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

Re-Visiting Violet:
Kandinsky's Pre-Dada Masterwork
with first extracts in English


Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud


Lissa Tyler Renaud

Editor, KANDINSKY ANEW series


The theatrical play by the artist Kandinsky that has received the most stagings—even approximate or in name only—is The Yellow Sound of 1909. The appeal might be that he published that play in 1912 along with a theoretical essay explaining what he's after. There has also been some effort dedicated to re-creating the visual staging Kandinsky created to accompany Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1928), which offers Mussorgsky's music as a helpful foundation or starting point for a production.


But Kandinsky's Violet (1914, 1926), even though it is his most realized and complex play, is not produced. Sometimes an art-theatre here or there creates an event introducing and honoring Kandinsky, and hoping to suggest the utterly new spirit he brought to the stage. But these are not stagings of Kandinsky's texts. This impulse to do a show "by" Kandinsky without reference to his actual plays is an exasperating one that has dogged recognition of his theatre work since his death in 1944. Indeed, Kandinsky's own Violet is far richer and more adventurous than an "event" or "installation" can make of his script.

In practical terms, the play requires a large production across multiple disciplines. In the late 1980s, in Frankfurt, I saw one accurate re-construction of Kandinsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, and another of a series of Kandinsky colleague Oskar Schlemmer's "ballets" that a close family member was involved with. Marvelous, of course!!—but both were more contained than what Violet would need in terms of opera, dance and theatre pracitioners, as well as visual and sound designers, all with the unusual affinity and skills for experimental material. It also requires a theatre with a "fly" or "rigging" system that allows objects to be lowered into view from above the stage.


Last month, we worked to tell Jelena's story of trying to arrange for a historical mounting of Violet . This month we re-introduce Violet and offer tantalizing samples from the play text in English.




Violet: Kandinsky's Pre-Dada Masterwork

with first extracts in English


Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud


Even a quick glance at the script for Kandinsky's long stage play, Violet, begun in 1911, reveals at least two startling innovations. First, we see that Kandinsky intended colored shapes, most of them geometric, to move in the most varied ways—ways that today we would use film to execute.


A second innovation was stage scenes so incongruous, with logic so puzzling, that they can be considered, in the broadest sense, abstract.  


It is remarkable that Kandinsky's theatrical breakthroughs were earlier even than the Dada movement, which emerged only in 1916. The connection between Kandinsky and Dada was no coincidence, and hinged on Dada's founder, German stage director Hugo Ball. In 1914, Ball had planned to direct Kandinsky's Yellow Sound and Violet in Munich. That became impossible when WWI began: with Kandinsky hunkering down in Moscow, Ball and his wife, Emmy Hennings, instead opened the explosively avant-garde Cabaret Voltaire in neutral Z眉rich. There, Ball and his Dada cohorts honored Kandinsky in several ways, among them by reading his experimental prose poems in their performance evenings. As Dada evolved, the highly original texts of Kandinsky's pre-Dada plays were obvious inspirations for Dada performances, which came to feature beyond-sense texts made up of invented words.




[Note: The following three play extracts appear for the first time in English. Translations from the German by Rolf Tutschek, from the French by Geza Polony, revised and edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud. Other materials by your co-authors.]


Violet, PICTURE I, extract from final section


The Ladyher eyes lowered. She looks slowly around the audience, and says slowly and very distinctly, as if she were dictating:


            The ramparts crumbled yesterday.


Little by little the light fades, and as the stage darkens, we hear the sounds of the city increasingly clearly: car horns, marching soldiers, noisy but incomprehensible conversations, a scream of horror, a clock ringing, sobbing, the sound of an organ grinder which ceases suddenly, and the strident military commands:


            Eyes front! Head erect!


The strident voice of a child, imitating the cries of a newspaper vendor, little by little drowns out the other sounds.


            The ramparts! The ramparts—five kopeks! The ramparts tumbled yesterday!




A child's voice very high, singing from backstage, is if in a church hymn.


            Came tummmbllinnng dowwnnn….




Even in his native Russia, there was nothing in the theatre as revolutionary as Kandinsky's plays. The closest was Victory over the Sun, the landmark 1913 Cubo-Futurist opera, with "antilyrical" libretto by sound poet Kruchenykh and dissonant music by painter-composer Matiushin, but best-known for the geometrical, blocky sets and costumes designed by painter Malevich. We might also look at Leonid Andreyev, the follower of Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (d. 1949), but what's modern about their theatre is its stripped-down quality, and its focus on mood rather than plot—a mystical melancholy, nebulous hopelessness, intimations of doom. There were also Russian poets, such as Kamensky and Khlebnikov, experimenting with a range of approaches to the disruption and liberation of words.





Kandinsky's rendering for Violet, Picture III, 1914




Kandinsky wrote of this: At the extreme left, near the footlights, there is a large, white, swollen [bloated] stone, on top of which stands a very large, bright red cow (vermillion) executed artlessly [naively], the neck outstretched and mouth wide open. Her large udder is bluish. The cow's plaintive mooing alternates with the lines spoken by the chorus during the scene.



The 1914 Violet was Kandinsky's longest play, and he had worked on it extensively over several years. There are almost identical German and Russian versions—it's hard to say which was written first, but both of them were handwritten, corrected and translated by him. Plans for the Hugo Ball production were interrupted by WWI, and plans in the 1920s for an Oscar Schlemmer production at the Bauhaus were quashed by the school's ongoing internal and external turmoil. Kandinsky's plays were always "almost" about to be staged, until 1928, when he had the chance to stage Mussorgsky's 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition with his own play of changing, geometric colored forms.




