Art History Goes to the Theatre: Research Secrets of Great Designers

September 23, 2015 to January 31, 2016

Giotto, El Greco, Veronese, Degas, Monet, Seurat, Klimt, Kirchner, Delaunay, Mondrian, Ernst, O’Keefe, Nevelson, Stella. The names of these, and other, visual artists may not appear in playbills. As this exhibition demonstrates, however, their paintings and sculpture have played leading roles in theatre productions. Whether quoted directly, or exerting a more subtle influence, works of art can be essential to how designers and their collaborators envision the worlds they create on stage.

For scene and costume designers, paintings, sculpture, and prints, are invaluable historical documents, recording polychrome reliefs in Egyptian temples or elegant garments at Italian Renaissance courts. The works of well-known artists also function as cultural shorthand. By referencing El Greco, Monet, O’Keefe, or Bearden, designers evoke the austerity of Hapsburg Spain, the excitement of modern Paris, the vastness of the American West, or the rhythms of African-American jazz.

In the hands of visionary designers, art history can actually shape the underlying concept of theatre productions. When the ruthless philanderer Don Giovanni meets his fiery end, it takes the form of the Last Judgment from Medieval churches. The enlarged and fragmented imagery of Pop Art convey the dehumanizing effects of war in Die Soldaten (The Soldiers). These references not only add new layers of meaning to theatre but also call attention to how, and why, certain works of art continue to capture the imagination.

Image: Franco Colavecchia, Front Cloth Design for Treemonisha, 1974. Collage and watercolor on paper sheet. Gift of the artist.