April 2024

“Nina and Me”:
Jelena's Years with Kandinsky's Wife (Part 1)

 Jelena Hahl-Fontaine

edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

There is a lot to be found about Nina in the Kandinsky literature, where there often seem to be two versions of her. In one, she was the interloper many loved to hate, or to roll their eyes about—the 17-year old who snagged the well-to-do painter who was nearly 50, and then remained perpetually at his side thereafter, full of gaffes and herself. In the other, she was her husband's faithful and beloved helpmate, who suffered with him uncomplainingly through periods of sorrow and privation, and then dedicated her remaining life to his work after his death.


But Jelena's piece here is all her own—not "in the literature," but her complex, personal account of knowing and working with Nina Kandinsky, written for readers of this "Kandinsky Anew" series. When you are reading Jelena on Nina, you are only a few degrees of separation from Nina herself—and who else do you know besides Jelena who had lunch prepared for her by Nina Kandinsky!


To go with her unusual piece, I selected photos—not what you'll tend to see when you open a popular book or website on Kandinsky—but photos from far afield, rare, and unusual.


Note that the expected December 2023 release of Jelena's book, Kandinsky: A Life in Letters 1889–1944 was delayed and will be out on March 21, 2024.


L.T. Renaud

Oakland, California




Unforgettable! Our first meeting, in February of 1968, was at her vacation home in Gstaad, Switzerland. The director of the Munich museum, Hans Konrad Roethel, had sent me to her: "You can speak Russian with her, and you'll get along," he said. "She will never stop being suspicious of me, since naturally I'm on the side of Gabriele Münter." He said "naturally," because in 1957 Gabriele, Kandinsky's longtime partner before he met Nina, had donated hundreds of precious paintings by Kandinsky to Roethel's museum, the Lenbachhaus.


Wassily and Nina Kandinsky in Dessau, 1926


I arrived at Nina's door, quite curious, since I knew how unpopular she was in Germany. Nina's 10-year lawsuit against author L.G. Buchheim for critical remarks about Kandinsky had even inspired him to publish other remarks on how to burn the widows of artists at the stake! — Nina had hardly opened her door when I heard: "You are 30 years old."  I confirmed, but I was puzzled since she had no way of knowing and I, a northern type, looked so much younger than 30 that already for several years my university students had kept mistaking me for a student. But this proved that Nina was right about her special intuitive ability, which she had in common with my mother and many other—mainly Eastern and Southern—women. — Next, Nina sort of excused herself: "My eyelashes were recently cut before an eye operation, but they will grow back. And here is my sister from Moscow who is helping me after that operation," she said, pointing at a modestly dressed woman whom I had mistaken for her maid. Nina, on the contrary, was dressed in an elegant robe with a violet pattern and a bright red label, "Dior"; in those days, those tasteless labels were not yet common—and the red on violet added another shock for me! Yes, she was vain, and more shocks followed. For instance, she remarked that Kandinsky should have designed dresses for her, as he had done for Gabriele Münter, but this time, with photos of his paintings printed on them! In addition, Nina's too-obvious love of diamonds did not promote her reputation.


But we Kandinsky scholars had nothing to complain of: she helped us generously, and each time we finished a book, we received a small watercolor by Kandinsky. In Paris, Nina gave me access to Kandinsky's large collection of books, and once she even prepared lunch for me. She let me photograph lots of sketches, and we often met at Karl Flinker's important Paris gallery, from where she let me walk out with precious manuscripts to the nearby copy shop. Our cooperation lasted 12 years.


Wassily and Nina Kandinsky in Mürren,
Switzerland, February 1937.


Nina made enormous efforts to promote Kandinsky's art, lending and selling paintings to select museums in various countries. Becoming
wealthy, she created a foundation for young abstract artists. Sometimes she went too far, for instance insisting—contrary to obvious facts—that Kandinsky did not know Churlionis, the composer-artist of early, semi -abstract, allegorical paintings. She was not aware that Churlionis would have been in no way a threat to Kandinsky's reputation as the very first abstract artist. — Nina published, with the help of the expert, Werner Krüger, an important book, Kandinsky und ich [Kandinsky and Me] in 1976, which was translated from German into French a few years later. Except for hiding her age and falsely claiming that Kandinsky was as superstitious as she was, the book contains a lot of important and interesting facts. It should be translated into English!


Nina with son, Vsevolod Kandinsky, 1919.


Wassily and Nina Kandinsky with their son Vsevolod
("Lodja"), Moscow, 1920.


There were some facts that only became known after Nina's death, such as their deep suffering during the famine in Russia before they emigrated back to Germany in 1921. Mainly, they had kept secret their son Vsevolod, who died in 1920 just before the age of three. Nina had confided this tragedy only once: to a close friend, a German editor, who privately passed it on to Roethel, who shared it with me just so it would not be forgotten. But we kept it confidential. What also became public after Nina died was her age (1899-1980), which she had always kept secret, just as famous actresses used to do.


Portrait of Nina Kandinsky, 1927. Photo Hugo Erfurth


Once when Roethel and I visited Nina, she told us about their theatre visits when the first Bauhaus was located in Weimar: "Our box was opposite the box of the young duke who, every time after he greeted the audience, bowed slightly in our direction." Silence from Roethel—so she helped him: "To whom do you think he was bowing?" I prayed he would not say "Kandinsky." But after another moment of silence he answered: "Well, to Kandinsky." Nina was quite outraged: "But he was hardly known then, only at the Bauhaus where he was teaching!" I found it politic to add, especially since it was true: "Nina Kandinsky was an extraordinary beauty and always elegantly dressed! It was not only the duke who noticed and appreciated
it!" — But had she now become an attractive elderly lady? Alas, no: her style was all too artificial, and although she didn't really look old, and in spite of her temperament, her face seemed somewhat lifeless. (Personal digression: "lifeless" especially when compared with Olga de Hartmann (1885-1979), singer and wife of Kandinsky's dearest friend, Thomas. Olga's face was much older, totally covered with wrinkles, but she had a fine, natural beauty, full of life and love).


Nina with Kenda Bar-Gera at the Kandinsky show in her
Cologne gallery, 1973. Photo Jeanmarc202020



To be continued…


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; Kandinsky: A Life in Letters 1889-1944; 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.

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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©2024 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



Kandinsky Anew
Index of the series by
Lissa Tyler Renaud


April 2024

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