THE THEATRE PLAYBILL: ART – AND ADS?
If it is true that "all the world's a stage” - or to be more exact "all the world's a stage and all the men and women are merely players" - then the theatrical playbill occupies a special place among other graphic genres. This explains the eye-catching title of the exhibition at the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum, given by its curators: "The Theatre Begins with the Playbill". This shift of attention is from the popular saying immortalized by Stanislavsky, "the theatre begins with the cloakroom", and the move from the proverbial cloakroom to the playbill is symptomatic. It is possible not only because of the greater artistic value of the playbill as an advertisement for the theatre as an institution, when compared to the famous cloakroom hall; the stylistic change of modern life also seems to be of even greater importance.
As we become more and more sensitive to the quality of utilitarian comfort which creates everyday things - among them, the cloakroom - we feel an acute need for excessively aesthetic surroundings. But our heightened sensitivity demands a replacement of some heavily didactic pathos with a playful and more light-hearted attitude. Moreover, the playbill is a link between the world of scenic fairy tale and fantasy, and hectic everyday life, and remains an artistic document of the epoch in which it was created. With the passing of time it becomes a fragment of a "grand style” associated with painting, the decorative and applied arts, and the scenic arts as well.
N. AKIMOV. "Joy" by D.Shcheglov. Leningrad. 1931
Any museum provides an opportunity to escape from the strict limitations of time. But our intricate post-modernist existence inevitably brings us back to the present, in which the interplay of the tragic and the festive forms a reality, which makes it difficult to appreciate the traditional chronological organization of the exhibition's display. That is the main reason for observing it "back to front", starting with the most recent works. It is interesting that even their captions stand out from the others: the playbills of earlier years are marked as usual, initially by the name of the artist, followed by the name of the play, and finally by its date; the text of the modern captions starts with "the design of, and then the usual information in the traditional order.
The Anglicism - "the design" - (the word which is not translated but transliterated into Russian) in the opening line calms you down. Everything is under control, and we are in the 21st century, and the expected impressions do not pretend to be either real or true: they are no more than a game, a process of "make-believe". Their postmodernist essence demonstrates itself in the combination of different layers of time and meaning. One such is the playbill for "Chevengur" for St. Petersburg's Maly Drama Theatre created - or rather, designed - by A. Andreichuck. Easily recognized blind men, almost from Bruegel, are all too reminiscent of Platonov's characters, and trudge past an undefined panoramic view of a modern city, whose skyscrapers are being attacked by a squadron of aeroplanes, against the background of a building vaguely resembling Moscow's "White House". V. Milovanov used a similar effect in the playbill to the comedy ballet of Dmitry Shostakovich "A Light Spring" at the Bolshoi Theatre. Above a bleached and ghostly fragment of the post-war painting "Bread" by T. Yablonskaya, which signifies the doubtful attraction of Soviet "goodies", photos of workers dressed in pre-war blue uniforms are counterposed with the flashy logos of the sponsors: Citibank, Samsung, and others.
Alongside the "designs", we see a display stand with various statements from the masters exhibited; one of them belongs to E. Dobrovinsky, and reads: "The theatre playbill is a dying genre in Russia." Despite a general inclination to deride "our complicated times", there is a huge difference between the most recent, computer-made works and their earliest counterparts - which are "handmade", painted with a brush and in a way closer to the theatrical poster as a separate and autonomous kind of art.
The playbill created by O. Savostyuck and B. Uspensky in 1975 for Prokofiev's ballet "Ivan the Terrible" is as an example of this obvious difference, where the dynamics of the brush movement itself produces a vibrant and emotionally- charged tragic effect. And, of course, the minimalist graphic works created by Boris Messerer are without doubt a part of Russia's artistic heritage. The playbills of Ed. Drobitzky, dating back to 1970s, remind the viewer most of all of that era's political posters, with their saturated and contrasting colours.
A further step back into the depths of time, and we encounter a picture-playbill which is still a bill, though its characters are painted as if from life, their forms and volumes conveyed by a rapid brush technique which makes it similar to a graphic art work. Yu. Pimenov created it for "Talents and Admirers" staged at the Mayakovsky Theatre in 1969. The range of works from the 1960s is almost unlimited: the playbills of the leading artist N. Akimov are examples of surrealistic experimentation ("The Art of Comedy" by Eduardo de Filippo, at the Comedy Theatre, Leningrad, 1966). There existed even an original retrospective approach, when at the end of that decade the artist of the jubilee play "The Good Person of Szechwan" staged at the Taganka Theatre, recreated the poignant visual style typical of the beginning of the 1960s, when the play was first staged. But even the artist's identity seems to be uncertain to the museum specialists: the name, B. Blank, is followed by a question mark. The 1960s, obviously, are already ancient history! Both memory and archives appear to fail to help those who strive to know the exact details...
