Stage Design

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Stage Design


the art of creating the visual image of a stage production through sets, costumes, lighting, and stage mechanisms. The development of stage design is closely related to that of the theater, dramaturgy, and the representational arts.

Such elements of stage design as costumes and masks originated in the oldest folk rituals. By the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greek theater was supplementing the skene building with three-dimensional stage props, which, during the Hellenistic period; were used together with painted sets. The principles of Greek stage design were assimilated by the Roman theater, which often made use of a curtain.

The device of the multiple stage setting, which simultaneously depicted all the locales of a play’s action, existed during the classical period and became characteristic of the European medieval theater. In performances of mystery plays, the interior of a church and later the church’s exterior wall served as a background. Medieval presentations made use of several types of stationary or movable stage areas. Three-dimensional props were used; for example, a pavilion represented heaven, and the jaws of a dragon represented hell. Painted sets were used as well, for example, a ceiling painting depicting a starry sky. In many countries of medieval Asia, including Indochina, China, and Japan, abstract, symbolic stage settings predominated, with isolated scenic elements indicating locale.

During the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy, the artists Brunelleschi, Mantegna, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael became involved in stage design. Perspective was introduced by D. Bramante and B. Peruzzi, who devised sets depicting a street going off into the distance. This set, painted on canvas stretched on frames, included parts made of wood. Such sets portrayed a single, unchanging locale for plays of certain genres. In the midloth century, S. Serlio designed three types of sets: for tragedy, comedy, and pastorales.

The striking effects required by court opera and ballet productions of the late 16th and early 17th centuries called for movable rather than stationary stage sets. During the 17th century, stage machines were widely used. The introduction of telari, or three-sided rotating prisms covered with canvas and painted, permitted scenery to be changed in view of the spectators, an innovation of the Italian N. Sabbatini and the German J. Furtenbach.

Further developments in stage design were the invention of wing flats by the Italian G. Aleotti and the introduction of the proscenium stage, which predominates even in the 20th century. Beginning in the mid-17th century, the Italian wings-and-back-drop setting introduced by L. O. Burnacini and G. Torelli became prevalent throughout Europe. In London theaters during the Renaissance, the stage area consisted of lower, upper, and rear stages and a proscenium that extended forward into the auditorium. Perspective sets of the Italian type were introduced into England by I. Jones in the first quarter of the 17th century. In Russia, wing flats with perspective paintings were first used in 1672.

During the period of classicism, the dramaturgical canon of the unities of place, time, and action led to the predominance of stationary sets, for example, a throne room or the entrance hall of a palace in tragedy, and a city square or a room in comedy. Consequently, sumptuous stage effects were used only for opera and ballet. Such Italian masters as A. Pozzo and the artists of the Galli da Bibbiena family violated the symmetry of the 17th-century sets. They introduced diagonal perspective by intensifying the illusion of depth through paintings. In seeking to give the impression of a larger scale by depicting several architectural elements instead of a single building, they achieved remarkable contrasts of light and shadow.

During the Enlightenment, the French stage designers J.-N. Servandony, G. Dumont, and P.-A. Brunetti created grandiose sets for classical plays. In the late 18th century the stage sets of bourgeois dramas made use of pavilions. During the 18th century, such foreign stage designers as G. Valeriani and P. di G. Gon-zago were active in the Russian theater. The second half of that century saw the emergence of talented Russian stage designers, most of whom were serfs; examples were the Bel’skii brothers, I. Ia. Vishniakov, and I. Firsov.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the crisis of feudal ideology in Asia led to new developments in stage design. The Kabuki theaters built in Japan during the 18th century had proscenium stages, curtains that opened horizontally, and hanamiti (“flower paths”), or platforms extending from the stage to the rear of the audience. In 1758 the revolving stage was introduced in Japan. Medieval traditions were retained until the 20th century in many theaters of India, Indonesia, and Indochina. In these theaters, stage design was for the most part limited to costumes, masks, and makeup.

The French Revolution had an important influence on stage design. In Parisian boulevard theaters, the skill of stage mechanics made possible the reproduction of shipwrecks and fires on stage. Practicables, or movable stage props representing such large scenic elements as rocky cliffs and bridges, came into wide use. During the first quarter of the 19th century, L. J. M. Daguerre (France) and C. Barker (England) demonstrated panoramas and dioramas illuminated by gas lighting, which was introduced during the 1820’s.

The romantics appealed for historically accurate stage sets, a demand met by the French artists E. Delacroix, P. Delaroche, and J.-B. Isabey. The stage designers and directors P. Ciceri, C. Sechan, and E. Despléchins in France and F. von Dingelstedt in Germany created complex multiple stage settings and splendid costumes that combined historical accuracy with beauty. The growing complexity of stage machinery demanded the use of a curtain between acts, an innovation introduced in 1829 in the Grand Opéra in Paris. The Grand Opéra was also the first theater to use electric lighting, in 1849.

