All the splendor and drama of theatrical productions is on display in “Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney” at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Organized by the McNay Art Museum of San Antonio, Texas, the works come from the museum’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. Katherine Pill of the Museum of Fine Arts was the curatorial lead for the exhibition.
Robert L. Tobin was an avid collector of theater ephemera, including set designs, sketches and costumes. He amassed so much that his mother bought him a wing at the McNay Museum to house it all.
Tobin’s collection is rich with examples of collaborations with famous 19th and 20th century artists, hence the title. This blurs the lines of the consideration of these works as fine art.
It’s also a timeline of 100 years of artistic practice, right up to 2008.
The exhibition design is a symphony of color, with walls painted in rich jewel tones that complement the set designs, sketches and costumes created by notable 19th and 20th century artists. The museum once again tapped designer Rush Jenkins, who designed the 2018 exhibition of jewelry by Jean Schlumberger. Images are blown up onto scrims, large screens that define the sections of the show. Jorge Vidal, the museum’s manager of special projects, executed the installation.
In an unprecedented move, a stage was built into one of the galleries, where live performances are happening throughout the run of the show. Associate curator of public programs Margaret Murray spent more than a year packing an incredible amount of dance, music, films, operas and lectures that also take place in the museum’s other spaces.
The exhibit is equally robust. An introduction to the Ballets Russes is the touchstone of the show’s collaborative spirit. The dance company was founded in Paris around 1909 by Serge Diaghilev, who brought together innovative dancers, choreographers, composers and visual artists to create avant-garde performances. Many of the works in the exhibit are from Ballets Russes productions.
In Leon Bakst’s painted drawing of ballet superstar Vaslav Nijinsky as a Chinese dancer in Les Orientales (1917), the dancer is portrayed crouched in his famous pose, one leg gracefully draped over the other. Nearby, his colorful set design for the ballet Scheherazade (1911), based on the Middle Eastern tale “One Thousand and One Nights,” features a paisley fabric billowing from the ceiling above a mass of pillows and rugs. The two works reflect the trend of exoticism that was popular in Europe at the time.
Natalia Goncharova was a key figure in the Ballets Russes. A number of her paintings, set designs and costumes are on display, including a curtain design from The Golden Cockerel (c. 1914). Rich reds and golden yellows pervade the scene, which is adorned with Goncharova’s trademark floral design. This image is blown up on a scrim to give the impression of how it looked on stage. Goncharova was known for her traditional Russian folk style, but she was also influenced by Spanish culture, evidenced by a lovely painted fan.
The exhibition moves into Revolutionary Russia, where hangs Alexandra Exter’s angular costume and set designs for the first Russian science fiction film, Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), laden with socialist ideals. The film plays in the gallery. The museum will feature two public screenings in which local band La Lucha will perform a soundtrack they wrote for it. Exter’s lighting design for an unknown production of a tragedy is one of the exhibition’s few references to lighting.
One would hardly expect that the black and gold, stiff-armed robe for the emperor in the Ballets Russes’ The Song of the Nightingale (1920) was designed by Henri Matisse, but the artist experimented with a number of styles throughout his career.
It’s a treat to see Pablo Picasso’s handwritten notes on the maquette for The Three Cornered Hat (1919), another Ballets Russes production. A pioneer of Cubism, Picasso utilizes the style to create dimension in his scene design for the ballet Pulcinella (c. 1920).
A kaleidoscope of color awaits in Robert Indiana’s set designs and costumes for the Gertrude Stein-penned The Mother of Us All (1976), about Susan B. Anthony and the Suffragettes. The vibrant, nearly psychedelic set designs are made of cut paper and the costumes are made of felt. The costumes each have sashes that read “Susan B.,” “Jenny Reefer” and “Negro Man.” One of the set designs has been blown up on a wall, ideal for photo ops. Indiana’s assistant and paper artist Philomena Marano lives locally, and is giving multiple lectures about that experience and her work in the gallery.
Lesley Dill’s voluminous costumes incorporate words, as her intention is to make the word tangible. Her Paris Speaking Dress (1996) is from a performance at the Maison des Arts de Creteil in Paris. It features ribbons with text, meant to be pulled, finishing with a blank blue ribbon to indicate there are no words left. Her showstopping Red Ecstasy Dress from the Emily Dickinson-inspired opera Divide Light (2008) is adorned with letters and appeared center stage at the end of the opera.
David Hockney lent his colorful Pop Art style to costumes and posters for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, including a French triple bill that features Parade, L’enfant et Les Sortileges and Les Mamelles de Tiresias. The latter is a feminist piece about a woman who grows so fed up with her domestic role that her breasts leave her body. Since a scenario that dramatic should be experienced, local opera singer Ashley Thunder will re-create it in the gallery.
Other acclaimed artists in the exhibition include Joan Miro, Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Leger and Jean Cocteau, as well as artists who aren’t quite as famous but with works that are equally intriguing.
There is much to experience, enhanced by the menu of diverse performances. Here are just a few. Visit mfastpete.org for a full list.
“Aelita, Queen of Mars” Screening With La Lucha: Free. 8-10 p.m. April 17, Straub Park; 3-5 p.m. April 19, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.
Cutting Edge Lecture With Philomena Marano: Included with admission. 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. March 7, April 11 and May 9.
Ashley Thunder: Opera in the Gallery: Included with admission. 6:30-7 p.m. and 7:30-8 p.m. March 5, April 2 and May 7.
IF YOU GO
“Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney” remains on view through May 10. $20, $15 seniors/students/military/Florida educators, $10 children 7-17, free for children 6 and younger and members; $10 after 5 p.m. on Thursdays. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. The cafe is open from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-2667. mfastpete.org.