"Uncork a bottle of champagne, or Read again 'The Marriage of Figaro'!" The Creative Alliance of Golovin and Stanislavsky

Margarita Chizhmak

Magazine issue: 
#3 2014 (44)


The life-changing meeting between Golovin and Stanislavsky took place on June 6 1925 in Odessa, where both had come on an assignment related to the revival of a local theatre3. Over the previous 30 years or so of both men's "life in art" they had been keeping track of each other's artistic accomplishments. Golovin wrote in his memoirs: "Stanislavsky brought with him the sparkling colours of his marvellously rich directorial palette, the colours which enlivened, rejuvenated and recreated the entire nature of stage productions."4 Stanislavsky, in turn, called Golovin in his memoirs "a great artist with a big name", and in a letter to the actor Leonid Leonidov mentioned him as "the last artist from our league"5, referring to his adherence to traditional high-quality stage design, rather than the constructivist abstract design which had gained popularity.

The idea to stage Beaumarchais' comedy "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Moscow Art Theatre came up in April 1925. The director envisioned it as a "gay cheerful show with music, singing, dancing, which would sparkle and bubble like champagne"6. Nobody else could have realised this vision as brilliantly as Golovin did. In Odessa Stanislavsky offered the artist a contract for the intended production, which Golovin readily accepted. That was the beginning of the collaboration of the great director and the great artist, which proved the final chapter of the latter's artistic career.

Playful and full of ribald jokes, the comedy, which was written and first staged during Louis XVI's reign, had been subjected to censorship more than once; later, following the King's edict, its action was moved from France to Spain. This change of "setting" - a kind of"censorship screen" - later caused heated debates among directors of subsequent productions. At the Moscow Art Theatre, there were different points of view. Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko believed it was "more appropriate to produce 'The Marriage' as a Spanish play (contrary to existing tradition), because that would make the performance more passionate, temperamental, vernacular." He even insisted that the names of characters and places should be pronounced with Spanish accentuation - for instance, "Figaro"7. Stanislavsky himself, in his comments about the production design sent to Golovin, talked about "a Frenchy, rather than Carmenish, Spain. The other option would not be suitable for Beaumarchais."8 The artist sent his first costume sketches to Moscow in October 1925, when Stanislavsky and his young assistants Yelizaveta Teleshova and Boris Vershilov were actively discussing their vision of the future production and auditions were being held with the key performers - Nikolai Batalov (Figaro) and Yury Zavadsky (Count Almaviva).

Concurrently, the translation of the play was being prepared and musical compositions selected for the production. The young composer K. Vinogradov found interesting old Spanish compositions that had never been used before, which Reinhold Gliere later helped him to orchestrate. Vladimir Mass composed cheerful songs to the tunes, which all of the theatre's staff enjoyed singing. The guest choreographer Baranov developed for the actors a simple but very lively and showy dance design with elements of Spanish folk dance, including the bourrie and farandole.

The Moscow Art Theatre at the same time had set up a stage-set workshop for exploring new techniques of scenic design, under the charge of Viktor Simov. As one individual working at the theatre recalled: "Working with Golovin, Stanislavsky applied a new principle which he talked about a lot. He believed that it was necessary to team up a wonderful artist-director such as Simov with an artist-painter such as Golovin, whose taste he admired."9

Many experiments were made in the workshop, but the director, dissatisfied with the results, made the drafts of the layouts himself, determining the meaning and image of each set. These drafts were sent to Golovin in Detskoe Selo, who accurately realised Stanislavsky's ideas, giving his individual imprint to them, which delighted the director. "He loved Golovin's sketches, treated them very delicately, spent much time fleshing out the vision of every costume, even for crowd scenes, and selecting suitable performers." The costumes to Golovin's design were made by the famous Moscow tailor Nadezhda Lamanova, who, as Stanislavsky wrote to Golovin, "having seen your sketches, had a rush of creative energy". The day of the major review of the ready costumes, December 31 1926, was a day of triumph for the theatre's actors. Stanislavsky wrote rapturously to Detskoe Selo: "... I cannot but feel elated over everything: your sensitivity, which makes you grasp in a flash the director's ideas, and your marvellous knowledge of the stage. (I'll confess to you that the striped harlequins which seemed to me lacking in stage appeal looked wonderful when illuminated by the footlights.) You'd seen what my experienced eye as a director did not. The mise-en-scénes, for which you found wonderful justifications, and the dazzling colours, which are positioned exactly where needed - not contrary to, but in agreement with the main line of action and the essence of the play. Your colours, although bright, do not strike the eye but rather provide a background for the costumes. You have a wonderful sense of the actors' bodies due to the knowledge of the folds of textiles and cuts of the costumes."10

