Mechanical Set Liubov Popova: Set Model (1967 reconstruction) for The Magnanimous Cuckold produced at the Meierkhold Theatre, Moscow, 1922. Gouache, wood and metal. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow

The exhibition showcases 150 designs for Russian theatre from 1913-33 from a range of well-known artists, such as Malevich, Tatlin, Popova, Rodchenko Stepanova and Exter

For over a decade after the October 1917 Revolution in Russian, avant-garde artists set out in collaboration with writers and directors to make theatre every bit as radical as the changes taking place in Russian society.  The current exhibition at the V&A showcases 150 designs for Russian theatre from 1913-33 from a range of well-known artists in a range of styles, such as Malevich, Tatlin, Popova, Rodchenko Stepanova and Exter.  As well as a number of lesser known artists.  Many of the designs are on display in the UK for the first time.   

You get a sense of the creativity with the design of the exhibition space, which reflects the Constructivist style of blending art into everyday life, rather than creating elitist art.  So much so, that when you enter the exhibition space, you get a sense that the radical design of the exhibition space is in revolt with the V&A museum itself.   This is not surprising as all the artists on display, albeit with different visions, were committed to the success of the Socialist revolution and the founding of a classless society. 

You enter an exhibition room and a tickertape display flashes by: ‘Our time is the foundation underlying world history.  That is what makes it so great.  Leon Trotsky.’  The quote from Trotsky, a Leader of the Communist Party gives you a glimpse of both the high stakes they were fighting for and also the inspiration of the times that drove these artists to create and innovate.  For example, director Vsevolod Meyerkhold, joined the Red Army in 1919 to defend the Revolution against the attacks of the White Armies – funded by the ruling classes of Britain, US, Japan and other European nations.

But despite the hostile forces besieging the Soviet State, directors and artists set about creating the foundations of a new mass popular theatre in the early Soviet state.  Meyerkhold was the most radical and innovative of the stage directors, which is shown in his many of his collaboration with artists at the exhibition. 

After the victory of the Soviet state in the Civil War in 1922, Meyerkhold staged the Magnanimous Cuckold and collaboration with the artist, Liubov Popova.   The centrepiece of the exhibition is a reconstructed model of Popova’s set design.  Popova seized the chance to be liberated from her painterly experiments on 2D canvas to construct a set design in the 3D space of the theatre.  This was the first Constructivist set design and it incorporates a moving ramp, wheels, ladders, slides, stairways and platforms.  The set broke away from the traditional static scenic backcloth of theatre design.  Further innovation in Popova’s design was that it was cheap to construct and could be re-erected for re-runs and touring.

Meyerkhold developed a form of acting, called Biomechanics, which sought to engage audiences at a rational rather than at the emotional level.  Popova’s designs was ideal for this new acting style, as it enabled the actor agility and rhythm to magnify their performances to connect and actively engage with the new audience of class conscious workers and soldiers.  Popova’s multi-level set design enabled Meyerkhold to use stage lighting for close-ups of actors, which he learned from the new art form of film.  The set enabled performance montages, by using lighting to show more than one scene at once, an innovation which was to transferred into film. 

Not surprisingly, the great Soviet film director, Sergei Eisentein, served his apprenticeship at Meyerkhold’s theatre.  The exhibition showcases some of his stage set designs and helpfully shows clips of Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, ¡Que viva México!, which demonstrates techniques, such as photo-montage in action.

Set design

The exhibition also highlights the designs of the touring Blue Blouse theatre groups, which performed in factories and worker’s clubs.  They were called a ‘Living Newspaper.’  They sang, danced, used humour and used acrobatics as they improvised on the news of the day.  Their role was very important in a country where there was a high level of illiteracy.

After the death of Lenin in 1924, Stalin rose to power in Russia and firmly moved to a centralised economy under his dictatorship.  The Avant-garde fell out of the favour.  However, the Avant-garde continued to challenge the type of society that was developing.  In 1929, Meyerkhold worked with Rodchenko, a founder of Constructivism, who designed the costumes for the comedy satire Bed Bugs, which was written by Vladimir Mayakovsky.  All three collaborators had strong credentials in their commitment to art to support the emergence of a classless society.  Rodchenko’s radical costumes designs can be viewed in retrospect, as proto-spacesuits for Cosmonauts of the future.

The play addressed the compromise of the Soviet state, of introducing a mixed economy with the New Economic Plan in 1921.  This led to a class of NEPmen who had become rich and had developed narrow-minded attitudes.  Prisypkin, the main character is frozen and is awoken in 1979, which according to the play is when the Socialist state is supposed to be realised.  However, the play shows that the same 1929 backward attitudes are still apparent in 1979.

Costume design

The problem for the Stalinist dictatorship is that the play was not only popular, but it created a range of different meanings in those that viewed it.  One meaning derived from Rodchenko’s designs and time travel point to the great technical progress of socialism, promised in the new five year plans, introduced by Stalin.  Even with censorship of the play, another meaning was that backward attitudes would remain, which would be an obstacle to a classless society and human liberation.  For the regime, this created a dangerous and subversive meaning that the Stalinist regime would not tolerate. 

It is no surprise that Stalinist regime imposed a doctrine of a Socialist Realism on such subversion in the arts in 1932.  In reality, Socialist Realism meant using realist styles to create a rigorously optimistic picture of Soviet society.  The dictatorship did not want people to be challenged. No criticism. No satire. No Avant-garde theatre. No Blue Blouse. No socialism. No realism.  Just what the dictatorship defined as ‘realistic’ and ‘socialist’.

But for over a decade after the Russian Revolution, you get the sense that innovation in theatre design and culture flourished to an unprecedented level in human history.  The exhibition has an aim in that it hopes to inspire designers of today.  A trip to the exhibition will also inspire the activists of today to fight for a classless society where creativity and human potential can be realised in everyday life.

Russian Avant-garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913-1933 is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London until Sunday 25 January 2015. Free entry

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