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Rodchenko Bedbug
Alexander Rodchenko
Costume design for Bedbug 1929
© A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Victory over the sun at the V & A

In collaboration with the Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum is showing radical designs by the Russian Avant-Garde between 1913 and 1933.

Review by Peter Sturm

The historical backdrop to this exhibition is dramatic: World War One, the fall of the Tsar, two revolutions, civil war and famine. Together with religion and nationality all canons and conventions were swept away in an unprecedented artistic outpuring.

Artists came out of their studios and many of them gathered in the theatres where they could collectively experiment and formulate their new cultural identity. Western cubist and symbolist ideas were already growing out of clubs and variétés and circuses too had a huge influence on the perception of the theatre.

Khostenko-Khostov, Design for Mystery-Bouffe
Alex Khostenko-Khostov, Design for Mystery-Bouffe 1921  
© A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Acrobats, clowns, musicians – even machines – appeared bringing physicality and depth to an audience that was ready for the ultimate spectacle. Constructivist stage designs aspired to an unlimited freedom in an unlimited space. The speed of it all was breathtaking.

Malevich Victory Over the Sun
Kazimir Malevich, Set design for Victory Over the Sun 1913
© A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Looking at the wild and colourful designs and models on display at the V & A, each production seemed to represent an entirely new era. Among the highlights are Kazimir Malevich’s sketches and lithographs for Victory Over the Sun (1915), Liubov Popova’s maquette for The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) as well as Alexander Rodchenko’s futuristic ensembles for The Bedbug (1929) alongside works by Vladimir Tatlin, Alexandra Exter, El Lissitzky and Varvara Stepanova.

Stepanova Tarelkins Death
Varvara Stepanova
Costume design for Tarelkin's Death 1922
© A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum

Popova’s set design, for example, was comprised of a mechanical mill, wheels and conveyor belts and provided a backdrop for Vsevolod Meyerhold to present his acting theory of biomechanics, which favoured gesture over psychological interpretation.

The items are displayed in a red dimly lit design resembling a heart with the viewers circulating through its corridors and chambers. A 35-minute track with original recordings of folk and propaganda songs, of military marches and the Internationale sets the ambience in which the artists worked.

The revolt against a falling wall – the waning Tsar – may have been a soft one. The real danger was still to come. With Stalin’s rise to power a slightly different script was written.

Russia’s avant-garde who never really claimed to be political was chained by Social Realism and its watchdogs. They were deemed formalist and bourgeois – their art inaccessible for the working class. Those who kept resisting were gambling with their lives.

The director giant Meyerhold was executed 1940, Les Kurbas shot, whilst Mayakovsky committed suicide. By 1933 the messianic role of the Russian theatre had come to a premature end. 

On the way back to South Kensington Station I wondered whether British theatre had been affected by this eastern nova. It certainly had a huge and lasting impact in the German theatre. In the 1920s Brecht, Piscator and company took much of their inspiration and developed it into their own style.

Highly recommended.

30 October 2014

Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933 at the V&A
runs until the 25th of January 2015. Open daily 10:00–17:45 and until 22:00 every Friday.
Entrance is free

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