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The Avant-garde in Georgian Theater - Akademie - Kunsthalle Zürich

The Avant-garde in Georgian Theater

In the 1920s, the conventions of stage design in theater were transformed by the aesthetic principles of the avant-garde. In a climate of artistic exchange, creative processes and practices in the visual arts soon were reflected in theater, and the specific expressions of various movements from Cubism and Futurism to Constructivism gradually found an introduction to the stage.

Text by Ketevan Shavgulidze

Under the leadership of Kote Marjanishvili, young artists including Irakli Gamrekeli, Petre Otskheli, David Kakabadze, and Hélén Akhvlediani met and congregated in the Georgian theater. They searched for new principles of stage design and, influenced by Russian and Western European theaters, contributed innovative scenographic techniques that reshaped the Georgian stage. These new methods of thinking fundamentally changed traditional principles of set design. Abstract forms of moveable, interactive sculptures replaced static objects that traditionally were part of the stage composition. This experimental approache came to be known as «stage action design».

Stage design by Irakli Gamrekeli for Ernst Toller, Masse Mensch (Man and the Masses), Rustaveli Theater, Tbilisi, 1923.

Until the 1920s, the scenography of the stage was largely defined by picturesque decorations designed to be viewed in accordance with traditional rules of perspective. The avant-garde introduced new ideas that were organized around abstractions of shapes and planes and the dynamic use of space.

Anzori, stage design by Irakli Gamrekeli for Sandro Shanshiashvili’s adaptation of Vsevolod Ivanov’s Armoured Train 14-69 at the Rustaveli Theater, Tbilisi 1930.

Multifunctional stage platforms made from a montage of geometric elements became the norm, for instance, in the sets designed by Irakli Gamrekeli for Londa, Maelstrom, Man and the Masses, and Anzor.

The stage designs of Petre Otskheli for the plays of Uriel Akosta, Beatrice Cenci, or Othello were created on a foundation of basic architectural elements, such as columns, steps, and arches. Compact and simple, these structures and designs expressed a «new reality» that assembled only a few built elements – instead of the elaborate and illustrative sets that emphasized literal notions of reality.

Sketch of scenic design by Petre Otskhelis for Kote Marjanshvilis production of Othello, Tbilisis, 1933.

Towards the end of the 1920s, David Kakabadze (Hoppla, We are Alive!, 1928), Hélén Akhvlediani (How?, 1929), and other Russian and German stage designers applied the newfound principles of set design to cinema. Scenes planned first for film were shown during stage performances, and the action on stage would then develop from there. In fluid alternation between the two environments, performances by a stage actor would then again be continued by the same actor in a film projection. In this way, the screen became an important artistic device in the local context.
It developed into an expressive means for dealing with questions of a spatial nature, and it provided new ways to accentuate the narrative of the play, as it expanded and enriched the possibilities of performance and theater.

The innovative techniques introduced by avant-garde artists contributed significantly to the overall development of Georgian theater. Concepts such as «visual directing» became commonplace as a result. Throughout the beginning of the twentieth century, processes such as these completely changed the roles and artistic possibilities for artists and designers. Instead of simply constructing the stage set, they became intertwined as coauthors in the execution and development of the performance itself.

Installation view with Irakli Gamrekeli's stage designs (Die Räuber (The Robbers) and Anzori), Georgian Modernism: The Fantastic Tavern, Kunsthalle Zürich, 2018.
Photo: Lucas Ziegler