BORIS ANISFELD PAINTINGS AND STAGE DESIGNS, 1906 -1926
December 4, 2003 - January 17, 2004
Today the name of Boris Anisfeld (1879-1973) is familiar only to a select group of specialists in the history of 20th-century stage design, but from 1906 until his departure from Russia in 1917, he was acknowledged as one of that country’s prominent artists. In 1918, just ten months after his arrival in New York, Anisfeld was given a large retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum which subsequently trav- eled to nine American cities, generating both praise and controversy. The following year, he signed a con- tract with an important New York gallery and also received the first of a series of prestigious commissions for productions at the Metropolitan Opera. Throughout most of the 1920s, while creating set designs and costumes for opera and ballet, he painted and exhibited in galleries and museums and was awarded a gold medal at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exhibition of 1926. Offered a teaching position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1929, Anisfeld remained there until 1957, inspiring generations of young painters1 with his charismatic presence. Although he con- tinued to paint during this long period, his participation in shows declined precipitously. Finally, in 1958, a long overdue retrospective of over one hundred works was organized by the Art Institute. “Anisfeld sunk into obscurity for many reasons. Although responsive to early modernism, he never initiated a movement, nor did he fully commit himself to one. His work, especially after 1918, does not fit neatly into a linear evo- lutionary pattern of the type dear to many art historians. In such schemata, independents never fare well.”2 Boris Israëlevich Anisfeld was born on October 2, 1879, in Bieltsy, Bessarabia, now the Republic of Moldova. His father, an agronomist who managed several large estates, encouraged his son’s precocious interest in music and art. At the age of sixteen, Anisfeld left home for five years of study at the Odessa School of Art: “He painted landscapes, figures, portraits, and decorative compositions, and used with assurance, crayon, oil, tempera, watercolor, and pastels.”3 This broad preparation qualified him for admis- sion to St. Petersburg’s venerable Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in 1901. Yet even as Anisfeld pursued the Academy’s conservative program, he was becoming aware of the innovative artistic developments taking place in the city. The fulcrum for vanguard aesthetics during this period was Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), a society of artists, writers, and musicians which published an influential magazine from 1898 to 1904 and organized exhibitions from 1899 to 1906, and 1910 to 1924. Its distinguished membership included the painters Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Ivan Bilibin, Alexander Golovin, Igor Grabar, Nicolai Roerich, and Mikhail Vrubel, but unquestionably the brilliant catalyst of the group was Sergei Diaghilev. Although pos- sessing no particular training in art or music, it is unlikely that Russian art, opera, and dance would have made “such impact on western culture without his vision and his talent as an impresario.”4 In addition to the goal of establishing their country as an international center of art, the members of the society wanted to celebrate those cultural forms they regarded as distinctively Russian. Through the articles and reproductions in its eponymic magazine, Mir Iskusstva introduced the Russian public to con- temporary western art movements such as Impressionism, Symbolism, Post Impressionism, and Art Nou- veau, as well as to the paintings of Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso. If the work of some members of Mir Iskusstva reflects a preference for Symbolism and Art Nouveau, the tastes of the majority
2 were more eclectic. What united them was their endorsement of “art for art’s sake” and their fundamen- tal idealism. They embraced and proselytized concepts frequently encountered in fin-de-siècle aesthetics, namely, “opposition to a utilitarian view of art, emphasis on the means of execution rather than the sub- ject, recognition that art works on viewers through painterly means analogous to the effect of music, and appreciation of the intuitive process of vision, emotion, and imagination through which art is created.”5 Although he did not exhibit with Mir Iskusstva until 1906, Anisfeld’s contemporaneous works sug- gest that he already was attracted to its aesthetic concepts. In any event, Grabar was so impressed by them that he brought Anisfeld to the attention of Diaghilev who was then arranging a survey of Russian art to be exhibited at the 1906 Salon d’Automne in Paris – the first of many bold initiatives calculated to introduce Russian culture in Western Europe. Consisting mainly of Mir Iskusstva artists and filling twelve rooms in the Grand Palais, the exhibition was one of the Salon’s greatest attractions. Anisfeld’s contribu- tions garnered such favorable attention that he was elected a sociétaire of the Salon, a notable achieve- ment for a Russian art student still in his twenties. Later that year, the exhibition traveled to Berlin, and in 1907 it was presented in the Venice Biennale. Encouraged by the reception of his work, Anisfeld participated in the Vienna Secession of 1908, and in 1914 he was represented at the Exposition Baltique in Malmö, Sweden, as well as other major shows in London, Amsterdam, and Milan. In St. Petersburg, he exhibited with Mir Iskusstva from 1910 through 1917; with Venok (Wreath) in 1907, 1908, and 1912; and with Soyuz (League of Russian Artists) in St. Petersburg and Moscow from 1909 through 1913. During the year in which Anisfeld made his international debut as a painter, he also received a com- mission to