On Wassily Kandinsky’s Multilingual Art


  • Adrian Wanner Pennsylvania State University


intersemiotic translation, Kandinsky, Klänge, self-translation, multilingual poetry


Wassily Kandinsky was an artist who worked in multiple genres and media, including the written word. His literary works include thirty-eight prose poems published in the 1912 album Klänge (Sounds), four stage compositions written between 1908 to 1914, and occasional poetry composed in the 1920s and 30s. Kandinsky felt compelled to engage from time to time in what he called a “change of instruments” by putting the palette aside and using in its place the typewriter. However, “changing instruments” did not only refer to the crossing over from visual into verbal art. It also could mean switching languages. Not many people have paid attention to the fact that Kandinsky was a multilingual poet and self-translator working in three languages: his native Russian, German, and French. Many of Kandinsky’s poetic texts exist in two parallel versions as a result of self-translation. It is not always easy to determine which version came first. By writing a text in two languages simultaneously Kandinsky engaged in what has become known as “synchronous self-translation.” As a visual artist, he added an additional component of intersemiotic “bridge-building” by correlating his Russian and German prose poems with a sequence of corresponding woodcuts. This article explores Kandinsky’s multilingual oeuvre in the context of his visual art. Kandinsky’s notion of the “Zweiklang” (dual sound) in which two distinct elements coexist simultaneously in a state of undecidability furnishes a conceptual illustration for the bilingual constellation of his parallel poems. I will argue that Kandinsky’s multilingualism played a crucial role in the evolution of his art. The fact that he was a foreigner working in languages “not his own” gave him a creative license that he would have lacked if he had remained wedded to his native tongue.

Author Biography

Adrian Wanner, Pennsylvania State University

Wanner is Liberal Arts Professor of Slavic Languages and Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. He was born and raised in Switzerland and received his PhD in Russian literature from Columbia University in 1992. Wanner is the author of Baudelaire in Russia (1996), Russian Minimalism: From the Prose Poem to the Anti-Story (2003), and Out of Russia: Fictions of a New Translingual Diaspora (2011). In addition he has published six editions of Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian poetry in his German verse translation. His most recent book, a study of self-translation among Russian poets, is forthcoming in 2019.