Having visited and enjoyed the Tate Modern Malevich exhibition it was great to see an extension of this with a solely theatre focused exhibition of work from the Russian avant-guard period. It featured a huge number of his contemporaries, working in Russia during this volatile time, many of whom were new and unfamiliar. The space extended beyond what is normally allocated to the temporary theatre gallery and appeared highly comprehensive, consisting of not just designs, but original model boxes, contemporary video reconstructions of shows and projections. Although presented to some extent in chronological order, the clear development of time, regime and work was less apparent than the Malevich exhibition and it took a few walks round to grasp the also thematic approach to the display.
Kate Bailey the curator gave us a guided tour of the exhibition which highlighted key artists and exhibits, history and context but interestingly also information on how the work was gatherer and the exhibition designed. The work was largely drawn from the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Moscow) and St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. It seemed this process and collaboration had been, at times a challenging process but these hidden insights were really interesting. For example the Russians had suggested displaying the work against a backdrop of rusted tin, demonstrating the history of this work but also potentially hinting at the under valued nature of this work in Russia. Instead the exhibition was presented in a very clean, contemporary style with bright red walls, a bold black centre line and LED light panels featuring sayings from many of the artists. The quotes themselves were really interesting but the use of such a contemporary design in the LED’s didn’t really match the historical work. One of the things often so shocking about the Russian avant guard movement is how contemporary the work still looks to a modern eye. It is always important to remember this work is actually nearly a hundred years old and made in a period before digital technology, instead a great time of industrial, mechanical, kinetic, political and social development.
The model boxes on display were the real highlight of the exhibition, having real objects which have survived through a turbulent history, really demonstrate theatre of the time. Insight stories into how these model boxes were found in dusty stores added to their magic, many of which had to be restored and in some instances made safe due to in one case the presence of asbestos and a vintage lighting system. One of the key models was Popova’s set design for director Vsevolod Meyerhold production of The Magnanimous Cuckold, featuring strong industrial elements such as wheels, ladders and platforms. Many of the designs and models were similarly bold and highly industrial, linking to developments of the time.
The costume/character designs were often similarly abstract and seemingly impossible to create. Figures constructed from bold shapes and lines generated in graphic or architectural styles were highly innovative and striking. These constructivist images used bold colours, graphics, photo collage and geometric shapes. With both the costumes and set designs it often begged the question of materials and resources available at the time to create such structures and abstract images. Some costumes for example did not even feature a typical human form or some set designs indicated lighting or mood rather than solid material. With limited resources available both in technological advances and availability due to shortages and rationing it is hard to imagine how many of these impressive images could ever have been realised.
In discussion the issue of roles and collaboration between the artists, designers, writers, actors and directors was debated. With such striking designs and abstract ideas it was apparent that the traditional role of the autonomous director was unlikely and instead a collaborative approach was adopted. It seems this group of creatives, at the heart of the cultural revolution were in the main a close knit group, working together and across cities. They were pioneers of contemporary design, far ahead of other western cultures and yet in the context of history, we know this period was short lived. That so many of these ground breaking artists led tragic lives, where so many ideas went unrealised, unrecognised and later oppressed and expelled.
On display were a huge number of female artists, and the equality in the work is a huge tribute to the social advances the revolution helped to inspire. It is interesting how the dismantling of the structured state regime through revolution was able to filter through society at least among these radical thinkers. Lenin's revolution supported cultural development and even used it as a mechanism for political propaganda. This could be seen through the costume designs from the Blue Blouse theatre, which was a pop up style, touring theatre across Russia, funded by the state to demonstrate contemporary thinking. Hugely patriotic to the Lenin state and yet Kate stressed that those artists involved truly believed in their work which was less abstract than much on display, but still bold, striking and clearly a huge part of the avant guard movement.
An inspiring exhibition clearly demonstrating a period of true ambition, hope and forward thinking, which was apparent it every work on display.
Image: El Lissitzky: Costume design for the Sportsmen from the portfolio “Die Plastische Geschtaltung der Elektro-Mechanischen Schau “Sieg über die Sonne” for Victory over the Sun (unrealised), 1923. Lithograph on paper. St. Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music, St. Petersburg