PRINT Summer 1981

Alexandra Exter’s Design for the Theater

IN NOVEMBER 1916, THE Kamernyi Theater of Moscow put on Thamira Kytharid, a tragedy written by the Russian poet Innokentii Annenskii, directed by the theater’s founder, Alexander Tairov, and designed by avant-garde painter Alexandra Exter. This was Exter’s first theatrical production, and in it she literally set the stage for the first truly modernist style of theatrical design, which she later developed in productions for the Kamernyi and other theaters in Russia before 1923 and afterwards throughout the West. What Exter offered was a new vision of the stage as a constructively dynamic spatial arena, pulsating with linear, coloristic and planar relationships laden with dramatic intent. As evident in the photographs of Thamira Kytharid, Salome and Romeo and Juliet, Exter’s handling of visual elements, such as scenery, lighting and costumes, produced a succession of stunning stage pictures. And as the sketches and more finished representations show, every stage picture was carefully planned. She aimed in each scene to intensify the presentation, to get the meanings and moods across in a richly allusive yet specific and direct language of forms, colors and surfaces, which spoke to and about the sensibility emerging in urban industrial culture.

There was no one who understood better than Exter that this sensibility was about being modern. Exter’s ability to offer a thoroughly modernized vision, whether of Shakespeare, a contemporary drama set in the past, a ballet or a vaudeville revue, responded to the need of this period—roughly 1910 to 1930—to wear its cultural face, its modernity, on its sleeve, to see itself reflected in its fantasies. That Exter’s three-dimensional scenery and constructed costumes captured the peculiar spirit of the time with great imagination and flair, accounted for the immense appeal of her theatrical designs. Though her sources and influences are diverse, they are best discussed in relation to specific productions, beginning with Thamira Kytharid.

In Thamira Kytharid (based on the Greek myth), Exter showed how the progressive wings of art and theater could join together with eminently successful results. Exter was one of the leading Russian avant-garde painters of her generation and belonged to the wing whose orientation was French and whose direction proceeded from Impressionism, through Neoimpressionism, various shades of Post-Impressionism to Cubism and Futurism. Exter, in fact, was called “a true Frenchwoman in her art” by Russian poet Benedikt Livshits in 1911, and she wore this reputation the way she wore her trademark of large hats—with great pride. Between 1907 and 1914 she spent most of each year in Paris, where she maintained a studio and immersed herself in the art scene. Through such connections as Serge Férat and Baroness d’Oettingen, old friends from her native Kiev, she soon got to know the movers and shakers, including Picasso and his crowd, French Cubists like Fernand Léger, Robert Delaunay and their crowd, the Italian Futurists and their crowd. Always serious about her career, Exter saw a lot, heard a lot, thought a lot, and most importantly learned a lot, transforming herself from a painter with an instinctive gift for color into a modernist, with a sophisticated understanding of the nature of art and its special relationship to the times.

Like other artists of her generation—she was born in 1882—Exter developed by studying from the melange of styles thought to be important in these years. Cézanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Neo-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Poussin were major interests, and traces of them turn up in various and often original syntheses in such paintings as Swiss Landscape (1907–8) (Van Gogh, Neo-Impressionism), Diana at Rest (1911) (Poussin, Albert Gleizes), Still Life with Bottle and Glass (1913) (Cézanne, Picasso, Ardengo Soffici), Florence (1914) (Soffici, Robert Delaunay). In these Exter taught herself how to get down to the basics of style by investigating each source’s essential qualities—of texture, surface, color relationships, and relationships of color and form. As statements of attitude, these paintings and other examples before 1914 show how modernist she had become. Exter, it seems, subscribed to the idea popular among the Unanimists, Cubists and Futurists in Paris—after 1912 the Italian Futurists focused their activities in Paris—that in order to be modern the artist must reveal the forces and principles that govern the reality hidden by ordinary appearances, and express them in the plastic qualities and relationships in the individual work. For example, both the centrifugal/centripetal rhythms in Still Life with Bottle and Glass and the interpenetrating planar construction of Florence have a meaning: the first suggests the sensations of movement important to this painting whose subject is the trip that Exter took several times a year from Russia to the West; and the second the order and continuity in a traditional city, deeply aware of the past. The other qualities and relationships in each painting are just as “loaded.” Although Exter always spent some time in Russia each year because of family responsibilities—she had a home and husband in Kiev—and due also to her interest in how her Russian colleagues were faring—she was famous for filling them in on the latest developments and gossip from Paris—it took the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 to keep her there. Soon after her return, she agreed to become involved with the Kamernyi Theater of Moscow.

