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Russian Avant-Garde Stage Design Exhibit Travels in the US. HaroldB. Segel THE STUNNING TRAVELING exhibition of Russian avant-garde stage design of the period 1913-1935 was first shown in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor from November 1991 through February 16, 1992. Thereafter , it toured New York from April 14, 1992 through June 13, 1992, and Los Angeles from August 25, 1992 through November 2, 1992 (Theatre in Revolution: RussianAvant-Garde Stage Design 1913-1935, ed. Nancy Van Norman Baer. Thames and Hudson: The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1991). The exhibition could never have come about without the love of theatre, passion for collecting, and generosity of a Russian capitalist, a textile manufacturer named Alexei Alexandrovich Bakhrushin (1869-1929). Merchants and capitalists like Bakhrushin fare badly in Russian literature both before and especially after the revolution. They are almost universally portrayed as egomaniacal and exploitive; Gorky's novels and plays (Enemies , for example) are typical. Yet the extraordinary flowering of the arts in turn-of-the-century Russia would surely not have been possible without the contributions of the Bakhrushins, Morozovs, and Mamontovs (to mention the most prominent capitalists-patrons). An exhibition such as the present heightens public awareness of this as well. Thanks to the passion of Alexei Bakhrushin whose largesse also founded schools, hospitals, and orphanages, a personal and remarkable trove of stage memorabilia grew into the most important Russian theatrical collection . It was first opened to the public in 1894 and two years later a 57 portion of Bakhrushin's new Moscow mansion was set aside for his collection and made accessible to the public. In 1913 Bakhrushin transferred his collection to the Russian Academy of Sciences, an arrangement which was allowed to continue after the Soviet regime was established. The collection is now known as the Bakhrushin Central State Theatrical Museum and is located in Moscow. The exhibition itself and the articles by several contributors to the catalogue chronicle the impressive achievements of Russian avant-garde stage design in the period 1913-1935. The chronological boundaries are anything but arbitrary. The later date marks the end of the first year of existence of the new Soviet aesthetic creed of "socialist realism" which was adopted at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers and made obligatory for all Russian writers and artists. Once dogmatically in place as the requisite style for Russian artistic expression, the robust and variegated avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s was choked to death. Besides its unpredictability and inevitable elitism-characteristic certainly of avant-garde art wherever it develops-the broad experimentation and innovation in Russian art in the first decade and a half after the October Revolution was also associated in the minds of Party doctrinaires with the barely tolerated and subsequently villified NEP or New Economic Policy (1921-1928), a partial and limited reinstitution of free market practices in order to jumpstart a war-shattered fledgling Soviet economy. Once the Party had achieved a consolidation of its power a decade after the Civil War and the war with Poland in 1920, and some measure of stability had been restored to the economy, NEP could be dismantled and along with it the various liberties released by it, above all the artistic. Socialist realism has had understandably few enthusiasts in the West or the Soviet Union and the whole idea is viewed now with disdain. However, a provocative plea for a somewhat revisionist attitude toward it -at least with respect to twentieth-century Russian theatrical history-is made by John E. Bowlt at the very end of his catalogue contribution entitled "The Construction of Caprice: The Russian Avant-Garde Onstage." Bowlt writes: "One result of our inquiry may well be that we begin to question our blind enthusiasm for the avant-garde and mollify our traditional censure of socialist realism, the cruel, but eminently theatrical movement that replaced and destroyed it." Bowlt is hardly out to rehabilitate socialist realism nor is he calling for a drastic reappraisal of the achievements of the early twentieth-century avant-garde. His remarks are intended to remind us-and the reminder can only be regarded as salutary-that enthusiasm...


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