The second hall of the exhibition shows the variety of the stylistic trends in 20th century art, ranging from the early 1920s to the 1950s. Akimov is represented here by a neo-classical bill marking the centenary of the Alexandrinsky Theatre, and by an expressive piece to the famous play by Evgeny Schwartz "The Shadow”, and by another which does not hide his touching admiration for constructivism in architecture, for the play "Joy". Some pieces have much in common with the cartoon graphics of the magazine "Crocodile", while others display a similarity with the laconic prints of the 1920s; on the other hand, the bill for "The Blue Blouse" by an unknown - remarkable though it may seem - artist, is overloaded with detail. Could it be that the bill of the "Columbus Theatre" from the unforgettable book "The Twelve Chairs" by Ilf and Petrov prompted its idea? Recall the text: "The sound effects by Galkin, Palkin, Malkin, Chalkin and Zalkind...Furniture from the wood workshops of Fortinbras at Umslopogas named after Balthazar?"
There is also a kaleidoscope of the 1920s, from Kustodiev's "The Flea" which combines the roughness of a popular print with the subtle elegance of the World of Art movement; as well as the constructivism of the playbill by V. and G. Stenbergs for the Berlin tour of the Chamber Theatre; and the fancy decorative bill by S. Sudeikin, and the "Rebellion of the Machines" based on Alexei Tolstoy's play, by Yu.Annenkov, which is hardly frightening at all when compared to contemporary anti-utopian thrillers and computer games.
Developments from before 1917 are no less important. The pivotal work here is the brilliant and magnificent playbill (an essential one for art history) - the large scale piece by Valentin Serov showing Anna Pavlova dancing. It is assumed that the notorious portrait of Ida Rubinstein was probably a study for yet another bill with which it would be twinned. It is only the portrayal of Anna Pavlova, however, that entered the history of art: the ballerina is depicted as if flitting away into the enchanting Silver Age. Next to this piece there is a photographic exhibition, showing a theatre auditorium with the representatives of the Russian elite of those days in the front stalls and in the boxes, with Imam Shamil among them.
There are also many playbills in the art nouveau style. Among those are some of special importance: Fedor Shekhtel is an outstanding example of a theatrical artist who became a designer and architect of the neo-Russian "decorations" of Moscow, including the buildings of the Yaroslavsky and Kazansky railway stations. Another brilliant name is that of Ivan Bilibin, who in the 1910s entered a second stage of his artistic work: his works from that period with their detailed decorative ornaments are stylised after prints dating back to the era before that of Peter the Great.
The 1920s were steeped in an atmosphere of exquisite decorativeness, as far as the number of styles and the abundance of various scenic ideas was concerned. "Festival: In the World of Dreams and Fantasy of the 21st century", the programme of which promises the spectacular entertainment of "An Aluminium Airship at Full Speed". On the bill this "airship", glittering with silver paint, is flown by a dashing beauty in a flyaway skirt. She actually rides the ship, leaving the bald God far behind on his outdated bicycle which is also a globe! Meanwhile the benefit performance bill of some M.K. brags of previously unseen "decorative innovations:
- fountains with live water;
- live pictures changing in front of you without any curtain;
- rough sea."
It is hard not to appreciate the fanciful inventiveness of our predecessors in their striving to astonish the audience - and in order to reach that goal they left no stone unturned. Thus, the bill for Maxim Gorky's "The Lower Depths" is decorated with wicker and plant ornaments, which would have been more appropriate for plays on more traditional "Old Russian" themes.
This particular bill announced the play staged in 1903 at the theatre in the Lopatin gardens in Smolensk. Its text contains an interesting detail: "Those who have bought tickets to the theatre need not pay the admission fee to the gardens." Such old playbills help us to understand past life in its naive completeness, and demonstrate the paradoxical logic of those who lived then. For example, the 1892 playbill for the "The Government Inspector" has a murderous sarcasm of which Tsar Nikolai I would say: "No one was spared, and I least of all!"; and happily announces that "the Korsch theatre orchestra, conducted by a certain 'somebody', will play the popular hymn "God Save the Tsar!" before the performance." In this case the irony could have been a well-planned trick: in past eras they definitely knew how to laugh and to play jokes on one another. In 1901 an unknown artist inviting the public to the masquerade ball "In the World of Decadence" painted the greenish vampire-muse with dead glassy eyes pressing the attributes of art to her skinny chest in such a scary manner that the viewer is not scared at all.
Though the artists certainly knew how to frighten, if that was necessary. One example is S. Panov, on the playbill for "Macbeth" staged at the New Vasiliostrovsky Theatre, which depicts a very convincing decaying scull.
The exhibition ends - or, in the terms of this article, begins - with the purely informative text-only hand-outs dating back to the early 19th century. Their visual minimalism resembles that of the works of the 1920s, with an absence of image and ornament. When observed in this way - back to front - the exhibition of the two halls of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum takes the viewer from the sophisticated works of the turn of the two centuries to the naive simplicity of works dating back to the early 19th century. It witnesses the irony of post-modernism, then goes to the idealism of the post-revolutionary years and further on to the refinement of modern art, and yet further to the simple purity of the classical epoch. Observing the exhibition in a traditional way would have illustrated the evolution of the straightforward narration of Pushkin's era through to the representation of various meanings in the golden age of theatrical playbills - as a result making a gripping decoration to the contemporary play called "Life", where it is impossible to divide art, life itself, acting and history from one another.