VISIONARY REVUE


Stage Design:
The Serpentine Crypt - c 1910
(La Crypte Vermiculaire)

      Of his many stage settings, at least two designs have come down to us: The Serpentine Crypt of c. 1910 (a pastel co-signed by the Mir Iskousstva painter Bakst) and The Bedroom of 1914 (mixed media). Both reveal a Giger-esque fascination with intertwining serpentine forms, much-inspired by Nordic and Celtic weaving patterns.
      From 1908 to 1911, Kalmakoff designed the sets and costumes for numerous plays, including The Black Masque, Judith, Anathema and The Grand Duke of Moscow. Years later, in 1922 while living in Revel, he exhibited some of these. The catalogue mentions many other decors long since lost: Dances in the Night, Cliperic, the Power of Love and Magic and even a stage setting for marionnettes. Only the memory of certain spectators recalls their overwhelming effect.
      As Mgebrov reminisced: "For The Black Masque, a macabre play with dancing masked figures, he created the interior of a castle in all its dark majesty. The costumes were the largest I've ever seen on a stage, evoking a dreamy vision of the Middle Ages with its great halls. The stage decor was enlarged to the greatest possible dimensions, even soaring up to the very ceiling of the theatre, Meanwhile, everything appeared in dark and sombre tones, causing long passages in the architecture to end in blackness. In their phantomesque masks, the cloaked figures danced a macabre farandole, frightening and terrifying the guests in the hall." (KAL 23)
      But, of all his stage designs, the one that caused an absolute scandal - to be remembered by the intelligentsia of St. Petersburg for decades to come - was Kalmakoff's design for Oscar Wilde's play Salome. It was, in fact, his first design for the theatre. Within months, Evreinoff regretted having introduced Kalmakoff to the Théâtre Ancien and its main star, Vera Kommissarjevsky. This popular St Petersburg actress, who was also the troupe's producer, immediately fell in love with the artist’s designs. She also fell in love with Kalmakoff himself.
      Inspired by this liason, he created a setting for the first act which even Evreinoff found to be too daring and advanced for Russian audiences. The director wanted it struck from the play, but Kommissarjevsky defended her new lover. During open rehearsals, the sensation spread across all of St. Petersburg, who came out in droves to greet the work-in-progress with a mixture of cat-calls and applause. Finally, on the opening night, the Holy Synod of the Church closed it down.
      What was so provactive about Kalmakoff's design? In the first act, Wilde sets the scene in, what he calls, the 'temple of love'. For this, Kalmakoff designed a temple of huge proportions, based on a woman's sex. "It was stunningly beautiful,"



 
 
 


PARIS - SPRING 2004


Costume Design:
Salome - 1908

Evreinoff's wife reminisced fifty years later, "He took as his starting point a woman's sex, but you felt as if you really were in a temple." (KAL 13)
      Writing about the event in 1913, Evreinoff struggled to capture the effect which Kalmakoff's setting had provoked: "In Kalmakoff's Salome, as in Wilde's, everything was exaggerated artistically, as if inflated by the genius of the creator... how can I convey the impression of his Salome? Have you ever had a terrifying dream where the most ordinary objects suddenly take on a strangely charged signifigance? You feel tormented by those extraordinary images, which frighten and bewitch you with their beauty hitherto unseen." (KAL 23)
      Unfortunately, all designs for Salome have been lost, and the only drawing that has come down to us is one of his costume designs for Salome herself: Salome, costume design (1908). Yet even here, in the earliest surviving work from the artist's hand, an intense eroticism emanates from Salome's semi-nude figure.
      In an interview, Anna Evreinoff remarked "As for Sex... he was haunted by it, obsessed by it. It was the driving force of the entire world, and he was its priest. He never accepted the external world, and distanced himself from it in order to immerse himself in his own world of sexuality - a world which exceeded all human limitations." (KAL 13)
      After the Synod closed down the production, the effect on Vera Kommissarjevsky was catastrophic. Kalmakoff's lover lost all her money, and was forced to go on tour in the provinces to recuperate some of her losses. She died, one year later, far from St. Petersburg. "She died in a very tragic way," Anna Evreinoff recalled, "the production of Salome put her in her grave." (KAL 13)



 
 
 


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