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The Garden Paradise

The garden is sometimes thought of as an image of paradise, an image of nature in its most pure and innocent state endowed with human meaning by human artifice, a symbol of innocence and harmony best summed up in the image of the Garden of Eden, the earthly paradise before the fall. The image and the mythology of the Garden of Eden and its two original inhabitants Adam and Eve holds the potential for a return to this state sometime in the future.

The name derives from the Akkadian edinnu taken from a Sumerian word edin meaning ‘plain’ or ‘steppe’, closely related to an Aramaic word meaning ‘fruitful, well-watered’

The garden itself could be understood as a symbol of harmony and repose. A landscape which delights with its beauty and feeds us with its fruits, representing a microcosm of the earth itself. Such an image has been celebrated in art throughout the centuries in both its pristine form before the fall and the subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve, from artists like Bruegel to Bosch and Thomas Cole. 

Benois, Versailles 1910

Other cultures like the Japanese have created gardens as mythological metaphors of a state of Nirvana, such as the gardens of the Heian period which embodied the paradise of Pure Land Buddhism, an earthly realm to the west which could be reached by souls through meditation and good works. The gardens they built came to personify the state which could be attained in order to achieve rebirth into a higher state of being.

The world of Art movement in the early twentieth century employed the motif of the Garden Paradise to express the concerns and anxieties they felt about sweeping changes taking place in Russian society at this time.

The World of Art Movement (Mir Iskusstvi) was a group of Russian symbolist artists who sought to establish high standards of aesthetic excellence. Its members like Benois Baskt, Somov and Dobuzhinsky, were unhappy with the anti-aesthetic nature of modern industrial society and sought to consolidate all Neo-Romantic Russian artists under the banner of fighting Positivism in art.

Like the Romantics before them, the miriskusniki promoted understanding and conservation of the art of previous epochs, particularly traditional folk art and the 18th-century rococo. However, this was only on the surface. Their work took on an ironic turn in its attitude to nature and history which could no longer be depicted or understood artistically as a facsimile or copy of reality. Many of their works depicted nature in its man-made and modified state – nature as a modified artifice. They took the classical motifs and subjects of gardens estates and parks and applied to them their own contemporary questions and concerns. Dobuzhinsky, Baskt. Somov and Benois took part in the group’s activities which became part of what is known as the Silver Age of Russian art in the early 20th century. The Garden Estate or park became a constant subject of artists of this period but with a crucial innovation. Something in the garden was not right. Paradise was undergoing a transformation, it was falling into a state of decay and the art of this group reflected the general feeling of unease, a creeping sense of impending disaster or doom which accompanied the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century in Russian society. This feeling was accelerated with the revolution of 1905, a kind of dress rehearsal for what would come later.

There were no thunder clouds gathering on the horizon in their work but there in the garden could be detected an unease an sense of deterioration in the fabric of the park, something hidden behind the facade of harmony, difficult to express but palpable – a specific aroma associated with a dying epoch and themes of the past. These artists had no real love for ancient Russia and they chose historical themes and images of Western Europe; from the Versailles of Louis 14th, images from Hoffman, Goethe and the commedia dell’arte as well as a scattering of Russian life from the age of Peter the Great, the 18th century, Pushkin and the Petersburg of Catherine the Great, Alexander and old Russian Estates. However, the work was by no means historical or wedded to accurately or realistically portraying the past and its idealised beauty.

The prototypes for this process comes from such academic and classical painters as Antoine Watteau, The Embarkation to the island of Cythera, Cythera being the birthplace of Venus and Daniel Chodowiecki’s ‘The Merry Party’ in the 18th Century Rococo, a style almost excessively emphasising decorativism. They are idealised landscapes in some way but contain the seeds of the future world of the group’s preoccupations and aesthetic.

Benois, Versalles 1910

Benois in his paintings of Versailles eschews heroes and personages, his real heroes are works of art; statues, fountains and the huge massive stones of the palaces which tower theatrically over the people in the painting. The atmosphere is gloomy, and muted, grotesque in an Hoffmannesque fashion. The statues have more significance than the hunched figures in the paintings and in liberating his landscapes from historical associations they are often theatricalised.

There was a trend to theatricalise nature in his paintings. Usually there is a tendency for theatre to draw from nature but in these paintings nature is mimicking theatre in a peculiar reverse aesthetic, setting up a dualism in our minds eye which has the effect of ‘deposing’ reality, pulling it out of joint.

This trend was most obvious in the paintings of Konstantin Somov, whereby the garden paradise is completely subverted. The statues are almost waiting to come to life gazing down at the characters in the painting, commenting on them as it were. The commedia dell’arte figures we see are real people almost photographic in their realistic portrayal. But everyone is in costume from some other century.

