London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

The Russian Avant-Garde Theatre exhibition at the V&A Museum, London.

By David Franchi (credits Teatro Studio Grosseto, Italy)

Wednesday, 7th January 2015

Costume design for We, 1919-1920, Alexander Rodchenko © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Costume design for We, 1919-1920, Alexander Rodchenko © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

The exhibition “Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933” is very intriguing, at the V&A Museum, London.

The V&A Museum exhibition spans from 1913 until 1933 and it presents more than 150 radical designs for theatrical productions. During these two decades, Russian leading artists and designers worked together, producing one of the most renowned movements of the theatre history.

Despite the Bolshevik revolution and the First World War, the best artists of their times worked together, including Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Mayakovski, Alexander Rodchenko, Vladimir Tatlin, Alexandra Exter, El Lissitsky, Liubov Popova and Varvara Stepanova.

Russian Avant-Garde Theatre exhibition explores this extraordinary point in Russian culture during which artistic, literary and musical traditions experienced deep transformations.

The theatrical productions demanded innovative design solutions and benefitted from an unprecedented symbiosis of artists, musicians, directors and performers which characterized this Russian moment.

It was a sort melting pot of artists who worked in a variety of mediums, including painting, architecture, textiles, photography and graphics. These artists all together collaborated on theatrical productions and produced a great range of design which then was conveyed to wider artistic practices through the avant-garde.

This is a very unusual aspect of that period and, besides, not often something similar happened in the history, such a grouping of minds. Experimental artists and directors were pioneering and developing new concepts relating to time, movement, space, colour, light and body. They re-imaged classical and traditional dramatic subjects and applied their courageous ideas to the disciplines of poetry, cabaret, dance, opera, folklore, and circus.

The Russian Avant-Garde Theatre exhibition is a unique opportunity to explore the significance of this work to the art and theatre today.

The exhibition Russian Avant-Garde Theatre has recreated a sort of labyrinth to disorientate visitors and to recall the way the theatre stages were made by Deconstructivism. Visitors will be bombarded by sounds and colours.

The V&A Museum exhibition has not an organized itinerary. A first room is ‘War’. It is focused on the situation of the

Costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-1915, Vladimir Tatlin © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-1915, Vladimir Tatlin © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

first years, the First World War, the disastrous war results of the Tsarist Empire, the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the Bolshevik Revolution. It was the first mechanized war and this aspect was promptly assimilated and reworked by artists.

Another room is ‘Revolution’ which contemplates the impact of the falling of the Romanov family, and the end of the Russian Tsarist Empire, the birth of the USSR, and the rise to the power of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

‘Design’ is a room focused on the production of Russian avant-garde artists, who also tried to avoid going to the war zone. They innovated the tradition with their new theatrical approaches. The Russian Avant-Garde is now recognized as a stylistic concept defined by a complex synthesis of radical innovation. Many members of the movement were actually Ukrainians, Georgians, Belarusians, or Latvians. Differently defined as Futurists, Constructivist, and Suprematist, these artists applied their theoretical ideas to the more physical theatre. For Malevich, Popova, Rodchenko and Tatlin it was a way to experiment new ideas separated from the external world.

The room ‘Mirror to life’, gives an idea about the dramatic transformations of Russian society, in the beginning of the 20th Century, referring to Anton Chekov works and to Stanislavsky, who brought them on stage in Moscow. These transformations led to the 1917 revolution. The Russian theatre during the early Soviet Union was made of small amateur groups. Significant were the numerous Bleu Blouse troupes groups which innovated the tradition of the clownery.

Costume design for Sten'ka-Razi, 1923, Konstantin Vialov © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Costume design for Sten’ka-Razi, 1923, Konstantin Vialov © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

The room ‘Directors and Designers’ focuses on director Konstantin Stanislavsky, a great innovator, who used the psychological Realism on stage, which paved the way to his pupil Meierkhold. They elaborate a new system of biomechanics. This new acting style was paralleled by an impressive shift in the use of theatre stage and space.

The design and display in the room ‘Performing art’ reveals an extraordinary range of performance genres and media, showing how the Avant-Garde worked across disciplines and explored diverse ideas. Malevich experiments, Constructivists following forms and not function, Gamrekeli and Tatlin innovation of classics are the significant displays of this room.

An entire room is dedicated to ‘Meierkhold’. The life and work of Vsevolod Meierkhold symbolise the spirit and ambition of avant- garde movement in theatre before it came to a catastrophic end during the era of Stalin. He collaborated with many famous artists, including Mayakovski, Rodchenko, and Popova. After the Lenin death in 1924, the return of Realism obscured the avant-garde. Stalin established the Socialist Realism regime and many artists fled the country. Meierkhold refused to adopt the new style and stayed in the USSR. In 1938 his theatre was closed down, he was arrested in 1939 and in 1940 executed by firing squad. At the Russian Avant-Garde Theatre there is a panel running quotes, of which the one related to Meierkhold is: “The real tree next to the painted one seems crude and artificial because it evokes a sense of discord.”

The room of ‘Bio-mechanics’ explores this technique, starting from Meierkhold reaction against the Stanislavsky method of using realism and emotion in performance. Meierkhold believed that function was to act as a magnifying glass focusing on particular moments of reality, following Mayakovski idea: “Theatre is not a mirror but a magnifying glass”.

Meierkhold restructured plays into fragments and scenes that would engage audience rationally and not emotionally, as in Stanislavsky. He worked on the body of the actors accentuating the expressivity, looking to cause an audience reaction. The students of Meierkhold learnt from a wide variety of skills, such as gymnastics, dancing, juggling, and bio-mechanics which was an acting philosophy and a set of exercises that taught the actors the economy of movement, awareness of the body on space, and rhythmic expressiveness. Words were less important than body language, performances became more physical demonstration that psychological experience. Many of these productions have never been restaged and are unfamiliar to the British public.

The ‘Legacy’ is the title of the homonymous room. Today, the audacious spirit and energy of the artists, together with

Set design for Victory Over the Sun, 1913, Kazimir Malevich © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Set design for Victory Over the Sun, 1913, Kazimir Malevich © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

their aesthetic, is still influencing many, across disciplines and internationally. Their authority can be easily documented and continue to inspire contemporary artists and designers.

Works on display in Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933 were drawn primarily from the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Moscow) and St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. It is part of the Russian Year of Culture.

The display is curated in collaboration with the A.A Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow and supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture.

The exhibition designer is Professor Sergei Barkhin, formerly chief designer at the Bolshoi Theatre and Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre. The assistant exhibition designer is Vasilina Ovchinnikova, chief designer at the A.A. Bakhrushin State Theatre Museum.

The exhibition “Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933” is ongoing until the 25th January 2015 at the V&A Museum, South Kensington, London.

One comment on “The Russian Avant-Garde Theatre exhibition at the V&A Museum, London.

  1. Pingback: PR All-Star Designers Take on “Avant Garde” | Fashion Nexus

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