Visionary Russian stage and costume design the focus of a new exhibit at Fairfield University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts


The Walsh Art Gallery at Fairfield University presents "A World of Stage: Russian Costume and Stage Design," an exhibit of groundbreaking works from the 1900s through the 1970s, from Saturday, Jan. 24, through Sunday, March 21. The exhibit opens at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 24 with a lecture by Alla Rosenfeld, senior curator of Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.

Selected from the George Riabov Collection of Russian Art at Rutgers, the impressive show will feature works by artists of the pre-Bolshevik Russian theater and Russian émigré artists who designed sets and costumes for Western European and American productions. It spans several genres from the folk art-inspired creations of Natalia Goncharova to the painterly style of Leon Bakst to abstract works by Serge Soudeikine and Alexandra Exter.

Russian artists began making their mark on theater design around 1885, the year Savva Mamontov, a Moscow railroad magnate, founded a private opera house on his estate outside Moscow. There he invited some of Russia's leading painters to create costume and stage designs for his productions. Many of the artists did much more than that, serving as stage directors and even writing or modifying ballet scripts for the opera house. The artists' work for Mamontov showed a conceptual unity and poetic use of images from folk art that was in deliberate opposition to the staid academicism of official stage design of the time.

Their pioneering efforts proved stepping-stones for a group of painters and writers known as Mir iskusstva, or "World of Art." Associated with cultural impresario Serge Diaghilev, Mir iskusstva helped modernize Russian design and provided works for Diaghilev's series of Russian ballet and opera, the Ballets Russes, which wowed Paris audiences from 1908 through 1929.

Russian art exhibitThe Walsh Art Gallery exhibit features several Ballets Russes designs, including works from Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), one of the founders of Mir Iskusstva. An artist, theoretician, historian, writer and critic, Benois lived outside of Russia for 30 years and designed sets and costumes for many European and American productions. Among his best-known contributions are designs for stravinsky's "petrouchka," a staged version of dostoyevsky's "The Idiot," and "le pavillon d'armide," part of the Ballets Russes' first Paris season.

Bakst (1866-1924), also a founder of Mir iskusstva, was known for incorporating diverse influences into his work, most notably the art of ancient and Far Eastern cultures. The Riabov Collection features his stage design for Le Dieu Bleu (The Blue God), a ballet performed in Paris in 1912. The production was an amalgam of Eastern influences: The costumes and sets represented stylized versions of ancient Indian temples and clothing, while the choreography was inspired by Thai dance.

The exhibit also includes works by Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), one of the foremost female artists of the Russian avant-garde. A friend of artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Guillaume Appollinaire, Exter found new ways to render artistic images on the stage through geometric and three-dimensional forms. Examples of her Constructivist designs for Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" will be on display.

Russian art exhibitThe Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 presented new challenges in the theater, which now included mass celebrations and street festivals that relied on spontaneity and audience participation. The Walsh exhibit features examples from Soviet agit-prop theater, a form that sought to communicate Bolshevik ideology, including works by Nina Aizenberg (1902-1974).

Russian émigré artists who worked in America and Western Europe are credited with bringing fresh ideas to foreign stages. Evgenii Berman (1899-1972) and Evgenii Dunkel (1890-1972) designed many Broadway productions and brought the flavor of modern artists such as Marc Chagall and Salvador Dali to the stage. Their work - and that of other émigrés - can be found from the intimate Paris cabarets of the 1920s and 1930s to Milan's La Scala to New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Guest lecturer Alla Rosenfeld is director of the Russian/Soviet Nonconformist Art Department at Rutgers University. A respected international authority on Russian art, she has been a guest speaker at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Cultergest of Lisbon, Portugal, Hessenhuis of Antwerp, Belgium, and International Conference Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

Russian art exhibitDr. Rosenfeld edited "Defining Russian Graphic Arts, 1898-1934" (Rutgers University Press, 1999), and co-edited "Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression Under the Soviets, 1945-1991" (Rutgers University Press, 2001) and "From Gulag to Glasnost: Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union" (Thames and Hudson, 1995). She holds a bachelor's degree from the Art College at St. Petersburg and a master's from the Academy of Fine Arts of Russia, also at St. Petersburg. She completed her doctorate in Modern and Contemporary European Art at City College of New York.

Admission to the lecture and the exhibit is free. Located in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, the gallery is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m.

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Media Contact: Nancy Habetz, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2647, nhabetz@fairfield.edu

Posted on January 6, 2004

Vol. 36, No. 141