October 2023

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

A Lot You've Wanted to Know
About Kandinsky and Theatre, cont.
Final Installment: 5 of 5

 Kiril Bolotnikov and Lissa Tyler Renaud

Introductory Note, re-revisited
What follows are my responses to questions posed to me by Kiril Bolotnikov, the most faithful tracker of my involvement with Kandinsky's artistic life outside of painting. Bolotnikov had heard a brief lecture I gave in the important "Globus Arts Lectures" series hosted by Zarina Zabrisky: it included my overview of Kandinsky's multi-layered theatre work, and the first-ever known live reading of his body of poetry, including several poems in English for the first time. That recorded event appears in the Special Index for my "Kandinsky Anew" series, where you can see it—it follows the March 2021 entry—for context before or while reading below.


That event ended with a Question & Answer period, which Bolotnikov's engaged and cogent questions here extend. He posed five questions; I answered Questions 1&2 in July, Question 3 in August, Question 4 in September. For Scene4's current, October issue, we have Question 5, which completes this Q&A, 5-part mini-series.


Ground rules: I had to answer conversationally (not in academic-ese), without using any reference materials!


I imagine many other readers will be glad that Bolotnikov came forward to draw out more on what they've wondered about Kandinsky, a theatre and poetry innovator.



Question 5.


Kiril Bolotnikov: What kind of theatre did Kandinsky like?


I wonder if someone knows which theatre shows he actually attended in his life and his opinions of them. But I don't! In his letters he always seems to have seen everything—concerts, lectures, everything from the classical to the cutting edge. But theatre? We can only hope someone will publish more—and then more—of his voluminous letters.


For now, let's start with the idea that what he liked must have changed over the years. Very broadly, we can see three periods in his work: early
Munich, 1996-1914; the Bauhaus, 1922-33, and Paris, 1933-44 (his death). Which leaves out a lot, but there it is. And it's important to remember that he was typically at least 10--often 20--years older than the artists around him. He was an odd combination of behind and ahead of his time, both forward thinking and out of step. He was an art-peace-nature person—those were his enduring values—when all around him were turning their attention to the exploding technology boom. Sound familiar?


In his early, turn-of-the-century days in Munich, we know Kandinsky had a good theatre library (we'll never know what he lent out and didn't
get back!), including up-to-the-minute books he had translated for him. One, for example, was by the British theatre innovator-designer, Edward Gordon Craig (translated for him by his painter girlfriend's sister). And when he corresponded with Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian pioneer of atonal music, they exchanged the experimental, not-realistic (aka weird) plays they'd written, and Kandinsky was certainly interested in what he read from Schoenberg.


Now I'm skipping over K's important WWI and Revolutionary years in Russia. There, he and the artists of the revolutionary theatre didn't have much affinity for one another. Basically, after attempts to work together, they yawned at K's own, romantic (fuddy-duddy) theatre ideas. Between that, losing his property and his young son, having no painting supplies, and starving, he went back to Germany when he could.


There, teaching at the Bauhaus Kandinsky had a front row seat (as it were) to what his colleague, the artist-choreographer Oskar Schlemmer, was making of the legendary Bauhaus Theatre, mostly on a makeshift platform set up at the end of the school cafeteria. In his diaries, Schlemmer is frustrated that there isn't a poet among the school's visually oriented students to bring the language element to his stage. But he certainly made the best of it—the performances he made were perfect for the art students, looking at geometry, line, rhythm, color, volume, the body in various spatial arrangements, visual style, and so on. His pieces were also funny and fun. And Kandinsky was right there.


Also, I see so many photos of Kandinsky and Paul Klee together—Klee was his neighbor at the Bauhaus and often painted theatre-related images. In one photo they're having tea in their shared garden, in another, they're goofing around at the beach, and I always imagine, without any basis at all, that they were sharing their thoughts about the theatre.


I'm always struck by the bland way we're informed that Kandinsky "moved" or "set up residence" in Paris in his last ten or so years. He not only lost his job when the Nazis closed the Bauhaus in 1933; they also threatened him with deportation to a camp, since 1. his paintings were "degenerate," and 2. he didn't have documents to prove his racial purity. We don't know exactly what shows he "liked" in Paris, but I can say that he mentions the theatre at every chance in the letters of his that I know: after time spent in bomb shelters, he writes that the theatres are open again in Paris; he brings up the Jewish-only theatres in Germany that he'd heard about. Also from his letters and other first-person accounts, we know he went to the circus, which was popular in avant-garde circles for not following a conventional storyline format, and for the intuitive or non-literal gestures of the performers. There are also accounts of Kandinsky and his wife's being very fond of the cinema.





When K. was 30 and starting to live as an artist, he was famously struck by a production of Wagner's Lohengrin he saw, and many writers on Kandinsky are eager to connect Kandinsky's theatre to Wagner's operatic stage. This is a mistake. Wagner's operas did combine music, drama, and spectacle in ways that might sound like some of Kandinsky's writings, but Kandinsky soon enough had something completely different in mind.


So a direct answer to your question would be: Maeterlinck. Maurice Maeterlinck, Belgian. A Nobel Laureate, he's been mostly relegated to an oddity by now, it seems to me--it's hard to imagine that for a long time he was on everyone's lips. Kandinsky first bought a Maeterlinck play in his
20s, did a long series of pencil sketches for it, and had Maeterlinck's theatre books in his library. K was a fan.


The world of Maeterlinck's writings is mystical, dream-like; he uses evocative and veiled language, the plays seem to happen in a different dimension from ours, his stories don't unfold in a familiar way, they don't "make sense." (Read my recent review here.) His plays were so original that Stanislavsky was keen to be the first to produce Maeterlinck's Blue Bird—Stanislavsky did some staggeringly creative (now ignored) designs for it. Kandinsky knew theatre experiments by others of his time, and scholars sometimes point out some connection, but Maeterlinck was the one Kandinsky saw as a kindred spirit and wrote about.


I started out by saying that what theatre Kandinsky liked must have changed over the years. But I take that back. I think Maeterlinck opened such an important window for K., that I seem to see his influence in K's plays and theatre thinking all along and to the very end. It was Maeterlinck who gave K an approach, a technique, a path to making a stage play that went beyond material experience. The one whose plays he liked, was Maeterlinck.


And that's my final answer.



Kiril: Thank you for your unusual and refreshing questions, which gave me a chance to speak for these months from a different part of my knowledge. It was a pleasure.





Kiril Bolotnikov, Guest Writer, is a writer, editor, and translator who divides his time between Oakland and Shanghai, having graduated cum laude from New York University Shanghai. His writing has appeared in Neocha, Radii, SupChina, Scene4 Magazine, Shaving in the Dark, and A Shanghai Poetry Zine. He is a contributing editor with The Shanghai Literary Review. He translates for Vogue Business in China and the Wuzhen Theatre Festival. He has been a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and received support from the Bread Loaf Translators' Conference. You can find him on Twitter @kbolotnik. 

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 inspired by 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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©2023 Lissa Tyler Renaud
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Kandinsky Anew
Index of the series by
Lissa Tyler Renaud


October 2023

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