Beginning in the 1830’s, A. A. Roller was the head of the Russian school of official romanticism. Roller’s techniques for creating stage effects were further developed by K. F. Val’ts and A. F. Gel’tser. Efforts to combat the stereotypes of the Roller school and to achieve originality in Russian stage design were launched by M. A. Shishkov and M. I. Bocharov. These efforts were hindered, however, by the persistence of traditional stage design, by the narrow specialization of stage designers, who were concerned only with individual aspects such as landscape or architecture, and by the universal use of preassembled and stereotyped sets.

During the 1870’s and 1880’s, the stage designers of the Meiningen Theater were highly influential. The theater’s directors, in attempting to advance beyond the traditions of the Italian wings-and-backdrop setting, made stage sets more variegated by using many practicables and architectural scenic elements. The achievements of the Meiningen Theater were influenced by the historical paintings of such 19th-century German artists as P. von Cornelius and W. von Kaulbach.

In the late 1870’s, idealized and unreal stage sets were criticized by E. Zola, who advocated an accurate portrayal of specific social environments. Zola’s followers in stage naturalism were the directors A. Antoine in France and O. Brahm in Germany. This trend was opposed by the French symbolist theater: the artists M. Denis, P. Serusier, H. de Toulouse-Lautrec, and E. Vuillard, who worked with the directors P. Fort and A.-M. Lugné-Poé, designed simplified, refined, and stylized sets whose imagery was similar to that of modernism.

Russian stage design flourished during the last quarter of the 19th century. The stage designers V. D. Polenov, V. M. Vasnetsov, K. A. Korovin, V. A. Serov, and M. A. Vrubel’ sought to integrate the elements of staging imaginatively by using the compositional devices of easel painting. The realistic reforms of the Moscow Art Theater had an immense influence on stage design throughout the world. The Moscow Art Theater individualized stage designs for each production, sought to give sets psychological authenticity, and made imaginative use of the stage space, integrating it with the actors’ performances.

The stage designers of the World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) group were gifted artists, skilled in depicting the style and character of the art of various epochs. The group, which included A. N. Be-nois, L. S. Bakst, M. V. Dobuzhinskii, and N. K. Roerich, took part in the Russian opera and ballet tours in Paris that were organized by S. P. Diaghilev beginning in 1907. During the tours, called the Russian Seasons Abroad, these artists made Russian stage design known worldwide. Another important contribution to Russian stage design was made by A. Ia. Golovin, whose sets were distinguished by a unique, dignified splendor.

In the early 20th century, the directors A. Appia in Switzerland and G. Craig in England advocated a philosophical theater with abstract, timeless sets. In these sets, the appearance of large-scale stereometric elements such as cubes, platforms, and steps would be altered by means of light. The principles of the philosophical theater also influenced the Polish writer, artist, and stage designer S. Wyspiański and the German director G. Fuchs.

The German director M. Reinhardt and the artists E. Munch, E. Orlik, and E. Stern developed many types of stage sets, including illusionist three-dimensional sets that could be changed by means of a revolving circular stage (introduced in 1896), stylized stationary sets, sets made with fabrics, and vast sets in a circus arena. In Russia, V. E. Meyerhold formed his aesthetic principles of the unconventional theater and, together with the artists Golóvin and N. N. Sapunov, introduced stylized devices that promoted constructivism on the stage.

Between 1910 and 1920 the influence of cubism and futurism was apparent in stage design, as seen in the sets of A. A. Ekster and A. A. Vesnin in Russia and in the paintings of P. Picasso, H. Matisse, and G. Braque for the Russian Seasons Abroad. By affirming the concept of theatricality as an independent, self-apparent value, as well as the preeminence of the artist in the theater, these aesthetic trends limited the freedom of actors.

During the 1920’s, stage design was influenced by expressionism, especially in Germany. This influence was manifested by shifting, oblique surfaces, startling contrasts of light and shadow, and deformed scenic elements that created a world of morbid visions. In attempting to reproduce the dynamism of the modern city on the stage, many painters who were involved in stage design, including G. Severini and E. Prampolini (Italy) and F. Léger (France), often restricted themselves to self-contained, formal experiments.

On the whole, 20th-century stage design has drawn on abundant resources, including synthetic materials, luminescent paints, collages, photograph and film projection, mirrors, and complex lighting systems. During the 1960’s much attention was devoted to offstage scenery and to the arena stage, which had been developed in the USSR in the late 1920’s by Meyerhold and N. P. Okhlopkov.

Stage design in the 1970’s has increasingly drawn on such folk elements as ritual masks and makeup, marionette costumes, and puppets; the last are sometimes of enormous size and are integrated into the set. However, attempts to make stage design an independent entity created by the director’s or stage designer’s fantasy have led many stage designers to violate the integrity of the stage. These tendencies, which have been intensified by the influence of surrealism, abstract art, pop art, and other modernist trends, are opposed by progressive directors and stage designers, who seek to maintain and develop the traditions of socially oriented realist art.

