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Dobuzhinsky, doyen of the ‘World of Art’ (Mir Iskusstva), said that theatrical truth is distinct from that provided by historical documents; rather, it is a depiction of the spiritual truth of an epoch and its style.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’.


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