All Art Is Propaganda – UK Review Gushes For Communist Revolution-era At V&A

Posted: October 30, 2014 in Society and Culture

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Russian Avant-Garde Theatre, V&A, review: ‘convulsive’

For a brief period after the Russian Revolution, artists and directors combined to make theatre every bit as radical as society

Costume design by Vladimir Tatlin for ‘Life for the Tsar’ (1915)  Photo: © A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Anton Chekhov wasn’t just a playwright, but a doctor too. Indeed, I’ve often wished he was still around to prescribe me something, during the many bottom-numbing productions of his plays I’ve seen over the years. That said, his works have stood the test of time for a reason. His were meticulously naturalistic tales of the strains between different classes and political philosophies, as Russia edged, tantalisingly, towards the brink of revolution.

Chekhov is also our jumping-off point for the V&A’s new show, ‘Russian Avant-Garde Theatre 1913-1933’ – because what came after him was revolutionary in every sense. This is an exhibition as much about Russia itself in a time of convulsive change as it is about footlights and proscenium walls.

The innovations in Moscow and St Petersburg’s theatres actually began in 1913: four years before the Russian Revolution. Leaving Chekhov far behind, Victory over the Sun was a celestial, futuristic opera complete with libretto in the invented language of Zaum and backdrops by Malevich. The latter consisted of geometric shapes, and the artist’s pencil-sketched designs greet us upon entry.

Most notable was the shape he used to represent the brand new cosmos: a black square. Revisited by Malevich many times in the coming years, this would become a transcendental icon for abstraction, not to mention a landmark of 20th century art.

Vladimir Tatlin, meanwhile, is represented by his Rayonist designs for a production of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman: the point ostensibly being that art preceded politics, when it came to seismic change. That said, 1917, year of the October Revolution, was still of momentous import.

Culture was now assigned a utopian task: that of refashioning consciousness, reforming sensibility, remaking the world. Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin’s Commissar of Public Enlightenment, gave state support to the avant-garde, as a way of sweeping away the artistic mores of the old regime.

One of the key, new figures of Soviet theatre was Vsevolod Meyerhold. He preferred plays with fragmentary plots, advocating a physically expressive form of acting. His teachings were grounded in gymnastics and the circus rather than bourgeois Chekhovian realism and anticipated the physical theatre by modern companies such as Complicité and Shared Experience.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the Communist political settlement, Soviet theatre was a collaborative affair. Artists were as important as actors and directors, and their sets were integral. One of the star exhibits is a surviving model of Lyubov Popova’s set for a Meyerhold comedy called The Magnanimous Cuckold. The mechanistic construction of grids, ladders, cogs and rotating wheels offered a prime setting for the tale of a miller who suspects his wife of cheating and follows her potential lovers all about town.

Comprising 150 works by 45 artists, the exhibition is largely drawn from the collection of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum in Moscow, much of it never seen in Britain before. If it’s superficially surprising that the Ballets Russes don’t get a mention, that’s because Diaghilev’s company never actually performed in Russia.

Perhaps less excusable is the fact that material objects such as props, memorabilia and costumes are eschewed, denying us what might have been a visual feast. Instead the focus is on sketches of stage sets and watercolours of costume designs (even if the red walls and soundtrack featuring Russian folk songs do add a certain atmosphere to one’s visit).

What most struck me about the show was the number of visual artists who turned their hand to theatre. Pretty much every major artist you can think of from Soviet Russia, from El Lissitsky to Kandinsky, worked at some point on the stage.

Even the film-maker Sergei Eisenstein pops up with a claustrophobic, Cubist-like set design for a production of Macbeth. Why? Because Russia’s artists (a point not really made in the exhibition) looked beyond painting canvases to the design of anything and everything that was needed anew in their revolutionary country: be it aircraft hangars or workers’ uniforms. And theatre stages fell into that category too.

Costume design by Alexander Rodchenko for ‘The Bedbug’ (1929) © A. A. Bakhrushin Theatre Museum

By the late Twenties, however, the climate was changing. Stalin’s fondness for Socialist Realism meant the days of experimentation were numbered. Perhaps the final hurrah was Vladimir Mayakovsky’s production of satire The Bed Bug in 1929, complete with designs by the Constructivist heavyweight, Alexander Rodchenko. Its protagonist is cryogenically frozen – in a remarkably modern-looking spacesuit – until 1979: the year, apparently, when the perfect Communist society will have been achieved. That he awakes to find things far from ideal was an implicit comment on Stalin’s failings.

The obvious flaw of this exhibition is that it can’t recreate any of the thrill these productions once had – nor, with the limited space in the V&A’s Theatre and Performance galleries, does it attempt a decent-sized set reconstruction either.

Yet, the tale it tells engages throughout – and ends poignantly. Mayakovsky would commit suicide in 1930, while Meyerhold was arrested and executed not long afterwards. It was their legacy to have been part of a stunning, if tragically brief, revolution that fused the arts and politics like never before.



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