January 2023

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

An Intimate Memorial Account of Kandinsky: Thomas de Hartmann


Edited by
Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud


Not long ago, frequent contributor Jelena Hahl-Fontaine (see her bio below) suddenly felt she should type for me the astonishing text that follows: Not long after Kandinsky's death, his kindred spirit gave Kandinsky's close friends an especially personal window onto their bond and affinities from 1908 until Kandinsky's death in 1944. Jelena prefaced the text she sent me: "Hartmann's English is not quite perfect; I typed it exactly from the manuscript as I received it from Olga [Hartmann's wife] in 1974… At the beginning of the text, it's quite interesting to read about the difficulties they had in the early days… And Hartmann's observations as a close friend are important… Sending this just so this authentic text will not be forgotten … Much love from Jelena."


The intimacy of Hartmann's account, compounded by the generosity of Jelena's gesture, shook me. I replied: "From Kandinsky's deathbed in 1944, Hartmann's account; then given by Hartmann's wife, Olga, to you in 1974, and by you to me in 2022. This is probably the closest I will ever be to Kandinsky himself, it made me cry—I felt as if I were in his room. So I want to thank you. It is such a privilege to have this text, and which you typed for me yourself."


Note that our October 2020 entry, "Kandinsky and His Closest Friend"— also about Hartmann—can be read here.

Jelena has added illustrations of some of the paintings Hartmann mentions, for your pleasure.

From Kandinsky's own last room to readers of this "Kandinsky Anew" Series, I wish you a Happy New Year.

Lissa Tyler Renaud
Oakland, California



(New York, 1944/45)


One evening after the death of Kandinsky, several of his friends found themselves together to remember the departed. Among them was Thomas de Hartmann, the composer, who was his oldest friend and had known Kandinsky for 40 years. Everyone turned to him to speak about the great painter.


There are a good many elderly people who can be described as having a clear mind, or a great sense of the past, or a rich store of experience. But there are others, certainly more rare who, if they do not actually stay young, do seem to retain a quality of youth, of those wonderful years known to all artists: The years in which the youthful search reaches the moment of spiritual fruition, the moment of conscious movement forward.


My friend Kandinsky was this kind of man. Until the last days of his life he seemed to remain just as he was when we met in 1908. Nature gave him the gift of a great life-force, which he did not waste. Not until he was past 70, and not until the second World War with all its hardships and problems overwhelmed him did he begin to decline. I would like to tell you about this man, who was loved by all who knew him, and for whom he has not died, as he has remained alive to the rest of the world through the art he left.


I met him first in Munich. I was twenty-two and went there to study with Felix Mottl, the famous conductor and pupil of Wagner, although by then I already had two large works for the stage performed at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. But it didn't take me long to feel strongly that, although all concerts were of a high standard of performance, music in Germany had reached an impasse. The "four B's" reigned [Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner] and Wagner's warning, "Children, new and new and always new, otherwise the devil of unproductivity will take you" had been forgotten. It seemed clear to me that new forms and techniques had to be found, and more than anything else I wished to find my own way. Soon I found it through painting.


At that time I met two Russian avant-garde painters, Mme. Werefkina and Jawlensky. They taught me to like and understand van Gogh, Gauguin and Cézanne, whose pictures were just then being exhibited in Munich. Also about this time I met Vassily Kandinsky in the house of these friends.


I remember, soon after this first meeting, a hot summer day when I met Kandinsky unexpectedly near Munich's Arch of Triumph. He jumped from his bicycle, and we began to speak about our common interests, such as metaphysics, theatre and the ballet. We decided to meet the very same evening to continue our talk. This was the beginning of our great friendship which lasted until his death.


Kandinsky had then just come back to Munich after many years of travelling and as, coincidentally, his apartment was on the same quiet Ainmillerstreet where I lived, we began to see each other practically every evening.


War and revolution separated us, but later we met in Paris. I became acquainted with his works as they were taken one by one from their packing cases by his faithful agent. First to be unpacked were woodcuts (Ksylographs). I liked them all. They belonged to a comparatively early period, when subject matter was still there. But I liked one especially: bright sunshine, a strong wind moving wash hung on a line. And this strong wind, this fluttering wash on the line, all these movements were wonderfully expressed through the play of colours. I knew already how to appreciate in a picture colour and the play of lines.




The objects themselves appeared, so to say, later. In general, subject matter did not interest me any more. And here I was struck by this little woodcut [sic, tempera]—how the movement continued to flow, to live, to be dynamic in spite of having become static by being impressed on wood. I found later that this unusual color-linear dynamism was one of the characteristics of Kandinsky's work.


