Russian stage design by The World of Art artists. All World of Art members were strongly attracted to the theater. Dobuzhinsky and Benois, Lanceray and Bilibin, Roerich and Somov, Kustodiev and Bakst, Vrubel and Korovin, Golovin and Vasnetsov are among them. Much later, in his memoirs, Benois admitted that throughout his life he worshipped the theater, that in his mind the concept of “artistry” was always associated with the concept of “theatricality”. The World of Art group played a preeminent role in the twentieth century stage design, whose significance transcends national boundaries. Implied is not only the extensive acknowledgment throughout Europe of Russian stage designers, but also their direct impact upon scene-painting the world over.
However, it should be emphasized that the miriskusniki did not initiate those changes that were to be observed in stage design in the first quarter of the twentieth century. They merely continued the innovations introduced much earlier by the Abramtsevo Colony and the Mamontovo Private opera founded in 1885.
By that year Russian stage design, which had once flourished, had become degraded to the point where it had largely lost its links with everything progressive in contemporary national art. No longer did notable artists, but “professionals”, mostly of journeyman caliber, rule the roost, plunging this field into a stereotype hardly witnessed in any other domain of the visual arts. As a result, the stage designer’s role was reduced merely to the creation of a cliché-ridden backdrop, either conventional or narrative, and the same sets were often used for the most varied productions.
Mamontov’s private company did away with this practice. Eminent painters again turned to design decoration. At first these were the Wanderers, Victor Vasnetsov and Vasily Polenov, later – the juniors, Mikhail Vrubel and Konstantin Korovin. Enchancing the role of stage designer, they maintained a firm conviction in the essential role of the sets and costumes in the entire theatrical production. Further, by ousting the “narrativeness” of standard settings, Vrubel, Konstantin Korovin and, later, Golovin, created an atmosphere of poeticized “theatrical reality”.
Some World of Arts members had already undertaken stage design after such memorable productions as Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan (1900, stage set by Vrubel) and The Maid of Pskov (1901, with décor by Golovin) and the ballet, The Little Humpbacked Horse (1901, with décor by Konstantin Korovin).
A new chapter in Russian stage design had began.
In 1902, Benois executed the decors for Mariinsky Theater production of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. Between 1902 and 1904, Bakst did the sets and costumes for production at the Alexandrinsky Theater, also in St. Petersburg, of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus and Sophocles’ Œdipis at Colonus. The characteristic World of Art style of stage design – the decorative, flat style that, despite the highly intensive color scheme, was nonetheless more in the nature of a drawing than a painting.
Toward the close of 1907 a theatrical enterprise conceived by a circle of enthusiasts in the vein of The World of Art aesthetic was established in St. Petersburg. Called the Antique Theater, its base goal was to restore the forms and the methods of the ancient European theater, especially that of the Middle Ages and the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and consequently, to focus attention on the eleventh-century liturgical play, the miracle play and pastoral of the thirteenth century, the fifteenth-century morality play, and the street farces of the sixteenth century.
Most of the World of Art members worked for this theater: Dobuzhinsky and Benois, who had helped found it, acted as artistic and historical consultants. Benois designed the theater’s drop curtain. Dobuzhinsky executed the superb stage design for Adam de la Halle’s Jeu de Robin et Marion. Collaborating with them at the Antique Theater were also Lanceray, Bilibin, Roerich, the young graphic artist Chembers, and the architect Shchuko.
The same year of 1907 saw the beginning of the World of Art’s close association with the Moscow Art Theater, Konstantin Stanislavsky came specially to St. Petersburg to see for himself of what the members of this still progressive group were capable.
Between 1909 and 1915 Benois, Dobuzhinsky, and Kustodiev designed an extensive range of productions in the classical repertoire at the Moscow Art Theater. Benois did the sets and costumes for the comedies of Moliere and Goldoni, as well as for three “little tragedies” by Pushkin; Dobuzhinsky executed the decors for the plays of Turgenev, Griboyedov, and Blok, as well as for Nikolai Stavrogin (an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Demons), and Kustodiev, for Saltykov-Shchedrin’s drama, The Death of Pazukhin.
Despite the artists’ remarkable individuality, their stage designs all display one definite style, a style reflecting the basic aesthetic principles common to the entire World of Art group. Though Bakst was unlike Dobuzhinsky, and while Roerich would appear to have little in common with either Sudelkin or Golovin, they all shared a common understanding of their task, which could be defined, on the one hand, as the attainment of an organic artistic unity of all the components of the production, and on the other, as the creation of a strikingly magnificent spectacle, capable of transporting the viewer into the irreal, romanticized world of a theater totally at variance with the commonplace of everyday life.
All images are scanned from the “The world of art movement” book. «Мир искусства» Объединение русских художников начала XX века Альбом (на английском языке) Издательство «Аврора». Ленинград, 1991 Изд. «1043. (30-00)