To mark the 22nd anniversary of Uzbekistan’s independence, the Savitsky State Art Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan in Nukus opened an exhibition called “Artist and Theatre”, displaying the works of masters from Uzbekistan and Russia from the museum assets. The exhibition aimed to introduce wide audiences to the set design art of 1920s – 1950s. Most of the exhibits were theatre sets and costume sketches dating to the 1920s and 1930s, created by both professional theatre artists, and those who mainly engaged in easel painting and drawing, yet whose creative interests also included theatre.
At the exhibition theatrical set design was represented by the works of renowned and frequently displayed artists such as M. Kurzin, E. Korovai, V. Ufimtsev, M. Sokolov, A. Sardan, V. Shukhaev, and U. Tansykbaev, as well as of artists whose works were exhibited in the museum halls for the first time. They are R. Raspopov, M. Akseelrod, A. Telingater, D. Ushakov, et al.
M. Davydova noted: “By the start of the twentieth century, scenography was represented by modest handicraft solutions created by third-rate masters. Dominant trend was descriptiveness and slice-of-life approach, when stage was filled with numerous ethnographic details, sometimes on the verge of epic exoticism hardly justified” (1, p. 6). The range of art trends in the first three decades of the XX century was wide: from traditional approach to set design, to radical innovation. “The turning point in set design art in the late XIX and early XX century was substantial, and unexpected in its artistic outcome. Set design evolved into highly artistic stage solutions, striking in their innovative visual imagery, rich colouristic and decorative fantasy, and the caliber of artistic skill. Decorative art of those years seemed to have absorbed the entire spectrum of artistic pursuits of the early XX century. Such was this breakthrough, amazing in its aesthetic value and scale, of set design art into the rank of high art. As an antipode to the slice-of-life details in stage design came the principles of constructivism and other newest forms of visual arts” (1, p. 15).
“Characteristic of avant-garde artists is not only the use of plastic techniques carried to theatre from painting, but also an innovative approach to set design in general” (1, pp. 18, 21). One example is scenery and costumes by E. Korovai, A. Telingater, V. Basov, and M. Kurzin. In parallel with avant-garde quest in theatre art of the 1920s and 1930s, there existed a traditional approach to scenography. This line is represented by masters with no leaning towards extreme innovation in scenography, and the artists who started their career in art at the turn of the XIX and XX centuries and remained true to their convictions. Among them are V. Shukhaev, D. Ushakov, Usto Mumin…
A good example of avant-garde approach to set design is the art of A. Telingater whose works are exhibited in the museum for the first time. In his scenery and costumes Telingater sought to synthesize stylizing and innovation. Bold experimentation, unusual dynamic solutions for the stage space, as well as laconic and pointed details as elements defining the imagery and ideological concept of a production can be found in the set sketches for the Offenbach operetta “La Perichole”. The operetta is known for its colourful music, wit and vivacity.
Shown for the first time at the exhibition also are the works of Diodor Ushakov (1907-1971), professional set designer. Reflecting the leading trends in soviet decorative art, these works made a significant contribution to the art of Uzbekistan. These are set design sketches for productions running in the country’s theatres, a number of costume sketches for “The Golden Key” play, etc. Ushakov created scenery and costumes for many tragedies of William Shakespeare, including “Romeo and Juliet”, “Hamlet” and “Othello”. Ushakov emphasized: “Each play requires that artist, as well as director and actors, live the life of the characters and live through the events that make up the era. To find, through graphical means, the way to the heart of the viewer, to help him have the right understanding of the characters’ actions in their environment – this is the main goal of the set designer’s creative search.” After 1937 when he arrived in Uzbekistan, Ushakov, together with Isaac Waldenberg with whom he collaborated for more than 20 years, designed about 200 theatre productions.
Among artists whose works the Savitsky Museum visitors could see for the first time was also Viktor Basov (1902-1946), professional set designer. Basov is known to use three-dimensional generalized installation and materials of different texture, and to introduce objects into action. The artist’s sets helped create the right historical atmosphere in the performance. This was most vividly manifested in the Shakespeare plays; for instance, in his costume sketches for “Othello” (Museum Archive, Set No. 10).
Also for the first time the museum exhibited female costume sketches by artist Meyer Axelrod (1902-1970) for the play “Shakeria”. His liberal treatment of colour that in his early works is reduced to one or two basic shades, and his drawing in broad, juicy stroke showing not so much the outline, but the shape, create lively and temperamental language in the artist’s early pieces. Axelrod was just as productive and passionate in his easel painting and drawing, as he was in designing theatre sets, which for him were not just about reproducing everyday life, but a cause to celebrate. His sketches even for the most mundane pieces are first of all painting that is vivid, temperamental and romantic, one that is striking in its rich palette and thus keeping its artistic merits not only as a document of a once running play. The artist is laconic and industrious in structuring the stage space and outlining few, sometimes grotesque, landmarks of the locality in which the action proceeds. His costume sketches turned into a gallery of heroes seen in the full glory of their character, temperament and attitude.
M. Axelrod is an artist whose work did not receive the recognition it deserved, though it was not hidden from the audience. He unfailingly enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, but seldom interested critics. Meanwhile, his art represents an important and distinctive element of artistic culture from the mid 1920s to the end of the 1960s. Already in his student years he was invited to join the “Four Arts” society, and he participated in all its exhibitions, along with R. Falk, K. Petrov-Vodkin, P. Kuznetsov, and M. Saryan. The main theme explored by Axelrod was the life of Jewish people in all its absurdity, humour and tragedy. Axelrod designed productions in theatres of Moscow, Minsk and Kiev, and illustrated books by Jewish authors (2, pp. 5, 9).
