Lives of the Artists XVI

A Little Woman. (1910).

A Little Woman. (1910).

In 1910, at the exhibition of the New Collective of Artists, Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaya presented ‘A Little Woman’, her painting of her ten-year-old daughter Katya. This was the same Katya for whom the previous year Nikolai Gumilyov had written an acrostic poem. I should try to translate it, preserving the acrostic, but it’s doing my head in at the moment.

Когда вы будете большою,
А я — негодным стариком,
Тогда, согбенный над клюкою,
Я вновь увижу Ваш альбом,

Который рифмами всех вкусов,
Автографами всех имён —
Ремизов, Бальмонт, Блок и Брюсов —
Давно уж будет освящён.

О, счастлив буду я напомнить
Вам время давнее, когда
Стихами я помог наполнить
Картон, нетронутый тогда.

А вы, вы скажете мне бойко:
«Я в детстве помню только Бойку!»

Della-Vos-Kardovskaya returned the favour by painting a portrait of the poet.

Portrait of Gumilyov with African background. (1909).

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky: Artist and the Theatre

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, doyen of the ‘World of Art’ (Mir Iskusstva), said that theatrical truth is distinct from that provided by historical documents; rather, it is a depiction of the spiritual truth of an epoch and its style. During his long and productive life, Dobuzhinsky created many theatre scenes and costumes for more than fifty theatres across the world, impressing his name on artistic circles in London, New York, Paris and St Petersburg. Having arrived in the world of theatre in 1907, Dobuzhinsky soon took up the first rank among reformers of the Russian decorative art, along with the likes of Bakst and Somov.

Play on Robin and Marion. (1907).

Dobuzhinsky’s first works for the theatre were received with great enthusiasm by the public. Informed by medieval miniature art, the artist moved away from the two-dimensional and filled the stage space with objects that complemented and simultaneously added a twist to the sentimental ‘Play on Robin and Marion’. The irony never descends into sarcasm, however, even when Dobuzhinsky created more than a dozen caricatures of his colleagues, which, according to his contemporaries, accurately transferred their personal characteristics onto their heroes. And the infamous wooden horse on painted wheels had more affinity with a medieval toy knight, and was unlikely to be taken seriously by the audience, just as the sentiments of the knight towards the shepherdess Marion could hardly be serious either. Indeed, Meyerhold soon would notice that in his debut work (and thanks to that horse) the artist had implemented the principle of ‘conditional implausibility’, where the subject while not represent merely its archetype,  accurately captures its essence and meaning.

On the bridge. Study for Nikolai Stavrogin.

Dobuzhinsky managed to work not only with Meyerhold but also Stanislavsky. For the former, he portrays a grotesque world of the Russian provinces, steeped in satire, where the two-headed eagle is replaced with a pretzel. And at the Art Theatre of Stanislavsky, through colour and composition, he recreates Turgenev’s idyllic traditional life. A. Gusarova wrote about ‘A Month in the Village’: Dobuzhinsky on stage depicts less the truth about life than the Miriskusstvian conception of the past as life in unity with nature, lived according the laws of beauty.

But how different are his sets for Nikolai Stavrogin, the dramatisation of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Possessed.’ There is little poignancy here; instead of heavy symmetry there is expressive line and hard light.

A delicate psychology is an important component of Dobuzhinsky’s creativity, manifesting everywhere in scenery and graphic art as well as in his paintings. The portrait of the critic Konstantin Syunnerberg, better known as ‘The Bespectacled Man’ carries a clear expression of individuality of this inveterate idealist, a severe and dignified man. Here we face the fact that the background bears  a strong semantic meaning, revealing the individualism of the author, who in this period was seized with the idea that the city is inimical to man, and above all, to him as well. The grey sky, contrasting colours, the architecture of the recently built commercial buildings dominating nature – all these express the anxious and cautious attitude of Dobuzhinsky to change, both current and the oncoming. Eventually he would change his view on the city, especially after arriving in Vilnius; he would forget about the ‘grimaces and curiosities’, and would even illustrate it in a Cubist manner; symbolism, however, would remain a major attribute of his works.

The Bespectacled Man. (1905-06)

In 1924, Dobuzhinsky left the Soviet Union, and took up work in the Paris production of ‘Die Fledermaus’. Contemporaries called his performances ‘colourful, wholesome spectacles.’ But his own creative hunger was not satisfied in Paris. ‘I have become a Lithuanian citizen and, finally, I am a free man!’ he wrote to Nemirovich-Danchenko in Prague. Judging from his letters to his friends, work in the Lithuanian theatre was superbly organised, and, without any limitations on him, Dobuzhinsky distinguished himself as a master of decorative painting. Having passed from the school of Meyerhold and Stanislavsky, the artist achieved a high calibre at skill. His works, as before, synthesised historical authenticity with the grotesque and the fantastic, much to the admiration of the public. ‘Prince Igor’, ‘Boris Godunov’, ‘Raimonda’, ‘Don Juan’ – this is an incomplete list of performances whose designer was this artist in the State Lithuanian Theatre. Under Dobuzhinsky’s watchful eye, every detail, every element of the costumes spoke for itself, in complete assonance with the actors. The artist demanded exact productions from his studies, and made amendments to the material even when they were being sewn up.

The Lithuanian theatre remained on tour in London for several years, during which time Dobuzhinsky continued his career in book design. In 1938, he completed his work on ‘Demons’ at the request of M. Chehov in New York; owing to the outbreak of the war, he remained in this city. Several times, he was invited to the Metropolitan Opera, which he called an ‘incredibly rough and un-artistic machine.’ American theatres, driven by a narrow artistic focus, could scarcely countenance the wide-ranging interests of Dobuzhinsky. He even appeared before the court for his paintings for ‘Khovanshina’, because all artists were by law expected to belong to a guild, be they painters, decorators or costumiers. Many of his ideas remained still-born, such as the ballet ‘Leningrad Symphony’, inspired by the music of Shostakovich, and the opera ‘War and Peace’.

