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New Morgan Exhibition Examines the Artistry and Innovation of Twentieth-century Stage Design
Erté (Romain de Tirtoff) Russian, St. Petersburg 1892–1990 Paris. L'Or for the Ziegfeld Follies, 1923. Gouache and metallic paint on paper. Signed at lower right, Erte; inscribed in verso, No. 644 Decor L'Or 1923, and stamped with the artist's name. Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:204. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

NEW YORK, NY.- The twentieth century saw a renaissance in the art of the theater. Modern technology and materials allowed for innovative approaches to stage sets. New theories concerning the role of the actor and set in theatrical performances encouraged a radical departure from long-standing practices and the moribund literalism of the nineteenth-century stage. Imagination and vision were encouraged, allowing a vital and varied stagecraft to emerge throughout England, Europe, Russia, and America.

This extraordinary period of innovation in modern scenic design is the subject of a new exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum entitled Creating the Modern Stage: Designs for Theater and Opera. On view from May 22 through August 16, 2009, the exhibition features over fifty drawings derived entirely from the Morgan’s holdings, principally from the collection formed by the celebrated American set designer Donald Oenslager (1902–1975). Enriching these colorful drawings is related material, including musical scores, rare books, and autograph manuscripts as well as more than thirty performance photographs documenting the finished set.

“This exhibition offers the visitor the opportunity to see a remarkable trove of designs for the stage that are rarely put on view at the Morgan,” said William M. Griswold, the museum’s director. “It is fascinating to see how experimentation in stagecraft in the twentieth century paralleled similar explorations in the other arts. The drawings are beautiful and imaginative visions of what the modern stage could be by artists willing to push boundaries and move beyond accepted conventions.”

The exhibition is divided into four thematic sections—Origins of Modern Scenic Theory, Destroying Tradition, the Russian Avant-Garde, and Diversity of the American Stage—together emphasizing the international scope of advances in set design.

The exhibition opens with visionary drawings for the stage by Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966) as well as texts fundamental to the foundation of modern scenic theory by Craig and the Swiss stage designer Adolphe Appia (1862–1928). Appia spurred a move toward visual simplicity and a unity of aesthetic elements in set design and direction, in part through his 1899 book, Die Musik und die Inscenierung (Music and Set Design). Appia’s innovations of modern stage design was essential to the work of Craig, whose Art of the Theatre (1905) set out principles for an imaginative and suggestive, rather than literal, approach to set design. These radical ideas—the “new stagecraft”—would gradually transform European theater through sporadic experimental productions and revolutionize theater design in the ensuing generations.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, ideas about the new stagecraft spread through the Continent and into central and eastern Europe. A synthesis of the arts was elemental to several avant-garde movements, such as the Austrian Sezession and the German Jugendstil. Artists became more involved in the theater, which revitalized scenic design and resulted in new and daring productions throughout Europe’s theatrical capitals.

Fostering such experiments were adventurous directors like Max Reinhardt, whose Deutsches Theater in Berlin was at the forefront of the technical innovation that characterized modern European stagecraft. Reinhardt’s large-scale revolving stage, for example, allowed for a greater variety of settings and rapid changes between scenes that intensified the audience’s engagement with the performance.

The break from aesthetic tradition is documented in dramatic designs by German Expressionists, including Ludwig Sievert and Emil Orlik. Sievert’s design for a 1922 staging of Kokoschka and Hindemith’s opera Mörder, Hoffnug der Frauen (Murderer, Hope of Women) depicts a moment of confrontation between Man and Woman echoed in the angular and aggressive forms of the set. During and immediately following World War II when materials were scarce, Berlin designers’ clever use of available resources continued to push the limits of convention. Dialogue, set, and movement were fused together to create a comprehensive theatrical experience, achieving a potent combination of content and design.

The Moscow Art Theater, founded in 1899, represented the vanguard of innovation. The collaboration between producers and designers, many of whom were painters, yielded an exceptional standard of stagecraft. At the center of this phenomenon was Mir iskusstva (World of Art), a group that emerged in St. Petersburg during the late 1900s. Beyond founding a journal, members Alexandre Benois, Serge Diaghilev, and Léon Bakst designed and executed dance and theater productions in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Shortly thereafter, avant-garde artists Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, and Nikolaǐ Pavlovich Akimov broke further from conventional set design, using as their guide abstract approaches influenced by Cubism and Constructivism. The lively history of Russian folk traditions also informed the aesthetic of their sets.

Bakst’s drawing for one of Diaghilev’s ballets, Les Orientales features a cascading arrangement of drapery, a hallmark of his designs that conveys the romantic tendencies of Mir iskusstva. Also included is Exter’s Construction for a Tragedy, a design typical of her skeletal architectural constructions which emphasized purity of form and demonstrated an inventive approach to structures. Soaring black vertical frames and ascending diagonal ramps of bright orange create independent, yet interconnected, spaces that could accommodate a wide variety of performances.

On stages throughout the United States, the vaudeville tradition of the early years of the twentieth century gave rise to the genre of musical theater, a distinctly American art form. Actors were in demand for both stage and screen, and the Depression inspired socially conscious plays as well as comedies. American theater also benefited from an influx of European and Russian designers, who brought their experience to New York and other major theater centers in the United States.

A new American stagecraft originated largely in the work of Robert Edmond Jones (1887–1954), one of the principal designers responsible for its reinvigoration. He aimed to unify the elements of acting, lighting, and setting through his dramatic use of abstract forms and lyrical tonal effects. To disseminate these innovations Jones, along with Lee Simonson, published texts on the subject, creating a major body of literature on the history of scenic design. The exhibition further chronicles modern developments in stage design through drawings by Claude Fayette Bragdon, Woodman Thompson, and Norman Bel Geddes; also included are designs for musical theater by Serge Soudeikine, Erté, and Oliver Smith.

Donald Oenslager designed the sets and lighting for Of Mice and Men in its original production, which opened at New York’s Music Box Theater in November 1937 and ran for 207 performances. Steinbeck’s novel, published earlier that year, presented Oenslager with the challenge of realizing on stage a narrative that was enjoying contemporary critical attention. Accompanying the drawing in the exhibition are tickets and programs related to the production as well as a carbon typescript belonging to Clare Luce, who played the lead female role. It is a true working copy: Luce annotated it throughout, including directions concerning her voice, eye movements, physical gestures, and the wording of her lines.

Eugene Berman is one of the best known New York stage designers of the 1940s and 1950s. Born in Russia, he fled during the revolution and worked in Paris before emigrating to America in 1940. As a set designer, he rejected the abstract aesthetic established by Appia and Craig in favor of more evocative, elegant, and richly colored settings, often on a vast scale and replete with ruins and mysterious light. Such practices can be seen in his designs for Amahl and the Night Visitors, a one-act opera commissioned by NBC television from the composer Gian Carlo Menotti in 1951.

“Working on a sketch for a setting is probably the happiest and briefest part of the artist’s work in the theater,” wrote Donald Oenslager. As a young man, he began collecting drawings, rare books, and prints related to the theater dating from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries. His collection, built throughout his prolific career as a designer and professor at the Yale University School of Drama, provides a comprehensive history of stage design over the course of four centuries. Totaling approximately 1,600 sheets, the collection was presented to the Morgan by Oenslager’s widow in 1982.

Creating the Modern Stage: Set Designs for Theater and Opera is organized by Jennifer Tonkovich, curator of drawings and prints, with the assistance of Elizabeth Nogrady, Moore Curatorial Fellow, The Morgan Library & Museum.

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