Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design 1913-1933

The V&A's new exhibition 'Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design 1913-1933' will enlighten those even with a knowledge of the subject. It contains work by numerous artists and designers from Russia and the former USSR; a great many who's work is relatively unfamiliar in the UK. It is running now until 25th of January next year, in collaboration with the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum.

On display are over 150 designs (and other supporting material) that were produced during this period of great social and political upheaval. Such a flourish of creative activity is extraordinary; even in a century characterised by change and innovation. Consequently, the exhibition sets out to carefully contextualise the achievements and legacy of the artists and designers who's works are on show. In this it is successful.

Although the Russian pre-war economy was the fastest growing in Europe, much of the country was backward and almost in a feudal state. It was a country in transition and new forms were needed to express new ideas and voice concerns. The significance of the visual; in terms of both the still and moving image, was paramount in Russia. With little literacy amongst the majority of the population, the visual spectacle acquired a special status. In Orthodoxy for example, ritual and the theatre of the church; as well as the Ikon, played a pivotal role in the connection to God and state. The Liturgy and the veneration of saints was an all encompassing visual experience; as was theatre and later on film.

The ripples made by the technical achievements of industrial societies like Britain, America and Germany were felt acutely in less developed countries like Tsarist Russia. To some of the Intelligentsia, technical evolution was seen as a component; part of a deeper spiritual awakening or metaphysical evolution of the human being. For others, it was seen as something to react against and escape from. In Zamyatin's 'We' (1924), the ultimate fusion of the whole world into a unified 'one state' about to conquer the cosmos, embodies the ambitions, desires and dark premonitions of a generation of idealists.

The idea of creating art that could be a portal to (or blueprint for) some kind of new abstract harmony is central to the work of Kazimir Malevich, and this exhibition starts with his sketches and lithographs for the opera 'Victory Over the Sun' (which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1913). The monumental and archetypal forms of the costume designs and set reflect the artists' development of Suprematism; an attempt to convey 'pure artistic feeling' untethered from objective representation.

The square set is diagonally divided into two triangles of black and white. This is not to be considered just in terms of symbolic opposites like 'night and day' or 'good' and 'evil', but rather as absolutes of an abstract reality: a 'reality' of spiritual harmony and renewal.

On this stage, the opera's complex and mystical figures are contorted into bold geometric and superhuman forms. Elements of which have been repeated ever since in modern art and design. New colourful reproductions of the original designs vividly demonstrate their dynamism and power: one can imagine the impact that they must have had on contemporary audiences.

'Victory Over the Sun' reflected an increasing preoccupation amongst progressive artists who were searching for a 'purer' form of language and synthesis. They embraced the abstract and symbolic, opening up new and uncharted territories. In 1915, Malevich would create 'Black Square' (a black square on a white background and nothing else). This was seen as a 'Zero Degrees' moment in order to reorientate and invigorate our perceptions of the world through art, so as to attain a greater sense of awareness.

Malevich's work was utopian and anti-materialist in intention. In contrast, we see the work of the Constructivists (a derogatory term he actually coined). Amongst other points of differing principle, they viewed Malevich's ideas as being too focused on the metaphysical requirements of the individul, rather than their practical needs. One of the ideals of Constructivism was to rally artists to work towards a social unity for the betterment of society. Thus, they rejected the idea of individual artistic expression in favour of collective activity and focused their creative talents on the applied arts and integrating higher aesthetic values into peoples' everyday lives.

Alexander Rodchenko was prolific as an artist and photographer, but I had never seen his theatrical designs. His work is characterised by a bold yet sophisticated graphic directness and understanding of the possibilities of photomontage, which he effortlessly fused to communicate clear objectives. We see this same clarity and drama in his theatre work; designs that still look fresh and original after nearly a century.

However, what left a lasting impact on me were his disturbing costumes for Mayakovsky's play 'The Bedbug' from 1929. This satirical work imagines communism in the 50 years after it was written. The overall-clad sleeper-figure wearing breathing equipment I found really haunting.