The costumes turned out so well thanks to the principles applied by Golovin in his work. Although he had never seen the lead performers and crowd scene players, he asked to have photographs of all of them sent to him, complete with information (if possible) about their heights. Height was especially important to Golovin because it determined the arrangement of colour details and elements of the costume. On the margins of his sketches he drew, in the finest detail, elements of the costumes and all sorts of accessories - the theatre specialists were astonished by his knowledge of dress-cuts and the principles of tailoring.

Golovin's painstaking approach inevitably delayed the premiere of the production. The director of the Imperial Theatres Vladimir Telyakovsky, who had suffered from such delays, wrote: "...If you don't pester him, do not keep an eye on him, he would spend 25 years on every production. He was forever thinking that the project was not ready yet, that he could have designed better, and given a more detailed treatment to the newly-found materials."11

The artist himself talked laconically about his approach to finding visual images for the performances: "What is needed first of all___is knowledge, which alone can completely liberate fantasy." 12 Golovin would read a play or libretto attentively and make notes, read the author's other works, and learn about every detail of the director's concept. Then he would go over a wide variety of books and prints, visit museums, and copy pictures from French fashion magazines. When the artist was already gravely ill, he was sent old books and rare picture albums from the Leningrad public library. The accumulated visual images were brilliantly re-processed to produce something marvellous - colourful fantasies, splendid inimitable details and luxurious accessories.

The Moscow Art Theatre's senior management resented Golovin's slowness - he was in fact responsible for a two-year delay of the premiere. The minutes of the meetings of the theatre committee include many angry remarks: "As for Golovin, there is nothing else to be done - without risking his departure", "Golovin appears to have heeded the hint", or "a thing to remember: Golovin is a special person and should be talked with with great sophistication and caution."13 But Golovin's main defender was Stanislavsky himself, who greatly appreciated the artist's contribution to "The Marriage of Figaro" and would not allow him to be hurried, let alone "bring up the possibility of inviting another artist". The account of one contemporary reads: "One detail comes to the mind. The administration thrashed out with Golovin the terms of his contract. Stanislavsky demanded to show him the draft of the agreement before sending it to Golovin. The text angered Konstantin Sergeievich - he took his fountain pen, struck out all clauses that disadvantaged the artist and left only the theatre's obligations. And he also considerably raised the sum of the reward."14 The theatre was to pay Golovin 2,500 rubles for eight approved sketches of the sets and more than 60 costumes.

It should be noted that during the last years of Golovin's life Stanislavsky more than once tried to secure for him a better pension and better housing conditions, to ensure that he had medical check-ups and asked Nikolai Semashko to "put in a word" for him with the State Healthcare Agency (Narkomzdrav)15. Although Golovin was a recognised artist who enjoyed a great reputation for his theatre work, who was invited to teach at the department of scenic design at the Academy of Fine Arts in 192616, and awarded the title of Distinguished Artist of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, and had a monograph about him published in 1928, he continued to suffer financial hardship. He repeatedly complained about shortages of money, often asking in his letters to send him a part of the payment in advance. Stanislavsky's care and support were of great importance for him. After receiving, in October 1926, a copy of the first edition of Stanislavsky's memoir "My Life in Art" with the director's inscription, Golovin wrote affectionately to Moscow: "For me, it was such a touching token of recognition on your part - I am generally disliked, so I highly appreciate an attitude such as yours."17