Courtesans, Somov 1903

It is difficult to know if this is a masquerade in the present or a masquerade from some other time or century or epoch. Once again, this blurring of fantasy and real life creates a dualistic tension which unnerves the viewer even if only subconsciously. Occasionally a contemporary figure will appear as in the painting of Harlequin and Death, when a couple in modern evening dress embrace and kiss on the lawn in the middle distance but they are framed by a gigantic Harlequin and a Death in the form of  a skeleton which is definitely a skeleton and not a character in masquerade. Draped in a sable cape decorated with drops of molten silver it is a parody of an ermine cloak, normally associated with royalty and kings and queens. The cape, a kind of dark photographic negative of white ermine with black flecks, is a parody of the regalia of a king or queen but dressed in an infernal motley. The molten silver drops are like the fallen stars of the apocalypse which would befit death.

In other paintings the unease is underlined by the background figures which seem to be up to something, but we don’t exactly know what. We become interested in their conversations or activities. Strangely it is the background which often draws our attention in all its alien vagueness. We want to know what is going on in the dim recesses of the painting once we have dealt with the glaring theatrical figures which have been thrust in the foreground. They want to command us to see them but eventually we want to look elsewhere. The play on perspective again draws our own perception sideways, pulling us up short as to what is going on. Apparently Somov, according to his sister’s diaries, had a vision defect which effected how he saw perspective and this no doubt contributed to the kind of feeling and emotion in his paintings. There is a sense of extreme vitality and life, combined with a deathlike fixed theatrical dream, a theatre set where puppets are in the foreground and real people are milling about in the background and yet the puppets are imbued with an excess of energy which appears unnaturally frivolous.

Somov parodies the grand classical themes of art; great stately gardens, idealised nature and beauty but degraded and purposely grotesquely trivialised. The garden, the classical paradise is presented as a place where frivolity and death live side by side, each mocking the other, intensifying the feeling of a world separated from reality, of things taken out of context and deliberately ironic and self-mocking. This feeling is underlined in one of Somov’s drawings for a book by Sergei Sudeikin. The scene is a Chinese garden. In the centre of the drawing a gigantic skeleton stalks through the scene. On the left Harlequin and Columbina are moving out of the drawing, a sad spectacle, with Columbina leaning on Harlequin’s back perhaps sobbing. They are being escorted by a grotesque figure who may even be pushing them forward. On the left a female figure is flying into the scene. The whole drawing is reminiscent in its various components of classical paintings of the Garden of Eden with Gabriel escorting them from paradise at the point of a sword. Again, there is an echo of the apocalypse with death taking centre stage in this carnival version of the fall.

Many of Somov’s paintings might remind us of modern-day graphic novels in their tasteless but excellent degree of technical and artistic skill. The question arises why – why is it garish and ‘tasteless’. Perhaps while nature is being continually rationalised, Somov’s masked figures seem to want to reassert a modicum of chaos through humour and the grotesque. They take us somewhere else and even put in doubt the very idea of a garden paradise ever having existed at all. The comic cardboard style subverts our normal associations with classical motifs making us think and approach the themes of the picture from a different angle. It is almost as if the mocking and light-hearted exposition of the subject and joking parody is done on purpose, easing the horror and pain without directly confronting it, offsetting the fear with laughter and foolishness the closer the approaching catastrophe comes. The mixing of laughter and tragedy is something peculiar to theatre. The carnival mood is like that of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The ‘Cask of Amontillado’ which takes place during a carnival and the victim is dressed in carnival motley. As he is walled up alive, drunk on the sherry, we can hear the bells on his costume tinkling merrily. Even by distancing us with the mixture of merrymaking and death our attention is drawn more acutely by the underlying contradictions of emotion, to the coldness of the killer’s revenge. The same is true with Poe’s Mask of the Red Death where ‘Death’ appears among the carnival guests who are attempting to avoid the red death plague outside the walls of the abbey by barricading themselves inside and indulging in a feast of merriment and carnival masquerade. The red death appears inside the abbey almost as part of the masquerade itself. 

It is interesting to note that Dostoevsky was an admirer of Poe’s work. Dostoevsky had the prophetic vision to see the infernal texture of the future epoch. ‘The Devils’ and its preoccupation with the depth of evil and cold savagery to which human beings can descend is a prolegomena to the 20th Century. Dostoevsky’s imagery was not lost on artist like Somov and Blok.