This exhibition also shows Vladimir Tatlin's unrealised mysterious designs for Wagner's 'The Flying Dutchman' from 1915-18. These costumes and set are drawn with an exquisite economy of line and directness of expression. Many of the designs on display are derived from exaggerated geometric shapes that echo those in Russian Folk Art (with its emphasis on bold, simple form and caricature). Mixed with an element of satire, one can see this in Tatlin's 1913-15 designs for 'Life for the Tsar'.

Additionally to be seen in much of the work here is an eclectic take on Cubo-Futurism; in terms of rhythmic repetition of forms, simultaneity, bold blocks of colour and angular geometries. We also see the idea of human-being-as-machine (made into a machine or even as a cog in the machine). This is interesting in terms of Tatlins' popular image as the Arch 'Constructivist'. Take a look at the collage 'Tatlin at Home' by Dadaist Raoul Hausman (1920) and you'll get what I mean.

Artists and designers like Alexandra Exter, Vera Mukhina, Moisei Levin, Nikolai Sosunov, Liubov Popova, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg are shown here to have possessed extraordinary talent, promise and ambition. Highlights of the show for me included Isaak Rabinovich's set for 'Don Carlos' from 1922, Nina Aizenberg's costume designs and Nikolai Musatov's designs for 'freaks' from 1927.

Examples of Sergei Eisenstein's work for the theatre are also shown in this exhibition. Particularly mysterious and striking is his costume design for the Doorkeeper from 'Macbeth' (1922). Interestingly, he had an interest in Japanese Kabuki and it shows. As for Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, their posters would later provide design templates for both Kraftwerk and Franz Ferdinand.

Theatre of course is in three dimensions, communicating directly to the audience and looking at the static designs in two dimensions makes one want to see the actual costumes on stage and in action. Fortunately, we have some film footage of re-staged performances and films from the period.

Iakov Protazanov's 1924 film 'Aelita' was loosely based on Alexei Tolstoy's novel and starred the striking Yuliya Solntseva. The costumes by Exter, Rabinovich and Nadezhda Lamanova were obviously a later influence on James Whale's 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935). Also in terms of influence, take a look at the set designs of a factory by Tatiana Bruni.

For all its faults, the Soviet system promised (in principle if not in reality) to liberate women from conventional roles and archtypes of 'Mother' or 'Wife'. Even before the revolution, a growing middle class offered some possibility other than domesticity; however limited. Some women did play an active role in the Russian Revolution, but alas none had the pivotal status of say Rosa Luxumburg in Germany.

"Theatre is not a mirror but a magnifying glass" Vladimir Maiakovskii

Liubov Popova's set model for Fernand Crommelynck's 'The Magnanimous Cuckold' of 1922 resembles a clockwork mechanism. Like a Cubist painting, letters are fragmented and the overall design alludes to Constructivist principles. It was produced for Vsevolod Meierkhold's Theatre so as to present his acting concept of 'Bio-Mechanics'. In contrast to the teachings of Stanislavsky and it's emphasis on naturalism in performance, Meierkhold's productions were expressive, poetic and participatory affairs. His work required that the actors physically accentuated, projected and aligned their bodies within the theatrical space and in relation to the set; thus acknowledging the artifice of the medium and expressing concepts, rather than their 'internal' emotions. This added emphasis on form, design and rhythm enhanced the 'composition' and subsequently increased the dramatic impact. In terms of multimedia, Meierkhold was also ahead of his time in using film and montage on stage. This exhibition showcases his work to a UK audience who may be unfamiliar with it.

Perhaps it's stating the obvious, but throughout the exhibition, I couldn't put out of my mind the various impacts of World War 1, the Civil War, mass famine and Stalin's collectivisation which devastated vast areas of Russia and the USSR. And in the terrors to come after 1933, nobody was untouched. Stalin effectively smashed the Avant-Garde in Russia and all the promise on display, leading those who created it into obscurity, exile or compromise. In the USSR in general, experiment was shelved in favour of propaganda and 'The Cult of Personality'.

This is an exhibition that requires a commitment from the viewer in order to spend time absorbing the details behind the work and it's creators. Definitely worthwhile and a show to which I have already returned.

(C) Gideon Hall 2014

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