Russian Avant-Garde Theatre, War, Revolution, Design

It was a time of change. It was a time of hope. In those first thirty years or so of the twentieth-century the artistic world moved in tandem, and at times with the same pulse as the political movements that fought for radical change.

In painting Cézanne and then Picasso and Braque changed the way we looked at surfaces, Vlaminck and Signac, in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Gauguin revolutionised, in their own individual way, our perception of colour.

In music Schoenberg had taken Liszt and Mahler to their logical conclusion and torpedoed tonality, and with it melody as it was understood as well as harmony. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring did the same for rhythm.  All these artists and many more had overthrown the old order in art.

But only in Russia the dream of establishing a totally new society became a real possibility. And it was there, in those turbulent early years of the century, that the most radical artistic revolutions took place. And in particular they took place in precisely in that art form that required group co-operation and directly addressed the audience – theatre and later the cinema.

It was to be art of the people for the people. As the curators of Russian Avant-Guard Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913-1933 at London’s V&A point out, this was one of the characteristics distinguishing the Russian scene from all others.  Virtually all the artists, regardless of their other artistic fields of interest, worked in theatre.

Here we encounter the radical painter Kazimir Malevich, the photographer Alexander Rodchenko, constructivists Vladimir Tatlin, and Liubov Popova, film director Sergei Eisenstein, and composers Shostakovich and Gliere.

New types of theatre production required innovative design solutions and artists from a variety of mediums, painting, architecture, textiles, photography, painting, and design came together to create a rich tapestry in the theatres. These in turn influenced every art form not just in Russia but elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Also, as the curators point out, at this time women had equal representation to men. In addition to Popova, the exhibition shows works by Alexandra Exter, Varvara Stepanova, and Tatiana Bruni. Moreover, the art and theatre world was not just confined to Russian artists, but the Georgian Irakill Gamrekeli, Belarusians, Latvians and Ukrainians.

Here, on walls painted the vermillion red of change, the red of revolution, you see the incredible variety of designs employed, the daring use of colour and line in the costumes, the bold designs, the application of industrial imagery in the scenery, indeed the totally new way of linking clothes, movement, music, and background as a totality.

Malevich is presented by sketches and lithographs for the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, premiered in 1913 in St Petersburg, where the costumes are made of contrasting patches of colour, using the beautiful clashing of black, white and red in large patches –  and the backdrops of cloth sheets painted in monochrome graphic forms.

One such is a large black and white square divided diagonally, a forerunner of his iconoclastic Black Square of 1915, a work which embodies the aesthetics of the Suprematist movement. On show are also his voluminous creations in bold colours which reshape the human figure.

As a member of Malevich’s art group Supremus from 1914-1916, Liubov Popova contributed to a number of exhibitions. Her involvement in theatre design is presented by her amazingly dynamic costumes for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and a maquette for a set model for the The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) performed at the radical Meyerhold Theatre.

Popova’s set design comprised a mechanical mill, wheels and conveyor belts, in front of which Meyerhold (the curators use the Russian spelling Meyerkhold – there is no ‘h’ in the Cyrillic alphabet) could present his acting theory of biomechanics, which favoured gesture and movement over the representation of emotions.

In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, with music by Glière, Isaak Rabinovich rejected the traditional set by installing a unified architectural installation to match the structure of the performance replacing the traditional crank-and-pulley system. Elsewhere, the Georgian Irakli Gamrekeli experimented with sets with multipurpose usage.

Artist and photographer Rodchenko collaborated with the innovative theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold on a number of productions attempting, successfully, to represent in costume and scenery Meyerhold’s system of making the actors body more physically expressive. He also worked with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on the bed bug (1929) for which he designed radically futurist ensembles featuring wide silhouettes and breathing apparatus to convey men from later decades.

Nicolai Musatov working with choreographer Kasian Goleizovsky designed clothes using taut geometric forms and limited colour range that allowed the free movement required by free dance or danse plastique.

Sergei Eisenstein’s costume design for the 1921 comic operetta Being Nice to Horses is both funny and futuristic. Eisenstein’s creations appear again in the costume and stage design for Macbeth. Alexandra Exter’s stage and costume design for Salome (1917) and for the pioneering as well as entertaining 1924 science fiction film Aelita: Queen of Mars are also on display here.

This is a unique collection that has never before been shown in the UK and gives a wonderful insight into the amazingly creative and exciting years, the numerous collective efforts to radically change our perceptions, before Socialist Realism all but killed innovation.

Mohsen Shahmanesh

Works on display in Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933 are drawn primarily from the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Moscow) and St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. It will be on exhibition at the V&A museum in London until 25 January 2015.

Read more reviews by Mohsen Shahmanesh here

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