Konstantin Korovin and His Workshop at the Bolshoi Theatre

Yekaterina Churakova

Magazine issue: 
#1 2012 (34)

Konstantin Korovin was employed at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1899 “to gain experience for six months”, and in 1903 he already held the office of artist and stage designer and librarian for the Imperial Theatres of Moscow and St.Petersburg, and from 1910 was the chief stage designer of the Imperial Theatres.

He began his theatrical career in 1884 at Savva Mamontov’s opera house. Under Vasily Polenov’s guidance, he created sets for a production of Verdi’s “Aida” (1885) and later, working independently, for Bizet’s “Carmen” and Delibes’s “Lakme”. A reviewer at the “Novosti dnya” (News of the Day) newspaper wrote: “All three ‘Lakme’ sets by Korovin are wondrous — they seem to emanate the tropical heat of India. The costumes are tasteful, and even more than that — original.”

The first poster of a state-run theatre to reference Korovin as a stage designer is dated September 4 1900 — he worked on the sets for a new production of Dargomyzhsky’s “Mermaid” at the Bolshoi Theatre. Other artists working on the production’s design alongside Korovin were Pavel Lebedev, Ivan Feoktistov and Baron Nikolai Klodt.

But as for Korovin he began his theatrical career earlier, in 1899. Invited by Vladimir Telyakovsky, he actively contributed to the design of new productions, but judging by Telyakovsky’s journal, he was first employed as a consultant — to oversee the manufacturing of sets, and to select costumes from the wardrobes and the like. A playbill for the opera “The Trojans in Carthage” mentions Korovin only as Vladimir Sizov’s collaborator in the production of sketches for the props, although Telyakovsky in his journals also mentions the artist’s contribution to the production of several sets. “Yesterday Savitsky, a decorator, brought a drawing of Dido’s room he made based on Korovin’s drawing. The drawing was very poor in terms of the assortment of tones and colouration, and Korovin’s guidance seemed to have left no trace. When I made a remark about this and suggested that Savitsky should seek Korovin’s advice, he said, ‘Why would I do that?’” 1

Such attitudes on the part of the workshop’s regular employees are utterly understandable; later Anatoly Geltser and Karl Valts, too, would make every effort to discredit the work done by Korovin and his associates. It was becoming obvious that to ensure a smooth run for the set workshop Korovin had to work in cooperation with like-minded artists. A similar situation existed in St. Petersburg, where a set workshop was organised by Alexander Golovin. But Korovin and Golovin performed their duties as directors of the workshops in radically different ways: Golovin kept a vigilant eye over the process, ensuring that the sets and costumes were manufactured in agreement with the drawings. Korovin, in contrast, not only did not object to, but encouraged improvisation in the set builders who added flesh to his ideas — this fact makes it very difficult for a contemporary researcher to identify the authorship of the sketches. The posters for opening nights carefully list the creators of the set and costume drawings and craftsmen manufacturing the sets and costumes, but the pictures themselves often contradict the information from the posters. Currently researchers, relying on posters and handbills, have identified 60 productions of the Bolshoi Theatre where Korovin is referenced as a designer: the portion of the theatre’s archive devoted to the 1901 production of the ballet “The Little Humpbacked Horse” alone contains more than 500 costume sketches — a single artist could hardly have handled such a large volume of work. The dating of some pieces remains questionable, too. Some drawings, obviously created for purely functional purposes, have dates that do not match a single opening night of the production to which they are related. According to the memoirs of Korovin’s contemporaries, he often continued to work on a production even after it had premiered. When a backdrop grew old and had to be re-painted, Korovin preferred to make a new drawing and to paint a new backdrop rather than copy the previous work. But such renovations of sets were very rarely reflected in handbills and posters.

Some of Korovin’s collaborators at the workshop are known but the names of many others have fallen into oblivion. We give here brief information about Korovin’s associates, who, in cooperation with him, completely changed the public’s ideas about stage design.

Vladimir Ilyich Sizov (1840-1904) was an archaeologist, a secretary of the Historical Museum, an art critic, and from 1888 a reader in the history of everyday life at the Moscow Theatre College. In 1899, at the same time as Korovin, he was invited by Telyakovsky to work as an artistic consultant on the production of historical plays at the Moscow Branch of the Imperial Theatres. “He has approached his duties with extraordinary vigour and devotion. He is up at work early in the morning, scours libraries and museums for the necessary information and images, makes drawings of costumes, furniture, face paint, visits tailors and supervises the manufacturing of the costumes, and all these activities take up all of his time remaining after the work at the museum and the classes at the college.”2. His sketches emphasise above all the historical, ethnographical feel of a costume or a prop, his drawing style strongly differs from that of Korovin and his assistants, and his pictures are almost always signed. But it was Sizov who began to cultivate at the state run music theatre company the enthusiasm for historically appropriate stage design. For instance, preparing for the 1904 production of the opera “Ivan Susanin”, he arranged an expedition to Susanin’s homeland, near Kostroma, to collect materials for the production. Interestingly, the playbill mentions that “the Russian costumes and adornments in women’s apparel were made after Konstantin Korovin’s sketches that he drew from real items found in Kostroma”. Producing and designing ballets such as Pugni’s “The Pharaoh's Daughter” (1905) and Arends’ “Salammbo” (1910), Korovin and Alexander Gorsky would treat the relevant historical material with similar care.

