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Constructivism and Russian Stage Design John E. Bowlt As we grow more familiar with the history of modern Russian stage design , we come to appreciate a point of great significance to the history of modern Russian theatre: that while the Diaghilev Ballets Russes were enjoying fabulous success in Paris and London just before and after the Great War (and their success was, above all, a visual one), the Russian stage at home was no less productive and no less innovative even though its purpose and scope were very different. In 1910 Paris audiences beheld the sensuous magnificence of Lev Bakst's designs for Scheherazade and were stunned by its vivid colors and occult symmetries. Three years later the St. Petersburg bohemia produced the "transrational" opera Victory Over the Sun and encountered wonderment and derision. Both pieces were Russian, both were essentially visual, but the differences between them were very great. In the history of stage design, Schererazade, like most of the Diaghilev productions, served as the conclusion to a preceding tradition; Victory Over the Sun was the introduction to a new era. In simple terms, the Ballets Russes acted as the grand culmination to that same decorative style which had inspired designers of the Renaissance, the Baroque, the Romantic and the Naturalist theatres. The fortunate elite who saw those memorable productions of 1909-14 (and who were themselves, so to speak, the decorative culmination to a passing social order) were captivated by the sheer ornamental force of Bakst and they were charmed by the pedantic accuracy of Alexandre Benois. The decor, as one critic said, functioned like a spider's web and any artistic unity between actor and spectator was achieved simply by shock and bewilderment. 1 When we look back at those "banquet years" with a more measured eye, we can see that the set and costume designers who worked for Diaghilev, at least before the 1920s, were still operating within the traditions of studio painting: they depicted episodes, they illustrated plots, they evoked a his62 torical time by ethnographical and archaelogical compilation. In other words, for Benois, Mstislav Dobujinsky, Sergei Sudeikin, even for Bakst, theatre was a narrative experience and their decorations, precisely, decorated it, remaining a two-dimensional art. Even when an artist possessed a sculptural and volumetrical perception, he was, more often than not, "tamed" by the conventions of the Ballets Russes. This happened, for example , in the case of Natalia Goncharova's Neo-Primitivist and Rayonist costumes for Liturgie (1914-15) and Rhapsodie Espagnole (1916). Certainly, Diaghilev's production of La Charte in 1927 was a Constructivist one and relied on a three-dimensional system both in decor and in choreography, but it did not derive from the internal tradition of the Ballets Russes. In fact, if we are to discover the real stimulus to the emergence of Constructivism in Russian stage design, then we must discount the Diaghilev era and look elsewhere-namely, to the theatres of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Moreover, if we are to trace the derivation of Constructivism in Russian stage design, then we must concern ourselves with that point at which stage design in Russia moved from surface to space. Examination of this process reveals a tradition normally overshadowed by the achievements of the Ballets Russes, i.e. an alternative tradition supported by the foremost members of the Russian avant-garde-Alexandra Exter, El Lissitzsky, Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, Alexandr Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Vladimir Tatlin, Georgii Yakulov, etc. Other interesting circumstances also emerge. For example, certain modem designers who are often categorized as "Russian" were, strictly speaking, not of Russian origin and their inspiration owed much to national traditions outside Russia: Yakulov's spontaneity and love of movement is more the product of his beloved Armenia than of Moscow or Paris; the curious dichotomies of sophistication and vulgarity are common to the Ukrainian mentality of Alexandr Bogomazov, Vadim Meller and Anatolii Petritsky. Differences and distinctions are to be found not only in individual and national resolutions of artistic problems posed by a given costume or decor, but also in the choice of medium. In the modern context Russian stage design denotes much more than ballet, opera and the theatre: the...


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