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September 13, 2013 6:29 pm
A volume published last year – Masterpieces of Russian Stage Design – provided a valuable survey of some of the grandest Russian theatre designs, which Nikita Lobanov Rostovsky and his wife Nina had hunted down over four decades. Their subject was the astonishing half-century of visual invention that bridged the years 1880-1930 – a time when Russian artists decorated productions in Tsarist and then Communist Russia, and later worked vividly in western Europe, not least for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
For Nikita Lobanov, the quest for such prime examples of design must surely have seemed representative of that scattering of distinguished Russian families (such as his own) and Russian painters and theatre artists that came with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The prodigious range of the collection, which encompasses designers as diverse as Alexandre Benois, whose Petrushka decorations allow us even today to know something of the bustle of the Butterweek fairs in the St Petersburg of the 1830s, Alexandra Exter, with her stunning constructivist fantasies, and – a fascinating decorator hitherto unknown to me – Irakli Gamrekeli, leave the viewer, and surely the audience of the time, beguiled.
This new and supplementary encyclopedia, with its mass of colour illustrations, its meticulous detailing of artists and stagings and its scholarly apparatus, is of prime significance. For the general reader there are many splendid discoveries; for anyone in today’s theatre, with its drearily modish predictabilities of image, it should prove an eye-opener, an eye-cleanser, an inspiration.
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