With the exception of the exhibition entitled Die Maler in der Theater, organised in 1986 in the Scrin Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, there has not been any other devoted to providing a broad and collective vision of the beginnings of the relationship between plastic arts and the sphere of performing arts. Unlike the Frankfurt exhibition, which spanned the whole of the 20th century, El teatro de los pintores en la Europa de las vanguardias (The Theatre of Painters in Avant-garde Europe) concentrates on a specific period: from its early years right up until practically the Thirties, a time when the Russian Revolution, inter-war Paris, Italian Futurism and the Weimar Republic in Germany determined a context that enabled these collaborations.
This exhibition in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía compiles documents that bear witness to the huge contributions painters and sculptors made to performing arts in purely artistic terms: light, colour and form. Therefore, two hundred and fifty works have been brought together in an extensive exhibition that includes sketches, model stages, curtains, stage parts, notes, photos, drawings, costumes, posters, etc.
At the end of the 19th century stage and costume design was in the hands of craftsmen whose specialised decorative work consisted of faithfully adapting to established regulations. Gradually they began to play a particular role and acquired unusual relevance; like the avant-garde movements in plastic arts, the field of stage performance was revitalised at the beginning of the 20th century. Russian businessman Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the famous Ballets Russes company that he directed from 1909 until his death in 1929, and the artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, were among the most important people to drive the transition of symbolist decorativism that was archetypal of traditional Russian culture that characterised the beginnings of the company at the start of a modern aesthetic. As an example of these innovations, the exhibition displays numerous watercolours and drawings of the staging and costumes of Le Coq d’Or (1914), The Firebird (1926) by Goncharova and Le Soleil de Nuit (1915) and Histoires Naturelles (1915), both by Larionov.
There were numerous important artists participating in the Russian Ballets; Pablo Picasso designed the stage and wardrobe for the ballet Parade in 1917 under the direction of Ernest Ansermet, which premiered in the Teatro de Châtelet in Paris. The play, which belonged to the Diaghilev productions, featured Erik Satie as composer and Jean Cocteau as librettist. Henri Matisse also designed the scenery and costumes of the ballet Le chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) in 1920, premiered in the Théâtre national de lfOpéra in Paris under the direction of Ernest Ansermet. Spanish artists Juan Gris and Joan Miró also tried their hand at set design and costume, the former with the ballet Les tentations de la Bergère ou l’amour vainqueur (the Temptation of the Shepherdess or the Triumph of Love), in 1924, and the latter Jeux d’enfants, from 1932. The photographs, sketches and models from Miró's scenographic experiences were shown previously in the Museo Reina Sofía in 1986 as part of the exhibition Miró Escultor (Miró Sculptor) (link to exhibition).
Meanwhile the Les Ballets Suédois company, led by Rolf de Marée and based in Paris, featured set and wardrobe designs by artists such as Fernand Léger, with Skating Ring from 1921 and La création du monde (The Creation of the World) (1923); Francis Picabia with Relâche (Rest) and Giorgio de Chirico with La jarre (The Jar), both from the same year and premiered in the same theatre.
In Rome, futurists Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero worked together on the stage and costume designs that gave rise to Proserpina (1915), Machina Typographica (1915-16), and I Balli Pastici (1918).
Constructivism saw the theatre as an opportunity for dissemination and materialised through the contributions of Kasimir Malevich, with Victory over the Sun (1913); Vladimir Tatlin with A Life for the Tzar (Ivan Susanin) (1913); The Flying Dutchman (1915-1918), with libretto, by Richard Wagner, and Alexander Rodchenko with The Bedbug (1929).
Other salient aspects of the exhibition include the suit sketches by George Grosz for Kanzlist Krehler (1922), Methusalem (1922) and Neveneinander (Co-existence) (1923); the three models Piet Mondrian built for L’ephémère est éternel (The Ephemeral is Eternal) (1926) and the gouache pieces by Kandinsky for the set design of Pictures at an Exhibition, premiered in Dessau in 1928 and directed by Georg Hartmann.