New Rochelle, Castle Gallery, College of New Rochelle, The Russian Experiment: Master Works and Contemporary Works, September-October, 1990
Alla Rosenfeld, The Russian Experiment: Master Works and Contemporary Works, New York, 1990, p. 13, illustrated
Vladimir Tatlin, one of the leading Russian Constructivist artists, came to the theater at the very beginning of his professional career, and he worked as a stage designer virtually to the end. Tatlin was one of the Russian avant-garde artists to most significantly redefine and extend Cubist principles, which he transferred from the canvas to the stage. Even when Tatlin was most involved with the analysis of pictorial structure, he was still committed to stage design.
In 1913-14, Tatlin created theater designs for Mikhail Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar (Ivan Susanin), centered on the early-seventeenth-century patriotic hero Ivan Susanin, who gave his life in the expulsion of the invading Polish army for the newly elected Tsar Mikhail. Although the production was never staged, Tatlin envisioned not just a flat backdrop against which the drama would unfold, but a total environment organised according to geometric principles, with actors in simplified costumes designed with hard-edged arcs and sharp angles, serving as extensions of the set design (fig.1). The importance the artist attached to this project is evidenced in the large number of studies he executed. Tatlin included a number of these designs in the World of Art exhibitions held in St. Petersburg and Moscow in November and December of 1913.
Tatlin's friendship with the leading artists of the Russian avant-garde, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova, led to the appearance of Neo-Primitivist tendencies in his work. Among Tatlin's earliest painting experiences were with church art, in which the artist painted icons as well as copied frescoes and wall paintings. For Tatlin, the icon provided an alternative to academic tradition. In his costume designs for A Life for the Tsar, similar to some Russian icons, Tatlin reduces his drawing to the barest essentials, geometric elements and circular curves stripped of all superficial detail (figs.2 and 3). Some of the costume designs were composed largely with ruler and compass.
Along with Russian Orthodox icons, Tatlin's designs for A Life for the Tsar were informed by Western sources of inspiration, in particular French Cubism. Like many of his fellow Russian avant-garde artists, Tatlin turned to Cubism around 1913, which he appreciated for, among other aspects, the flattened picture surface and the separation of colours. A number of Tatlin's designs for the opera were later completed as paintings, and have outlived their connection with Glinka or the theater.