design the décor for the St. Petersburg premiere of Hugo van Hofmannsthal’s drama The Mar- riage of Zobeide, which was directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold. “Each scene formed a separate picture, the moving figures of the actors being merely the changing highlights of the composition. The use of distinc- tive colour schemes…was as novel as it was daring, and the combination of tone and structural line were calculated to create a definite psychological as well as aesthetic impression.”6 At a time when it was cus- tomary for stage designers to produce drawings which were then painted by assistants, Anisfeld spread his canvases on the floor and painted the flats himself utilizing large brushes resembling kitchen brooms. In 1908 the critical and popular success accorded the designs for The Marriage of Zobeide prompt- ed Diaghilev to invite Anisfeld to join a group of Mir Iskusstva artists engaged in the preparation of Russ- ian opera productions for presentation in Paris. He collaborated with Benois and Golovin on sets for the Imperial Theater’s production of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov which was brought to Paris the fol- lowing year. In 1909, Anisfeld also painted Golovin and Roerich’s sets for the Paris production of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Ivan the Terrible. Under the direction of Diaghilev and Mikhail Fokine, the Ballets Russes made its first appearance in Paris on May 19, 1909. Beyond the spectacular technique of the dancers, the daring and boldly simplified character of the sets and costumes astonished and captivated audiences. Benois entrusted Anisfeld with the painting of his designs for the legendary Paris premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka in 1911 and, during the same year, he created the sets and costumes for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, which the compa- ny performed in Paris and St. Petersburg, and also provided décor and costumes for Leonid Andreyev’s symbolist play, The Ocean.
3 Around 1912, some of the major choreographers and dancers left to establish their own companies: Anisfeld provided décor and costumes for two of Fokine’s ballets, Islamey, presented in St. Petersburg, and Une Nuit d’Egypte, given in Berlin and Stockholm in 1913, as well as for the Berlin debut of Anna Pavlo- va’s company in Seven Daughters of the Mountain King and Les Preludes. His designs for the latter were seen by New Yorkers in 1914 when Pavlova appeared at the Manhattan Opera House. That same year, he also executed sets and costumes for Nijinsky’s London production of Les Sylphides. In describing his creative process, Anisfeld stated “with me art is a matter of feeling, and I paint, as a rule, that which I feel, not that which I see. When I begin work upon the scenery for a ballet or an opera … I pay scarcely any attention to the plot, I listen over and over to the score, for it is from the music that I derive my most valuable suggestions.”7 Between 1909 and 1914, Anisfeld accompanied the various opera and ballet companies as they toured European capitals. Increasingly, he spent his summers painting in Italy, Austria, France, and Spain, and the works he produced during these sojourns reveal a particular responsiveness to Fauvism and Ger- man Expressionism. The outbreak of World War I brought a temporary halt to Anisfeld’s stage activity. Fortunately, he received a commission to paint a cycle of murals for the new residence of a St. Petersburg banker, vari- ously identified as L.M. or M.A. Wourgaft,8 and this ambitious project occupied him until the onset of the Kerensky government’s collapse in September 1917. In an interview of 1987,9 Anisfeld’s daughter stated that the family left the country some weeks later (probably in late September) because Christian Brinton, a well-known American connoisseur and promoter of Russian art, had seen her father’s work and proposed an exhibition in New York. Packing as many canvases and sketches as possible, the Anisfelds took the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, from whence they proceeded by boat to Japan and Vancouver, Canada, ultimately reaching New York in mid-January 1918. Notwithstanding this account, it has been argued that only after Anisfeld’s arrival in the city did Brinton, who was on close terms with the Director of the Brooklyn Museum, initiate planning of the exhibition. Documents in the museum’s archives indicate that the final decision was made in April.10 An alternative explanation for the journey to New York asserts that Anisfeld was invited by Giulio Gatti-Casazza, Director of the Metropolitan Opera,11 and, indeed, the artist was working on designs for future productions before the October opening of the exhibition. The retrospective contained one-hundred-and-twenty works, and others were added during the unprecedented tour which included Boston, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, Ham- line, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Before the opening, a well-orchestrated press campaign trumpeted Anis- feld’s achievements. When Brinton sent photographs and a letter promoting the planned tour to Leila Mechlin, head of the American Federation of Arts and editor of the American Magazine of Arts, the latter responded with a letter to Brinton stating that Anisfeld’s painting was “distorted… blasphemous… vul- gar… hideous…,” the expression of “a diseased and decadent civilization.” She added that the tour would constitute “a crime and national calamity.”12 Moreover, she mailed copies of her letter to numerous muse- um directors in an effort to sabotage the tour. Brinton deftly counterattacked by publishing Mechlin’s let- ter and his response in American Art News, and the public argument continued for months stimulating extraordinary public interest in a heretofore unheard of foreign artist.