Dobuzhinsky The Kiss

Even Chekhov, although not a member of the mir iskusstva,in his own restrained way was expressing the destruction of a whole civilisation in ‘The Cherry Orchard’ where the sale of the cherry orchard impacts on the main characters with far reaching consequences. The garden paradise of provincial Russia, in the image of the cherry orchard, would succumb to its own mini apocalypse and was merely in the end something to be bought and sold. 

Many of Chekhov’s works are centred around what is understood as the dacha which looms large in every Russian’s psyche. Chekhov used the idea of a peaceful country setting a natural and harmonious playground for his characters on the surface but turns this idea inside out.

 At this time of the year everything seems to stop; work school and even the theatres close for the season. Moscow empties out and there is a mass exodus to the countryside. The dacha is an enclosed world where the outside world can be shut out much like Poe’s abbey and it seems the cares and woes of city life can be put to one side. However, with Chekhov here in the dacha the inner drama of people’s lives, seemingly buried deep in the human consciousness, rises to the surface in restrained but epic proportions. Forgotten traumas force themselves to the surface. Characters undergo a poignant disenchantment bordering at times on indifference, which then erupts into an agonising sense of loss and purposeless as the characters search for meaning to their existence. Strangely the drama of Chekhov reminds us of another Russian artist, Tarkovsky, despite his distance in time from the Silver age. The Russian countryside and natural environment plays an enormous part in Tarkovsky‘s films. The opening part of Solaris comes to mind and also, Stalker.

In Stalker the main characters travel from the gruelling oppressive city to the countryside just like Chekhov’s characters. Here, Chekhov’s gloomy indifferent countryside has turned into a dystopian radioactive nightmare known as the ‘zone’ where the normal laws of existence are no longer applicable and as with Chekhov there is no immediate relief. Relief can only be bought at a price, confronting through suffering ones inner and moral failures and deficiencies. The landscape looks the same as it does in Chekhov’s world but now is littered with the debris of an apocalyptic event.

Dobuzhinsky Man in Spectacles 1905-06s

But to return to the Mir Iskusstva. In the early twentieth century the quickening pace of industrialisation became a feature of Dobuzhinsky’s paintings, and he stands out as one of the true innovators of this trend. As well as the classical Petersburg he saw a new industrial era emerging all around him and it affected his work as the old traditional Russia seemed to be displaced by new architecture and the infrastructure of an industrialised city. The painting ‘The Courtesans’ is an early snapshot of Petersburg nightlife in this era. The female figures are muted, faded and lifeless. Not exactly victims but certainly ghostly casualties illuminated by the garish electric lights in the background which give off a ghoulish green tint.

Later, his painting ‘A Man in Spectacles’ shows a typical member of the intelligentsia, a figure almost identical to Chekhov, standing in his room facing us. Behind him out of the window can be a seen a large, what appears to be, market garden. It is tired and maybe unattended and in the far distance a dreary urban space is slowly intruding on the garden, displacing it. The man in spectacles is less like a human being and more like a dehumanised spectre, an emotion with which no doubt many of the Russian intelligentsia of the time could identify, as their world view began to collapse.

Dobuzhinsky goes further in his painting ‘The Kiss’ which shows a naked couple embracing. Behind them  a modern futuristic city is collapsing in flames in a fiery apocalyptic vision

It reminds us of the famous sculpture by Rodin ‘The Kiss’. The embracing naked couple depicted in Rodin’s sculpture was originally part of a group of reliefs which decorated Rodin’s monumental bronze portal The Gates of Hell, commissioned for a planned museum of art in Paris reminiscent in style of The Last Judgement of Michelangelo in its intent. The Kiss, was originally titled Francesca da Rimini, depicting the 13th-century Italian noblewoman featured in Dante’s Inferno(Circle 2, Canto 5) who falls in love with her husband Giovanni Malatesta’s younger brother Paolo.

At the gate:
Through me the way into the suffering city,
Through me the way to the eternal pain,
Through me the way that runs among the lost.
Justice urged on my high artificer;
My Maker was Divine authority,
The highest Wisdom, and the primal Love.
Before me nothing but eternal things
Were made, and I endure eternally.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
DanteInferno, 3.1–9

The garden of paradise is long gone and could never survive such a conflagration in any case. The couple in Dobuzhinsky’s painting remind us that as one civilisation falls the seeds of another are present. Dobuzhinsky,  Somov and Benois as part of an educated elite would have been fully conversant with these texts and references to Dante and other writers and artists. There is no reason not to suppose that they became major influences in their work. It is more than likely that they even cued their audiences to spot the allusions and devices embedded in their work and not necessarily with any subtlety.

