It couldn’t come more full cirlce: Kandinsky created his only stage production based on Mussorgsky’s piano cycle, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” inspired by a photo exhibition. Kandinsky’s stage designs are now on exhibit.
“Pictures at an Exhibition” were originally a cycle of works for piano written by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. For artist Wassily Kandinsky, the cycle served as a basis for his first and only theater project, which was premiered in the German city of Dessau in 1928.
The stage designs for the production are now being exhibited, in honor of the painter’s 150th birthday, in Kandinsky’s former residence in Dessau.
Wassily Kandinsky was out to create a synthetic “Gesamtkunstwerk.” For him, that meant that sounds took on hues that listeners could see before their eyes as they listened to the music. It was intended to be a Gesamtkustwerk of sound, color and motion.
“Worldwide, only two series remain from the stage designs – one in Centre Pompidou in Paris and the other in a theater studies collection at the University of Cologne,” said Harald Wetzel, organizer of the exhibition at the Dessau Masters’ Houses. Included in the exhibition are images from the Cologne collection.
The home of a Bauhaus artist
Wassily Kandinsky lived and worked in Dessau from 1925 to 1932 as a master with the Bauhaus school of art and design. Those were his most productive years. Over 500 painters and watercolors were created in his studio in the masters’ settlement.
The so-called masters’ houses were designed for the Bauhaus teachers – by none other than architect and Bauhaus director Walter Gropius himself. In 1926, the artistic movement relocated from Weimar to Dessau and spent just a year and a half erecting a college building and the masters’ houses.
A foundation for the Dessau Masters’ Houses takes care of preserving the four houses, a unique architectural ensemble of great historical value. They have since been restored to their original design and color.
The rooms in Kandinsky’s former home usually stand empty – except for the color accents. The artist preferred color on the ceilings, doors and walls, including light green, white, crimson, black and ocher. They are the same colors that Kandinsky integrated into his stage designs, which – along with the geometrical forms – are typical for Bauhaus.
Musical geometry on stage
In the spring of 1874, composer Modest Mussorgsky saw a retrospective of befriended painter and architect Viktor Hartmann. Included were pictures that Hartmann had taken on a journey to Europe, such as the Great Gate of Kyiv, an Italian palace, and the catacombs of Paris.
Mussorgsky composed “Pictures at an Exhibition” in memory of Hartmann, who had died the previous year. It’s not entirely clear which of Hartmann’s pictures had inspired Mussorgsky the most.
Wassily Kandinsky, however, was fascinated by the music and began to express his impressions in his artwork. “Kandinsky’s task was to turn the music into paintings,” said Harald Wetzel.
For the stage production of “Pictures at an Exhibition,” various geometrical elements were supposed to be pushed onto the stage or pulled off of it. “The exhibited pictures give just a limited impression of the stage production,” explained Wetzel. “The individual elements were constantly in motion.”
While the orchestra played, images came into being on stage – in sync with the music.
Dessau remained the only cite where Kandinsky’s work was performed, although a performance in the US had originally been planned. It wasn’t until the a 1983 festival in Berlin that the work was reconstructed by students from the Berlin University of the Arts, based on a script and the stage designs from the collection at the University of Cologne.
Since then, many versions of Kandinsky’s production have been staged, including multimedia variations with video, which are presented now and then in concert halls and museums from New York to Hong Kong.
Kandinsky’s original stage designs are on display in Dessau through May 22, 2016.