Russian Avant-Garde Theatre heads to V&A
Our sneak peak of this month's much-anticipated V&A Avant-Garde Theatre exhibition.
Over 150 Russian avant-garde designs from the world of theatre and performance are heading to London this autumn. The artworks form part of a new display at the Victoria & Albert museum in October. The diverse exhibition ranges from costume designs to film footage, from Malevich’s revolutionary set design to Eisenstein’s innovations in cinema.
Russian Avant-Garde Theatre will feature key works of Russian creative design produced between 1913 and 1933, a cataclysmic period in Russian history. Created over the course of two decades, marked by the Russian Revolution and the First World War, these works represent an extraordinary point in Russian culture. Leading artists and designers challenged traditional practice and created innovative designs and radical theatrical productions, amidst a climate of international conflict and domestic political upheaval.
Fighting for a new world
The Russian artistic avant-garde witnessed a surge in productivity which spanned from its inception in Tsarist Russia to its eventual suffocation under Stalin’s repressive regime. The display’s curator, Kate Bailey, draws a clear line between the era’s political upheaval and creative boom: “At the turn of the century, Chekhov’s plays were already discussing the transformation that was taking place in society. Then, within 10 years, this extraordinary explosion of creativity was happening against a backdrop of revolution and war. These artists were fighting for a new society, a new world”.
During this era of war and revolutionary fervour Russian art began to extend its reach beyond the traditions of representational painting. Radical artists such as Kandinsky and Lissitsky began to experiment with colour and form in painting, resulting in pure abstraction. They also turned their talents to new artistic arenas. “Theatre allows for more expression,” Bailey said. “It’s an imaginary space to explore ideas, so artists like Malevich could really push their boundaries, reconstructing light, space, movement and colour in a visionary way”.
From the famous to the lesser-known
The V&A exhibition features a wide array of artists – some names, such as Rodchenko ( set designs for We and The Bedbug below), Malevich and Tatlin will already be familiar to British audiences. The display also includes many artists whose works are not well-known outside of Russia.
One example is Exter, an influential theatrical designer known for her designs and innovative set constructions. Her designs for The Kamerny Theatre’s 1917 production of Salome are certain to be a highlight, along with an alien costume design for the 1924 Soviet space travel film Aelita: Queen of Mars. Other featured artists include Gamrekeli, a founding father of Georgian avant-garde design, and Meyerhold, a pioneering Russian theatre director. Many of these works have never been seen abroad and survived through the turbulent years in Russia after the 1917 Revolution. “The designs featured in the display were produced at a difficult time, so it is quite remarkable that the items have survived”, Bailey said.
Malevich is currently the subject of another major exhibition at Tate Modern which showcases his infamous work The Black Square. The V&A will exhibit the artist’s sketches and lithographs for the 1923 Futurist Opera, Victory Over the Sun (see image below). Other key pieces include a set maquette by Popova for The Magnanimous Cuckold and costume designs by Aleksander Rodchenko.
The V&A and the Bakhrushin Museum
This exhibition is a collaboration with Moscow’s A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum and forms part of a series of collaborative projects with Russia, ranging from mutual loans to co-curated shows. “Russian history and Russian design are naturally very important to the V&A, as a world-class museum of art and design,” Bailey said.
Earlier this year, the UK government pulled out of the UK-Russia Year of Culture in response to the increasing tensions in Ukraine, but this has not deterred Bailey or her colleagues: “The V&A has always embraced cultural dialogue. We have been working with the Bakhrushin Museum since 2012, and our dialogue remained the same– that’s how you make these projects work… in the end it comes down to individuals and cultural institutions to make sure the work is preserved, no matter what the political situation”.
Theodora Clarke is Editor of Russian Art & Culture and Director of Russian Art Week in London.