At the same time she continued to paint and participated in the major shows held by various avant-garde factions; her colleagues Vladimir Tatlin and Liubov Popova were the artists closest to her. Tatlin is even looking at Exter in a pre-1914 photograph of leading artists—Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov are on the end; and Exter is the center of attention of other artists—Tatlin is again among them—in a caricature, published in a Petrograd newspaper, of the leading exhibitors at Tramway V, an important exhibition held in Petrograd in March 1915. Like her painter colleagues, Exter assimilated the various expressions of Western art that spelled modernism to her generation. And like the other Russians, she did so with the aim of surpassing the achievements of their contemporaries, the Cubists and Futurists, from whom they would soon be cut off by the war and revolution. Wine (1914), Venice (1915) and Dynamic Construction I (ca. 1916) are representative examples, showing her interest in condensing qualities and relationships into a streamlined vocabulary of color and form that led her to Non-Objectivism and Constructivism. But for Exter, the move to Non-Objectivism meant no lessening of her interests in meaning and metaphor, given the special demands of her work for the Kamernyi Theater.

Exter chose to work with a director, Tairov, whose approach and cultural “take” were similar to her own. The state of theater in the decade before the First World War was similar to the state of art. Realism and its accompanying esthetic of “archaeological verisimilitude” had dominated the boards internationally since the early 19th century and was still alive and well in the early 20th, albeit in the more sophisticated form of naturalism. In Russia, the most famous example of naturalism was Stanislayski’s Moscow Art Theater. As shown by a scene from The Cherry Orchard, everything about this theater—from scenery and costumes to acting—emulated “real life.” Tairov was not alone in finding naturalism a limiting and retardataire approach that hid the true nature of the theater under the appearances of life. Drawing on a combination of practical experience and theory, Tairov arrived in 1914 at what he termed an “emancipated” theater—the Kamernyi. He did so by using the ideas of George Fuchs, Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig.

From Fuchs he adapted the notion that the truest form of scenery was three-dimensional, after the architectural examples of the ancient stage, because it created a plastic unity with actors—also three-dimensional forms—to a greater degree than was possible with either realistic decoration or painted flats. From Appia he realized the need to integrate the elements of a production through rhythm, the one quality common to all of them: the temporal, including speech, movement and music; and the spatial, including scenery, costume and actor. Tairov, like Appia, made the actor the embodiment of both temporal and spatial rhythms, becoming in this way the key element in unifying his productions. Edward Gordon Craig, probably the most famous theatrical personality of the time, provided Tairov with a model of directorial ambition and grand imagination. Craig’s 1911 production of Hamlet was the major event of the Moscow season. Staged in his sublimely evocative Symbolist style, he freely mixed—contrary to Fuchs and Appia—two- and three-dimensional elements in the set to communicate major themes.

Tairov knew that it would take him a couple of years to fully develop his theater and, not surprisingly, the elements that gave him the most trouble were visual. While he was satisfied with the way the dancelike, pantomimic acting style was progressing, its effects were lost in the impressionistic stage picture created by the painted flats and overly detailed costumes of the first two years of production. Two examples were the 1914 production of Sakuntala, designed by Pavel Kuznetsov, and the 1915 production of The Marriage of Figaro, designed by Goncharova. This, of course, was the style of design that the Ballets Russes, in productions by Leon Bakst and Alexander Benois, made famous in prewar Paris.

It was easier, perhaps, to talk about concepts like “plastic unity” and “rhythm” than to give them visual expression. After two years of watching the Kamernyi Theater develop, Exter, who had painted the theater’s foyers and designed the house curtain, decided to try her hand at a production. According to Tairov, Thamira Kytharid, because of Exter, was his first fully successful play. The script was written by Innokentii Annenskii, a well-known Symbolist poet, who based the plot on the myth of Thamira, the Thracian bard who challenged the muses to a contest on the lyre and was blinded for his hubris. The script stressed erotic themes, centering on the passion of Ariope, Thamira’s mother, for her son, and it emphasized the sharp contrast between Apollonian purity and Dionysian abandon.