In the post-war period, Dobuzhinsky continued his successful work in New York, but continued to travel to Europe, where he worked at La Scala and designed scenery and studies in Denmark, France, Switzerland. His artistic views continued to be important, based as they were on the principles of Russian decorative art formed at the beginning of the 20th century. And as can be seen from his career, these principles, backed up by his talent, did not lose their relevance for many decades.

[Loosely (very!) translated from Art Me Up: Mstislav Dobuzhinsky: Artist and the Theatre, by O. Varvara, 22 January, 2013.]

Production design for ‘Adam de la Halle’ from the Play of Robin and Marion. (1906).

Town street. Study for decoration to a play by P. P. Potemkin.


Costume sketch for Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’. (1935).

Green living room. Comedy: A Month in the Village. (1909).


Blue lounge. Design for the first act of Turgenev’s ‘A month in the village’.

Design for Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.


Night in St Petersburg. (1924).

Life in Petrograd. (1920).


Provincial town. Curtain design for Gogol’s comedy ‘The Inspector General’. (1933).


Lunacharsky’s Oliver Cromwell. (1920-21).

Paris. (1914).


Sketches for women’s costumes for Mussorgsky’s ‘Khovanshina’.

The Siege of Leningrad. Sketch on the theme of Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony.


Theatre scenery. (1935).

Charles Gounod’s Opera ‘Faust’.


Theatre Art Exhibition

There was an exhibition of Theatre Art and Costume Design at the St Petersburg Gallery in Mayfair, as I mentioned in my monthly roundup. I went there and clicked away. What with the lighting and reflections, I’m not overly pleased with the images, but anyway, here’s a flavour of what was on display.

This is Alexander Golovin’s stage design for The Nightingale.

Alexandre Golovin

Alexander Golovin

Here is Natalia Goncharova‘s stage design for Carlo Goldoni’s The Fan.

Natalia Goncharova

Natalia Goncharova

This is Yuri Pimenov‘s design for Margarita’s sitting room of the play La Dame aux Camelias.

Yuri Pimenov

Here are three images from a set of six that Mstislav Dobuzhinsky created for the Polovtsian dances in the opera Prince Igor.

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

This is Alexandre Benois‘ design for the ballet Petrushka.

Alexandre Benois

Alexandre Benois

Here is Sergei Chekhonin‘s poster design for Vera Nemtchinova’s performance with the Ballets Russes.

Sergei Chekhonin

Sergei Chekhonin

And, finally, a costume design after Leon Bakst for the ballet Thamar.

After Leon Bakst

After Leon Bakst

Demetre Chiparus

It’s only indirectly that Demetre Chiparus (or Dumitru Chipăruş) (1886 – 1947) belongs in this blog. An Art Deco sculptor of Romanian origin (and therefore outside the Russian/Soviet domains), he was much inspired by the Ballets Russes of Serge Diaghilev. I saw a few of his pieces displayed at the St Petersburg Gallery in Mayfair the other day, and managed to take a few pictures.

Spanish Dancer.

Spanish Dancer.





Les Girls.

Les Girls.

Orest Kiprensky’s Portraits I

Orest Adamovich Kiprensky (1782-1836) was a famed Russian Romantic portraitist and artist of historical paintings. You may recall the tragic story of his love life that I posted. Here we have a small set of his portraits.

The artist’s father, Adam Shvalbe. (1804).

Self-portrait with paintbrushes behind his ears. (1808).

Self-portrait with pink scarf. (1809).

Mother and child. (1809).

Portrait of Avdotia Molchanova with her daughter Elizaveta. (1814).

Portrait of a boy. (1819).

Self-portrait. (1828).

Art Roundup – May 2013

It’s a sunny spring finally, folks, and we are back with another look into the world of art in the month of May.

For the traveller:

The St Petersburg Gallery in London is a new venue for exhibition and sales (set up October last year), and is currently holding a display on The Golden Age of Russian Ballet and Theatre Design (until July 28, 2013). I think I might check it out.

The Russian Art Week runs in London from May 31 to June 7, 2013. There will be a series of pre-sales exhibitions by the major auction houses, lectures, films, and possibly even a plate or two of pelmeni.

The Pushkin House (in London again) organises a lecture on the artist Felix Lembersky on May 14, 2013, by Joseph Troncale, a professor of Russian literature and visual studies at the University of Virginia, Richmond.

London is certainly heavily represented this month: the Ben Uri Museum and Gallery organises Boris Aronson and the Avant-garde Yiddish Theatre (Kiev 1917 – New York 1929), which runs until June 30, 2013, and has the modernist sketches and theatre designs of the Jewish artist.

Zipping a couple of thousand miles to Rostov, check out Alexei Khamov’s exhibition In the Name of Life at the 16th Line Art Gallery. “In his new project Khamov uses poisons to create art works. Choosing a poison as a material for his works, the artist makes us think about cause-and-effect relationships in the bio-social world of which we are a part.”

For the reader:

The Calvert Journal has an interesting piece on the changing landscape of art galleries in Russia. While oligarchs are able to fund some large-scale spaces for exhibition, there are smaller efforts also, more intimate, dedicated to the up-and-coming. Moscow is a veritable hubbub.

Russian Art + Culture is a fine compendium of interviews, reviews, overviews, and general views. The latest edition has its editor chatting with three contemporary Russian artists in connection with the ongoing exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery.

And Trebuchet magazine has an article on Erarta Galleries and its focus on up-and-coming and non-conformist art from Russia.