Georgy Ivanovich Golov (1885-1918) was a designer and Korovin’s regular collaborator. In 1894 he enrolled at the Stroganov Art College, where he was taught by Stanislaw Noakowski, Dmitry Shcherbinovsky, Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Vrubel, Pavel Pashkov and Nikolai Sobolev. Still in college, in 1900, together with Ivan Feoktistov and Pavel Lebedev he was working on the set for Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s opera “The Mermaid”, and after finishing college in 1904, he was hired by Korovin as an assistant at the Bolshoi Theatre’s set workshop. His duties were mainly focused on architectural sets and he was a skilled drawer of ornaments. Relying on Korovin’s drawings, he created sets for the following productions:   Ludwig Minkus’s ballet “La Bayadere” (1904), Mikhail Glinka’s opera “A Life for the Tsar” (1904), Alexander Glazunov’s ballet “Raymonda” (1908), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh” (1908), Andrei Arends’ ballet “Salammbo” (1910), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera “The Snow Maiden” (1911), Modest Mussorgsky’s opera “Khovanshchina” (1912), Adolphe Charles Adam’s ballet “Le Corsaire” (1912), Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Sleeping Beauty” (1914, Mariinsky Theatre), Alexander Borodin’s opera “Prince Igor” (1914) and others. Relying on Konstantin Yuon’s drawings, he accomplished in 1912 sets for Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” at Sergei Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes”.

In 1914 he participated in a project of recreating sets after they were destroyed by fire in the Bolshoi’s storage house. “As for ‘Onegin’, I’m only working on the first three scenes, relying on Korovin’s ‘oral drawings’. Of course I don’t quite fancy the task, so I refused to work on the last two scenes. Instead they saddled me with the job of finishing off the ‘Schubertiana’, ‘Carnival’, one scene from the ‘Nutcracker’ and ‘Demon’3,” Golov wrote in a letter to his wife. Larissa Gavrilovna Golova (18871967), who, like her husband, was employed by the Bolshoi as a set constructor; she reminisced that Korovin trusted her husband so much that sometimes he only described with words what he wanted to see on the stage, and Golov drew sketches himself and then, after Korovin’s approval, painted the backdrops — in the playbills, however, Golov is often referenced only as a set builder, but not as a creator of drawings.

Other professionals involved in the creation of sets included Baron Nikolai Klodt von Jurgensburg (1865-1918) and P. Ovchinnikov. But stylistically their pieces differ more from Korovin’s and Golov’s works and their drawing manner is somewhat closer to the old school of stage design. Larisa Golova recalled: “Ovchinnikov utilized an original colour scheme, somewhat different from Korovin’s — very light-toned, pale-yellow and white with grey-brown. But Korovin did not ask Ovchinnikov to change his palette — on the contrary, when a piece looked well, he praised its original features.”4

Vasily Vasilievich Dyachkov (?-1920) was an artist specializing in costumes and the dyeing of textiles, who worked at the Bolshoi and Maly theatres. From November 6 1901 Diachkov headed the dyeing workshop of the Moscow Board of Imperial Theatres. Playbills for only 11 productions reference him as a costume designer: “Snow Maiden” (1907), “La Boheme” by Giacomo Puccini) (1911), “Le Corsaire”, “Rhinegold” (Richard Wagner), “Khovanshchina”, “The Twelfth Year” (by Boris Yanovsky) — all produced in 1912; “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” (by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov), “Schubertiana”, “Love is Quick” (by Edward Grieg), “Carnival” (by Robert Schumann) — all produced in 1913; and “Nutcracker” from 1919. Only a handful of pieces feature his signature while most costume sketches are unsigned. However, these drawings also carry notes written by Korovin. According to memoirs of ballet dancers of that period, Diachkov was Korovin’s right hand in the costume department — most of all because as an expert in textile dyeing he knew very well how to technically achieve the effects required by the artist using the simplest materials. Feeling and understanding Korovin’s style very well, he also was in charge of drawing sketches.

