The development of Kazakh musical theatre in its finest manifestation is inseparably linked with the work of Gulfairus M. Ismailova, theatre designer and the People’s Artist of Kazakhstan. In 2009 she marked her 80th anniversary, and her name is associated with high style performances and heralded the start of a new trend in theatrical painting in Kazakhstan.
Quite a lot has been written about the contribution of this outstanding artist to contemporary Kazakh theatre. In fact, so far this is the only genre in her work, which, if not exhaustively and thoroughly, but at least is very frequently mentioned in various reviews and references. Also, there are few theatrical sketches left, which have not been reproduced. So, from a purely factual point of view, it is unlikely that anyone can say anything totally new about the theatrical heritage of the artist. Yet the “Ismailova and Theatre” theme is far from exhausted. There is a timely need to address it in a much broader historical, cultural, philosophical and aesthetic context than it was before, and it appears to be a priority to provide some insight into the artist’s philosophical principles with regard to the phenomenological paradigm of the art of “visualizing the artistic image of the show” as a material phenomenon of the entire culture of Kazakhstan.
Open-minded, refined and graceful, Ismailova’s theatrical painting stands out for its semantic intensity and colouristic richness. Theatre poetics that models the world not through the storyline, but through some deeper subconscious foundations, becomes a form-making equivalent of aesthetic reality in her art. Ismailova does not argue with the forms of life, nor does she copy it; life in her sketches is always artistically transformed and recreated based on her own model. In the stage space created by the artist’s powerful imagination, any new artistic experience appears as a different reality that is complexly nuanced and varied in the profundity of its underlying semantics.
Looking at numerous set sketches where the artist turns to landscape, one cannot help sharing her sensation of reverie with which she depicts nature. Ismailova’s Nature is not an idyllic pastoral, but a temple rather. Under heavenly dome of the sky, her set provides the environment for a harmonious action to unfold – the action of the Universe. As for panoramic backdrops showing mountain ranges, endless steppes or lakes, her every landscape reveals the inexplicable beauty of nature in every moment of its existence. All theatrical paintings of Ismailova are filled with sublime emotions, elation and a great trust in the power, potency and the supreme law of nature. With amazing spontaneity and ease, the sense of time as the element of Eternity comes alive in her set. Panoramic landscapes embody fundamental concepts and dimensions of the nation’s worldview.
Ismailova’s understanding and interpretation of a stage space shows her desire to picture the whole world, to embrace with her eye and brush the existing and conceivable span of horizon and the universe. Her set sketches reveal her gravitation toward portraying not only things visible to the eye, but also the reflection of her own perception of the grandeur and beauty of the surrounding world. She seeks to capture the very principle of infinite cognition and the supremacy of human spirit over the mundane. The notion of the infinite Universe is communicated with the artist’s brush strokes and her desire to push the boundaries of depicting the world around beyond visible objects and encompass things that only the Artist’s inner sight can see.
Awareness of the world, which can be read in Ismailova’s sets, beautifully communicates the idea of cosmos – primordial, sublime and beautiful in its pristine purity. Wholesome and ideal perception of the world and man comes alive in her art, implementing the core idea: integrity, beauty, harmony and magnificence of the Universe.
The artist strongly believes that art, through its finest works, should speak to a man about high moral ideals and awaken a sense of beauty in a human being. This moral and aesthetic program of Ismailova was realized primarily in theatre. In her interviews the artist said that art itself and its many aspects are most accessible on stage. Indeed, only the stage environment enables the natural combination of poetry, music, painting and dance. Ismailova believes that in this harmonious union of arts in theatre an important role belongs to the visual image.
The artist’s pictorial interpretation of drama and music is oriented towards comprehending changes that life brings through some special means. Indeed, in a broad structural dimension, any theatrical production always reproduces human life. All that fills a theatrical performance are events revolving in the existential field of love and hate, conflicts and reconciliations. These are always vital issues of immediate relevance to the way man exists in this world. Visualizing them, theatre brings us back to them, allowing us to grasp their affective meaning, and it suddenly becomes clear that visual effects and character expressivity are vital to the completeness of the show’s aesthetic impact on the audience: and the art of a stage designer makes the stage events visual. Through graphic instruments and techniques, stage design helps to understand dramatic twists and turns, conflicts, and existential matters.
Musical theatre and painting have been the focus of the artist’s talent, attention and resources. The revival of the high tradition of stage paintings in Kazakh theatre is her heartfelt desire. Just as her pictures are theatrically decorative, the theatre is picturesque. Yet this should not be understood in a direct subject-matter sense. It is theatrical primarily because her painting is indeed a spectacle, a feast and joy for the eyes.
