Wassily Kandinsky Syncs His Abstract Art to Mussorgsky’s Music in a Historic Bauhaus Theatre Production (1928)

Euro­pean moder­ni­ty may nev­er had tak­en the direc­tion it did with­out the sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence of two Russ­ian artists, Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky and Mod­est Mus­sorgsky. Kandin­sky may not have been the very first abstract painter, but in an impor­tant sense he deserves the title, giv­en the impact that his series of ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry abstract paint­ings had on mod­ern art as a whole. Inspired by Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors, he also pub­lished what might have been the first trea­tise specif­i­cal­ly devot­ed to a the­o­ry of abstrac­tion.

The com­pos­er Mussorgsky’s most famous work, Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion (lis­ten here), had a tremen­dous influ­ence on some of the most famous com­posers of the day when it debuted, which hap­pened to be after its author’s death. Writ­ten in 1874 as a solo piano piece, it didn’t see pub­li­ca­tion until 1886, when it quick­ly became a vir­tu­oso chal­lenge for pianists and a pop­u­lar choice for arrange­ments most notably by Mau­rice Rav­el and Niko­lai Rim­sky-Kor­sakov, who, along with Igor Stravin­sky and oth­ers, inter­pret­ed and expand­ed on many of Mus­sorgsky’s ideas into the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.

Mussorgsky’s ear­ly death in 1881 pre­vent­ed any liv­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion between the painter and com­pos­er, but it’s only nat­ur­al that his min­i­mal­ist musi­cal piece should have inspired Kandinsky’s only suc­cess­ful stage pro­duc­tion. In Kandinsky’s the­o­ry, musi­cal ideas oper­ate like pri­ma­ry col­ors. His paint­ings explic­it­ly illus­trate sound. In his stage adap­ta­tion of Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion, he had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to paint sound in motion.

Kandin­sky was first inspired to paint, at the age of 30, after hear­ing a per­for­mance of Wagner’s Lohen­grin. “I saw all my col­ors in spir­it,” he remarked after­ward, “Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” The Den­ver Art Museum’s Renée Miller writes of Kandinsky’s expe­ri­ence as an exam­ple of synes­the­sia. He drew from the work of Arnold Schoen­berg in his abstract expres­sion­ist can­vas­es, and “gave many of his paint­ings musi­cal titles, such as Com­po­si­tion and Impro­vi­sa­tion.”

For his part, Mus­sorgsky found inspi­ra­tion for his non­rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al work in the strange­ly uncan­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al visu­al art of Russ­ian archi­tect and painter Vik­tor Hart­mann, his clos­est friend and mem­ber of a cir­cle of artists attempt­ing a nation­al­ist Russ­ian cul­tur­al revival. Mus­sorgsky’s Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion sets music to a col­lec­tion of Hartmann’s paint­ings and draw­ings exhib­it­ed after the artist’s death, includ­ing sketch­es of opera cos­tumes and a mon­u­men­tal archi­tec­tur­al design.

The cre­ation of sev­er­al high­ly dis­tinc­tive musi­cal motifs is of a piece with Mus­sorgsky’s opera com­po­si­tions. Both he and Kandin­sky were drawn to opera for its dra­mat­ic con­junc­tion of visu­al art, per­for­mance, and music, or what Wag­n­er called Gesamtkunst­werk, the “total work of art.” And yet, despite their mutu­al admi­ra­tion for clas­si­cal forms and tra­di­tion­al Russ­ian folk­lore, both artists illus­trat­ed the title of Wagner’s essay on the sub­ject, “The Art­work of the Future,” more ful­ly than Wag­n­er him­self.

Mussorgsky’s piece, as com­posed solo on the piano, is will­ful­ly odd, ugly and pierc­ing­ly beau­ti­ful by turns, and always unset­tling, like the Hart­mann paint­ings that inspired it. So visu­al­ly descrip­tive is its musi­cal lan­guage that it might be said to induce a vir­tu­al form of synes­the­sia. In illus­trat­ing Pic­tures at an Exhi­bi­tion, Kandin­sky “took anoth­er step towards trans­lat­ing the idea of ‘mon­u­men­tal art’ into life,” notes the site Mod­ern Art Con­sult­ing, “with his own sets and light, col­or and geo­met­ri­cal shapes for char­ac­ters.”

On April 4, 1928, the pre­mière at the Friedrich The­ater, Dessau, was a tremen­dous suc­cess. The music was played on the piano. The pro­duc­tion was rather cum­ber­some as the sets were sup­posed to move and the hall light­ing was to change con­stant­ly in keep­ing with Kandinsky’s scrupu­lous instruc­tions. Accord­ing to one of them, “bot­tom­less depths of black” against a black back­drop were to trans­form into vio­let, while dim­mers (rheostats) were yet to be invent­ed.

Rather than trans­lat­ing Mussorgsky’s piece back into Hartmann’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al idiom, Kandin­sky cre­ates an oper­at­ic move­ment of geo­met­ri­cal fig­ures from the lex­i­con of the Bauhaus school. (Only “The Great Gate of Kiev,” at the top, resem­bles the orig­i­nal paint­ing.) Rather than cre­ate nar­ra­tive, “Kandinsky’s task was to turn the music into paint­ings,” says Har­ald Wet­zel, cura­tor of a recent exhib­it in Dessau fea­tur­ing many of the set designs. Those sta­t­ic ele­ments “give just a lim­it­ed impres­sion of the stage pro­duc­tion,” which was “con­stant­ly in motion.”

We may not have film of that orig­i­nal pro­duc­tion, but we do have a very good sense of what it might have looked like through its many re-stag­ings over the past few years, includ­ing the pro­duc­tion fur­ther up with pianist Mikhaïl Rudy at the théâtre de Brive in 2011 and the ani­mat­ed video remake above, which brings it even fur­ther into the future. See a selec­tion of pho­tos from the Kandin­sky exhib­it at Deutsche Welle and com­pare these paint­ings with the orig­i­nal pic­tures by Vik­tor Hart­mann that inspired Mussorgsky’s piece.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Who Paint­ed the First Abstract Paint­ing?: Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky? Hilma af Klint? Or Anoth­er Con­tender?

Time Trav­el Back to 1926 and Watch Wass­i­ly Kandin­sky Make Art in Some Rare Vin­tage Video

Night on Bald Moun­tain: An Eery, Avant-Garde Pin­screen Ani­ma­tion Based on Mussorgsky’s Mas­ter­piece (1933)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Johana Wilson says:

    They are two great artists who have left a lot of tal­ent in their works for all human­i­ty, must fol­low in their foot­steps, artists like Gabi­no Amaya Cacho has done, cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful abstract works full of intense col­ors, in addi­tion to the cre­ator of his own tech­nique called Pun­til­lis­mo abstract.

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