Dobushkinsky painted set designs for the prologue of Remizov’s The Devils Play(or The Devil’s Comedy) Remizov was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky. In Dobuzhinsky’s set design there is a close connection to Benois’s design for the ballet Petrushka as Janet Kennedy points out in one of  her essays. 

Dobuzhinsky’s set design is a sheet of darkness illuminated by a few stars similar to the backdrop of Benois design for Petrushka’s room. The devils guarding the door of Petrushka’s room are stylised in the same semi frightening and  semi comical style as the devils which populate the underworld in Dobuzhinsky’s set. The thing that definitely links them however is the presence of a comet in some of Benois’s later designs. The comet is a sure sign of the apocalypse although it is likely that Benois  used it in Petrushka more for decorative effect than anything else. It is also no coincidence that the Moor’s room is an exotic tropical jungle paradise. The two realms, the apocalyptic and ‘paradise’, sit side by side within the ballet Petrushka.

Chodowiecki Merry Company

Vasily Rosanov wrote his book The Apocalypse of our Time directly referencing in the title Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Rosanov was writing after the revolution and found himself at what he thought was now at the very epicentre of an apocalypse. The garden paradise was a long way away and rightly or wrongly he drew for himself the necessary conclusions about the fate of Russia in this book.

With Lermontov in mind  we know that Russian culture has a powerful prophetic strand  both in its art and literature and the apocalypse was the perfect vehicle to express the forebodings and  fears which confronted Russian society before the revolution as well as the  anxiety felt about a coming catastrophe. In 1830 Lermontov wrote the well known poem ‘Prediction’ when he was only 16 years old presenting himself as the poet prophet as first marked out by Pushkin.

A year will come for Russia, a dark year
Where royalty no more their crown will wear
The mob who loved them once will love forget
For Blood and death will richest feast be set;
The fallen law no more will shield the weak
And maid and guiltless child in vain will seek
For justice. Plague will ride…….

It is fitting to end with Lermontov as a kind of coda to the idea of a tainted paradise. Lermontov, who was no stranger to demons, masquerades and dark carnivals, goes on to describe an apocalyptic vision of famine, war and strife in the true decrowning style of which Bakhtin often writes and is the centre of his commentaries on art and literature. 


This article was originally published in Russia Knowledge under the title  “The Garden Paradise

The Russian Fairground and its association with Russian art and theatre

At the root of early 20th century Russian theatre is the carnival. Its raucous, undisciplined irreverent voice can be heard down through the ages from Pushkin, to Gogol and Dostoevsky, but its principle appearance in early Russian 20th century theatre was in ‘The Fairground Booth’ or Balaganchik written by Alexander Blok and directed by Meyerhold in 1906. An alternative title is also ‘The Puppet Show’. Balaganchik is taken from the word Balagan which is derived from a Persian word meaning balcony.

But what was the Russian Fairground, how did it become the mainstay of what amounted to a revolution in the Russian Theatre.

Konstantin Makovsky – Open-Air Festival During Shrovetide on Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg

In the 18th and 19th centuries, fairground performances were a common form of popular entertainment which also had their roots in the medieval Russian entertainers Skomorokhi who travelled around the country performing folk dramas and satirical pieces. Their performances were a commentary on the lower classes of Russia (See Tarkovsky – ‘Andrei Rublev’ and the punishment of Skomorokhi).Their message had a political charge. They were banned in 1648 by the then Tsar who feared that they were making Russian peasants more socially and politically aware. The fairgrounds showcased entertainers such as acrobats, clowns, puppet showman, tumblers and performing animals. One of the favourite characters was Petrushka; ugly and provocative, and acting the fool and cruelly ridiculing all around him. He personifies the ambiguous atmosphere and underlying menace of the fairground. He was always on the verge of breaking taboos, ridiculing figures of authority and meting out murder, mayhem and violence to those around him especially his wife. This ambivalence between form and content has always been a characteristic of Russian popular culture where laughter and tragic, serious and funny inhabit the same hemisphere so to speak.

The characters of this Commedia dell’Arte also became popular at the fairgrounds and it is believed that either Petrushka was the forerunner of Pierrotor maybe the other way around. However, it has to be said that Petrushka is of a different nature than Pierrot in many ways, although there is probably a lot of cross-pollination.

After the Napoleonic wars, Russian aristocrats divested themselves of French entertainment. At the same time, the fairground was frequented by aristocrats to demonstrate a national consensus and ‘narodnost’. Nicholas 1st made many visits to the fairgrounds.

