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

Return to First Principles:
Kandinsky, Chaliapin, Martha Graham


 by Lissa Tyler Renaud

Return to First Principles: For those of us lucky enough mostly to be only tangentially affected by the pandemic, what better chance has the shutdown given us than to reflect and re-evaluate. In my case, I welcome every chance to feel again the force of my affinities for Kandinsky's writings, teachings, poetry, and stage experiments—affinities that have endured since 1984.


The following is a column I wrote for Scene4 in 2000—perhaps, without my knowing it, a seed that grew into this current Kandinsky Anew Series in 2019. At the time, I had been deeply engaged in training actors for a long time and, with the benefit of my own long Acting Life, I was continually re-considering my own approach to teaching. In the column, I recounted the train of thought that found such resonance in Kandinsky.


Kandinsky, so important in art history as a painter, was far from an obvious source to draw on for training actors. In the extended heyday of the actor training studios—now passed—there were celebrity teachers whose blueprints or "methods," both contemporary and historical, circulated and lent credibility to their students; Kandinsky's name was not among them! Nevertheless, his thinking was a focus of mine and has given my countless students an unusual, and unusually grounded and flexible, creative approach to acting. Looking back on all that in this column is a happy return to first principles.


Dramatist, Dramaturg and Demiurge of the Theatre


Most people know Vasily Kandinsky as the painter who painted the earliest entirely abstract painting (art historians do argue about whose was *really* the first, but we won't). In fact Kandinsky, independently of his revolutionary contributions to painting, also wrote on and for the theatre from 1908 until his death in 1944. In his day, his theories of dramatic art, as well as his own plays, were hailed by great theatrical innovators such as Hugo Ball and Oskar Schlemmer. He  also came into contact with important theatrical figures such as Stanislavski, Massine, Diaghilev and Andre Breton. Today, although his writings offer an important link between traditional and experimental values in the theatre, they have been almost entirely neglected.

So not much has been written about Kandinsky's theatre-related work--and what little there is has represented him as a precursor of Happenings and performance art. But when we compare his writings with those of major dramatic thinkers from Plato to today, we can see that 1) Kandinsky's vision of the theatre was essentially classically informed, and 2) that the innovations he suggested had a profoundly spiritual emphasis. These mean that in fact his considerations were altogether different from those of our own fragmented contemporary experimental theatre. In any case, when we want to know Kandinsky's work, we start out by examining his theatre criticism and plays in relation to pivotal figures from classical to contemporary drama.

At the foundation of Kandinsky's theories was the concept of synthesis. He believed that the theatre of the future would fully synthesize the arts of architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance and poetry. This synthesis could not be realized, however, without some basis for mutual understanding between artists of these disciplines.  To this end, Kandinsky mapped out a conceptual and practical vocabulary that would reflect the inter-relatedness of their arts. So to know Kandinsky further, we would explore his principles of theatrical collaboration, and the two extraordinary programs that Kandinsky outlined for the training of the collaborative theatre artist: the first program was designed for professional artists, the second for students just beginning their training.

My doctoral thesis on this subject (1987, UCB) talked about these things and also included an Appendix of pictures, with commentary:

1) Kandinsky's designs for furniture, clothing, dishes and rooms,

2) Instances of theatrical images in his paintings, and

3) The texts of his plays along with his stage and costume designs for them. What I couldn't include there was his striking poetry, most of which is published now in a separate volume entitled SOUNDS.

I was very much struck over twenty years ago when I came across a remark made by Chaliapin (d. 1938), the great Russian basso. He said that he had learned more about acting from his friends who were painters than he ever did from stage actors.

Around the same time I also stumbled on an anecdote that seemed to me to be related: when a young Martha Graham saw a non-figurative painting of Kandinsky's in 1922 she is said to have said, "I will dance like that."

Comments such as these seem to me to be fruitful areas of inquiry here; clearly the fine arts have something to say to the performing arts. Here in the early 21st century I am still hoping to understand fully what Chaliapin and Graham meant by these when they said them early in the 20th century. And Kandinsky's work has gotten me closer to that than anyone else's work has. And that piece of information--more than anything else I can think of--serves as an authentic way of introducing myself to you.



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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