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

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


This display of Russian Avant-Garde art, born of revolution, which flourished during the birth of the Soviet Union, clearly reveals the effects of politics on art.

The 150 set and costume designs on display were created between 1913 and 1933 during the time of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. They represent a point in Russian culture when artistic, literary and musical tradition went through a major transformation. Innovative designs were needed for new types of theatrical production. Never before had artists, musicians, directors and performers been in such a successful symbiosis. They collaborated on theatrical productions using painting, architecture, textiles, photography and graphics which resulted in rich and varied designs. For many designers the theatre led to wider artistic activity later in their lives. It was a challenging and exciting period to be an artist. There was a new Russian State and new art forms were to be part of it.

The exhibits, vibrant with colour and vitality reflect the rejection of tradition and search for new ideas to support the new state. Change was the order of the day.

Kate Bailey, Curator of the Display, remarked that the Avant-Garde Movement in Russia was unlike those developing in Germany, France and Italy because it happened under the shadow of revolution, the birth of the Soviet Union, the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin. She referred to the 1913 to 1933 period as, “extraordinary,” saying that there was something about the way theatre was an imaginary space that encouraged cross disciplines of work. She referred to it as, “an engine room for ideas.” She pointed out that Russia was isolated after the war and became its own cultural centre with separate hubs developing with no contact with other cities.

The display is formed in collaboration with the A.A Bakhrushin State Central Museum in Moscow and the exhibits are primarily from there and from the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music; many of them are displayed for the first time in Britain. The display is supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture and this is the Russian Year of Culture.

The Exhibition opens with Kazimir Malevich’s design work for theatre and incorporates  sketches and lithographs for the futurist opera, Victory over the Sun, which opened in St Petersburg in 1913.  The backdrop designs and cloth sheets printed with monochrome graphic forms, are striking. It is intriguing to see the design for one scene is a large black and white square divided diagonally: This is a seed for Malevich’s future non representational painting and is the origin of his Suprematist movement. His voluminous creations reshape the human figure with his wonderful use of bold colour – remember how innovative this was at the time.

The designs of Alexander Rodchenko, a prodigious artist and photographer are also on display.  For Vladimir Mayakovsky’s satirical play, The Bedbug, Rodchenko produced futuristic designs which included wide silhouettes and breathing apparatus; imagining the men of the future. He favoured geometric form and bright colours. This is noticeable in the costume designs for We which was produced in a Prolekult theatre and eventually banned by the authorities.

Liubov Popova was a contemporary of Malevich and his set model  for the Magnanimous Cuckold, a 1922 farce by Fernand Crommelynck put on at radical Meyerhold Theatre is on display. The design included a mechanical mill, wheels and a conveyor belt in the backdrop. This supported the views of the Director, Vsevolod Meyerhold who considered that the theory of biomechanics was more important than psychological interpretation. Directors were demanding.

Among other celebrated names there are examples of Aleksandra Ekter’s designs for opera, ballet and plays. You will notice her work is austere and has an innovative use of lighting with less emphasis on conventional structures. It is interesting to see her model set of the stage and costume designs for Salome performed at the Kamerny Theatre in 1917. Her designs for aliens for the 1924 Soviet Science fiction film, Aelita: Queen of Mars are impressive.

Sergei Eisenstein’s work is also displayed. He was a renowned film director who pioneered the use of montage film. These include costume and set design for the 1921 Macbeth performed in Vasily Polenov Theatre ,Moscow.

The exhibition seeks to explore this extraordinary period of Russia’s history and the effect it had on art. It has succeeded. The display does not reveal a mild change of style, but the arrival of true innovation with complete disregard for earlier tradition. It celebrates a new state with designs of verve, joy and colour. Artists designed for the future.

It was reassuring that old friends like Macbeth and Salome were remembered.


The Victoria and Albert Museum

Theatre and performance room 104   Leighton Room 102

Until January 5th 2015

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