August 2022

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

Kandinsky Stages
Mussorgsky´s Pictures at an Exhibition
2. Reconstruction

 Giovanni Vinciguerra

 edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud


The useful documentation for Kandinsky's production of Pictures at an Exhibition is distributed throughout a large range of museums and archives in different countries. This has to do with Kandinsky's own biography, as well as with the vast historic and artistic background of this production. I will mention here some key points of my research on this piece.

As mentioned in the previous article, the musical composition originated from an exhibition of paintings and sketches by Viktor Hartmann. The work of this largely unknown artist has been the object of study by art historian Natalia Mutia; it gives a closer look into the relationship between Hartmann himself and his artwork with Mussorgsky. The interesting chain of inspiration picture-music-picture that led to the final production of Pictures at an Exhibition, stands in parallel with the long and rich evolution of ideas about color-music. The exhibition Musicircus: Masterpieces from the Centre Pompidou Collection, held from April 2016 to July 2017 in the Centre Pompidou-Metz, puts Kandinsky's work in this larger perspective.

As for Kandinsky's own sketches for Pictures, they are conserved in the Kandinsky Library at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, along with the score, annotated in 1928 by Kandinsky's assistant, Felix Klee (son of Paul Klee), and several other documents and articles about the premiere of the production. Copies of certain sketches exist in the Wahn Castle Theatre Archive of Cologne University (TWS). In my exchange with the curator of the graphic arts collection, Gerald Kohler, I learned that the first director of the archive, Carl Niessen, was interested in Kandinsky's work and asked him in person to make a copy of the sketches for the archive.

A further field for research is the Bauhaus, where Kandinsky taught, a school with an undeniably unique spirit and atmosphere. In my discussion of Pictures with Michael Siebenbrodt, director of the Bauhaus-Museum Weimar, he pointed out that festivals organized (often held in theatres) by the Bauhäuslers—such as the Lantern Theatre, the Dragon Festival or the Kite Festival—served as a central principle for their education, almost like semester exams. During these large festivities (up to 4000 hand-painted postcards and invitations!), students and masters alike presented some of their works and ideas from the school's workshops. Just to name a few of the theatrical projects at the Bauhaus in these years: Totaltheater, by Walter Gropius (1926/1927); Sketch for a Score for a Mechanised Eccentric, by László Moholy-Nagy (1924); and Mechanical Theatre, by Andor Weininger (1926-1928).

And certainly not least: Oskar Schlemmer, head of the Bauhaus stage. His work is important for the reconstitution of the scene Market of Limoges, the only section of the production's music where Kandinsky introduces a dance with actual actors. Little is known about its original choreography but the forms recall several costumes from Schlemmer's signature Triadic Ballet. Schlemmer created the famous costumes for his "ballet" by taking into consideration the physical possibilities of the human figure and accentuating one or another part of the body or its movement. I am thinking here of one of Schlemmer's iconic paintings, Tänzerin - Die Geste, of 1922-23. A large collection of his drawings can be found at the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin. There is also a backdrop for one of Kandinsky's scenes that looks like a city map and evokes the relationship between figures and space in Schlemmer's paintings.



Photo of the 1983 reconstruction workshop: The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev). From the archive of Martin Rupprecht.


In fact, the reconstruction of Pictures at an Exhibition done in Berlin in 1983 was presented on a double bill with Triadic Ballet. But while the latter has been reconstructed several times, Kandinsky's production has officially been brought to the stage only once. The work of reconstruction was initiated by two professors, Martin Rupprecht and Horst Birr, at the Berlin University of the Arts, as a workshop for students. Indeed, the piece has great didactic potential since the stage design doesn't merely support the actor, but is the actor,  i.e. the bearer of the dramaturgy. The reconstruction team tried mostly to use the same techniques as those used in 1928 and to stay faithful to the original production.

What follows is the link to the film of the historic 1983 reconstruction, which I used for my research and share here from my personal archive.  A true spectacle for the eyes. Filmed in the 1980s, it presents some curious glitches and a specific color texture. For example, in the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks you will see the moving lights producing a colored tail, like a comet. That is only due to the camera and doesn't happen in the show. The same happens with the sound where crackling occurs:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Rscioh-8YL50G_7JZ5dPmxJ7k -QMM25u/view?usp=sharing

Note that for my own part, if the piece should one day be reconstructed again, I would propose a different solution for the last scene, The Bogatyr Gates (In the Capital in Kiev). Kandinsky didn't actually show in his sketches the role the figurines would play in the production. In the previously mentioned notations Felix Klee made in the score, the figurines are divided into two groups, marked III and IV in a p. 33 pencil drawing. Both there and two pages later, it is indicated that these two groups are rotating. After I did my research on the piece in my time at the Moscow Art Theatre School, I worked out a more complex structure for the scenography. This is my 3-dimensional visualization of it.



The author's 3-D visualization for the final scene of
Kandinsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.


The figurines are fixed on two turntables installed on a platform. As the turntables rotate one way, the figurines rotate in the opposite direction so that they always maintain a frontal position in relation to the public. Thus choreographed, the audience sees them enter the stage through the blue arch and exit out the two lateral doors. Besides being an explanation for the notes in the score, in my eyes this solution better reflects the triumphal and festive scene, marked "maestoso" by Mussorgsky, by adding a rhythmical touch to one of the longest scenes of the show. The geometrically shaped figurines—the "citizens of the abstract world," as Kandinsky called them in his treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art—join in the final scene as if for the curtain call. It has to be mentioned that this solution requires a larger stage and a more complex set construction.

In January of 2019, the reconstruction was presented again, as in 1983, at the Academy of Arts in Berlin, on the program of the festival for the 100 -year anniversary of the Bauhaus, Bauhaus 100. I had the chance to assist director Horst Birr at the installation and performance. The air was thick backstage. The discreet sound of around 15 people's footfall and the quick set changes filled the darkness and could be heard from the auditorium almost like the living heartbeat of a painting.

Again and again I wonder about the capacity of this stage play to drive artistic and musical sensibility. Horst Birr told the young stagehands, who were the hidden actors: "You must sing along, you must crawl inside the music!"("Ihr müßt mitsingen, ihr müßt in die Musik reinkriechen.") It reminds me of the well-known theatre injunction: "With feeling!" ("Mit Gefühl") which can often be given as a set or light cue. But in Kandinsky's play, this "feeling" receives an allnew level of importance, since indeed, the scenery plays the main role. The movement of the scenery had to be smooth and musical. The importance of this feature stood out specifically because of a curious technical detail of the reconstruction, namely the installation of a classical fly rope-system on the stage, basically building a theatre in the theatre. In fact, the stage of the Academy was already equipped with motorized fly facilities, but the rumbling and the abrupt, mechanized movement of the motor switching on and off was simply unacceptable for the play.

With this ironic circumstance, where an avant-garde production refuses the industrial capacities of its theatre, I conclude my brief description of Pictures at an Exhibition.

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Giovanni Vinciguerra, Guest Writer
Giovanni Vinciguerra has been studying Classical Philology and Physics at the Freie Universität, Berlin, since 2019. Earlier that same year, he graduated from the Moscow Art Theatre School in the Department of Stage Design and Stagecraft. He continues his theatrical education by taking a series of master classes in Acting, especially at ARTA (Association for the Research of Actor Traditions), Cartoucherie, Paris. In 2017, after two years of active research on Kandinsky's contribution to the theatre as well as on scenic experiments at the Bauhaus, Vinciguerra staged Planet Kandinsky at the Student Theatre of the Moscow Art Theatre.

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.


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