“Theatre art is set and costume design which continues to exist after the performance is over.” Serge Lifar


The book was published in 1987 and is an extensive and descriptive catalogue that focuses on a part of the Thyssen collection that has never been exhibited nor published before.


In 1870, in the outskirts of Moscow, in an estate that once belonged to the poet Aksakov, the Russian merchant Savva Ivanovitch Mamontov, created a colony for Russian artists who were in charge of making his ideal a reality: the renaissance of Russian art.

Mamontov was passionate of paintings, ceramics, sculpture, architecture as well as the theatre. On the estate he built an amateur theatre and encouraged the artists to paint the productions. This experience would change the future of theatre set decoration that until that moment had been entrusted to common house painters, even in Imperial theatres productions.


St. Petersburg 1889.  The painter, choreographer, librettist Alexander Benois, son of Nikolai Leontievich Benois the famous architect of the Imperial Mariinsky Opera House in St. Petersburg, grouped together a number of talented young artists and writers who called themselves the Nevsky Pickwickians. In 1890 they were joined by the artist Leon Bakst and Sergej Diaghilev.


Diaghilev, who met Benois at law school, was the catalyst of the group. They created a new art magazine Mir Iskusstvo (The World of Art), funded by Mamontov, exhibited their paintings in Paris as well as concerts of Russian music and finally, between 1980 and 1909 the first productions of opera and ballet. The World of Art developed into the legendary Ballets Russes (coming soon on TFB!).


The history of the Ballets Russes will be developed more thoroughly in other posts but it is essential in this context to put an accent on the revolutionary genius of Sergey Diaghilev.  He was the inventor of an ideal of theatre that has never been imagined before and that could never be pigeon-holed in the typical classifications such as symbolism, cubism, realism, etc.

“ These are labels for a tidy mind determined to order irrepressible originality, curiosity and energetic experiment into defined and confined compartments. Some so-called artists merely follow fashion but great artists are unaffected by ‘isms. They mey set the fashion even write a manifesto for a new ‘ism’, but in the very act of doing so they make an imaginative leap which lesser artists are incapable of making. Great artists and great designers for the theatre cannot be labelled. The critic, however, needs the consolation of order…The art of theatre is not a tidy art “. Alexander Schouvaloff

This bad-tempered, extremely demanding impresario managed to create a ballet company by scouting the most talented dancers to set up the most magnificent scenographies, choreographies rich in sublime vigour and eroticism, avant-guarde costumes and enchanting music. Le Tout-Paris was enflamed, caught off guard by such “profusion without moderation” that was totally unexpected from ‘barbaric’ Russia.

Coco Chanel, Matisse, Picasso, Mirò, Bakst, Bérard, Nijinksy, Karsavina, Goncharova, Massine, Stravinsky, Fauré, Ravel,  where among the extraordinary talents that contributed to the success that spanned over two decades of the Ballet Russes. Ironically, they never performed in Russia.


The Thyssen-Collection owns one of the earliest theatre sketches by Léon Bakst, former painter and book illustrator and one of the founding members of Benois’ The World of Art group. It was a costume design for Hyppolytus in 1902, 7 years before the Ballets Russes’ adventure. This tragedy by Euripides was first performed at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in October of 1902.

The most remarkable works for the theatre in which Bakst’s original and unique imagination is expressed by the revolutionary use juxtapositions of violent colors, inspired by a trip to Greece in 1907, are related to two of the most overwhelming dances in Diaghilev’s repertoire:  Cléopâtre and Shérazade . In Shérazade, Bakst achieves his ambition to become the most famous – not the best – artist in the world and becomes the first artist of the theatre to have a one-man exhibition of his designs in an art gallery and one of his works bought by a museum.


Less creative and innovative than Bakst but still a talented painter, stage and costume designer with a profound knowledge of Russian history, Benois is mostly remembered for the costumes designed for  the burlesque ballet Petruschka, theatre masterpieceand most famous ballet produced by the Ballets Russes.

Next in line was the artistic couple composed of Natalia Gontcharova and Michel Larionov. The former excelled in the costume design for Stravinsky’s Les Noces, a work on the joys and sorrows of marriage. Recalling the memories of peasants weddings in her childhood hometown, she wonders on appearances and true feelings:

“My childhood had been spent in the Russian countryside and I had often seen peasant weddings. That everybody drank, sand, ate and shouted a lot, had a thoroughly good time. I know. But it was really joy?”

The drawing below was sketched by Gontcharova before she asked herself if marriage was truly a joyful event. She completely changed her vision for the costumes which in the last version had an entirely different palette and a unusual simplicity: from pale blue to grey, to light ochre, uniform colors with symbolizing the earth with white symbolizing purity.