The costumes of main characters and chorus performers were elaborated equally carefully, and Korovin usually produced the most memorable pictures of the former. The majority of Dyachkov’s pieces feature stereotypical, quite artlessly drawn figures not reflecting the individuality of the characters portrayed — looking a little pretentious, both men and women are depicted in similar poses (slightly turned, with arms held apart), the pencilled lines are slim, faces, hands and feet are unelaborated — they resemble porcelain figurines. But the colour scheme, supplied with verbal explanations, is a creation of a top-class artist.

Telyakovsky’s wife, Gurly Loginovna Telyakovskaya, actively participated in the making of costumes. According to her husband, Gurly was very talented, an excellent drawer who was also well versed in the fine points of dress-making, often explaining to tailors her drawings and how her ideas should be realized. But the surviving sketches are quite poor both in terms of drawing style and colour design, and the figures are stereotypical. She often sketched costumes for crowd scenes. It is worth noting that playbills almost never featured her name. Meanwhile, her participation in the process of set construction often caused negative reactions among theatre employees and the press, who regarded it as an interference with the life of the theatre.

Virvara Yakovlevna Bushina worked as a designer at the wardrobe department from February 1 1900; on November 1 1910 she was appointed artist and librarian at the same department. It appears that her main responsibility was finding all necessary materials related to the history of costume — there aren’t very many sketches signed by her, nor is she mentioned on the playbills as a costume designer.

Although the creation of a set for each production involved many participants working on an equal footing, if we look at a complete array of the dozens of often very different drawings produced for any single production, we see a solid picture of the production’s colour design. In fact, employing Korovin, the Bolshoi for the first time employed a chief designer for its productions, a designer engaged in the creative process alongside the director and the choreographer — practically all of Korovin’s projects at the Bolshoi were realized in creative collaboration with Alexander Gorsky. It was Korovin who proposed to replace the traditional corset costumes of ballerinas with looser garments such as tunics, which in many ways influenced the language of ballet. No longer a mere backdrop for dancers, sets became a fully-fledged part of the performance. Scene design was for the artist not only “music for the eyes”, which alone was a very bold concept, but also a “pure” art.

In his memoirs Korovin quoted a conversation he had with his mentor and friend: “ ‘What a pity that you devote all of yourself to theatre work, it’s a pity that you don’t have time for painting and your paintings can rarely be seen at exhibitions,’ Polenov once said. ‘Few people,’ I replied to Polenov, ‘understand my paintings, and who needs them after all? But designing for the stage I do the same work as other people do, and I believe this is an equally pure art. And I’m happy with it.’”5 Since this art comes alive only on the stage, when the performance is on, everything that happens during the pre-production period is equivalent to endless rehearsals and exploration, and the work done by choreographers, artists, stage performers, conductors and set builders has equal importance. In his review ofthe 1912 production of Adam’s “Le Corsaire”, Goloushev6 wrote: “In this production, it is not an artist and a stage technician who contribute to the creation of a choreographic image but the choreographer who dynamises the pictorial image proposed by the designers. It is as if the impressionist colour spots from Korovin’s best paintings came alive and started moving, producing endless combinations.”7 There is a good reason that the drawings of costumes and props often carry notes written by Korovin and Gorsky — suggestions to ask advice of the stage technician Karl Fyodorovich Valts, detailed descriptions of how one or another detail should look, and the materials to be used in its making. These notes touched not only on colour or texture but also on the “movements” of the costume, the principle of its “action” in the general design of a dance or a scene.

Long before Fyodor Fyodorovsky, whose work at the Bolshoi is generally regarded as the starting point of its set workshops’ operation, Korovin brought together outstanding designers who not only recreated the artist’s drawings in a size fit for the stage but also invented new technologies and actively contributed to the creative process.

The surviving photographs which tell the story of how Korovin’s impressionist drawings of sets were brought to reality are of great interest for researchers, and show how accurately the designers followed the costume sketches, and how and what sort of materials were used in pursuit of the challenging objectives set by the artist.


  1. Telyakovsky, Vladimir. “Journals of the Director of the Imperial Theatres. 1898-1901”. Moscow. 1998. P. 138.
  2. Yearbook of Imperial Theatres. Issue 15. Supplement: 1904-1905. Pp. 318-320
  3. Golova, Larissa. On the Theatre’sArtists. Memoirs. Leningrad, 1972. P. 51.
  4. Ibid. P. 33
  5. Moleva, Nina. . “Konstantin Korovin. Documents. Letters. Memoirs”. Moscow, 1963. P. 163
  6. Pen-name of the renowned art critic and graphic artist Sergei Glagol.
  7. Goloushev. Theatre and Music: Bolshoi Theatre:Revival of the ballet “Le Corsaire”// Russkie vedomosty (Russian News Sheet). 1912, # 13. January 17.





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