Konstantine Somov – Harlequin and Columbina

However, this began to change and the rich began to move away from such entertainments. In this context, the Russian craze for serf theatres also declined. Abandoned by their owners, the serf actors gravitated to the fairgrounds in cities and towns. By the 1850s the European Harlequinades were complete with shows or pantomimes of a Russian hue, celebrations of famous battles or historical events. This brought a new public and the harlequinades began to cater for the demands of this new public. The audience became more plebeian after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, and industrialisation brought more and more people in larger numbers to the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. At this time, entertainment changed with new industrial technology and mechanical attractions, roller coasters and large-scale pantomimes with large mass casts.

Detail from painting Boris Kustodiev Fairground Booths

We can imagine the scene of large crowds thronging and jostling with each other to see the latest spectacle or freak show and ride on a new-fangled attraction. In the background, the loud hum of the bustling crowd and the shouts and cries of hawkers and spectators, the aristocratic and the squalid rubbing shoulders in the same space. The many balagans or booths and entertainments created a kaleidoscopic cacophony of confused sound, blending into an almost Stockhausen type of symphony which could make a child’s head spin with delight and fear. Devil’s and clowns together would shout down from the balagan, competing with each other to entice the crowds into their theatre.

A description from the time gives a flavour of the atmosphere on the Field of Mars in St. Petersburg.

The Field of Mars roars and hums, hums and groans, bathed in a sea of lights all the colours of the rainbow and flowers……And the sounds? This is not sounds, it is a chaos of sounds. It is a gigantic, miraculous formless chaos. A barrel organ squeaks, a trumpet roars, bells clang, a flute sings, a drum hums, conversations, exclamations, shouts, laughter, cursing, song. There is a holiday carousel decorated with flags, lit up, decked out, illuminated. And here is a barker with his linen beard, the classic barker, that eternal jester, but a jester who holds the whole crowd in his hands, a jester who has power over them and, with a single word, forces the crowd to laugh, to laugh until they cry.

Here we have the cacophony of a new urban industrial environment with all its new social elements colliding in this brash, chaotic gathering.

Interestingly, commentators have noted that this description could be taken straight out of Gogol’s description of Nevsky Prospect in his story of the same name.

Alexander Benois Set design for opening of the ballet Petrushka 1911

The balagan theatre on the surface seemed crude and primitive with noisy interjections from the crowd who were completely involved in the performance. The balagans were pure theatre with little reference to any literary refinement. Both funny and frightening, they were grotesque and were not true to life as conventionally understood. The dramatic conventions of the fairground were staged in line with a popular view of the world, which seemed strange to the educated liberal intelligentsia. The balaganfairground was a space where different types of people could exist side by side, in some sense it united people often with contradictory characteristics and backgrounds. Those who worked the fairground were not easily classified and seemed outside the normal run of social strata in a kind of class unto themselves, (much like the kabukiin Japan).

Reproduction of the set design for Blok’s “Balaganchik” by Nikolai Sapunov 1906

The life of these entertainers was hard and uncertain and in many cases it was a matter of simple survival. They were drawn from the bottom end of profession. The simplest acts were those which could be performed impromptu by acrobats, dancing bears, clowns, street musicians. The smaller shows were the most daring, and bore the spirit of carnival. It is to this pressed and squeezed aggressive type of show that Peterushkacame from. The ballet Petrushkathe Puppet morphed from the Italian Punchinellabut the Russian version can be traced possibly back as far as the 16th century with glove puppets and marionettes at Yarmarki(street fairs or markets). Vulgar with its mangled caricatured deformed figure, grotesque and sinister, violent with a squeaky voice unnatural voice.

The Petrushka show could transcend time and space. At various parts of the fairground and in various cities, Petrushka would be everywhere at once, and existed outside of time and space and yet could change and transform with the passage of time – he was both eternal and temporal simultaneously

The carnival atmosphere of the balagans provided material for artists and writers as diverse as Gogol, Dostoevsky, Benois, Dobuzhinsky and Somov. The carnival coincides with what is known as The Silver Age in Russian art with its all subversive overtones. The Silver Age liked farcical form because of the improvisational possibilities it provided. In his article on theatre, Blok argued for a theatre of action and passion which could be found in popular theatre. He saw in this a theatre of the future.

The theatricality of farce and the marionette quality of the balagan destroys the illusion of closed theatrical space underlined by Harlequin’s leap into a painted square of a window – into the void. In many ways the reality of the world of the fairground booth becomes more real than the that of the author, certainly fuller – by contrasting the theatrical illusion of farce with the reality of the author which in some way is no less an illusion. Here we are confronted with what constitutes reality and illusion where everyone’s perceptions of reality are confused but somehow valid, including that of the authors.