Modernity always attracts criticism by those who are not ready to live it and live in it. And Gontcharova was victim of ferocious attacks by the academic critics of the times. On her defense, H.G. Wells wrote a public letter which I will partly quote because I just love witty anti-critics.

“The silly pretty-pretty tradition of Watteau and Fragonard is flung aside. Instead of fancy-dress peasants we have peasants in plain black and white, and the smirking flirtatiousness of Daphnis and Chloe gives place to a richly humorous solemnity. It was an amazing experience to come out of this delightful display with the warp and woof of music and vision still running and interweaving in one’s mind, and find a little group of critics flushed with resentment and ransacking the stores of their minds for cheap trite depreciation of the freshest, and strongest think that they had a chance to praise for a long time.”  

Her life partner Michel Larionov developed Rayonnism from the principles of Futurism, Robert Delaune’s Orfism and Cubism. But he was also inspired by his devotion to Russian peasant art.  Larionov translated and adapted the garishly bold colors, the stylized flowers and patterns typical of folk art in the set design for Kikimora, a ballet based on a Russian fairy tale which was performed for the first time  in 1916 in the Basque city of San Sebastian.

The detailed drawing of the stove and the general view of the scene that contains it belongs to the realm of fantasy, a visual interpretation of a peasant’s dream who could never afford such an exquisitely decorated stove. But wished he could.


Two of the costume designers featured in the book and protagonists of early 20th century theatre design went a long way from their apprenticeship in Paul Poiret’s atelier in Paris. Romain de Tirtoff, alias Erté, son of the Director of the Naval Engineering School in Kronstadt, and the Spaniard Josè de Zamora learned from the Parisian couturiere the art of fashion drawing and the craft of costume construction.

Erté was commissioned in 1920 the design of the costumes for The Ball of the Gods sequence in the film The Restless Sex starring Marion Davies released by Paramount in September of that year. Erté’s influence of Herati school in Persia is evident in his theatrical and vibrant illustrative style, in the colours, patterns and the pose of hands and face of his design for the Caliph’s costume. The film was in black and white but the color contrasts, the geometrics of the patterns had nonetheless a great effect on the final outcome shown in the movie.

The art historian and critic Charles Spencer reports in his book Erté:

“The details of the robes are astonishing in inventiveness, precision, erotic suggestion and playful humour. They are not merely designs for dresses; the figures are performers in movement or repose, full of energy, grace, or statuesque dignity; without doubt among the finest costume designs of the century.”


A Revue is a theatrical performance about recent events. A crescendo of surprises and anticipation, constituted on succession of scenes that included songs, dances, jokes…and nude costumes. Costumes and sets are essential in provide the pure entertainment, fun and fantasy, the glamorous extravagance and the tasteful eroticism that the audiences expect.

“Costume in revue has to conceal to reveal. The Art is to reveal the sexy without the sex.” Alexander Schouvaloff

Erté brought to the revue his unique style of glacial eroticism achieved in a sophisticated, déco and elegant style.

Toute Nue!! Was a revue in two acts and forty scenes by Léo Lelièvre, Henri Varna and Fernand Rouveray. It was first performed at the Concert Mayol in Paris on March 16,1924.

Among the designers commissioned to design the 900 costumes was José de Zamora, a Spanish painter, illustrator, fashion designer and writer. But he is mostly remembered, unfortunately only by experts, for his theatre and music-hall costume and set designs. He mastered the art of  “dressing the nude”.


“Each theater design (drawing, sketch) is also a document, a vital piece of evidence. It is a talisman which sparks the memory or evokes the performance for those who never saw it…Sets are fragile and eventually disintegrate, or bits of them are cannibalized for another production. Costumes are altered to fit different performers, sweat disintegrates the seams washing and cleaning fades the cloth, they are thrown away. Sometimes there is a revival of a particularly successful production and the costumes are remade, but never with the original care…they lose their magic. The power of the talisman stays only with the original design.”


SET AND COSTUME DESIGNS FOR BALLET AND THEATRE, is a really interesting time-travel book that transports you to the exotic behind the scenes of the early 20th century theatre and ballet.

The book includes 56 drawings by Bakst, Nathalie Goncharova, Erté, Alexandra Exter, Michel Larionov, José de Zamora and others. The drawings are contextualized with other images of the various theatre productions and comparative illustrations of other designs.

Each ballet/opera/révue is thoroughly described in its set and costume design, history and development including interesting details of the artists’ styles.

The author, Count Alexander Schouvaloff,  was the first administrator and curator of the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A recognized authority on the history of the Ballets Russes, he is also the author of Straninsky on Stage and the novel “The Summer of the Bullshine Boys.

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