Robert Edmond Jones (American, Milton, NH 1887-1954, Milton), An Abstraction for Arnold Schönberg's Opera-Pantomime Die Gluckliche Hand (The Hand of Fate, 1930, Pen and brush and black ink, graphite, and a touch of white gouache, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:680, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Documenting Design Innovations in 20th Century Theater and Opera

Eugene Berman, Russian, St. Petersburg 1899-1972 Rome) Design for Amahl and the Night Visitors, 1952, Pen and black ink, with watercolor and gouache, heightened with white gouache, on board, Inscribed at upper left, pen and black ink, Backdrop; at upper center, Amahl and the Night Visitors; dated at upper right, New York. April 1952; signed with initials and dated at upper center, E.B. [encircled] / 19...52, Purchase; acc. no. 1989.42, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Alexandra Exter (Russian, Belostok, Russia [now Bialystok, Poland] 1882-1949 Paris), Constructivist Setting for O. Gilbertini and Ugo Betti's La Donna sullo scudo, Act I, 1927, Tempera over graphite on card, Signed in graphite at lower right, A. Exter; inscribed on verso, in Cyrillic (partially legible), and, Sur un fond blanc / La Donna Sullo Scudo, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:209, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Erté´ (Romain de Tirtoff – Russian, St. Petersburg 1892-1990 Paris), L'Or for the Ziegfeld Follies, 1923, Gouache and metallic paint on paper, Signed at lower right, Erté; inscribed in verso, No. 644 Decor L'Or 1923, and stamped with the artist's name, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:204, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Juozas Jankus (Lithuanian, Sereikoniai 1912-1999 Vilnius), Set Design for Porgy and Bess,1967, Pencil, gouache, and metallic paint on paper, Inscribed at lower left, 67, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:379, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Léon Bakst (Russian, Grodno, Belarus 1866-1924 Paris), Prologue for Les Orientales, 1910, Watercolor, Signed lower right, Bakst, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:678, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Nicolai Remisoff (Russian, St. Petersburg 1887-1975 Palm Springs), Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel), 1933, Gouache on paper, Signed upper left, N. Remisoff, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:532, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Alfred Roller (Austrian, Brno 1864-1935 Vienna), Before a Palace, for Goethe's Faust, Part II, Act V, Scene 17, 1911, Pen and black ink, watercolor and gouache, on paper, Inscribed on column at left, Goethe / Faust / II. Teil; on column at right, V. Akt / 17. Bild / Vor Dem / Palast / A / Siche Er- / satz skizze / B, and monogrammed and dated, AR / 11, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:547, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Ludwig Sievert (German, Hanover 1887-1966 Munich) Besieged Fort from Kokoschka and Hindemith’s Opera Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, the Hope of Women), 1922, Watercolor, gouache, and charcoal, Signed and dated at lower right, L. Sievert, 1922, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:622, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

 

The Morgan Library & Museum
225 Madison Avenue
at 36th Street
212-685-0008
New York
Creating the Modern Stage:
Designs for Theater and Opera

May 22-August 16, 2009

The 20th century saw a renaissance in the art of the theater. Modern technology and materials allowed for innovative approaches to stage sets. New theories concerning the role of the actor and set in theatrical performances encouraged a radical departure from long-standing practices and the moribund literalism of the nineteenth-century stage. Imagination and vision were encouraged, allowing a vital and varied stagecraft to emerge throughout England, Europe, Russia, and America.

This extraordinary period of innovation in modern scenic design is the subject of a new exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum entitled Creating the Modern Stage: Designs for Theater and Opera. The exhibition features over 50 drawings derived entirely from the Morgan's holdings, principally from the collection formed by the celebrated American set designer Donald Oenslager (1902-1975). Enriching these colorful drawings is related material including musical scores, rare books, and autograph manuscripts.

"This exhibition offers the visitor the opportunity to see a remarkable trove of designs for the stage that are rarely put on view at the Morgan," said William M. Griswold, the museum's director. "It is fascinating to see how experimentation in stagecraft in the twentieth century paralleled similar explorations in the other arts. The drawings are beautiful and imaginative visions of what the modern stage could be by artists willing to push boundaries and move beyond accepted conventions."

The exhibition is divided into four thematic sections — Origins of Modern Scenic Theory, Destroying Tradition, the Russian Avant-Garde, and Diversity of the American Stage — together emphasizing the international scope of advances in set design.

The exhibition opens with visionary drawings for the stage by Edward Gordon Craig (1872-1966) as well as texts fundamental to the foundation of modern scenic theory by Craig and the Swiss stage designer Adolphe Appia (1862-1928). Appia spurred a move toward visual simplicity and a unity of aesthetic elements in set design and direction, in part through his 1899 book, Die Musik und die Inscenierung (Music and Set Design). Appia's innovations of modern stage design was essential to the work of Craig, whose Art of the Theatre (1905) set out principles for an imaginative and suggestive, rather than literal, approach to set design. These radical ideas—the "new stagecraft"—would gradually transform European theater through sporadic experimental productions and revolutionize theater design in the ensuing generations.

At the beginning of the 20th century, ideas about the new stagecraft spread through the Continent and into central and eastern Europe. A synthesis of the arts was elemental to several avant-garde movements, such as the Austrian Sezession and the German Jugendstil. Artists became more involved in the theater, which revitalized scenic design and resulted in new and daring productions throughout Europe's theatrical capitals.