Bakhtin reminds us that carnival retains a wealth of assets invaluable to art with its ambivalence and capacity for transformation. In his book on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin outlines the main advantages of carnival as an aesthetic category.

Katcheli 1803 John Augustus Atkinson

Bakhtin states that carnival is not essentially a literary or artistic phenomenon as such but is a syncretic pageantry, which can be defined roughly as the attempted reconciliation or union of different and opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion in the context of an elaborate public spectacle illustrative of the history of a place, institution, or similar. It is often given in dramatic form or as a costumed procession, masque, allegorical tableau, forming part of public or social festivities of a ritualistic nature. It is complex and varied in form with different expressions dependent on the epoch or time in history. It has an entire language of symbolism, and this entails sensuous forms from large complex mass actions to individual gestures, and as a language has given expression to a unified carnival sense of the world throughout all its forms and appearances.

Alexander Blok

Importantly from the point of view of the play by Alexander Blok: ‘The Fairground Booth’, Bakhtin notes that this language cannot be translated in any full or adequate way into a verbal language. In other words, it’s not a text and cannot be rendered as a text in words and phrases or sentences. However, it can be transposed or rendered into a language of artistic images that has something in common with its concrete and sensuous nature both in literature and the theatre especially. Bakhtin does not describe it wholly in these terms as he is essentially concerned with literature. It is Meyerhold and Blok who harness the language of carnival for theatre, where carnival is a pageant without footlights and without division into performers and spectators. In carnival, everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act. It is neither contemplated or in a strict sense performed. The participants of carnival live in it and live by its laws; they live a carnivalistic life with its own mores and reality. In this sense carnival life, because it is drawn away from the normal everyday life, is life turned inside out, the reverse side of the world.

Vsevolod Meyerhold



For Meyerhold, carnival portended a theatre which was not dominated by the word and text but by movement and gesture and a breakdown of the naturalistic view of performance. It enabled the possibility of breaking out of theatrical conventions of the time, and the creation of new dramatic forms based on the very essence of theatre. The most popular and well-known version of such a spectacle in Russian culture is the ballet ‘Petrushka’. Here the elements of dance, theatre, balagan, Russian music and folklore and many of the concerns of modernism like the role of puppets and humans in art, come together in Stravinsky, Benois and Fokine’s ballet which was championed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe.

This article was originally published in

Russia Knowledge


Biomechanics was an acting technique developed by Vsevolod Meyerhold in answer to the problems of a changing theatre in the early 20th century. It coincided with a search for a more authentic acting experience. Russian theatre between the 1870s and early 1900s consisted of a series of classic plays which relied heavily, one could say exclusively, on the text and literature for their content. Productions were staged in the form a strictly realistic and naturalistic character. Meyerhold and others began to understand that theatre was an independent art form in itself with its own aesthetic and quality and should not be a slave to the written word and subjected to the tyranny of the text and the author of that text. Theatre for Meyerhold was a unique art form which should be “theatrical” and used all the possibilities of theatre, such as gesture and movement, as legitimate means of expression equal to that of the text. In other words, Meyerhold wanted to breakdown the usual hierarchies of theatre with the text, and the actors’ declamation of the text at its apex. Meyerhold’s contention was that the audience always understood that what they were seeing on stage was an illusion and not real life. He wanted to develop a new kind of theatre which would reflect the conditions of life which were literally appearing on the streets of Russia’s cities at the beginning of the twentieth century; speed, movement and mass culture.

Related to this was the problem of theatrical space itself. Meyerhold became interested in how the three-dimensional character of the actor could relate to and harmonise with the two-dimensionality of the set design. At that time set design often consisted of a series of painted backdrops in front of which the actor moved around, speaking text in a largely static set piece environment. Meyerhold began to experiment with the stage space and proscenium, stage design and the actors’ relationship to that space and to each other. He eventually concluded that theatre needed a new kind of actor and theatre based on movement and dynamism as the paramount factor in each production rather than the text.

To this effect Meyerhold mined history and other theatrical forms to further his aims. He became particularly interested in Eastern theatre, especially the Chinese Opera and Japanese Kabuki Theatre. Both these theatres relied on movement and gesture as part of their expressive character. Kabuki is based on dance, mime and movement consisting of a presentation of the action as a series of poses. Kabuki theatre was heavily influenced by the Japanese puppet theatre Bunraku. In Kabuki, the actors move from pose to pose with gesture creating meaning and substance. Meyerhold was not interested in the exotic content of Kabuki but wanted to use the technology of Kabuki theatre to create a new theatre for Russian and Soviet audiences and biomechanics was the product of that development. 

