December 2022

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

Kandinsky Stages
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition
3. From Glass Painting to Performance

Giovanni Vinciguerra
Edited and introduced
by Lissa Tyler Renaud




Welcome back to guest writer Giovanni Vinciguerra, who has been taking us through Kandinsky's staging of Pictures at an Exhibition, adding to our understanding of it an unusual degree of historical insight and personal engagement. You can read his Part 1 and Part 2 here.

This time, Vinciguerra takes us along on his train of thought that travels from Kandinsky's charming paintings on glass to his own Kandinsky-inspired performances—an ingenious melding of Kandinsky's painting and his theatre with Vinciguerra's own thinking on aesthetics and his practical theatre experience.


What an important pleasure it is that someone this knowledgeable about Kandinsky is creating performances in his name. For anyone captivated by Kandinsky's theatre and working towards its being a standard part of theatre studies, the plethora of productions using his name simply as an advertising or grant-getting ploy are a scourge. We can find art theatres, art schools, museums and more advertising "Kandinsky" pieces by people with no apparent interest or expertise in Kandinsky's own work or ideas. As I've said elsewhere, such pieces have dogged recognition of his theatre since his death in 1944.

Enter this month's writer, who shares with us his unimpeachably authentic grasp of Kandinsky and his own wonderfully informed artistic initiative.

Lissa Tyler Renaud    




To begin this Part 3, I would like to point out what fascinates me above all, as an artist and theatre practitioner, in the genesis of Kandinsky's stage production, Pictures at an Exhibition. In my eyes, this production was a successful theatre phenomenon, made possible thanks to the fortunate confluence of two main factors:


1)  A vision of the theatre as an occasion for a festive gathering
(I mentioned in my previous article the place that theatre held at the Bauhaus);

2)  An existing complex and rich ecosystem of arts and crafts connected to other humanities fields (as we know, Kandinsky himself was not only a painter, but also an art theoretician, professor and poet).


These two factors are important guidelines for the theatre that I aspire to, a theatre as laboratory of the humanities. With this in mind, I conducted my studies of Kandinsky's theatre, alternating practical and theoretical research.


The sight of the "living pictures" in Kandinsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, the set pieces of which move and assemble themselves in the different compositions, is indeed unique and very enigmatic. One of the most touching scenes is the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks. Striking in the simplicity of its execution, the scene consists of a standing canvas of 2 x 2 metres (around 80 inches), with wave-like slits. Through these wavy slits three torches [flashlights] shine, held by someone from behind who is moving along them. In the dark, the spectator sees three luminous points that follow the jumping, childlike tone of the musical notes. This scene is described in a review by an eyewitness in 1928 as "the most deeply affecting." Horst Birr, remembering the reconstruction, said that this scene was one of the most expressive in the entire production, and always evoked an emotionally powerful response from the audience.


So how did Kandinsky come to such a result? One of the answers occurred to me as I delved into the artist's interest in painting on glass. He was introduced to this technique in 1907 in Murnau, an upper Bavarian town, where he spent his summers before World War I. Hinterglasmalerei [reverse glass painting] was developed at the end of the 18th and during the 19th centuries in the folk and religious traditions of today's Austria, Bavaria and Switzerland. Murnau was no exception and had several glass painting studios. This technique consists of applying paint most often to the back surface of a piece of glass, then placing coloured cardboard, foil or bronze paper as a background behind it and inserting the work into a frame (often also painted). As a result, what is visible is the mirror image of the painting. From 1908 onwards, for several years, painting on glass became Kandinsky's main field of experimentation, also collecting traditional glass paintings of the region.



Wall over Kandinsky's desk in Munich, covered with framed glass paintings from his collection. Photo: Foundation Gabriele Münter and Johannes Eichner.


Wanting to experience this particular way of painting, I started doing it together with my fellow students in the Stage Design Department of the Moscow Art Theatre School in the autumn of 2016. We came to the idea of using the technique in an almost performative form that observers could attend. A similar idea can be found in the documentary The Mystery of Picasso, made in 1955 by French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot. We installed a pane of glass vertically in an unlit room. The artists were dressed completely in black, including black gloves. In the dark, only the glass and the brush of the painter were lit from the back side of the glass. One by one we painted while listening to the selected melody. On the other side of the glass sat the observer. We filmed the process and edited it into short films.