Fostering such experiments were adventurous directors like Max Reinhardt, whose Deutsches Theater in Berlin was at the forefront of the technical innovation that characterized modern European stagecraft. Reinhardt's large-scale revolving stage, for example, allowed for a greater variety of settings and rapid changes between scenes that intensified the audience's engagement with the performance.

The break from aesthetic tradition is documented in dramatic designs by German Expressionists, including Ludwig Sievert and Emil Orlik. Sievert's design for a 1922 staging of Kokoschka and Hindemith's opera Mörder, Hoffnug der Frauen (Murderer, the Hope of Women) depicts a moment of confrontation between Man and Woman echoed in the angular and aggressive forms of the set. Even during and immediately following World War II when materials were scarce, Berlin designers' clever use of available resources continued to push the limits of convent. Dialogue, set, and movement were fused together for the totality of theater, achieving a potent combination of content and design apart from the traditional formalism.

The Moscow Art Theater, founded in 1899, represented the vanguard of innovation. The collaboration between producers and designers, many of whom were painters, yielded an exceptional standard of stagecraft. At the center of this phenomenon was Mir iskusstva (World of Art), a group that emerged in St. Petersburg during the late 1900s. Beyond founding a journal, members Alexandre Benois, Serge Diaghilev, and Léon Bakst designed and executed dance and theater productions in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Shortly thereafter, avant-garde artists Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, and Nikolai Pavlovich Akimov broke further from conventional set design, using as their guide abstract approaches influenced by Cubism and Constructivism. The lively history of Russian folk traditions also informed the aesthetic of their sets.

Bakst's drawing for one of Diaghilev's ballets, Les Orientales features a cascading arrangement of drapery, a hallmark of his designs that conveys the romantic tendencies of Mir iskusstva. Also included is Exter's Construction for a Tragedy, a design typical of her skeletal architectural constructions which emphasized purity of form and demonstrated an inventive approach to structures. Soaring black vertical frames and ascending diagonal ramps of bright orange create independent, yet interconnected, spaces that could accommodate a wide variety of performances.

On stages throughout the United States, the vaudeville tradition of the early years of the twentieth century gave rise to the genre of musical theater, a distinctly American art form. Actors were in demand for both stage and screen, and the Depression inspired socially conscious plays as well as comedies. American theater also benefited from an influx of European and Russian designers, who brought their experience to New York and other major theater centers in the United States.

A new American stagecraft originated largely in the work of Robert Edmond Jones (1887-1954), one of the principal designers responsible for its reinvigoration. He aimed to unify the elements of acting, lighting, and setting through his dramatic use of abstract forms and lyrical tonal effects. To disseminate these innovations, Jones, along with Lee Simonson, published texts on the subject, creating a major body of literature on theater history. The exhibition further chronicles modern developments in stage design through drawings by Claude Fayette Bragdon, Woodman Thompson, and Norman Bel Geddes; also included are designs for musical theater by Oliver Smith.

Eugene Berman is perhaps one of the best known New York stage designers of the 1940s and 1950s. Born in Russia, he fled during the revolution and worked in Paris before emigrating to America in 1940. As a set designer, he rejected the abstract aesthetic established by Appia and Craig in favor of more evocative, elegant, and richly colored settings, often on a vast scale and replete with ruins and mysterious light. Such practices can be seen in his designs for Amahl and the Night Visitors, a one-act opera commissioned by NBC television from the composer Gian Carlo Menotti in 1951.

Donald Oenslager designed the sets and lighting for Of Mice and Men in its original production, which opened at New York's Music Box Theater in November 1937 and ran for 207 performances. Steinbeck's novel, published earlier that year, presented Oenslager with the challenge of realizing on stage a narrative that was enjoying contemporary critical attention. Accompanying the drawing in the exhibition are tickets and programs related to the production as well as a carbon typescript belonging to Clare Luce, who played the lead female role. It is a true working copy: Luce annotated it throughout, including directions concerning her voice, eye movements, physical gestures, and the wording of her lines.

"Working on a sketch for a setting is probably the happiest and briefest part of the artist's work in the theater," wrote Donald Oenslager. As a young man, he began collecting drawings, rare books, and prints related to the theater dating from the 16th through the 20th centuries. His collection, built throughout his prolific career as a designer and professor at Yale University School of Drama, provides a comprehensive the history of stage design over the course of four centuries. Totaling approximately 1,600 sheets, the collection was presented to the Morgan by Oenslager's widow in 1982.

Creating the Modern Stage: Set Designs for Theater and Opera is organized by Jennifer Tonkovich, curator of drawings and prints, with the assistance of Elizabeth Nogrady, Moore Curatorial Fellow, The Morgan Library & Museum.

Donald Oenslager, (American, Harrisburg, PA 1902-1975 Bedford, NY), Banks of the Salinas River for Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, 1937, Graphite and watercolor on board, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982; acc. no. 1982.75:682, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

Ernst Stern (Romanian, Bucharest 1876-1954), London, Chinese Chamber for Gozzi-Vollmoeller's Turandot, 1911, Watercolor, Signed at lower left, Stern, Gift of Mrs. Donald M. Oenslager, 1982, acc. no. 1982.75:627, Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.