Scenic renaissance

Masterpieces of Russian Stage Design 1880-1930, by John Bowlt, Nina and Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, and Olga Shaumyan, Antique Collectors Club RRP£49.50

The great years of Russian stage design – leading up to the astonishments the west knew during the two phenomenal decades (from 1909) of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and then the exceptional verve of modernism in Moscow during the early years of Soviet theatre – are now commonplaces in art history, thanks to museum activity and sale-room inflation. Benois and Bakst, Exter and Popova and Tchekhonin are catnip for collectors, but it was not always thus.

This finely realised volume, a revealing record of the history of Russian theatrical genius in bringing magic to the stage, is also an account of how a remarkable collection was formed over half a century – and of how collectors live with their obsessions, with the joys and difficulties of finding their prey.

Nikita and Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky began their quest for Russian theatre design in the late 1950s, when it was not considered as significant a subject as now. (A design by Natalia Goncharova could be found for $2, or 12 Bakst costume sketches for £800.)

In this handsome volume, more than 250 finely reproduced illustrations reveal the “scenic renaissance” brought about by the potency and vitality of the Russian artists’ imagination. We know of the nostalgic arrièrisme that informed much of Benois’s work, and the exuberance of Bakst’s designs. But here we savour prodigious work by Boris Erdman (his 1921 Circus Horseman, made for a Moscow cabaret theatre in those vivid days before socialist realism blighted the Russian arts, is a firework display); by Alexandra Exter (such stunning costumes as those for “A Woman with a farthingale” in La dama duende of 1924); bravura designs by El Lissitzky and Anatoly Petritsky.

Alexandra Exter’s woman with fan design, c1924

This collection, which is astonishing not only in its range and quality, but also in its demonstration of unfailing dedication in discovering the artists and their work, still opens our eyes to this vital aspect of a national art and its development. The Russian temperament, Russian politics – from imperial theatres and émigré achievements to Soviet-era propaganda and proletkult – made a theatre of dazzling vitality that was committed and utterly beguiling.

The essays and commentaries here provide valuable documentation and insights into the designs, their genesis, and the extent of this astonishing period in theatrical history. Intriguingly, it also records the power of the collector’s vision, rooted in both national and aesthetic choice, and the ardours and rewards of tracking down each piece.

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