Link to Music on Glass:


Although these cut versions of the video do not fully allow us to enter into the atmosphere, parallels with Kandinsky's performance can be found. The glowing brushes resemble, for instance, the torches of the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks, as well as the performative creation of the painting in front of observers. As a spectator, I remember being completely absorbed in the succession of brushstrokes in front of my eyes, and penetrating through this medium the inexpressible thoughts of the invisible painter, who was in darkness. On some level I became his accomplice, and from the passive position of an observer I became a painter almost in place of the obscured brush-holder. Kandinsky describes such an effect created by the painting in his article Content and Form: "The inner element, taken alone, is the emotion of the artist's soul, which (like the material musical tone of one instrument, which causes the corresponding musical tone of another to co-vibrate) evokes the corresponding vibration of the other person's soul, the perceiver." With the other participants of Music on Glass we thought about creating a veritable immersive performance for the public by building a space defined by large glass or plexiglass walls that we would have painted following a musical score. The project remains unrealised.



Sonya Lobacheva painting on glass in the performance Music on Glass (2016).
Photo: Giovanni Vinciguerra


For Kandinsky, Hinterglasmalerei was a medium that satisfied his artistic needs in his gradual evolution towards abstract art. In fact, in the years 1904-1907 his canvases were progressively freed from the domination of drawing. In 1907 he painted Colourful Life, where every brushstroke becomes a special "sign," a separate and independent entity, but where together they combine into a grand, polyphonic composition. For the expression of these colour signs the properties of glass offered Kandinsky a variety of pictorial possibilities. In the glass painting Golden Cloud (1918), for example, the lines are painted on the front side of the glass, while the paint is applied to the back side, which creates additional depth that slightly changes when you change the angle from which you look at the painting. Not constrained by the black lines, the colour extends beyond the outlines, creating a kind of luminescence (see the golden cloud in the upper right-hand corner of the painting). The shapes acquire a glowing effect and are no longer only filled in but are also enveloped by the colour, which lets the figures soar and gives them a sense of floating. These characteristics are common for Kandinsky's Hinterglasmalerei. In the 1910s he started to work systematically with abstract forms.



Model of "The Old Castle" in Pictures at an Exhibition with a proposal to paint on plexiglass instead of semi-transparent canvas (2017). Model by Giovanni Vinciguerra
and Alevtina Lyapunova. Photo: Alexander Lyapunov


The different solutions that paintings on glass offer to create a deeper pictorial space—as well as the performative connection between creator and observer I described above—reveal the subtext of the spectator's experience of Pictures at an Exhibition. Here you have the feeling of assisting the very moment of the artwork's creation, in the paradoxical physical absence of the creator himself. The border between the physical and pictorial space, defined in the theatre by the proscenium arch, tends to dissolve. Not a simple mechanism, if you consider the unknowns that rule pictorial space beyond the physics of the real world. Add to this the inevitable "imperfections" of stage production. (About backstage noise see Part 1).


Kandinsky writes about these aesthetics of perception in his theoretical yet highly poetic text Through the Wall. It rapturously describes the creative process emerging in the artist's soul as a sort of mystic insight that experiences numerous shocks and deceptions on its way. It also examines the process by which the viewer-listener acquires a new vision of things — one that he attains under the guidance of the artist, who teaches him to be sensitive to the surrounding world. I used this text as a prologue in the performance Planet Kandinsky, presented in the program [p. 8] of the international conference Kandinsky and theatre-performance. Dialogues with Contemporary Art in Moscow in 2017.


My next article will be dedicated to the practical implementations of my research into the performance Planet Kandinsky.



Part 1

Part 2




Follow-up Links:

Hear Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (1:12)

Trailer for the 1955 documentary, The Mystery of Picasso


You can see Colourful Life, mentioned above, here:
https://www.guggenheim.org/teaching-materials/kandinsky/formative -years-and-travels-1900-07

Also see Golden Cloud here:



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 MFA Directing, PhD Dramatic Art with Art History (thesis on Kandinsky's theatre), summa cum laude, UC Berkeley (1987). Lifelong actress, director. Founder, Oakland-based Actors' Training Project (1985- ) for training based on Kandinsky's teachings. Book publications: The Politics of American Actor Training
(Routledge); an invited chapter in the Routledge Companion to Stanislavsky, and ed. Selected Plays of Stan Lai (U. Michigan Press, 3 vols.) She 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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