Stage design painting of Ismailova has never been a self-contained world that would require viewer’s concentration and effort to grasp it, get used to it, and understand it not as a thing in itself but as something that is offered and presented. Her painting is wide-open and ready to be taken in; it presents itself to the audience and breathes the air of theatrical magic with its metamorphoses, transformations and special effects.
The synthesis of arts, which is realized in Ismailova’s works for theatre, is natural and vivid. New forms the artist was looking for in painting came together in her theatre productions: the operas “Kyz-Zhibek” by E. Brusilovsky, “Birzhan and Sara” by M. Tulebaev (1956), “Alpamys” by E. Rakhmadiev (1973), “Cio-Cio-San” by G. Puccini (1972), “Zhumbak-Kyz” by S. Mukhamejanov (1972), “Aida” by G. Verdi (1973), “Iolanta” by P. Tchaikovsky (1972), and ballets, such as “Kambar And Nazim” by V. Velikanov (1958), “Yer Targyn” by E. Brusilovsky (1967), “Kozy-Korpesh And Bayan-Slu” by E. Brusilovsky (1971), and “The Swan Lake” by Tchaikovsky.
Pictorial language of Ismailova as an easel painter also contains a potential for theatrical impact. In her canvases “Woman Crafts Master” (triptych), the portrait of Sholpan Dzhandarbekova as Ak-Toty (1960), the portrait of Kulyash Baiseitova as Kyz-Zhibek (1962), “The Kazakh Waltz”, and the portraits of Shary Zhienkulova” (1958), Rosa Dzhamanova as Cio-Cio-San (1972), Abylkhan Kasteev (1966) and Zhambul Zhabaev (1967) one can feel the dynamics of inner compositional rhythm, the emotional charge that reveals the sentiment of the theme, and the expressive boldness of colour range, which is essentially decorative and communicating theatrical excitement to the overall structure of these pieces. Ismailova has brought to the stage the same specificities of her signature painting style. …Just as freely as she employed her favourite stage design techniques in her easel painting. While maintaining the traditions of her mentors, the renowned masters of Russian painting, she develops these traditions further; her sets no longer only visually accompany the action, but also help express the music, its themes and images through all the pictorial and plastic systems present in the sets. In her best productions the artist has attained the integrity of pictorial and melodic elements.
Gulfairus Mansurovna Ismailova has given the Kazakh theatre her vibrant painting and her joyful art, contributing generously her imagination and taste. The art of Gulfairus Ismailova played a major role in the development of the Kazakh National Music Theatre. Performances, to which she contributed her remarkable talent, were important milestones in the evolution of opera and ballet in Kazakhstan. Ismailova’s stage design works embrace all aspects of decorative art. New stage design forms with their theatre-specific expressiveness discovered by the artist proved instrumental for the further development of stage design painting in Kazakhstan. Ismailova is not just an easel painter who produces stage sets, but a true artist of the theatre, for whom the set, the costume, and the curtain are equally important. She had the ability to see the show as a whole, to take in its style and to bring the pictorial-plastic image in harmonious unity.
In a musical theatre, where music constitutes the foundation of a performance, its cohesion with decorative art is a prerequisite for achieving artistic integrity of the production. The impact of a stage piece on the audience can only be effective in the process of this synthesis that eliminates a conflict between dissimilar and essentially different features of music and painting. Set design and music, together with the onstage action, become components of a greater artistic phenomenon, in which music inspires and fills the image, while painting “embodies the music and looses its meaning without it” (1, p. 232).
Certainly, the artist’s creative search was based on the ideas of the arts union, which were new for the Kazakh theatre and could only be implemented in the absence of boundaries between different kinds of art, when one art would support and enrich the other. Ismailova’s challenge was the need to use artistic devices belonging to related yet different arts. She sought to make her set designs embody the everlasting melody she could hear in the music by Rakhmadiev, Tulebaev, Brusilovsky, Puccini and Verdi. The ingenious music of these composers is present in her paintings too. Ismailova’s colourful and richly nuanced sets corresponded perfectly with the music of opera and ballet productions. Grand architectural and landscape compositions provided magnificent epic backdrop for the action on stage. Ismailova’s sets fitted the character of opera music and almost identified with it, being stylistically close and highlighting its features. There is no doubt that never before could the Kazakh theatre audience see such a “live” mountain, the sun, the sky and the sea and the kind of light and air as created by Ismailova. The glory of the palette on stage scale reproduced by her passionate brush was truly astounding.
Harmonious fusion of painting and music, based on the combination of their essential expressive means, ensured their legitimate synthesis and manifested itself in powerful scenery and magnificent decorative painting of Gulfairus Ismailova. The introduction of high art element into stage design of the Kazakh music theatre has become characteristic of her work and the country’s decorative art of 1970s.
1. Ванслов В. Изобразительное искусство и музыка. Л., 1983.