 Violet, PICTURE VI, extract from the beginning


women: (very quickly) don't look at the man, but at his legs, or rather at his feet—how each foot bends in its own way, lifts into the air, strikes the ground with its heel, supports itself upon the ground. and again bends in its own way, lifts into the air.


bass voices: don't look at the trunks.


children's voices: but rather at what is between the trunks,


alto voices: what is under the table,


soprano: on top of the roof,


tenor: beneath the ant,


child: look behind the zeppelin,


bass: look under the tongue in your mouth,


soprano: into the bell—whether it be large or small—


child: (very high) behind the curtain


bass: (very low) and…  in… the… midst… of… its tassels.




In 1926, Kandinsky had taken up his 1914 Violet again, making the new text shorter—17 pages typed—but leaving intact the incongruous and comical parts. He added more of the illogical dialogue, and a new ending reminiscent of his earliest stage fragments and pre-Dada prose poems. It is tempting to associate some of the resulting text with Surrealism, an outgrowth of Dada founded in 1924. But although by chance it may share some of Surrealism's qualities, Kandinsky himself vociferously distanced himself from the Surrealist movement. Indeed, for the section of Violet that follows, it is perhaps more apt to think of him as a precursor of playwrights Ionesco and Beckett, both of whom wrote their most important works in the 1950s and continued to write decades longer. Ultimately though, Kandinsky's Violet is like no one else's work; it is completely unique in theatre history.


This very first English translation of the closing scene from Violet has been achieved collaboratively by your two co-authors. The scene gives us a delightful view of Kandinsky's well-known sense of humor. We see him making fun of himself trying helplessly to cue his baffled lighting technicians and crew, who have never had cues quite like these before!


Violet, PICTURE VII, extract from the final section


Background white. At center stage a large black triangle. In front of the triangle a long red bench. Sitting on the bench: two completely gray figures.


Figure 1: … and it goes on endlessly like that.


Figure 2: Yes! It goes on endlessly like that.


Fig. 1: What do you mean?


Fig. 2: I mean it goes on endlessly like that.


Fig. 1: What does that mean—"endlessly like that"?


Fig. 2: But! Let's see… you're the one who said: it goes on endlessly like that.


Fig. 1: Is that so. Yes! I did say: it goes on endlessly like that.


Fig. 2: And I also said: it goes on endlessly like that.


Fig. 1: Is that so!


Fig. 2: Precisely...



Fig. 1: I don't understand ... On "precisely," the light should have turned greenish.


Fig. 2: Not everyone knows yet that "precisely" is greenish.


They whisper something, stand and turn together to the audience.


Together:  "Precisely" is greenish.


The light becomes greenish.




Fig. 1: Today I had a shock. Do you know that now, even in informal circles, one is supposed to wear a stiff collar with sharp points?


Fig. 2: But the points are much more sharp now than 14 years ago.


Fig. 1: Is that so-o!




They whisper, stand and:


Together: "Sharp" is yellow.


A large triangle in the shape of an arrow descends from above, stays suspended above the figure on the left, and turns bright yellow.




Fig. 1: That works well.


Fig. 2: What works well?


Fig. 1: Sharp yellow came down on cue.


Fig. 2: Oh, OK! ...But one can still wear at home a soft collar, so there should also be blue.


Fig. 1: Because "soft" is blue?


A vertical blue oval descends from above, stays suspended above the figure on the right.


Together: There! It works perfectly.




Fig. 2: (very satisfied) Now I begin to understand you! That was well said: and that goes on endlessly like that.


Both lights out.


Fig. 1: From yellow.


Yellow light on triangle.


Fig. 2: To blue.


Yellow light out, blue light on oval.  

This is repeated 3 times:

                      from yellow to blue,


                      from blue to yellow,


                      from yellow to blue.


Together: Sometimes they also mix.


Yellow and blue out. From the front, bright green.


Together: "Restless" is green.






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

Curator, writer and editor, Kandinsky Anew Series
Lissa Tyler Renaud BA Acting, MFA Directing, PhD Dramatic Art with Art History (on Kandinsky's theatre), summa cum laude, UC Berkeley (1987). Founder, Oakland-based Actors' Training Project for training based on Kandinsky's teachings (1985- ). Lifelong actress, director. Book publications: The Politics of American Actor Training (Routledge); an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky. Has taught, lectured and published widely on Kandinsky, acting, dramatic theory and the early European avant -garde, throughout the U.S., and since 2004, at major theatre institutions of Asia, and in England, Mexico, Russia and Sweden. She is a senior writer for Scene4.  
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.



Jelena Hahl-Fontaine, formerly Hahl-Koch (PhD, Art History and Slavic Studies, Heidelberg) is one of the world's leading Kandinsky scholars, her professional life having centered on Kandinsky for over 60 years. She was Curator of the Kandinsky archive at Lenbachhaus, Munich, the primary Kandinsky repository. Publications include a major monograph, Kandinsky; the Arnold Schoenberg-Kandinsky letters; Kandinsky Forum vols. I-IV; and many writings on A. Jawlensky, A. Sacharoff, V. Bekhtejeff, the Russian avant-garde, and more. Taught at the Universities of Erlangen, Bern; Austin, Texas; and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Has lectured widely at prestigious venues of Europe, America and Australia.
For her other articles, check the Archives.

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