June 2024

“Nina and Me”:
Jelena's Years with Kandinsky's Wife (Part 2)

 Jelena Hahl-Fontaine

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud

After Kandinsky's death in 1944, Nina asked me, as well as many others, how to proceed with carrying out Kandinsky's last will. Everyone knew what was in his will: he wanted his important collection of several hundred paintings to be donated "to the Russian people." Along with everyone in the West, knowing Russia I answered: "His paintings will simply end up in the museum storage depots, hidden from 'the people.'" Nina's answer: "He knew that, but he was sure it wouldn't last forever." In point of fact, it wouldn't be until nine years after Nina's own death, in 1989, that a large Kandinsky exhibition was finally organized in Moscow, and then also traveled to Germany, where it was shown in the renowned Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. But at the time, Nina continued: "I've already been to the embassy and even to Moscow to discuss the matter. They are nice to me: they send me caviar and other good things."


So Nina wasn't spoiled only by Moscow, but also by Germany, where she was not only honored by a Medal of Merit.  The German embassy held a formal event honoring Nina. Munich's museum director, Hans Roethel, could not—or did not want to—attend, so he sent me in his place. At the event, there was a very long, very fine, lunch table attended by French cultural high society eating a luxurious meal of leg of lamb, Nina’s favorite… Incidentally, it was here that I got to know, to respect and even to love Nina’s best friend, the Ukrainian-Jewish Dina Vierny. Just look at her book about her adventurous life as Maillot’s model, soon the friend of all French avant-garde artists, then active in the French resistance against the German occupation, and more!


And in addition to Germany's official special treatment of Nina, Roethel personally introduced her to a cultured, younger art collector and jeweler, the handsome Max Pollinger, who kept inviting her to cabarets and so on—to the kinds of things she had been missing during her married life.


But it was France that surpassed them all: in the first place, Madame Claude Pompidou, wife of France's prime minister, then president, became Nina's "best friend" (a fact she could not stop talking about with great pride). Added to this, younger, more or less cultured men kept inviting her to picnics in the Alps, and the like. About this, gallerist Karl Flinker for some reason found it necessary to explain to me that these excursions were "harmless, just a little flirting," although I knew nothing about it from Nina herself and couldn't have cared less. Just as I, although often invited, cannot confirm her reputation for "drinking even men under the table."


Nina Kandinsky in her husband's studio in Neuilly-sur-Seine, c. 1980.
Photo by Vera Spoerri


Her will was in favor of France! After the large, 1989 one-man Kandinsky show in Moscow and Frankfurt, Nina made Moscow a gift of three paintings: One work from his Paris period went to the Tretyakov Gallery; two from his Bauhaus period went to the Pushkin Museum. Would she have changed her mind, remembering Kandinsky's will?


There is no way of knowing: Nina Kandinsky was strangled in her bathroom in Gstaad soon after that, in 1980! This was hardly mentioned by the French press. None of Kandinsky's paintings were missing. This is good because, like most artists, Kandinsky had kept his best works of every period "for himself," as a bequest to Nina, who would surely survive him. Instead, around 400 paintings, watercolors, books and manuscripts became the possession of the French State, ending up in the new Centre Georges Pompidou, where of course only a small number of Kandinsky's works could be shown, even if, from time to time, they were alternated. Nina's money, more than a million Francs, went to the Société Kandinsky, where it was well used for publishing catalogues raisonnées and other scientific works.


For some reason, a close friend of Madame Pompidou's, my Swiss publisher, found it necessary to warn me: "One should not talk too much about the tragic murder. The culprit is already in prison after trying to sell the stolen jewelry; it was a Russian relative who knew that he would not inherit anything from Nina." This was a lie: there was no relative, nobody went to prison, and the murder was never elucidated. Years later, a questionnaire was sent to all of us, asking if we knew of any Russian relatives. Result: No. A lady journalist thoroughly investigated, but the Swiss police confirmed that the case could not be solved. She published her article: "Wer ermordete Nina Kandinsky?" ["Who Murdered Nina Kandinsky?"] It did not seem to interest many people. So I would like to mention it now, because it should not be forgotten.


Portrait of Nina in Weimar, 1922. By Lüttich Demler



In her book and her conversations, Nina insisted that the much older Kandinsky was "her prince, her destiny." Convincing, since her father had died in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, when she was seven years old. Here it is interesting to note that, out of vanity, Nina had made everyone believe she was born in 1899, and this is the date repeated in the scholarly literature everywhere. But after her death, it was learned that she was born in 1893. This means that she had waited till the age of 24 for a 50-year old man, at a time when 18 would have been the normal age for marriage…


From Kandinsky’s side—and here I risk annoying some feminists—he did have a keen sense of beauty, enjoyed in part by living with a much younger woman. And Nina was certainly an extraordinary beauty—elegant and refined. When he met Nina, he wrote to his longtime partner, the gifted painter Gabriele Münter (also quite a bit younger than he was) that he had finally found the state of mind needed to paint the important picture he had craved for a very long time, "the meaning of which would be joy, the happiness of life, or of the universe." But he did not dare to mention the reason, only that he would have obligations in Moscow, and that there would be "nothing disagreeable" about them.


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.

Share This Page

View readers’ comments in Letters to the Editor

©2024 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



Kandinsky Anew
Index of the series by
Lissa Tyler Renaud


June 2024

  Sections Cover · This Issue · inFocus · inView · inSight · Perspectives · Special Issues
  Columns Adler · Alenier · Alpaugh · Bettencourt · Jones · Luce · Marcott · Walsh 
  Information Masthead · Your Support · Prior Issues · Submissions · Archives · Books
  Connections Contact Us · Comments · Subscribe · Advertising · Privacy · Terms · Letters

|  Search Issue | Search Archives | Share Page |

Scene4 (ISSN 1932-3603), published monthly by Scene4 Magazine
of Arts and Culture. Copyright © 2000-2024 Aviar-Dka Ltd – Aviar Media Llc.

Thai Airways at Scene4 Magazine