Bringing Kandinsky On Stage

Pictures at an exhibition: an interview with Mikhaïl Rudy

Centre Pompidou

In 2010, Mikhaïl Rudy, world-renowned pianist and soloist of Russian origin, collaborated with the Pompidou Center and the Paris Philharmonic on an animated film for Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, based on images of the set and staging designed by Vassily Kandinsky in 1928 at the Fiedrich-Theatre in Dessau. It was a concert of images upon music upon images performed by Mikhaïl Rudy all around the world (Guggenheim New York and Bilbao, Moscow, St Petersburg, Milan, London, etc.)

Bild XII. Marktfrauen von Limoges (Paiting XII. Figurine of the Market Square in Limoges), Kandinsky, Vassily, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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Centre Pompidou: How did you get involved in this show?

Mikhaïl Rudy: Kandinsky is one of my favorite painters and I have been playing Pictures since I was a teenager. When I discovered the existence of Kandinsky's extraordinary scenography in Munich through the work Vassily Kandinsky, On Theatre (in German, French and Russian) and above all his amazing watercolors, I had just one wish: to bring this spectacle of total art, which blended together music, painting, and the stage, back to life. Later on, when I was able to see the watercolors kept at the Pompidou Center, I was even more amazed by the beauty of the original colors and I was all the more convinced that this had to be shown to the general public.

Bild XVI. Das Grosse Tor Von Kiew (Paiting XVI. The Great Door of Kiev), preparatory drawing for the staging of Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, Kandinsky, Vassily, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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From this show by Kandinsky, the only one of his productions that has been staged, only 17 watercolors and drawings of each of these paintings survive, as well as a text by Kandinsky that several dozen pages long, and finally a piano score that belonged to his assistant, Felix Klee, son of Paul Klee. This score is really fascinating, because each measure indicates what should be happening on the stage.

Bild XV. Hütte der Baba-Jaga (Paiting XV. The Cabin of Baba-Yaga), Kandinsky, Vassily, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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Centre Pompidou: Between abstraction and figuration, Kandinsky said he "used forms seen when listening." Illuminated, these colored forms become a "deep painting" that is composed and decomposed in very precise synchronization with the rhythms and structures of the score. How did you bring this work to life?

Mikhaïl Rudy: The important thing was to avoid historical re-enactment and to create something that must be experienced. With the idea of shining a different light on this work, my role was that of an interpreter, exactly the same as it is in front of a score by Beethoven. The rest was up to my imagination.

Bild XII. Der Marktplatz zu Limoges (Paiting XII. Market Square in Limoges), Kandinsky, Vassily, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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I read Kandinsky's text as if it were a real score, hearing the music at every stage direction.. Kandinsky's creative force fascinated me: he heard notes and saw shapes, like with music where chords can be immediately found. And the shapes carry you elsewhere, it's almost physical.

Bild IV. Das alte Schloss (Painting IV. The Old Castle), Kandinsky, Vassily, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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When I sit at the piano, I see these images in my head.. Each figure is a character. I tried tracks, then the idea of creating a video montage based on Kandinsky's watercolors seemed right to me because I think what Kandinsky wanted to do was introduce the concept of time into the painting. In Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, for example, where Kandinsky's humor is clear, there is just a small drawing with undulating lines. I saw this piece as an animated film by Norman McLaren, a pioneer in abstract animation. The important thing in this staging is the dramatic progression. The work ends with a red rising sun, identical to the one at the beginning, because Kandinsky believed creation to be mystical by its very nature.

Bild VIII. Promenade Bild IX. Kuchlein (Painting VIII. Promenade Tableau IX. Kuchlein), Kandinsky, Vassily, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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Centre Pompidou: Your artistic curiosity led you to explore different art forms and lead a number of innovative projects. Is your artistic approach similar to that of Kandinsky?

Mikhaïl Rudy: When I was living in the Soviet Union, before gaining political asylum in France in 1977, it was normal for all intellectuals and artists to identify with Stravinsky and Kandinsky. Kandinsky had a huge influence on my artistic approach because his state of mind was above all else that of a composer. Abstract by definition, according to him, music had always come before painting and set the tempo. (He himself had composed short popular melodies which are today a real point of interest).

Wassily Kandinsky and a friend playing the cello and piano, Anonymous, c. 1886, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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If there is always this kind of ambiguity between abstraction and figuration in him, Kandinsky's abstraction goes a long way, and his visionary ideas cause an extraordinary aesthetic shock. Catacombs, my favorite part of Pictures at an Exhibition, is when we are in James Turell, Rothko or Barnett Newman, we are in Olafur Eliasson, we are in the 21st century. It is more than contemporary: it is the future.

Bild XIII. Catacombae (Paiting XIII. Catacombae), Kandinsky, Vassily, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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His lighting for Pictures shows new technologies, Yellow Sound heralds electronic music… And he stays close to romantic sensitivity, not in the sense of posture but with the idea that art is a means and not an end in itself. His intelligence and creative force always fascinate me.

"Bilder einer Ausstellung, Tableaux d'une exposition", partition by Modest Moussorgsky with annotations and diagrams by Félix Klee, 1928, From the collection of: Centre Pompidou
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