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

Kandinsky Stages
Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition
1. From Music to Theatre and Theory


Giovanni Vinciguerra
edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

This is the first of my several articles dedicated to my research on Wassily Kandinsky's production of  Pictures at an Exhibition. This production of Modest Mussorgsky's music was staged at the Friedrichtheater, Dessau, in 1928.


When I first discovered Kandinsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, I was astonished by the images of living pictures where, in the almost total absence of humans, geometric shapes move and interact with each other, creating one visual composition after another. The stage – the place where this action occurs – becomes an abstract space. Before, as a beginning scenography student, I had rarely felt attracted to abstract paintings. This stage composition opened my mind to the very spirit of this art. No books, exhibitions, talks, etc. help so simply to understand the sense of abstract painting.


Let me briefly describe the creation of Pictures at an Exhibition, composed by Mussorgsky in 1874. This work was inspired by his walk through the Memorial Exhibition held in the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, dedicated to his good friend, Viktor Hartmann. This was shortly after the latter's death, and the composer was deeply moved. The randomly exhibited drawings were created by the architect Hartmann while traveling through the cities and countrysides of Europe and the Russian Empire: there were architectural drafts and copies, costume and stage designs, depictions of scenes of everyday peasant life, landscapes, and urban sketches. Every musical piece of Mussorgsky's composition narrates these works and expresses his emotions inspired by the death of his friend. The Promenade, on the other hand, corresponds to visitors moving from one picture to another in the gallery space. The greater part of these priceless drawings has been lost. Some correlations of music pieces with pictures are not certain or are even wrong. For example, the drawing of an old man, which was supposed to have been the prototype for Mussorgsky's piece Rich and Poor Jew or Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, turned out actually to be a drawing of an Italian peasant.


Subsequently, Kandinsky, a great admirer of Mussorgsky's music, evolved his abstract watercolor sketches in response to Mussorgsky's musical pieces. He wrote in 1930, "[I] used forms that swam before my eyes on listening to the music." The motives from Russian folklore in the composer's music were certainly a source of great inspiration for Kandinsky, who had himself spent a large amount of time studying folkloric art in his early Russian period.



Hartmann's image for The Hut of Baba-Yaga


In fact, Mussorgsky and Hartmann belong to a period of deep research into national style and of a revival in Russian art. In the 1910s, the Russian Seasons caused a veritable scandal in the theatres of Paris and all around Europe by presenting stage dances inspired by Slavic pagan rituals, such as Nijinsky's choreography for The Rite of Spring. An important reconstruction of this ballet was shown in Paris in 2014 during the Centenary of Russian Seasons. A reconstructed part of it was also included in the introduction of the film Coco Chanel. You find related tendencies in Pictures at an Exhibition, in the piece The Hut of Baba-Yaga, for example. The drawing of Hartmann's that apparently inspired Mussorgsky, and later Kandinsky, depicts the house of Baba Yaga, a witch in the Slavic folklore tradition, who flies standing in a mortar, steering herself through the air with a long pestle; she lives in the woods in a house that stands on chicken legs instead of a foundation.





Illustration of the interaction of sound, color and
movement, from Kandinsky's manuscript.


Consider Kandinsky's reflections in his theoretical article On Stage Composition (1911). In the article, Kandinsky gave a visual scheme that explains the relationship between the three main elements of the composition: sound, color and movement. The movement of each of these elements is shown in a drawing with the help of separate lines. Each of the three has its own, independent trajectory, different from the others, which illustrates the independent, inwardly integral dynamics of its development in time. In some places these lines momentarily cross to structure the composition. In 1923, Kandinsky wrote in his essay Abstract Synthesis on the Stage:


    1. Space and dimension — the resources of architecture — the basis that enables each art to raise its voice, to formulate joint sentences.

    2. Color, inseparable from the object — the resources of painting — in its spatial and temporal extension, especially in the form of colored light.

    3. Individual spatial extension — the resources of sculpture — with the possibility of structuring positive and negative space.

    4. Organized sound — the resources of music — with temporal and spatial extension.

    5. Organized movement — the resources of dance — temporal, spatial, abstract movements not of people alone, but of space, of abstract forms, subject to their own laws.

    6. Finally, the last form of art known to us, which has not yet discovered its own abstract resources — poetry — places the temporal and spatial extension of human words at our disposal.


    Just as sculpture is partially subsumed by architecture, so poetry is partially subsumed by music. Thus, strictly speaking, the purely abstract form of the theatre is the total of the abstract sounds:


    1. of painting — color

    2. of music — sound

    3. of dance — movement


    within the general sound of architectonic form.

You will notice that Kandinsky uses at each point the words "spatial and temporal extension" ("zeitliche und räumliche Auswertungen"). This apparently simple and obvious definition of the essential parts of a theatre action offers a special vision of space and time; it describes the instruments by which one can model these two extensions. In the theater, I think there is no better word for this than the "rhythm" of a performance.


These are some of the observations that guided me in my research. In my next entry, I wish to investigate the reconstruction of the original production.






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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