The most important 20th-century Western European stage designers have included L. Damiani, G. de Chirico, V. Colossanti, and E. Luzzati (Italy), R. Allio, C. Bérard, E. Bertin, M. Dethomas, A. M. Cassandre, P. Colin, J. D. Malclés, T. Noël, and M. Raffaelli (France), and C. Beaton, E. Godwin, O. Messel, and the women artists A. Harris, M. Harris, and E. Montgomery, who constitute the group known as The Motley (England). The best-known stage designers in the USA include B. Aronson, M. Gorelik, J. Mielziner, D. Oenslager, and S. Fedorovitch; outstanding Japanese stage designers include Ki-saku Ito, Takada Isiro, and Kanamori Kaoru.

The October Revolution of 1917 promoted the development of multinational Soviet stage design. During the 1920’s, amid conflicts among various artistic currents, the function of the stage designer became increasingly important and stage design was regarded as the representational aspect of directing. Benois, Golovin, B. M. Kustodiev, N. P. Krymov, V. A. Simov, and F. F. Fedorovskii continued the tradition of painted sets, and Vesnin, L. M. Lisitskii, L. S. Popova, A. M. Rodchenko, the Stenberg brothers, and V. F. Stepanova manifested the influence of constructivism. Some stage sets of the 1920’s, for example, those of I. M. Rabinovich, overcame the self-contained technicalism of constructivist stage design.

During the 1930’s, when the method of socialist realism was definitively established in stage design, the utilization of volume and space in sets was supplemented by painting. The visual image of plays acquired a poetic and psychological coloration, as seen in the sets of N. P. Akimov, N. I. Al’tman, M. P. Bobyshov, B. I. Volkov, V. V. Dmitriev, V. F. Ryndin, A. G. Tyshler, and N. A. Shifrin. Important contributions to Soviet stage design were made by the artists P. V. Vil’iams, P. P. Konchalovskii, Iu. I. Pimenov, and K. F. Iuon.

Since the 1950’s, vivid and stylized—though not abstract—sets integrating three-dimensional forms and painting have been created by A. F. Bosulaev, A. P. Vasil’ev, S. B. Virsaladze, N. N. Zolotarev, M. I. Kurilko-Riumin, A. F. Lushin, E. G. Stenberg, I. G. Sumbatashvili, V. G. Shaporin, and S. M. Iunovich. The attraction toward stylized folk art, primitivism, and superficially stylish theatricality that was typical of Soviet stage design during the 1960’s gave way to stage design that was subordinated to the inner logic of the action on stage and that revealed its essence during the actors’ performances.

Together with stage designers of the older generation, young designers who have done outstanding work in recent years include D. L. Borovskii-Brodskii, E. S. Kochergin, and V. Ia. Levental’ (RSFSR), O. Kochakidze, A. N. Slovinskii, and Iu. Chikvaidze (Georgian SSR), V. Mázuras and J. Malinauskaité (Lithuanian SSR), and G. Zemgal (Latvian SSR). Leading stage designers in the Soviet republics include F. F. Nirod, A. G. Petritskii, and A. V. Khvostenko-Khvostov (Ukraine), P. V. Maslennikov and E. D. Nikolaev (Byelorussia), I. Gamrekeli, S. Kobuladze, and P. Lapiashvili (Georgia), M. Arutchian and M. Sar’ian (Armenia), R. Mustafaev and N. Fatullaev (Azerbaijan), M. Musaev (Uzbekistan), I. Bal’khozin (Kazakhstan), Kh. Alaberdyev (Turkmenia), and A. V. Aref ev (Kirghizia). Other outstanding stage designers are J. Surkeviéius and L. Truikys (Lithuania), M. F. Kitaev, A. Lapins, and O. Skulme (Latvia), and M.-L. Küla, E. Renter, and V. Haas (Estonia).

Stage design has also been developed in the other socialist countries, particularly in the scenography of the Czechoslovak stage designers L. Vychodil, V. Hofman, J. Svoboda, and F. Tröster. Outstanding work has also been done by A. Akhrianov, I. Milev, M. Mikhailov, S. Savov, and A. Stoichev (Bulgaria), O. Axer, W. Daszewski, J. Kosiński, A. Stopka, K. Frycz, and J. Szajna (Poland), P. Bortnovski, A. Bretesianu, and D. Nemtianu (Rumania), I. Koós and B. I. Köpeszy (Hungary), K. Appen, H. Sagert, H. Kilger, K. Neher, T. Otto, and P. Pilovski (German Democratic Republic), and L. Babić, M. Denić, V. Marenić, D. Ristić, M. Serban, and D. Sokolić (Yugoslavia).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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