Golovin did indeed feel lonely and forgotten at this time. When his health deteriorated significantly in autumn 1925, he stopped leaving Detskoe Selo altogether. His friends from St. Petersburg and the staff of the theatres with whom he had worked for many years visited him less and less often. Even in the period when he was active in his work, in the 1900s and 1910s, the time of his success and fame, his contemporaries noted his "sequestered life"18 - and now the artist lived almost like a hermit. With his second wife Anna Geraskina (1886-1972), a needle-worker at the Mariinsky Theatre's costume workshop, Golovin occupied rooms in the right semi-circular wing of the Catherine Palace from 1913 onwards, and moved to Srednyaya Street in 1927. According to the accounts of people visiting the Golovins, the modestly furnished home had a very snug atmosphere. The cream-coloured walls had shawls hanging on them, there were lots of china pieces and, invariably, flowers: Golovin was an avid grower of flowers all his life. It was in this setting that the artist created his last portraits. Anyuta, as Golovin affectionately called his wife, helped him with everything - she primed his canvases, using a special formula she had invented, and even contrived an original form of easel, which was easier to use for the already sick artist.

To facilitate Golovin's work on the sketches of the sets, Stanislavsky decided to regularly send to Detskoe Selo the young artist Ivan Gremislavsky as a "liaison officer". Gremislavsky wrote about his first impressions when he met the artist in 1926: "Knowing and holding him in great esteem as the best exponent of the theatre of pictures, who was called in St. Petersburg in the old days 'The Magnificent', I expected to see an aged 'St. Petersburg lion'. What I saw in fact was the most unpretentious, charming white-haired man, morbidly overweight and wearing a funny, floor-length rosy chintz shirt."19 Soon, after several visits to Detskoe Selo, Gremislavsky became Golovin's close friend, and spent the summer of 1927 there with his family - his wife Yulia Nikolaevna, their little son Valerik and dog Bingolo. Golovin would repeatedly evoke this period, with warmth, in his letters to "dear Vanechka" in Moscow.

After one such regular visit to Detskoe Selo, Gremislavsky took with him some of "The Marriage of Figaro" sketches, after which he enthusiastically told the artist that the people at the theatre, having seen his works, "went mad, stopped rehearsing and became so excited that they could not collect themselves. Konstantin Sergeievich repeatedly said: 'Do you understand how you should perform in these sets? What am I going to do with you now? I have to incinerate you all in order to achieve a performance worthy of the Golovin sets.'"20

The premiere, on April 28 1927, was a smashing success. After the end of the performance "there was clamour and shouting, endless applause and ovations, and the curtain went up at least ten times"21, wrote Olga Bokshanskaya, the secretary at the Arts Theatre's board of directors, to Sergei Bergson in America.

The production was immediately characterised as "a great testament of taste and culture"22. Next morning Stanislavsky sent a telegram to Detskoe Selo: "Enthralled by your genius, the public was raving. Applauding without stopping, it called you out onto the stage. We infinitely regret that you were not present at this real and immense feast in your honour. All the staff of our theatre and I congratulate you, our dear, beloved, great artist. We believe that our subsequent productions with your participation will be your triumph."23

The showy and emotional production of "The Marriage of Figaro", which Golovin designed in impeccable style and with elegant taste, was combined with "the day of madness", which the director emblematised in a rotating stage with quickly changing sets. This incessant action, and the dynamics of transition from one scene to another set a very quick pace for the play and masterfully"enlivened" the cold static quality of the infinitely beautiful entourage, never letting it turn into a "frozen" beauty. From one act to another the inner beat of the performance quickened, finally reaching an apotheosis of dynamics, joy and light in the last scene. The pageantry of the finale erupted like champagne from a bottle uncorked con brio.

The sets and costumes "burned" ever brighter and "rang" ever louder with all their colourful richness against the background of the excellent direction. The second and fifth acts received thunderous applause. The public was enchanted and fascinated by the splendour of Golovin's"Countess's Bedroom" and the succession of pergolas in the "Garden", which slipped in and out of sight among the park's clumps of trees. The stage featured an emulation of the artist's surroundings in Tsarskoe Selo: the intricate layout of the park with its meandering alleys steeped in the greenery of clipped trees and shrubs; palatial pavilions and snow-white statues; and the glistening smooth surface of the ponds and fountains sparkling in the sun. Not surprisingly, Golovin masterfully crafted the stage landscape. Similar echoes of Golovin's "home life" were present in his design of the bedroom, where the forms and decor of the windows, the door-mantles and accessories mimicked the appointments of the halls in the Catherine Palace.