One way of understanding biomechanics as an acting technique is by comparing it to Stanislavsky’s experiments in theatre. Stanislavsky was primarily concerned with how to make  the actors experience on stage truthful and realistic given that the actor is playing a role which is not themselves. His solution was for the actor to concentrate on their inner world of emotions and psychology, drawing on their own inner experiences both past and present to bear on the role by externalising them within the context of a role or character. The idea being: how would this person/role react in a given situation based on the biography and psychological makeup of that character? This allowed the actor the potential to portray a character which was truthful and realistically convincing to the audience. What was known as the ‘fourth wall’ was established to separate the world of the audience and the world of the actors on stage as if they were two wholly different spaces separated by an imaginary boundary across the proscenium arch.

The main difference, crudely speaking, between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold was that Meyerhold worked from the external to the internal rather than the other way around although both were concerned with the authenticity of the actors’ experience on stage. Both were interested in the physical elements of actors potential.

Meyerhold on the other hand was dissatisfied by this approach; believing it did not solve those theatrical problems posed by a new century. Meyerhold instead started from external elements, that is the actor’s body, so that they would feel comfortable using dynamic movement and gesture and use their bodies as an expressive instrument for exploring new theatrical forms, reaching out across the proscenium arch as a new approach in how the stage space could be used. To this end he designed a series of physical exercises which would help create new theatrical forms around the director’s vision, not mechanically or slavishly but radically transforming the theatrical space into a territory for dynamic movement and more importantly rhythm – rhythm was all for Meyerhold. Rhythm in the theatre created form. The main difference crudely speaking, between Stanislavsky and Meyerhold was that Meyerhold worked from the external to the internal rather than the other way around although both were concerned with the authenticity of the actors’ experience on stage. Meyerhold was a former pupil of Stanislavsky and their positions were less distant than at first would seem. Both understood the importance of movement in theatre.

There are certain philosophical and aesthetic aspects which are worth mentioning in relation to biomechanics.  In her book The Director’s Prism the author Dassia Posner explains that Meyerhold paid attention to the fictional world of theatre and the constant co-presence of the real, (the actors and spectators  bodies and experience in time) and the fictional world (the world being presented). Actors are always themselves and their character. The actor is unable to forget themselves and solely be the character they are playing. Anybody who claims they are Napoleon we consider mad. It is the same for actors; to forget who they are would be impossible and maybe even dangerous. They need their experience of their own individual self to inform a role, yet they must inhabit a character which is not themselves.  This state of perpetual duality is a constant given in theatre, an oscillation between two worlds and, if fully acknowledged, could be harnessed to creative purpose rather than being a problem. The collision of perceptual planes was at the heart of Meyerhold’s experiments. In his early productions, Meyerhold began to reach out across the fourth wall to the audience (using asides and direct appeals to the audience with jokes or commentary) in an explicit recognition of this duality, emphasising it by drawing attention to it. One of the ideas behind this approach was the linking of art with life, an important aspect of the new theatre.


A mass theatre for a mass audience began to take shape.


This process coincided with the materialisation and embodiment of the cultural space and ideas. Dance and movement gave form and content to ideas, demetaphorising them. Contemporaneously, the development of mass technology and movements of mass labour changed the character of culture. In turn this very sense of a mass culture challenged the idea of what an individual could be in such an environment, calling into question the very sense of an autonomous, independent individual as the driving force of culture, an assumption upon which Stanislavsky founded his theatrical ideas. There was a tendency towards breaking down the straightforward representation of art and its associated quality of mimesis, a key feature of naturalistic theatre. Meyerhold was one of the first to harness these changes to form a new type of theatre. A mass theatre for a mass audience began to take shape.

The first outing for Biomechanics was Meyerhold’s production of The Magnanimous Cuckold written by the Belgian playwright Fernand Crommelynk where it was revealed to the public for the first time. Biomechanics became linked with the futurist and constructivist projects of LEF (Left Front of the Arts) and many of the avantgarde projects of LEF provided the ideas and inspiration for the set design. The artist Lyubov Popova designed the set, a gigantic three-dimensional machine-like construct of various integrated planes with moving parts and ramps leading up to and around the structure, which was set on a bare stage. Konstantin Rudnitsky in his book, Russian and Soviet Theatre, explains what the word biomechanics meant to some, when it first appeared. For several commentators it stood for the mechanico-technological reconstruction of everyday life. The human body was re-conceived as a machine. Humans had to learn how to control that machine. It was theatre’s function to demonstrate the fine tuning of human mechanisms and the stage actor must become an automaton, a mechanism, a machine. The actor must master the culture of industrialised gesture, a geometric order.

