Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde in the 1910s and 1920s

By The Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Ukrainian State Museum of Theater, Music and Cinema

The exhibition showcasing avant-garde artists who shaped early 20th-century Ukrainian theater and, ultimately, influenced the theatrical world stage. It tells the story of an avant-garde that generated innovation, entrepreneurship, and, to a large extent, social engagement with contemporary issues, feature important contributions to the theater arts in the 1910s and 1920s by modernist Ukrainian artists.  

Sketch for Calàf’s costume for G. Puccini’s opera Turandot. (1928) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

National Legacy – International Scope

Ukrainian theater uniquely engaged the avant-garde, blending national cultural traditions with international artistic currents. Petrytsky`s renderings for Giacomo Puccini`s opera Turandot are conceived as rationally “engineered” designs, featuring bright, flat colors and strict geometric units – a strikingly ironic hard-edge style used to present this 18th-century play. The Old is brought into the New in Petrytsky`s masterfully divergent conceptions. 

Sketch for Executioner’s costume for G. Puccini’s opera Turandot (1928) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

As he comments on contemporary times through a historic perspective, Petrytsky sets up an aesthetic pendulum between the chromatic pathos of Expressionism and the staid objectivity of Constructivism.

Sketch for Devil’s costume for production of O. Vyshnia’s Vii. (1925) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Anatol Petrytsky`s designs for the satirical parody of Mykola Hohol`s (Nikolai Gogol`s) Vii relays – through dark colors, rich facture, and sweeping brushstrokes – the animistic ethos of Ukrainian folk beliefs in sorcerers and spirits.

Sketch for Zaporozhian Cossack costume for production of O. Vyshnia’s Vii. (1925) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

The monumentality of the figures filling the space derives from medieval frescoes, which abound in Ukrainian ecclesiastical architecture (the setting of Gogol `s mystical short story) of the 12th through 16th centuries. The energetic disposition of Petrytsky`s figures also recalls vivacious Baroque character of the Cossack period of the 17th century.

Sketch for costume for Lesia Ukrainka’s In the catacombs (1921) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

The Decorative, the Iconic, and the Modern

After more than a century of censorship by tsarist edict, the fall of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the 20th century activist writers such as Mykhailo Starytsky and Lesia Ukrainka offered artists-turne-designers the opportunity to delve into historical costume – yet imbue it with a modernist spirit. Vasyl Krychevsky took the lead in this orientation. Known as the “father of the Ukrainian modern style”, Krychevsky used the floriated ornamental motifs of Cossack  brocade, translating them into abstract flat patterning reminiscent of Gustav Klimt`s paintings.   

Sketch for costume for Lesia Ukrainka’s In the catacombs (1921) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Sketch for friar’s costume for production of Yu. Slovatsky’s Mazepa. (1920) by Artist Vadym MellerThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Vadym Meller’s renderings for Juliush Slowacki`s Mazepa capture in Cubo-Futurist shifts of volumentic form the conflicted rule of the Ukrainian Cossack Hetman, whose power came to a tragic end in 1709 at the Battle of Poltava.

Sketch for set design for theater interior in Kozelets. (1920) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Reviving the cultural traditions of medieval Ukraine, Anatol Petrytsky exploits the flat, rhythmic conventions of ancient icon-painting to render the characters of modern playwright Lesia Ukrainka.

Sketch for costume for production of I. Haliun’s Biut porohy (The Rapids Pound) (1927) by Artist Kostiantyn YelevaThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Kost Yeleva utilized fluid linearity in a rounded sculptural way, to staunchly define the variant characters of contemporary French social drama as a modern-day parallel to the freedom-fighting Cossacks of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Women's mask. Sketch for costume for production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. (1921) by Artist Alexandra ExterThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Rhythm and Movement: The Abstract Element of Dance

The Ukrainian avant-garde seized the opportunity to align formalist painting with a new interest in the rhythmic elements of dance. Bronislava Nijinska (sister to the famed Paris-based Ballets Russes dancer Vaclav Nijinsky) established an experimental studio – the School of Movement – in Kyiv in 1919.  

Sketch for Bacchante costume.I. Annensky’s Famira Kifared (Thamira Khydaredes) (1916) by Artist Alexandra ExterThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Here she explored a new language of dance based on what she called “choreographic sketches” - a deconstructed analysis of movement inspired by Italian Futurist painting and annotated by diagrams of compounded arcs and the repetition of curved and angled lines.

Sketch for costume for Assyrian dances (1919) by Artist Vadym MellerThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Sketch of dance costumes for production of Excentric dances (1922) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Sketch for Europeans’ costumes for R. Glière’s ballet Red Poppy (1927) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Alexandra Exter and Vadym Meller`s costume designs were sympathetically allied to Nijinska`s rhythmical organization and dynamic Futurist expression, while the whimsical Anatol Petrytsky imbued the human form in motion with Constructivast accents and tactility. By the end of 1920s, Petrytsky`s designs for the ballet Red Poppy show a filtering of Cubist collage and applique of various materials.

Sketch for Ma-Lichen costume for R. Glière’s ballet Red Poppy (1928) by Artist Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov.The Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Similarly, Olexandr Khvostenko-Khvostov combines Futurist dynamism with Constructivist precision in his animated designs for both ballet and opera.