The production of "The Marriage of Figaro, or The Day of Madness" signalled the birth of the new glorious "constellation" of Golovin and Stanislavsky, which illuminated with its fading light the darkening skies of Russian classical theatre. The symbiotic relationship between Golovin's artistic nature and Stanislavsky's creativity was probably the key to the triumph of their art. "Drawing finely and neatly without effort, gifted with a most rich colourful imagination and refined and elegant sense of style, Golovin was the best match for the objective set for him by the creator of the production. This project of Golovin and Stanislavsky shows the heights reached by Russian culture before the revolution. This is what St. Petersburg ended up with,"24 concluded Golovin's contemporary G. Leman.

Enthralled by the beauty of Golovin's art and encouraged by the success of the work, Stanislavsky quickly signed the artist up for productions of Shakespeare's "Othello" and "Much Ado About Nothing"25, whose premieres were expected the next season, and also contemplated reviving "The Cherry Orchard" with Golovin's sets. At the celebration of the Moscow Art Theatre's 30th anniversary, in 1928, the theatre presented in its lobby a show featuring the full array of the sketches of the sets and costumes created by Golovin for "The Marriage of Figaro"26. It seemed as if the Moscow theatre-going public was being promised new masterpieces born out of the creative partnership of Golovin and Stanislavsky.

Work on Shakespeare's "Othello" began in the summer of 1927 and proceeded along the same lines - the artist and the director exchanged letters, thrashing out details of the production and scenic design, with Gremislavsky bringing to Detskoe Selo detailed layouts and models produced by Simov27. The artist was visited several times by Leonid Leonidov, who was to play Othello. Setting about the sketches and immersing himself in the Middle Ages, Golovin wrote: "My visions are quite funny - I don't know what will come of it." His artistic taste suggested him to "encase" Shakespeare's tragedy in a 16th-century style. Heavy bas-reliefs of dark wood, dim Venetian mirrors clad in shining gold, luxuriously ornamented interiors with a plethora of small elegant details - all had to breathe a noble European past as well as a sense of the Oriental exotic.

However, having reviewed Golovin's initial sketches, Stanislavsky did not approve them - he believed they were too"operatic" and lacking in the "spirit of 'Othello' - the spirit of drama". "No Venice. No Orient!" he concluded. The artist and the director became divided in their opinions - Stanislavsky's historical and realist take on the play was at odds with the theatrical principles of Golovin the artist and alien to the very nature of the "aesthete painter". Nevertheless, work continued. Gremislavsky left an account about one of his numerous visits to Detskoe Selo, where he always heard Golovin complain about the models brought to him, which emulated sets strewn with sand and pasted over with corkwood: "Vanechka, my dear, you've just killed me!... Oh, I'm really sick, I cannot stop thinking of it. How can they not feel that all this is awful. Tasteless."28

Soon the work became even more complicated because Stanislavsky fell ill and left for Nice for medical treatment. The directorial responsibilities were assigned to Ilya Sudakov, who initially adhered to Stanislavsky's guidelines, but later changed them considerably. It took nearly three years to stage the play - the process was complicated not only because the creators of the production, Stanislavsky and Golovin, were far from Moscow, but also because a "political element" was being grafted onto the theatre's management practices - according to actors' accounts, this made the atmosphere in the theatre "dreadful and difficult".

On the day before the premiere, which took place on March 14 1930, Olga Knipper-Chekhova wrote: "_ I cannot tell how I feel about the 'Othello'. Golovin is absolutely dull and old like an old opera - just look at the Cyprus wall... Not a hint of Shakespeare. It's all very sad_ Sudakov has been disowned, nobody among the artists wants to work with him. I understand them... I think that the move with 'Othello' was a wrong one. Since Konstantin Sergeievich, who was expected to follow through with the plan he had spent a lot of time nurturing, is no longer around, Golovin should have been taken off the project and the play mounted in a simplified form, with a woollen cloth, without pretension - this would have been better and hurt less."29

The production was taken off after ten performances, by the end of May. In Nice, Stanislavsky, who was informed by his correspondents that the production was not viable and of the complete disappointment of the public, ordered to have his name removed from the posters. Golovin, who stayed, as before, in Detskoe Selo, was seriously ill, and did not see the production which would become his last project.

