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Paint It With A Different Brush


Jody Blake, Curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, stands in front of some of the designs by Russian artist Natalia Goncharova for Diaghilev's production of the opera Le Coq d'Or, on display at the McNay from March 13 through May 2 as part of Le Coq d'Or: Natalia Goncharova's Designs for the Ballets Russes. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
As criticism of the Tobin Foundation and Endowment grow, it's worth celebrating the legacy that's made it into the McNay

As the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Tobin Wing at the McNay Museum of Art, built by patron and collector Margaret Batts Tobin for her son Robert L.B. Tobin's 50th birthday, approaches, Robert Tobin's legacy at the museum is overshadowed by reports of possible impropriety in the management of his estate and the well-endowed charitable institutions created upon his death in the spring of 2000. The Boston Globe, followed by the San Antonio Express-News, has raised questions over the trustee fees received by local attorneys Leroy G. Denman and J. Bruce Bugg Jr., whose generous fee schedules and almost complete control of the estate's assets were approved by an ailing Tobin less than two months before his death from complications associated with cancer of the palate.

Whatever the outcome of public scrutiny of the Endowment and Foundation for Theatre Arts that bear his name, Tobin managed to leave an unimpeachable gift to the McNay in the form of the Tobin Theatre Arts Collection, which contains some of the most valuable works of design from five centuries of theater. In 1998, Tobin formally promised a series of five gifts to the museum, which, when complete, will comprise his entire collection of theater arts, from costume and set designs to rare manuscripts to the miniature stage models called maquettes.

"Few people had the vision to collect this material and fewer still the desire to share it with the public," wrote the collection's first curator, Linda Hardberger, in the catalog for Out of Russia, which showcased the first of the five gifts. Arnold Wengrow, a contributing editor to the academic and industry journal, Theatre Design & Technology, who contributed the main essay for the Mostly British catalog documenting the fourth gift, has described the collection as "one of the world's preeminent repositories for original models and scene and costume drawings from the 16th century through the 20th."

An exhibit in the spring of 1999 celebrated the first gift: scene and costume designs by Russian artists from the early part of the 20th century. In late 2000, Setting the Stage - American Style exhibited works from more than 1,000 designs that comprised the second gift. The third gift, which was highlighted in the 2001 exhibition From Studios to Stages, contained works by such well-known artists as Ferdinand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cadmus, who also designed for the stage. Finally, last winter, the fourth gift, which consisted of works of 20th century Mostly British designers, added pieces by Cecil Beaton for Camille and Henry IV, and by Timothy O'Brien and Tazeena Firth for the opera Turendot, among nearly 1,200 other works, to the collection.

The fifth and final bequest, which is due to be completed sometime this year - although staff at the Tobin Endowment which officially executes the bequests could not confirm a date - will contain rare 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century European designs, including etchings by the influential Bibiena family, who "used every trick of Baroque design and illusion," says the collection's curator, Jody Blake, enthusiastically.

Le Coq d'Or: Natalia Goncharova's Designs for the Ballets Russes

March 13 — May 2
Alexandra Exter: Designs for Theatre and Film

March 2 — April 25
10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5pm Sunday
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
Performance: Houston Grand Opera Studio

7:30pm Saturday, March 13
Leeper Auditorium
McNay Art Museum
6000 N. New Braunfels
Two exhibits opening at the McNay this March highlight the richness of the collection and its indisputable role as a first-tier resource for historians, designers, students, and fans of the stage. Le Coq d'Or: Natalia Goncharova's Designs for the Ballets Russes, features the work of a Russian female artist who was influential in her own right: Prominent Parisian gallery-owner Guillaume Apollinaire called her the "head of the Russian Futurist school." Goncharova also deeply impacted theatre design through her work with the cultural impresario Serge Diaghilev who headed Ballets Russes, the ground-breaking theater troupe that revitalized opera and ballet in the first half of the 20th century.

"The renaissance of ballet as an art capable of the highest form of human expression may well be Diaghilev's greatest and most enduring legacy," wrote historian Lynn Garafola. "Even today, nearly a century after Diaghilev led his first troupe of dancers to Paris, there is hardly a company with a 20th century repertoire that does not perform at least one Diaghilev ballet." Just as importantly, the encompassing approach that Diaghilev took to the design of a ballet or opera, which included assigning a single artist in most cases to oversee the costumes and sets, influenced theatre companies in Europe and America for decades after his death in 1929.

