Bolt and Russian Avant-garde Theatre: War Revolution and Design (WWI)

By Paul Bench

A flowering of interdisciplinary creativity and renegade attitude characterise the theatrical production, costume and set design of the Russian Avant-garde in the early part of the twentieth century. Parallel exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and GRAD gallery showcase this aspiration for the new, embodied by original costumes, drawings and set designs.

The international influences of Cubism, Futurism and Constructivism are evident in these small and precisely crafted illustrations, costumes and maquette  of theatrical sets. The angular forms of represented bodies, clothes and background begin to merge in the fragile gouache and pencil works on paper. This forms an aesthetic coherence which exercises the central tenet of practitioners that these drawings should be aids to the theatrical performance,  assisting the performer to realise more fully the dramatic intention.

The GRAD exhibition, curated by Elena Sudakova, Alexandra Chiriac and Elena Grushvitskaya is formed from a small collection of costumes and many illustrations specifically produced for Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1931 ballet ‘The Bolt’. This ballet is primarily significant because it marks a moment, as one of the last productions to be performed in this spirit before an enforced realism obliterated such challenges to tradition. Each illustration, as in the V&A’s exhibition, establishes a theatrical archetype, a recognisable character that enables a direct and accessible understanding of performance by a wide audience. The aims of this avant-garde theatre were not of emotional engagement, but of explanation and action, the performer becoming a more central focus than the narrative. The charm of these individual characterisations is considerable, whilst some of their titles remind the viewer of their troubled origins. In part such work is manifest resistance, both in creative and political terms. The influence of the First World War and industrialisation prompted a shift in artistic paradigms, and preoccupations with machine led visions of the future and forms of representation. Such progressive work was later regarded as pernicious and was suppressed. The energy inherent in the images seems to reflect the restless agitation of this precarious position.

The V&A’s exhibition is curated in collaboration with the A.A.Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow and supported by the Russian Ministry of Culture. It encompasses the work of several influential costume designers and highlights the significance of artists such as Malevich, Rodchenko and Popova, all of whom have also been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern. I t is clear through the curatorial narrative that process was as important as product in the Russian avant-garde. A focus was placed on collaboration with disparate disciplines uniting and practitioners working outside their usual spheres, forming a cadre through which a new incarnation of the theatrical tradition could emerge. The theatre, whether in the performance of traditional or new material, was seen as an important arena for the exercise of these new modes of thought. Encompassing a mass audience, movement, clothes and interior set designs, these often unrealised productions can be seen as representing wider aspirations for society in miniature, whilst also providing an important interdisciplinary format for co-operation and unity between creative fields.

The mostly original costumes at GRAD alongside photographs of the performers, and the video and maquette of the V&A, go some way to narrowing the distance between the drawing or design and the reality of the performance, particularly as some illustrations are so purposefully flat, abstracted and geometric as to form their own reality divorced from the human body. In some cases there is delight to be found in finding the design for the character of ‘aesthetic young lady’ alongside the realised costume. The appeal of these characters and the tangibility of the costumes creates a mobile visual dialogue in which the viewer becomes involved. This connection and the ethos of performativity was enhanced by the opening of the GRAD show’s inclusion of performers replicating pose and gesture from the images on display in a gradually evolving tableaux vivant, orchestrated by artist Paul Kindersley. Here again, the importance of costume is emphasised with performers split into colour groups, with elements of choreography as well as improvisation.

These twin exhibitions convey something of the urgency, aesthetic and ideology of their times as geographically situated. While perhaps not possible to contextualise this work further within these exhibitions, it would be interesting to discern a legacy of these important works in contemporary theatre and a more generalised culture beyond their original intention. Both exhibitions perhaps exemplify a nascent interest in Russia’s artistic and creative heritage beyond its borders and the importance of international collaboration within the arts. They also were able to successfully conjoin and represent the varied disciplines that constituted the avant-garde’s output within a curatorial aesthetic that promoted continuity for the viewer and visually reflected exhibit content.

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