‘The art of the actor is the art of sculptural forms in space’

Meyerhold may not have entirely agreed with some of his contemporaries’ ideas, but in relation to biomechanics he put it like this: ‘The art of the actor is the art of sculptural forms in space’. In other words, the art of the actor is utilising their body as an expressive instrument from without and with movement. Any movement, the tilt of the head, the turn of the body, the smallest of gestures, even the fluttering of eyelashes should ideally involve the whole body of the performer who possesses musical rhythm and quick reflexive excitability. He compared the actor’s body to a musical instrument. Meyerhold continues: Biomechanics allows the actors to perfectly control his or her body and movements, firstly to be expressive in dialogues; secondly to be master of the theatrical space; and thirdly, in integrating with the crowd scene and the grouping, to impart to it energy and will. Every movement must not simply be realistic, or lifelike (many bodily movements in real life are simply accidental or fortuitous) but deliberate, reduced to essentials and more especially important – responsive to the movement of the partner.

These ideas had come about in a discussion about the role of actors and puppets in theatre and in particular Gordon Craig’s notion of the ‘‘über-marionette’as a replacement for the traditional actor. There is not consensus about the precise meaning of the term ‘über-marionette’.Is it a life-size marionette? A masked dancer? Or simply a metaphor for an actor who exerts perfect control over his body and emotions? Craig’s work on this subject would appear prophetic but it was Meyerhold who had a methodological intention working towards a specific system of exercises which would transform the actor into a controllable object on the stage.

The Magnanimous Cuckoldwas a far sighted and maybe even prophetic departure from the old theatrical aesthetics. As Rudnitsky describes it: When the actors first stepped onto Popova’s machine they found themselves in a completely unfamiliar environment, cut off from all help. They stood on the bare, inclined planes and ladders, with no decor, costumes or makeup to fall back on. The rest of the stage was empty. Every movement, whether it was intended or not, took on a sculptural form and meaning. Therefore, they had to strive for the most subtle expressiveness of outline and gesture, moving with the ease of dancers and dexterity of acrobats. The performance took on a circus-like athletic character. The gracefulness of the sculptural images enhanced the ease of each line’s delivery with a sonority and clarity of intonation.

In my film Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde, we created several experiments to see how the biomechanics exercises may have looked. We worked with two actors and projected the images of the movements onto a white background so that they resembled marionettes almost like those of Eastern shadow puppets to give the effect of sculptural forms in space or the sense of an uber-marionette. The film helps to explain visually some of the ideas behind Meyerhold’s experiments and their graphic quality as well as some of the broader principles of Meyerhold’s work in theatre. 

The Magnanimous Cuckold heralded a complete break with the theatrical past

The Magnanimous Cuckold heralded a complete break with the theatrical past, a process which began with Meyerhold’s collaboration on The Fairground Boothwith Alexander Blok. Biomechanics was part of the process of introducing new forms of theatrical presentation based on dynamic movement and a move away from the previous older theatrical hierarchies, which were the text and the actors’ rendition of the text were paramount.


This article was originally published in Russia Knowledge  http://www.russiaknowledge.com

The Russian Theatre Film Series book – published and available:

The Russian Theatre Film Series

 book – published and available:


It’s difficult to find an appropriate description of the book “The Russian Theatre Film Series”. Essentially it is an account of an arts documentary series with all its pitfalls, successes, limitations and achievements. The three films which have so far been completed are:

Meyerhold, Theatre and the Russian Avant-garde


Stanislavsky and the Russian Theatre


Vakhtangov and the Russian Theatre

This book is part of the overall project – The Russian Theatre Film Series and is a milestone and a marker in this developing project. It is also a commentary on what it means to make an independent arts documentary film series in a foreign country namely Russia. Not so much from the technical point of view although there is plenty of technical aspects covered but more from the point of view of a kind of interior process. It is an expedition into the phenomenology of film-making, what obstacles have to be overcome, both physical and technically but more importantly some of the lived experience of film-making. For some people making independent films is a way of life in the same way that for others theatre is a way of life or acting is a way of life or painting or whatever is a way of life. You can’t live without it or outside it. The fact that you have to spend a year or two of your life on each film means that it is a life decision. So it has an existential element and this quality of film-making is explored in the book. How the series came about, what were the thought processes involved in the development of the series, which influenced the series overall – who helped who didn’t, why things went wrong and why they went right. The book is a staging post on the way to further developments clearing the ground before moving forward to the next phase – a book about

The Fairground Booth