How Martha Graham Was Inspired by Wassily Kandinsky
Neil Baldwin on the Shared Artistic Visions of Modern Dance and Modern Art
On October 1, 1922, the Denishawn/Mayer train rumbled out of Penn Station, heading for the first venue of 180 performances, beginning at the Masonic Temple Theatre in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, northwest of Harrisburg, and coming full circle the following April with twelve shows at Town Hall in New York City. Ruth St. Denis, with her personal maid, and Ted Shawn, and Louis Horst as musical director, three additional musicians, a company treasurer, a stage manager, and a two-man backstage crew, were accompanied by dancers Martha Graham, Pearl Wheeler, Betty May, Lenore Scheffer, Julia Bennett, May Lynn, Louise Brooks, Peggy Taylor (later replaced by Betty Davis), Charles Weidman, and Paul Mathis (later replaced by Robert Gorham). But not Doris Humphrey; she would return as a guest artist for the New York season in the spring of 1923, just before Graham quit the company.
The tour program was a test of Graham’s endurance. In the first part, Music Visualizations, she danced in “Revolutionary Etude” and “Soaring,” among a succession of short pieces in the Dalcrozian mode, “illustrating [classical] musical forms” with “parallel movements” originating in the torso.
In the second section, Graham appeared in “Serenata Morisca,” “Devidassi” (the ritual dancer in Indian temples possessed by divinity), and a new piece, “Betty’s Music Box,” “frothy as a strawberry ice-cream soda.” This confection starred Charles Weidman in the Pierrot costume from his preceding solo number, surrounded by three mincing, rosy-lipped maids spotlighted in pink, crowned with lavender muslin hats, wearing low-neck, calf-length ruffled pink gowns, and sharing pantomimed secrets and perky pliés—Martha Graham, Louise Brooks, and Betty May. In the third section, a reprise of Xochitl, Graham returned to her featured role. Finally, in Orientalia, conglomerating the cultures of China, Crete, India, Siam, Japan, Java, and Egypt, Graham was one of the three apsarases, choreographed by St. Denis, and then soloed in Shawn’s Japanese “Lantern Dance.”
After Pottsville and Newcastle and Pittsburgh and Altoona and Baltimore and Kalamazoo, and a triumphant night in Milwaukee concluding with a surprise thirty-first birthday party for Papa Ted beneath the towering gold-leaf proscenium of the Pabst Theatre, the Denishawn train steamed south along Lake Michigan and pulled into Chicago at midday on Sunday, October 22, to prepare for Monday and Tuesday night shows at Orchestra Hall. The next two days would be crammed with load-in and dress rehearsals.
Barely settled at the hotel, Horst and Graham dashed over to the Art Institute of Chicago, guarded by two vigilant bronze lions at the corner of Adams Street on Michigan Boulevard, where an exhibition of modern art from the collection of the late Arthur Jerome Eddy, on view since September 19, was in its final hours. When Graham attempted to reconstruct details of the visit half a century later, she said that “One of our stops when I toured the states with the Follies [in fact, Denishawn] was Chicago. I remember going into the Art Institute one afternoon. I entered a room where the first modern paintings I had ever seen were on display—Chagalls and Matisses— and something within me responded to those paintings.” (In fact, neither Chagall nor Matisse was in the Eddy collection show; Derain, Duchamp, Gleizes, Franz Marc, Picabia, and Picasso, among many others’ works, were there, including sculptures by Brancusi and Rodin.)
Suddenly, Graham said, “I saw across the room a beautiful painting, what was then called abstract art, a startling new idea. I nearly fainted because at that moment I knew I was not mad, that others saw the world, saw art, the way I did. It was by Wassily Kandinsky, and had a streak of red going from one end to the other. I said, ‘I will do that someday. I will make a dance like that.’”Graham utterly apprehended Kandinsky’s vision— “infusing painting with the power of music and theatre.”
One of twenty works in the show by Kandinsky—whose work Eddy, a prosperous attorney, championed early on—the painting Martha Graham spotted was Improvisation No. 30, referred to by the artist as Blauer Fleck—Kanonen (Blue Spot—Cannons). The four-foot square (111 × 111.3 cm) canvas, a vertiginous, impatient ode to scatter, wanted to blast out of the frame. It was illustrated and listed as “item No. 36” in the exhibition guidebook, accompanied by Eddy’s parenthetical observation, “(This was not painted as an impression of war, but the atmosphere was so charged with war at the time it was painted  that the artist must have unconsciously introduced the feeling.)”
The note paraphrased Kandinsky’s statement about literal imagery in Eddy’s book, Cubists and Post-Impressionism, published in 1914, following the New York Armory Show: “The presence of the cannons in the picture could probably be explained by the constant war talk that had been going on throughout the year,” Kandinsky said. “But I did not intend to give a representation of war; to do so would have required different pictorial means.”
Martha Graham in the fall of 1922 was a working dancer on a grueling tour at the borderline between rote reenactments of others’ music visualizations and realizing her latent expressionist necessities—to borrow Kandinsky’s term. Whether Graham actually said at the museum, “I will do that someday. I will make a dance like that,” to herself, or to Louis Horst, as they stood before the Cannons canvas on that Sunday afternoon in Chicago; or, in the spirit of self-fulfilling personal history, imagined she said it; or believed—attending to the call of her “blood memory”—that she should have said it, Martha Graham utterly apprehended Kandinsky’s vision—“infusing painting with the power of music and theatre.”
From 1939 onward, most memorably the Art of Tomorrow show at Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting on East Fifty-Fourth Street, Graham never missed a Kandinsky exhibition in New York. Invoking his spirit, Graham told her students, “Dancing is a little closer sometimes to what is called non-representational painting…The whole adds up to an impression—to a sensation—to a feeling that [is not] a complete graph of meaning, except as you use meaning in an inner sense.”
In his book, Point and Line to Plane (Punkt und Linie zur Fläche), Kandinsky defined a “composition” as a work in which “vital forces…in the form of tensions, are shut up within the elements.” The artist’s appeal to Graham is clear in Kandinsky’s comment to his friend and patron Arthur Eddy about the elusiveness of explicit meaning, regardless of medium—the gap between intentionality in the making of a work of art and the viewers’ reception: “The designation ‘Cannons’ selected by me for my own use, is not to be conceived as indicating the [non-objective] ‘contents’ of the picture….These contents are indeed what the spectator lives, or feels, while under the effect of the form and color combinations of the picture….So intensely did I feel the necessity of some of the forms, that I remember having given loud-voiced directions to myself, as for instance: ‘But the corners must be heavy!’ ” [All italics here and below are Kandinsky’s.]
Like Kandinsky, Graham was aware of the seesaw in her psyche between fulfillment and frustration, self-determination and fatalism: “The truth of the matter is,” the painter further confided to Eddy “that every gifted artist, that is, an artist working under an impulse from within, must go in a way that in some mystical manner has been laid out for him from the very start. His life is nothing but the fulfillment of a task set for him (for him, not by himself)….[There] is a period of ‘storm and stress’ [sturm und drang], then follow desperate searching, pain, great pain—until finally his eyes open and he says to himself, ‘There is my way.’”
Excerpted from Martha Graham: When Dance Became Modern by Neil Baldwin. Copyright © 2022. Available from Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.