Theater Art From a Bygone Age

Museum of private collectionsThe exhibit puts on display designs from the first half of the 20th century.
Ten years ago, art collector Valentin Solyanikov discovered a 1920s costume sketch of a variety dancer by Boris Erdman. He was fascinated by the work and it became the first piece in his collection, which is now the largest private collection of theatrical art in the country.

Today, Erdman’s momentous, Malevich-influenced drawing opens the “Artist in the Stage Mirror” exhibition of a hundred theatrical pieces by Russian artists from the first half of the 20th century.

“The Russian theater culture of the first half of the 20th century fascinates people now because the artists and directors of that era founded the modern Russian theater and made Russia’s art famous internationally,” said Tatyana Klim, the show’s co-curator. “The emphasis of this exhibit is on the great artists of the late 19th to the early 20th century, whom theater offered an opportunity for novel self-expression. Costumes and set designs allow us to see their talent from a different angle.”

The artists displayed at the show represent two distinct movements in Russian theatrical art: the “Mir Iskusstva” group, who worked for Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes” and cubo-futurist Russian avant-garde artists, who, among others, designed performances for Vsevolod Meyerhold and Yevgeny Vakhtangov.

The exhibition opens with intricate costumes, done by Leo Bakst for the Ballets Russes Monte Carlo shows, and costume sketches by Sudeikin, Domrachyov and Ayzenberg.

“The atrium helps the visitor understand the evolution of the Russian theatrical costume: from Sudeikin’s epicurean and voluptuous Comedia del Arte-influenced sketches for Yevreinov’s ‘Beglaya’ in 1913 to Aizenberg’s strikingly avant-garde sketches for Molier’s ‘Bourgeois Gentleman’ in 1930,” said Irina Duksina, the show’s other co-curator. “The latter sketches are especially outstanding considering that the Stalinist 1930s were characterized by increasingly conservative theater tendencies.”

The show continues with a series of set designs by members of “Mir Iskusstva” — Benua, Anisfeld, Dobuzshinsky, Sapunov and Golovin — whose works were admired by the Parisian public at the Diaghilev-organized exhibits in the early 1900s. A revolutionary immigrant to the United States, Boris Anisfeld’s set designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s “Queen Fyametta” and “Blue Bird” display vibrant colors and an impressionist touch, while the famous Soviet poster artist Alexei Radakov’s set designs for Donocetti’s “Don Pascuale” demonstrate how the artist was influenced by the playfulness of the 18th-century Rococo style.

Unique photos of a 1914 home theater production of “Venetian Madmen” for which Sudeikin designed costumes and the set are among the most recent and precious acquisitions of the collection, according to the show curators.

“Performed for and by the famously rich and art-loving members of the Nosov, Ryabushinsky and Girshman merchant families and their artistic friends, this one-time act is truly legendary, and so is Sudeikin’s design of the play,” said art historian Paola Volkova. “These exquisite photos not only show us such celebrated beauties of the time, as Girshman and Olga Glebova-Sudeikina in Venetian comedian outfits, but also introduce us to the aesthetically beautiful atmosphere of festivity that characterized that period in the arts and that was irretrievably lost in the U.S.S.R.”

Among other items from Solyanikov’s theater collection at the exhibit is a series of portraits of prominent theatrical figures. One of the show’s highlights is Eberling’s portrait of Tamara Karsavina, in which Diaghilev’s favorite ballet dancer is depicted not as a dancer but as a beautiful woman in a retro photograph.

“According to a legend, Eberling was in love with Karsavina the woman as well as the dancer. He took plenty of photographs of this remarkable woman, and one of them could have served as a sketch for the 1908 portrait,” Duksina said.

The journey through the history of the Russian theater ends with the 1940s and ’50s with Tyshler’s costume sketches for the Tashkent State Jewish Theater presenting a sharp contrast to the socialist realism that was predominant at the time. Criticized by the Soviet regime for his refusal to work on state propaganda and banned from the state-sponsored exhibitions, Tyshler had no other choice during that period but to apply his talent to theater works.

“The emphasis of this show is not on the individual great artists but on the emotional and artistic atmosphere of the epoch that united their often different styles,” said Volkova. “The early 20th-century artists brought unique artistic style to theater decorations and costumes, making those elements an indispensable part of the act, as opposed to the unpleasantly ascetic contemporary theater sets. In those days, Russian theater knew how to entertain and was embraced by international spectators.”

“Artist in the Stage Mirror” runs till Sept. 20. Museum of Private Collections. 10 Ulitsa Volkhonka. Metro Kropotkinskaya. Tel. 697-1610,