Ballets Russes burst upon the Paris scene in 1909, introducing for the first time Russian dancers, choreographers, and designers to Continental audiences. Among Diaghilev's earliest collaborators were Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois, whose cosmopolitan incorporation of Asian, Middle Eastern, and European styles was directly influenced by Western-looking St. Petersburg, where they came of age as artists. The Tobin Collection contains some of the most important designs by Benois and Bakst, including Benois' scene and costume sketches for Giselle, and Bakst's costume renderings for the opera Boris Godunov.

Goncharova, who lived in Moscow when she first met Diaghilev in 1913, represented a trend in Russian art that had developed in direct answer to the Eurocentric leanings that characterized Bakst's and Benois' designs. Goncharova, along with her partner and fellow artist Mikhail Larionov, was a leading figure of Russia's avant-garde, which incorporated the influence of traditional Russian folk art in an "art of the people" that was Russian-centric. "The Tobin Collection is unique in that its holdings represent almost comprehensively both tendencies in stage design for the Ballets Russes," noted Lisa A. Goodgame in the 1999 catalog that accompanied Out of Russia.

The great 19th-century Russian author Aleksandr Pushkin, on whose work many of Ballets Russes most critically-acclaimed and popular productions were based, first sparked a revival of folk themes that influenced a later generation of composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky, who in turn influenced the Russian artists who designed for Diaghilev.

A futuristic costume design for Dama Duende, by Russian avant-garde artist Alexandra Exter, a peer of Goncharova. Alexandra Exter: Designs for Theatre and Film will be on view at the Mcnay March 2 through April 25. (courtesy photo)
Le Coq d'Or (The Golden Cockerel) is based on Pushkin's Zolotoi petushok, a timeless tale of a feckless Czar who loses his country and ultimately his life through poor judgment and lack of discipline. In her Out of Russia essay, Goodgame observes that the characters in Pushkin's tales and the subsequent theatrical productions are meant to be two-dimensional functionaries who serve a defined role - the beautiful, innocent princess, or the incompetent, corrupted general - and Goncharova's designs illustrate their functions by drawing in part on the Russian artistic tradition of religious icons. This influence, visible in her rendering of General Polkan in Le Coq d'Or, is even more apparent in her costume designs for the Apostles Luke, Mark and John in the never-produced Liturgie.

The Tobin Collection also contains Goncharova's designs for Les Noces, the ballet that was scored by Igor Stravinsky, choreographed by Borislava Nijinska, and is often cited as Ballets Russes most important production. While the Le Coq d'Or exhibit will not feature these designs, the Harvard Theatre Collection and the Mueum of Modern are contributing well-known pieces such as Goncharova's costume design for a female peasant, and the Tobin Endowment is loaning the Queen's hand-painted floral tent from the 1937 staging of the opera.

Running almost parallel to the Goncharova exhibit is a smaller showing of designs by her compatriot, avant-garde Russian artist Alexandra Exter. Alexandra Exter: Designs for Theatre and Film, celebrates the 80th anniversary of the silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars, with an exhibit of her fantastic futuristic designs and a documentary film. Coinciding with the opening of Le Coq d'Or will be a performance by the Houston Grand Opera Studio performers, and the release of a pictorial tribute to Robert Tobin's passion, An Eye for the Stage, containing more than 100 color plates from the Tobin Collection.

As storm clouds gather over the Tobin Foundation and the Endowment, four-fifths of Robert Tobin's intended legacy to the McNay rests safely at the museum, where curator Jody Blake is already enacting plans to make the collection an accessible resource for students and aficionados through programs such as this April's seminar, "Theatre Design: A Career Choice" and the Theatre in a Trunk show that represents work from 23 U.S. theatre programs that participated in the Prague Quadrennial 2003. Looking to the future, Blake says she is "keen on acquiring contemporary artists doing stage design," in keeping with one of Tobin's great interests, and in "working across the boundaries" between local theatre-related institutions and troupes such as the San Pedro Playhouse and Actors Theatre of San Antonio. •

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