Vasily Kandinsky, Sounds (all images courtesy Shearsman Books)

Vasily Kandinsky’s only published book of poetry, prose poems titled Klänge (Sounds) (ca. 1912–13), is available for the first time with its original art in color (a previous Yale University edition only presented the black-and-white prints), courtesy of Shearsman Books and translated by Tony Frazer.

In addition to his significant contributions to modern art and important theoretical works such as Über des Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art), Kandinsky was clearly a talented poet, with other poetic attempts that appear in his papers, but remain unpublished in book form. These compositions reveal his interest in language, in relation to the visual image.

A certain narrative pattern is apparent throughout these works. For example, this volume’s first poem, “Hills,” begins almost in a mode of story-telling:

A mass of hills in all the colours one can imagine
or would even wish to imagine. All varying sizes,
but shapes always the same, i.e. just one: Fat at the
bottom, bulging at the sides, flat-round on top. Simple
everyday hills, then, just as one always imagines but
never sees.

One might expect from Kandinsky that color that is dominant in nearly all of these written works. From “Seeing”:

Blue, Blue rose up, rose up, and fell.
Spiky, Thin whistled and tried to barge its way in, but
didn’t get through.
On every corner there was a din.
Fat Brown got caught, apparently for all eternity.

Apparently. Apparently.

A dark sense of humor also emerges in several of them that recalls folklore or even of children’s stories:

Great big houses suddenly collapsed. Small houses
remained standing, unaffected.
A thick hard egg-shaped orange-cloud hung suddenly
over the town. It seemed to hang from the steep
steeple of the Town Hall tower, tall, all angles, and
radiated violet. (“Bassoon”)

Vasily Kandinsky, “Zwei Ritter vor Rot / Two Riders in front of Red” (1911), woodcut, 4 x 6 inches

The very best of them — such as “Open” below — play with language in a way that surely must have attracted his Dadaist friends, who came together to read these works.

Now slowly disappearing in the green grass.
Now stuck in the grey muck.
Now slowly disappearing in the white snow.
Now stuck in the grey muck.
Lay long: long fat black tubes.
Lay long.
Long tubes.

Here is a poem that is anything but “open,” as everything and everyone is trapped in beautiful repetition — the long lay of the grey muck that becomes almost a celebration of nature, while also referencing the artist’s paint “tubes” which abstractly “capture” the very figures the painting creates. In its semi-nonsense repetitions this poem might almost remind one of works by Gertrude Stein.

Vasily Kandinsky, “Orientalisches / Oriental” (1913), woodcut, 4.7 inches x 7.4 inches

Similarly the repetitions of “Not,” fill the page with a kind of “Jack-in-the-box” character, who “jumped from one side of the hollow to the others with an effort that would be enough / For a hole three meters side. And back again right away.” The poem humorously continues:

And back right away. Back,
back. Oh! back again, back again! Again, again. Oh
again, again, again. Ba-ack . . . Ba-a-ack . . .

The poem ends: “Don’t go there! Don’t look at him!!…..Never!!……,” before the observer, like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland declares that he’s going “over there. Otherwise I’ll be too late.”

There is often a kind of Beckettian quality to his poems, as well, expressed in “Water”:

In the yellow sand walked a small thin red man. He kept
slipping all the time. It looked as if he were walking

on black ice. It was however yellow sand of the never-
ending plain.

From time to time he said: “Water . . . Blue water.” And
didn’t understand himself why he said it.

Finally, some of these works, convey an odd sense of tenderness. In the volume’s final poem of, “Softness,” Kandinsky writes:

Each lay on his own horse, which was unbecoming and
improper. It’s better anyway if a fat bird sits on this not
on his thin branch, with the little trembling quivering
living leaf. Everyone can kneel down (anyone who can’t
learns how). Can everyone see the spires? Open the
door! Or the fold will tear the roof off!

Here we truly see Kandinsky represent the spiritual in art, a theme that runs through his visual and written oeuvres. Drawing from the Old and New Testaments simultaneously he tells us: see the spires or God might tear off your roof.

Sounds by Vasily Kandinsky, translated by Tony Frazer, is published by Shearsman Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

Douglas Messerli is an American writer, professor, and publisher based in Los Angeles. In 1976, he started Sun & Moon, a magazine of art and literature, which became Sun & Moon press,...