Sketch for Mavka costume for production of L. Ukrainka’s Lisova pisnia (Forest song). (1922) by Artist Matvii DrakThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Heperbole, The Hrotesque,
and the Vernacular

In the late 18th century, writer Ivan Kotliarevsky used racy colloquialisms and Ukrainian vernacular to parody Virgil`s Aeneid, setting it in the  Cossack era. Kotliarevsky`s burlesque transformation of the classic work parallels  Anatol Petrytsky`s avan-garde treatment of historical themes with colorful bravado. 

Sketch for design for theater interior for Dim intermedii (House of interludes). (1917) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Drawing on the bawdiness of Cossack lore, Petrytsky`s dwarf, puppet-like representations of the magnanimous medieval characters from Alexander Borodan`s opera Pince Ihor (Igor) create a sharp artistic contrast between the epic and the vulgar. Here, the stately, princely features of Kyivan-Rus clash with barbaric forces in the production, epitomized by the scandalous frenzied dance of the Polovtsian captors.

Sketch for costumes for three witches. Marko in hell (1928) by Artist Borys KosarevThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Sketch for costumes for two devil-guests. Marko in hell (1928) by Artist Borys KosarevThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Sketch of costumes for Polovtsians for A. Borodin’s opera Kniaz’ Ihor (Prince Ihor). (1929) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Petrytsky`s designs daringly juxtapose the opposing values of the rugged and the refined, the ludicrous and the lofty, and synthesize them into a new expressive totality. Turning to different sources, the realm of circus and comedy – Boris Kosarev combines the exaggerated colors of carnival and the make-up of street perfomers to provide for visceral experience of the magical, the fantastic, and the ludic, culminating in a startling new effect on the stage.

Sketch for maidens’ costumes for for opera Prince Ihor (1929) by Artist Anatolii PetrytskyThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Sketch for Native warrior costume for production ofor production Sedi (1926) by Artist Vadym MellerThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

The Global and the Local in Ukrainian Theater Design

As director Les Kurbas`s vision for the Beresil Theater had no geographic borders. His sources of inspiration were wide and varied, which allowed an unusual  enrichment of ideas and extraordinary cooperation with artists and directors – the ballet master Mykola (Nicholas) Forreger, inventor of the  Constructivist “dance machines”, film actor and theater director Valery Inzhinov, stage designer Nisson Shyfrin, to name a few.  

Sketch for soldier’s costume for production The Mikado (1927) by Artist Vadym MellerThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Together with those of Vadym Meller, Shyfrin’s works were shown of the international Exhibition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925 (where Meller was awarded a gold medal).

Sketch for Native woman costume for production Sedi (1926) by Artist Vadym MellerThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Kurbas`s enthusiasm for the conventionality of the Japanese Noh and Kabuki theaters and his catholic taste in dramaturgy - from Somerset Maugham and Schiller to Fernando Crommelink and Gilbert with Sullivan – gave his own designers and especially, the versatile Meller, occasion in work in a new style, filtered through the principles of expressionism and revised toward the less rigors of constructivism.

Sketch for set design for Act III. “Jour fixe” Sholem Aleichem’s Aristocrats. (1927) by Artist Marko EpshteinThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

State Jewish Theater in Kharkiv, drew on the integrated sources in of Kurbas`s theater productions. The directors interest to the distinctive character of modern painting and abrupt offensive aspects of popular culture, being specifically keen on the manner of the model actor Charlie Chaplin, imbued the Beresil with a richly divergent, universal character.

Poster for Berezil production of G. Kaiser’s Haz (Gas). (1923) by G. Kaiser’sThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

The Theater Berezil

Founded by visionary Les Kurbas. The Berezil represents the climax of modern Ukrainian theater and the culmination of a most successful collaboration with Ukraine`s avant-garde artists. Kurbas first launched his ideas for modernist performance in Kyiv with his brainchild, The Young Theater (1917-1919). In the intervening years of revolution, he transformed his original ideas of create the Berezil Artistic Association (1922-1934). In 1926, the Berezil moved to Kharkiv- the Soviet capital of Ukraine, where it had a distinguished run until the Stalinist terror brought the modern cultural renaissance of Ukraine to its ill-fated end. 

Sketch for Capitalist’s costume (one version) for production of G. Kaiser’s Haz (Gas). (1923) by Artist Vadym MellerThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

As an artistic association, Berezil was based on a network of studios, a director`s laboratory, and a stage model workshop led by Vadym Meller.

Sketch of V. Chystiakov in the role of the Billionaire’s Daughter. G. Kaiser’s Haz (Gas). (1923) by Artist Mylytsia SymashkevychThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

He was assisted by Meller protégée Maia (Mylytsia) Symashkevych. Meller`s training in the West, his participation in Paris exhibitions in the 1910s and his association with modernist groups such as Der Blaue Reiter set him on an early path toward innovatively modern artistic expression. His collaboration with Nijinska and Exter (as seen in the adjacent gallery) infused his conceptions with dynamic movement, structure, and physicality.

Sketch for Man’s costume for production of U. Sinclair’s Jimmie Higgins. (1923) by Artist Vadym MellerThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

His stage sets for the productions of Georg Kaiser`s and Upton Sinclair`s Jimmie Higgins belie an innate understanding of Cotstructivist organization of space effected through minimalist means. Like modernist paintings, Berezil productions were designed to challenge the spectator by turning away from an imitative to a metonymic mode of representation .

Sketch for Secretary’s costume for production They Made Fools of Themselves (1924) by Artists Valentyn Shkliaiev, Mylytsia SymashkevychThe Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine

Laying bare stagecraft the way that abstract painting abandons all illusionism in representation, Berezil`s anti-naturalism insisted on exposing the component parts of the production and giving their theatricality equal weight.

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