Annenskii wrote the text according to the same contrasting rhythm, juxtaposing harmonious with frenzied passages as aural metaphors of the Apollonian and Dionysian condition. This rhythm also determined Tairov’s mise-en-scène, and Exter’s designs. The set, made of multiple layers of cubical and conical forms, as shown in production stills, can effectively accommodate both reserved and raunchy actions. Although it has been interpreted as a direct translation from her Non-Objective paintings, Exter’s set is intended to suggest the Thracian hills of Greece, the place of action in the text, with cubical forms as rocks and conical forms as cypresses. The black and gold colors of the rocks were meant to refer to good and evil, associated with Apollonian and Dionysian rhythms. Still, what most delighted Tairov about the set was how well it intensified the drama, creating a continuous succession of dynamic, plastic unities. It realized Tairov’s intention to highlight the actors’ gestures in bold relief and make emotions seem larger than life.

The costumes also helped. To Exter, every costume was an actor’s second skin, the outer expression of the wearer’s role in the production that turned the actor into a living sculpture. For the chorus of satyrs, the representatives of Dionysian rhythm, she heightened contrasts in contour, surface and texture, using body paint, wigs and false breasts to suggest their vitality and insatiable lust. A comparison of her sketches with stills from the actual production reveals how precisely she imagined and then constructed the stage picture, treating it as one of her paintings. Apparently, none of the additional elements she had to consider in her theater designs, like three-dimensional forms in real space and the problem of function, gave her any problem. It was more likely that her training as a painter helped her with these.

Of course, there had been a recent Russian tradition of artists working for the theater, starting with the older generation of World of Art artists like Bakst and Benois; Goncharova, Tatlin and Malevich from Exter’s generation had also done theatrical designs. Still, her interest in the theater was more likely stimulated by her contacts with the Italian Futurists, particularly F. T. Marinetti, Futurism’s founder, whom she knew personally. Theater, after all, was one of Marinetti’s pet concerns. He published a manifesto, the “Variety Theater,” in the Italian Futurist magazine Lacerba (October 1, 1913) that Exter was sure to have read, given her relationship with Ardengo Soffici, one of the magazine’s editors. Although Marinetti was writing about a kind of theater very different from the one for which Exter chose to work—variety theater was vaudeville, the Kamernyi was theater in the grand tradition—his description of its dynamic onstage forms and colors, resulting from careful construction of scenery, lighting, and gesture, was probably not lost on Exter and helped her to better understand Tairov’s intentions. Other Futurist artists, including Giacomo Balla and Umberto Boccioni, also took part in sintesi, the Futurist adaptations of vaudeville routines that stressed ridiculous situations and encounters. Of short duration, these aimed to shock the spectator. In 1914 several sintesi were performed at Galleria Sprovieri in Rome at an exhibition in which several Russian artists, Exter among them, participated. As part of the opening night festivities, a performance of the sintesi, I funerali del filosofo passatista, was given in which both Marinetti and Balla performed. The scenery in this and other sintesi was minimal and consisted usually of only a simple painted backdrop and a few props; the costumes, in most cases by Balla, were exaggerated and outrageous. Although Exter, in her work for the Kamernyi Theater, did not concern herself with these kinds of theater/antitheater issues, she did design sets and costumes for vaudeville-related musical revue productions in the late ’20s of which Revue (1929) is an example.

The next production Exter did for the Kamernyi, Salome, premiered in Moscow on October 9, 1917, and despite the revolution, the Kamernyi Salome was a big hit. It was also popular with Western audiences in the theater’s international tours of the 1920s. Tairov’s interpretation of the Oscar Wilde text stressed the inevitability of Salome’s tragic end, and Exter communicated this theme with the set, which, unlike that of Thamira Kytharid, had dynamic elements. Exter added cloths and curtains of different colors and shapes, designing their appearance and movements on stage to intensify the impact of important dramatic moments. Her use of these materials relates to her paintings of dynamic color constructions in these years-1916 to 1918—painting that had a two-fold purpose as “laboratory art”; to increase her knowledge of color as both material and force, she considered these possibilities first in themselves and also as visual equivalents for mood and emotion in the theater. This is evident in comparing a maquette of scenic decoration for Salome, in which bits of colored surfaces that Exter planned to use as cloths and curtains are displayed, with paintings such as Dynamic Composition I and II, both from 1916. The overlapping relationships in the maquette are also present in Colored Rhythms and Colored Tensions, two paintings of 1918.

