letters to his colleague, Nikolai Kulbin, who was an important organizer of progressive art events in St. Petersburg, a doctor by profession, an artist himself and music-theoretician, author of Free Music (1910). On July 19, 1911, Kandinsky wrote in one of his first letters to Kulbin:

     ... Do you know the Viennese composer, Prof. Arnold Schoenberg (look up his article that I translated in Isdebsky's Salon II)? Two of his highly interesting and radical quartets and three piano pieces were edited by Universal Edition in Vienna. If you want to connect with him, mention me.

 He wrote again on January 16, 1912:

     Do you know the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, today's most radical musician? It would be good to organize a concert in Russia. Perhaps ARS [Kulbin's organization for the synthesis of all the arts] could do that?

That same year, a concert was organized in St. Petersburg which Schoenberg directed himself. On March 28, 1912, Kandinsky wrote:

     I am so happy that Schoenberg impressed you. He has really got started now (there are fights between his fans and protesters) in Prague, Berlin, Budapest, Paris, perhaps Moscow. I love him very much also as a person: full of life, talented, refined, and warm-hearted.


Painting by Arnold Schoenberg: "Red Gaze," 1910


Along with his music, it is well known that Kandinsky liked Schoenberg's paintings. Kandinsky included four of Schoenberg's paintings in the 1911 exhibition by his Blue Rider artists collective, and exhibited others and also wrote about them. When he and painter Franz Marc compiled their important 1912 "manifesto," The Blue Rider Almanac, they included two Schoenberg paintings and a musical score in addition to his essay, "The Relationship to the Text."


By 1914, the two men had become so close that Kandinsky put a lot of time into looking for a summer house for his friend's large family (plus nanny for the children and a piano). Not an easy job, since closeness to a lake was desirable, but humidity for the piano less so... In their correspondence over that year, you can read detailed descriptions of the failures to find suitable quarters, and the final success, and admire Kandinsky's patience.


After the Russian Kandinsky was expelled from Germany at the outbreak of WWI, no contact between the two friends was possible between the end of 1914 and 1922. But as soon as Kandinsky returned to Germany in 1922, one of the first things he did was to trace Schoenberg. He wrote him on July 3, 1922:

    My dear Schoenberg, I was disappointed when I arrived in Berlin and heard that you were no longer there. When our journey was first planned, I rejoiced to think that I would find you in Berlin. [...] I had hoped we would see each other very often and discuss so many questions. [...] Do write to me and tell me everything you're doing. In Berlin I tried to send your Theory of Harmony to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts through the Russian Commission. However, so far I have not succeeded—lack of money at the Commission. The Russian musicians are hungry for your book. ...

Schoenberg answered on July 20, 1922:

    I'm glad to have heard from you at long last. How often I've thought of you with anxiety during these eight years! And how many people I have asked about you ...

The very long letter ends with "Many, many kind regards."


At this juncture, we encounter the terrible episode that almost ended—but didn't ultimately succeed in ending—the Kandinsky-Schoenberg friendship: much later they were able somewhat to re-establish it.


At the same time Kandinsky was searching for a way to bring his friend to the Weimar Music School, one of history's infamous troublemakers, Alma Gropius, was doing her worst behind the scenes to frame Kandinsky as an anti-Semite. Alma, who was first the wife of Gustav Mahler, then of Walter Gropius, then of Franz Werfel—and at various times in her life, muse of the composer Zemlinsky, the artist Oscar Kokoschka, and of numerous other celebrities of the art world—perhaps Alma the femme fatale was not flattered by Kandinsky's lack of interest in joining the long list of her admirers? In any case, it was from Alma that Schoenberg heard her nasty, malicious lie about Kandinsky's supposed "anti -Semitism."


It was more than grotesque to accuse Kandinsky, this confirmed cosmopolitan, in such a way! When he received a moving and insulting letter of April 19, 1923 from Schoenberg, "which shocked and grieved me extraordinarily," Kandinsky answered on April 24: "I love you as an artist and as a human being, or perhaps as a human being and an artist. In such cases I think least of all about nationality—it is a matter of the greatest indifference to me." And he added, in an outcry of disbelief and distress: "You must have a terrible opinion of me now: I reject you as a Jew, but nevertheless I write you a good letter and assure you that I would be so glad to have you here in order to work together!"  


Who in all the world could misconstrue this outcry as an affirmative statement! It is the contrary: with great emotion, he is quoting the lie, stating his incredulity at such an absurd accusation. The meaning is of course: "How could I reject you as a Jew while at the same time…?!"