I also saw sketches for his big compositions. Usually these sketches were simple pieces of paper on which were roughly pointed out the outlines of images, objects, and figures. Toward them went curving lines, showing the direction of the movement. These were dynamic outlines which were developed later into pictures.




After the woodcuts I became acquainted with his paintings. It was the year when he created "The landscape with towers" and "The picture with houses." Van Gogh and Gauguin had prepared me beforehand, so these two pictures did not astonish me. But I felt at once that Kandinsky went further than they. What I felt was the fact of his absolutely honest attitude toward his art, a complete absence of "bravado" or the desire for "épater" [to shock ]. At the same time I felt his unusual patience with, and understanding of, other painters who were still interested in subject matter or who took some other way. His patience, his intense desire to help, to explain, combined with his outer peacefulness, created such an atmosphere that it turned all the forces of those around him into an inner fire.




When Kandinsky began work on big canvases, those called by him "Compositions," I could follow the gradual processes by which they were brought to life. Usually a picture being worked on was turned to the wall for a time, and later it was turned back so that you could look at it again. In his first "Compositions" you could still see figures, knights, distinct towns with towers, but already all else was color. Characteristic was the fact that I myself didn't like realistic images any more, and in our talks we often spoke about this. Kandinsky's full withdrawal from "the object" happened several years later.




His penetration into a completely new region of abstract painting was slow and organic in the gradual acknowledgement of the way he took. He was not understood by everyone during those years. Even those near him and paying him tribute were cold to his ideas at this time. It is true that times were then different from now: Now everything is "permitted and understood." But until 1914 was a period of great questions and of slowly conquering the New. An honest artist carried always within him the question "Is it permitted? Are these means admissible?" All means are permitted, said Kandinsky, all, if it is necessary to express the inner sound. He spoke very often about the inner sound. More concrete realization
of this was achieved in his work for stage which he called
"The Yellow Sound."


[Here, we have held back Hartmann's account of their work together on Kandinsky's stage play, "The Yellow Sound," to share fully another time.


The years spent in close spiritual association with Kandinsky have naturally left me with a richness about which I would like to talk more to those who did not know him. But time is short. Memories of talks with him, of his views on his own art and art in general, memories of his lofty spirit can be described best by his own words, "A spiritual wealth."


I will finish my recollection of Kandinsky with the scene when I saw him for the last time, two days before his death. His wife had asked me to cheer him up, and had left the room. I was alone before Kandinsky, who was dying. He smiled at me, then went to sleep. I looked at him and at his pictures which hung on the wall, pictures he loved most. One was from the period of his first "Compositions," the period of some imaginary catastrophes, and destructions corresponding to that level which in Hindu philosophy is called the plane of suffering. They were painted during years when no one could imagine that such catastrophes could take place, that here, on the so-called physical plane, there would be such disasters, wars and revolutions. Some people would not pay attention, but others would see in these pictures a sort of foretelling.




And then I looked at another picture, one from his last period—unearthly blue space, in it correct geometrical figures, and over the whole reigned peace, harmony, a kind of wonderful oneness in multiplicity. A quite different, very high spiritual world. In Hindu philosophy, the enlightened world of high Reason. Perhaps here also my friend Kandinsky had foreseen the coming of a spiritual awakening, when the inner sound will be heard by everyone. 


  *  *  *


Full information on the paintings, by Jelena


1. "Frühling / Printemps," No. 69, not dated, 1905, tempera, 10 7/8 x 13 1/4 inches. Kandinsky's own handlist: "69, Frühling (Wäsche)." Location: Lenbachhaus Munich; till 1957 in Gabriele Münter's possession.


2. "Study for 'Small Pleasures'," 1913, watercolor and Indian Ink, 9 3/8 x 17 7/8 in. Centre Pompidou.


3. "Murnau—Landscape with Tower," 1908, oil/cardboard, 75,5 x 99,5 cm. Centre Pompidou.


4. "Sketch for Composition II," 1910, oil/canvas, 97,5 x 131,2 cm. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Jelena's note: Compositions I, II and III were destroyed during WW I. So this "Sketch for Composition II," 1910, is the closest we can get to knowing them. This so-called "Sketch for Composition II" is in fact much more than a sketch; it is a complete, large oil painting—very close to the black and white photo that remains of the final Composition II. It is kept at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.


5. "Improvisation 30 (Cannons)," 1913, oil/canvas, 110 x 110 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago. 




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.

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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