The cloths and curtains, of diagonal, rectangular and cuneiform shape, appeared at critical moments in Salome—a curtain with lightning streaks floated down after Jokanaan’s first speech to emphasize the inevitability of his prophecy of doom; diagonal black streamers draped the stage as Salome was being killed. According to eyewitness reports, both audiences and critics alike got the “message,” and became active participants in the theatrical experience taking shape before them, “reading” the set and costumes for thematic insights. Salome’s costume, silvery blue with spiky distentions and seductive slits simultaneously repellent and alluring, was a constructively dynamic metaphor of “impatient virgin sensuality,” according to one Russian critic. Appropriately, Exter’s costume-sketch, showing Salome’s confident stride, was also a plastic analogy of her character. The meaning of her particular posture and gesture has its source in Boccioni’s notions of the associative properties of “line-force, color-force, form-force.” It is probably no accident that this sketch brings to mind the striding figure of Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.

With gestures and movements choreographed by ballet dancer Mikhail Mordkin, and a special score by Czechoslovakian composer Jules Guitel, the Kamernyi Salome succeeded in surpassing the famous 1912 Paris production of Salome by Bakst for Ballets Russes performer Ida Rubinstein. Where Bakst’s style depended on the impression achieved by intensely colored and ornately decorated flat surfaces that often overwhelmed the other elements, Exter’s style depended on specificity, on her ability to articulate each element’s presence or role individually and also as part of an integrated whole. The separate elements in her production came together on the basis of dynamic contrast, a case of working together by working against one another. Salome’s appeal had the direct impact of a punch, communicating visual and emotional sensations in a way that was nothing less than modern.

In Romeo and Juliet, her third and last production for the Kamernyi—it had its premiere on May 17, 1921—Exter again demonstrated her ability to modernize history, here the Italian Renaissance, by applying the same principles she used in Salome to make the result even more specific and intense. As in Salome, the stage pictures in Romeo and Juliet recall her paintings of this period, such as Composition and Construction of Colors, two works from 1921. In both the play and paintings there are interpenetrating diagonal networks of bars and wedges; in the play these relationships can be read as the visual equivalent to the tangled intrigues in this adapted translation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The different levels of the vertical set were transformed into whatever scenic location was required by the addition or subtraction of curtains. So Exter showed how, in a flash, the outdoor fight scene could become the indoor ball scene. Romeo and Juliet was considered a success by postrevolutionary Russian critics, because Exter had captured, they felt, the essential spirit of Renaissance Italy but in a style that was relevant to their time. This production also illustrated Exter’s statement of intention (quoted by J. J. Tugendhold in Alexandra Exter, Berlin, 1922):

The spectator must be conquered by the convincingness of the performance, must be taken hold of by the artist’s idea and must not discuss whether this or that is historically true and has been reproduced according to documentary evidence.

While her approach to set and costume design here recalls Edward Gordon Craig, the practical execution was strictly her own. After Thamira Kytharid and Salome, her style of three-dimensional constructed sets and costumes influenced the emerging Soviet theater; Alexander Vesnin, Mikhail Andreenko and Isaak Rabinovich were among the artists working for the theater who applied her ideas to their designs of the ’20s. The first international tour of the Kamernyi Theater, in 1923, also introduced her work to the French, Germans and Italians. Responses varied from wild enthusiasm to open hostility. While Lèger applauded what he called the Kamernyi’s “precise, exact, and clear constructive art,” and second generation Italian Futurists such as Vinicio Paladini and Enrico Prampolini adapted Exter’s style in their theater designs, some theater critics were put off by the Kamernyi and condemned it as “art Bolshevism.” However, the fear that the Kamernyi Theater raised goes deeper than any confusion with the issue of “Red scare” that stalked the more conservative circles in European capitals. This fear involves, instead, the role of the modern theater. What the Kamernyi offered, in a theatrical, larger-than-life version, were the very characteristics of modern urban life in the ’20s—speed, fragmentation, unceasing aggressiveness—that were both exciting and threatening because they were new. To those unafraid to look their time—and, by extension, themselves—in the face, the Kamernyi Theater, thanks largely to Alexandra Exter’s contributions, was a fascinating and revealing mirror.

Ronny H. Cohen is a free-lance critic based in New York.