No, Kandinsky could not believe what had happened! He showed Schoenberg's letter to Alma's (then) husband, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school for design where Kandinsky so famously taught. In her 1976 book, Kandinsky and I, Kandinsky's widow, Nina, told the story of what happened next:

    Gropius turned pale and said spontaneously: "That is Alma's doing." And he was right, because Schoenberg wrote in May of 1923 to his informant, Alma: "Add to this, that even without you I would perhaps have learned what was being thought at Weimar."

 Certainly, in the rather provincial town of Weimar, and even among some teachers and students of the Bauhaus, anti-Semitism could have been found, as it was anywhere at the time. But Kandinsky's position was very far from such primitive ideologies. He explained in the same letter: "Among my friends who have been tested through many years (the word 'friend' has a great meaning for me, so I seldom use it) are more Jews than Russians or Germans."   


Well, for my part, having worked on and around Kandinsky for some 60 years now, I know quite a lot about his colleagues, friends and family members. And I started counting. And I found that Kandinsky was right (as usual, because he was an extremely honest character).


Kandinsky's April 24, 1923 letter continued:

    There are times when "the devil" scrambles to the surface and seeks out brains and mouths suitable for his activities. [...] This is a sickness which can also be cured. During this sickness two dreadful characteristics appear: negative (destructive) power and the lie, which also brings about destruction." 

 In Sept. 2016, The Arnold Schönberg Center (Vienna)
tweeted this "previously unknown photo" of Kandinsky
and Schoenberg vacationing lakeside in Austria, summer 1927.


Four years later, Kandinsky and Schoenberg happened to spend their 1927 summer holidays in the same lakeside town in Austria, and it was Schoenberg who first recognized his friend from a distance. In her book, Nina Kandinsky says they were taking a walk and heard Schoenberg calling, "'Kandinsky! Kandinsky!'—and no word was ever spoken about the painful intrigue which had been brought into the world by Alma Mahler-Werfel."


Nina also supposed that by then Schoenberg must have heard of Alma's "reputation as a rumor-monger."


Since right now I am working on a small, affordable (!) volume entitled Kandinsky's Most Important Letters (1889-1944), I am finding more letters in which Kandinsky speaks warmly of Schoenberg. I am also coming across his many close friendships with people of Jewish origin: his early student and friend, Lisa Epstein; the young modern dancer in Munich, Alexander Sacharoff; the bohemian graphic artist from Odessa, Alexander Salzmann; his representative in Germany, Herwarth Walden in Berlin; Erich Gutkind of Berlin, then Israel; his gallerist in Russia, Nadezhda Dobychina; and his "almost" editors in Russia, Grigorij Abramovich Angert and the family Schor; then both his representatives in the U.S., Emmy (Galka) Scheyer and Israel Ber Neumann, and very many more.


Kandinsky, of course, had emigrated from Germany to Paris in 1933/4. From there, he corresponded warmly with Josef Albers, his close colleague since their Bauhaus days. Albers's wife, textile designer Anni, also from the Bauhaus and also a dear friend, was Jewish—they had therefore emigrated to the United States, where they were on the founding faculty of North Carolina's Black Mountain College. Kandinsky wrote to Albers on November 25, 1938:

    The German expropriations of Jews and the inhuman cruelties have made a terrible impression upon us (as upon any/all halfway decent people). We were of course thinking specifically about our Jewish friends who are still in Germany, therefore also about your relatives. How are they getting along?
    [...] And the other relatives of dear Anni? What a terrible and crazy time.

 It is not only in a book of their correspondence that false ideas can be corrected, but in just about any other book by or about Kandinsky. Most of this literature is quite rewarding and fun to read—much better than hateful accusations, based on just three words taken out of context.


*    *    *



Jelena Hahl-Fontaine (formerly Hahl-Koch) PhD, Art History and Slavic Studies, Heidelberg. Teaching: Universities of Erlangen-Nurnberg, Bern; State University of Texas, Austin; Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Curator: the Kandinsky -archive, Lenbachhaus, Munich. Publications: Kandinsky/Arnold Schoenberg Letters; the monograph, Kandinsky; the Kandinsky Forum I-IV, etc.; also texts on Jawlensky, Sacharoff, Bechtejeff, Russian Avant-garde, etc. Lectured widely: Europe, America, Australia.
For her other articles, check the Archives

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


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