January 2024

Kandinsky's Unpublished Letters, Published
Renaud Interviews Hahl-Fontaine

 Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud

Introductory Remark

New information about Kandinsky has continued to surface over time, often bringing with it new questions.

Readers of this series know the eminent Dr. Hahl-Fontaine on a first-name basis, as "Jelena." Jelena has collected and selected Kandinsky's letters for a new book, Kandinsky: A Life in Letters 1889-1944. Most of the letters in the book are published for the first time, and all of them appear in incontrovertible context. An incalculably clarifying contribution, in English. Now in the UK; pre-order in the U.S. Historic.

"Kandinsky Anew" indeed; proud to feature this interview with Jelena Hahl-Fontaine for this series.

Lissa Tyler Renaud



Photo of Kandinsky by Gabriele Münter, Dresden, 1905, Gabriele Münter-Johannes Eichner Foundation, Munich. VG-Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

Historic: Kandinsky's Unpublished Letters, Published
Renaud Interviews Hahl-Fontaine

Lissa Tyler Renaud: What gave you the idea to edit a volume of Kandinsky's letters?


Jelena Hahl-Fontaine: Since 1980, when I first published the Kandinsky -Arnold Schoenberg correspondence, I have stayed faithful to my favorite artist. The same year, after publishing his biographical book on Kandinsky, the Museum director of Lenbachhaus Munich, Hans K. Roethel, and I agreed that primary sources should always take priority, before the historians start writing their interpretions. So we prepared six more volumes, which never appeared (I don't want to talk about those ugly manipulations...). Twenty-five years later those writings were published in Paris, but most of the letters still remained unknown. So this task tempted me, and the selection turned into a great joy.


LTR: The German version of the book is very handsome and compact. Also for the English one, clearly your goal wasn't to publish all of Kandinsky's letters this time.


JH-F: Oh, heavens no! That would amount to at least 20 volumes! Of course this necessary work will be done one day. Just as now all of Marcel Proust's letters have been edited: in 21 volumes. But when I started searching for the most interesting letters—imagine, among so much repetition and nonsense, I just gave up.


LTR: So there are still thousands of letters we've never seen. How did you choose from so many?


JH-F: I selected the most important, least known, most unusual and witty parts, and also included some typical, everyday things. It helped that I know almost all his letters. I also know his theoretical writings—I had translated a large heap of his Russian ones into German. I would like to stress that I found not a single ugly letter.


I'm sure you will be disappointed to find too little about theatre! But this subject is well covered in the correspondence with Arnold Schoenberg, and my English edition of 1984 is still findable, available. Also I did not include very many of Kandinsky's letters to his best friend and theatre collaborator, the composer Thomas de Hartmann, because their whole, so far totally unknown correspondence will soon be published in Israel.

LTR: But there are quite a few mentions of the theatre—both of his own work and others'. Even though they tend to be brief, they are striking. And it's gratifying to me that they keep surfacing across the decades, since the longevity and persistence of his theatre interests have been one of the foundational claims in my own work.


Of course the letters you chose to include or leave out create a certain impression of Kandinsky for the readers, yes?


JH-F: I would like to say that I did not pick only letter-parts that give a "favorable" view of the artist. My selection is neutral; I chose fairly. There are parts, for example, where some readers will be shocked by his opinions—for example, about Dalí, the Surrealists, the Constructivists—and disagree with him. If I were partial, I could simply have omitted those. I believe every reader should be free to judge Kandinsky for
him- or herself!!


LTR: And of course, even the book's layout makes an impression: you provided your commentary directly into the text, in brackets, not in footnotes on the page or in endnotes at the ends of chapters—both so annoying. And the year that the letter pertains to is at the head of each page. These add to making reading the book a pleasure.


I see on the author page that you also worked closely with Dr. Kate Kangaslahti.


JH-F: Yes, thank you again for finding her. Kate studied at Oxford, and is now teaching in Belgium at the University of Leuven. She did a marvelous job: finalizing, suggesting alterations. And what is more, she is living almost "next door" to us in Brussels. So our cooperation turned out just perfect!




Postcard from Kandinsky to Poul Bjerre, Stockholm, Mar. 11, 1922, and a note in Swedish from Carl Gummeson to Poul Bjerre: "To Dr. P. Bjerre. I sent 3 texts to K. on 9/3—special delivery. Greetings, Carl Gummeson."


LTR: So, in a sense, you've had this book in mind for decades.


JH-F: I have accumulated the material for the book for over 60 years! And found it extremely interesting, not only "art-historically, "but also "art -politically," and even politically. Especially since many of the letters have never been published yet, almost half of my selection is new. Astonishing, since there is incredibly much literature about Kandinsky.


LTR: Oh, finally knowing more of Kandinsky's political opinions in his own words will be very important. Long overdue. From the way his writings have been edited for so long, you would never know how profoundly world events figured in every aspect of his life.


JH-F: Yes, for example, during the Nazi era, he dared to write to a Swiss friend: "All this mess because of a mad lunatic."


LTR: Do you think the letters have special relevance now?

JH-F: Still today, Kandinsky's idea to create an international peace movement, together with "those people who are alive today but are concerned about tomorrow," is just as important as it was 1914, shortly before the beginning of World War 1. Wouldn't that be a good idea today as well?

LTR: After re-reading everything so closely during the selection process, and preparing the manuscript, was there anything that surprised you?


JH-F: Yes, indeed. The extent of Kandinsky's helpfulness towards colleagues; also his occasional very sharp and witty attacks. Also, his resilience in often very hard times. I was surprised all over again how much livelier and more vivid his letters are than his other, theoretical writings: witty, beautiful, ironical and warmhearted letters.


LTR.: Your book came out in that German edition early this year. Did you make any adjustments for the English edition that's being printed now?


JH-F: Yes, I shortened some specifically German material and added other letters instead. And Kate Kangaslahti found important additions: letters to Ben Nicholson, Alfred Barr and Herbert Read. We added a letter he wrote to Marinetti asking for a letter of support to save the Bauhaus from being shut down by the Nazis.


LTR: Oh, I saw that Marinetti letter—it's so good that that's in your book! And the others you've added, too: crucial. Your volume of letters will add a lot of new information for everyone interested in Kandinsky, the people around him, and his time.


JH-F: Overall, the book corrects certain mistaken ideas people have about his character. My book should also be an incentive to other scholars, for instance to edit his experimental theatre work and his prose poems. There is still unpublished material to work on; it would make me very happy for someone to do that. And since Kandinsky was not only a painter, but such a rich, manifold personality, hopefully the interest in him will never end.


*     *     *


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.

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
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Kandinsky Anew
Index of the series by
Lissa Tyler Renaud


January 2024

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