Neither did the Museum visitors saw the works of a professional theatre artist Rostislav Raspopov (1902-1970), namely his set sketches for the “Hidden Caballero” operetta by Paola Calderone. The artist worked with some renowned theatre directors, including the famous V. Meyerhold in his Theatre – the theatre of new modern trend with new objectives and new creative methods of stagecraft (Museum Archive, Set No. 158).
The art of the often exhibited artists such as U. Tansykbaev, M. Kurzin, E. Korovai, V. Ufimtsev, A. Nikolaev (Usto Mumin), N. Tarasov, M. Sokolov and others is amazing in its new aspects. Until now the audience could admire easel works of these artists; today the exhibition delights us by showing their mastery in theatre set design.
Artist Vasiliy Shukhaev (1887-1973) happened to design productions in very different genres: operas, operettas, tragedies, and comedies; he also designed stage for different kinds of concerts. All possible means were employed by the artist to expose the idea and concept of a piece: in the Ostrovsky comedies the audience was convinced by the credibility of household details and interiors. Costumes and scenery in operetta productions had distinct colour sonority, and sometimes a certain caricature quality, when it was required by the imagery characteristics of the production: its music, story twists, and libretto. A remarkable example is costume sketches for the opera “Carmen”, shown at the exhibition, as well as set sketches for the play “Lev Gurych Sinichkin”, which he created during his work at the Gorky Provincial Drama Theatre in Magadan. Shukhaev stood aside from the turbulent evolution of the Russian XX century art. He never joined any of the avant-garde movements, yet his art stands out for the mastery of the highest standard (Museum Archive, Set No. 172).
Considerable interest was excited by the portrait of Maya Plisetskaya as Odette in Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” ballet. The portrait was made by Sergei Luppov (1893-1977), who communicated the amazing plasticity of the ballerina and the inherent magic of her personality.
Artist Alexander Vasilyevich Nikolaev known as Usto Mumin (1897-1957) came to Uzbekistan from Moscow in 1920. Working in Uzbekistan theatres, the master united with the world of music and showed keen understanding of the theatre specifics. He personally mixed colours and painted the scenery; its light colours, devoid of brightness and gravity, acquired depth of content. Actors looked wonderful on the backdrop of large colour planes, without getting obscured in their light-coloured costumes of amazing shades and precision. The artist looked at a person in action; he communicated the flow of movements and gestures in integral harmony with the idea about the person’s appearance: “Female costume with blue waistcoat”; “Guests at Ulugbek’s feast” (3, p. 25).
The audience showed great interest in set design sketches for “The Seller of Birds” and “The Pauper Student” productions made by Viktor Ufimtsev (1899-1964); in 1923 he was seconded to work in the Samarqand Commission for the Protection of History and Art Monuments. Journey to Turkistan is one of the most remarkable pages in his biography. Ufimtsev regarded set design as an opportunity to realize his constructivist aspirations. Reflecting on the artist’s role in theatre, Ufimtsev wrote: “What have I contributed to theatre? It seems that I introduced into stagecraft some healthy realism (principles of stage architecture), without modernism and stylization” (Museum Archive, Set No. 157).
Avant-garde style shows in the exhibited costume sketches by Elena Lyudvigovna Korovai (1900-1974). She was born in the city of Voronezh and attended the Petersburg Art Promotion School, then headed by N. K. Roerich. From the mid 1920s the artist settled in Central Asia; she worked in the republican theatres, wrote and designed children’s books, and actively participated in the establishment of the Samarqand branch of the Artists Union. The exhibition presents costume sketched for different theatrical performances, which reflect her gravitation towards innovative ideas: “Black Suit”, “Chessboard Skirt”, “Hinged Boy” (Museum Archive, Set No. 48).
“Kalkaman and Mamyr” by V. Velikanov, the first ballet staged in the Kazakh Opera and Ballet Theatre (Alma-Ata, 1938), was designed by Ural Tansykbaev (1904-1974). For this production he created costume sketches presented at the “Artist and Theatre” exhibition (Museum Archive, Set No. 144).
At the exhibition the audience could also see a drawing series by Mikhail Ksenofontovich Sokolov (1885-1947), “Circus”, where the destiny of circus performers is treated by the artist in the dimension of a mysterium, as a histrionic implementation of “perpetual” human tragedy. Sokolov created the images of numerous Pierrots, Harlequins, and female riders: fragile, elongated figures with a peculiar awkward grace and a note of sadness (Museum Archive, Set No. 118).
Charmingly appealing are the sketches of popular performance costumes by Aleksandr Sardan (1901-1974), inspired by the theme of Cosmos: “Female popular performance costume on the background of a circle”, etc. Love of astronomy brought him to the Amaravella group: in 1923 it united cosmist artists, whose art, mostly intuitive, aimed at exposing various aspects of Cosmos: in human appearance, in landscape, and in abstract images of the inner world.
Many productions made history owing to the most interesting solutions found by their set designer. Often, after decades, theatrical sketches become a unique documentary evidence of a production, as sets and costumes rarely survive. Sometimes, set designer’s drawings are the only trace of an idea conceived by a director whose project has never been realized (1, p. 6).
The “Artist and Theatre” display exemplifies the diversity of the Savitsky State Art Museum collection. We hope that its future exhibitions will continue to amaze the audiences.