According to the accounts of contemporaries, there were several reasons behind the failure of "Othello". Most importantly, the part of Othello was too difficult for Leonidov. The actor regularly experienced psychotic breakdowns - the footlights and auditorium scared him; overcome by fear of having to make a move, he would clutch at pieces of the sets and furniture. Another reason was that Stanislavsky had left, while Sudakov - the assistant he had chosen, who was regarded at the theatre as a "director of meagre talents" - significantly changed the director's initial vision of the performance. The third failure was its scenic design, criticised by Knipper-Chekhova. Golovin was not at fault on this count. The cause of her dissatisfaction is probably highlighted in this passage from Bokshanskaya's letter to Bergson: "The exterior of the performance is a major problem. I didn't doubt that Vanechka would not manage to create the sets from Golovin's brilliant sketches. These dull colours and this presentable but absolutely uninspired pictorial composition, as well as the dreadful bright blue sea with immovable wave-caps everywhere, get on your nerves with their prettiness."30

For all that, Golovin's sketches of the sets and costumes for the production astonish the viewer with their splendid details and ornamentation, the delicacy of their colour combinations and apt spatial and compositional arrangements. We do not know how accurately all this was realised in the theatre's workshops, so we have only the accounts of contemporaries to rely on.

These two productions, "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Othello", with their very different destinies, became the final chapter in the history of Golovin's artistic partnership with the Moscow Art Theatre.

  1. Pushkin, Alexander. "Collected Works". Vol. 2. Moscow: 1955. P. 371.
  2. Stanislavsky, Konstantin."Collected Works". 9 volumes. Vol. 9. Moscow: 1999. P. 262. (Hereinafter, Stanislavsky.)
  3. In spring 1925 in St. Petersburg the artist with his assistants produced a new curtain and created stage designs for four productions scheduled for the beginning of the next season.
  4. Golovin, Alexander."Meeting and Impressions". Leningrad-Moscow: 1960. P. 92. (Hereinafter, Meetings and Impressions.)
  5. Leonidov, Leonid. "Memoirs, Articles, Conversations, Correspondence, Notebooks". Moscow: 1960. P. 312.
  6. Onufrieva, S."Alexander Yakovlevich Golovin". Leningrad: 1977. P. 118.
  7. Department of Manuscripts at the Moscow Art Theatre. Fund 1. File 93. Item 187. Sheet 3. (Hereinafter, Manuscripts.)
  8. Meetings and Impressions. P. 205.
  9. Manuscripts. Fund 1. File 93. Item 188. Sheet 1.
  10. Stanislavsky. Vol. 9. P. 267.
  11. Telyakovsky, Vladimir. "Memoirs". Leningrad: 1965. P. 168.
  12. Meetings and Impressions. P. 289.
  13. Manuscripts. Fund 344. File 1. Items 36, 49.
  14. Manuscripts. Fund 1. File 93. Item 187. Sheet 13.
  15. Stanislavsky. P. 565.
  16. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. Fund 739. File 1. Item 21. Sheet 1.
  17. Meetings and Impressions. P. 208.
  18. Shcherbatov, Sergei."The Artist in the Russia That Disappeared". Moscow: 2000. P. 154.
  19. Meetings and Impressions. P. 318.
  20. Gremislavsky, Ivan."Collection of Articles and Other Materials". Moscow: 1967. P. 223.
  21. Manuscripts. Fund 6. File 1. Item 32. Sheet 1.
  22. Manuscripts. Fund 1. File 93. Item 256. Sheet 3.
  23. Stanislavsky. P. 275.
  24. Manuscripts. Fund 1. File 93. Item 256. Sheets 2-3.
  25. Manuscripts. Fund 6. File 1. Item 32. Sheet 1.
  26. Manuscripts. Archives and Museum Commission. Minutes of Meeting 46 on January 24 1928.
  27. All of Golovin's sketches of sets and costumes for "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Othello", as well as Simov's models of the sets for the latter production, are held at the Moscow Art Theatre Museum.
  28. Meetings and Impressions. P. 320.
  29. Manuscripts. Fund 90. Olga Knipper-Chekhova's letter to Sergei Bergson. P. 158.
  30. Manuscripts. Fund 6. File 1. Item 32. Sheet 160.





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