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Staging a Russian Revolution

In the post-1917 years, a new political order was synonymous with a new theater and art

THE astonishing reforms of glasnost and perestroika are far from the first Russian revolution of this century, and the current crisis is not the first time that Russian society has threatened to break down.

The series of upheavals that began in 1905 and ended in the Bolshevik takeover of October 1917 brought chaos and privation, but also left us an outstanding legacy in the visual arts.

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Responding to the birth pangs of a new Russia, artists expressed themselves with extraordinary freedom. Although history never quite repeats itself, the example of earlier revolutions can encourage us to hope that Russia will soon make news in culture as well as politics.

Czarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century seemed impossibly backward. What the country lacked in art galleries, however, it more than made up in theater companies. Because theater was a healthy enterprise at a time when private art patronage was limited, designing for the theater played a central part in the careers of many innovative artists.

For most of the 19th century, costume and set design had been in the hands of academically trained craftsmen. However competent they might be, their designs looked familiar to the point of being stereotyped. Adventurous impresarios perceived that equally adventurous young artists could bring new creative energy to theater design.

While the recruitment of modern artists by the theater began before 1900, it reached its peak in the decade after the 1917 revolution. Until Stalinist conservatism set in, a new theater and a new art seemed to be synonymous with a new Russia.

For a while, at least, the government chose to subsidize avant-garde art. It never excluded other possibilities: Old-fashioned productions of old-fashioned plays went on at the same time as the most daringly modern experiments.

Many of the plays for which avant-garde artists designed sets and costumes were not new or revolutionary or even Russian.

Shakespeare's "King Lear" received an innovative production, as did Oscar Wilde's "Salome" and G. K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday."

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As might have been expected, however, the government quickly grasped the possibilities of theater as a medium for Communist propaganda.

In 1918, for example, Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote the play "Mystery-Bouffe," whose curtain design is reproduced on this page.

The premise of the plot is that a flood has covered almost the entire surface of the earth. Taking shelter at the last dry spot, the North Pole, are seven pairs of "the clean the ruling classes - together with seven pairs of working-class people, "the unclean." These surviving humans try a succession of possible social systems, from monarchy to communism. Few in the audience could have been surprised to be told that communism was the best.

Artists adapted such Western European styles as Cubism and Futurism to the task of designing curtains, sets, and costumes. Some also adapted visual motifs from Russian folk art and icon painting.

The sets were often three-dimensional objects in their own right, not merely backdrops. Actors ran up and down ramps, perched on scaffolding, or turned themselves into machine-like figures in vast industrial interiors. Many artists wanted theater to become a circus-like spectacle in which the action of a play took up the whole stage, from left to right and from floor to ceiling.

The new Russian theater brought with it new kinds of movement as well as design. Inspired by the dances of Isadora Duncan, one group of choreographers emphasized the liberation of the body from old-fashioned social constraints. Costumes were flowing, often brief, and suggestive of ancient Greece.

At the opposite extreme, other choreographers evolved systems of machine-like movement, while designers created sets and costumes that suggested industrial mass production. Actors played the parts of machine components, linking their arms to suggest a conveyor belt or picking up a fellow actor and swinging him like a hammer.

Today's artists tend to blame factories for environmental pollution and degrading work. Earlier in the century, however, mass production seemed progressive. In Russia, even more than in Western Europe, industrialization appeared to offer an escape from rural poverty. Machine plays were both artistically novel and politically correct.

TAKING advantage of the relative freedom of the 1920s, some young people used avant-garde theater devices to poke fun at the excesses of modernity. Cabaret performances by such groups as the Foregger Workshop, in Moscow, presented machine dances and anticapitalist propaganda in so humorous a style as to raise the question of whether the company truly subscribed to the party line, whether communist or avant-gardist. For a while the general chaos of life in Russia allowed many different artistic viewpoints

to coexist.

With the coming of relative stability in the late 1920s, however, the Soviet government began asking hard questions about what kind of theater it wanted to subsidize. Eventually it decided against the avant-garde. By the mid-1930s, socialist realism, in many ways indistinguishable from the capitalist realism that favored Norman Rockwell magazine covers, came to be the official style of the Soviet Union, dominating all the arts.

Doctrinaire apologists for modernism tend to condemn this outcome, but it was understandable at the time. Much experimental theater, then as now, was extreme and would have had little staying power even if there had been no conservative opposition from above.

It is difficult to make a case that working-class audiences understood or liked innovative theater design. Nor is there much reason to believe that the avant-garde artists cared what the audience thought. They wanted total freedom, and avant-garde theater promised to make that possible.

Today we can admire the drawings of such artists as Alexandra Exter, considered purely as artworks, while admitting that they were not well suited to the needs of an uneducated mass public. Although it failed as popular entertainment, the Russian avant-garde theater did offer patronage to some of the best artists of the 20th century.

At a time when traditional society had largely collapsed, these young people pursued such hitherto limited occupations as poster and theater design while maintaining the intellectual freedom of the fine arts. Their work suggests that Russia may yet produce outstanding art in response to the new revolution and its new difficulties. Organized by Nancy Van Norman Baer, "Theater in Revolution: Russian Avant-Garde Stage Design 1913-1935" can be seen at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, through Feb. 16, 1992.

The show will then travel to the IBM Gallery of Science and Art in New York (April 14 to June 13) and the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Los Angeles (Aug. 26 to Nov. 2).

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