4 One of the major art periodicals of that time, The International Studio, dedicated a fairly lengthy and well illustrated article to Anisfeld, characterizing him as a creator of beautiful surfaces, of fascinating textures, or strange patterns – above all, a colourist; one of those rare painters who feel the nuances of colour as Poe felt the music of words…. Anisfeld evidences in his work a great interest in the experiments of the last decade or two… the delicate gray warmness of Whistler, the plastic painting of Cézanne, the abstract beauty of Picasso, the fertile invention and variety of colour mood in Oriental art, have all left their mark. Anisfeld is a modern and has accepted every hint, every suggestion which free communication … affords the modern.13
The reviewer of The Nation observed Anisfeld “has an unusually strong sense of color, so strong as to verge on the barbaric, and this may be part of his Slavic inheritance. But the use he makes of color, the subjects he selects to express with it and the manner of expressing them are essentially modern, essen- tially international.”14 As the exhibition traveled from city to city, shocking or delighting critics, Anisfeld’s stage designs for the Metropolitan Opera were also creating a sensation. The décor and costumes conceived for the world premiere of Xavier Leroux’s La Reine Fiammette in January 1919 were greeted with far greater acclaim than the music: “This Russian artist is the prima donna, leading tenor, and orchestra of the opera. His col- ors and compositions sing to the audience and arouse emotions which the real singers and real orchestra cannot.”15 In December of the same year, his designs for the world premiere of The Blue Bird, with music by Albert Wolff and libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, again garnered high praise. Subsequent productions for the Metropolitan included Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele in 1920 and 1923, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Snegourotchka (The Snow Maiden) in 1922, and Jules Massenet’s Le Roi de Lahore in 1924. Unquestionably, the high- light of Anisfeld’s career as a stage designer and surely one of the landmarks in the history of American opera performance was the world premiere of Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love of Three Oranges at the Chica- go Civic Opera in December, 1921: “No stage sets have ever been more beautiful or more daring than these”16 proclaimed the critic of The New Republic. Anisfeld briefly returned to ballet in 1926, creating sets and costumes for Aziade and Carnival in con- junction with the American tour of Mikhail Mordkin’s company. His final works, a group of stylized, Art Deco costume sketches executed the same year, were for an apparently unrealized production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot. Over the past thirty-five years, seven solo exhibitions in the United States and Canada17 have increased awareness of Anisfeld’s paintings and significant contributions to the evolution of stage design. Interest also has been reawakened in Russia: the St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music ded- icated an exhibition to his set and costume designs in 1994 and acquired Self-Portrait with Sunflower and Cat, 1914–17, a variation of which is shown here, for its permanent collection. Anisfeld’s paintings and stage designs are represented in the collections of The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; Tretiakov and Bakrushin Museums, Moscow; The Perm Museum, Perm; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; Brooklyn Museum; Dance Collection, Library for the
5 Performing Arts, New York Public Library; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Smithsonian Institution, Washing- ton, D.C.; The Art Institute of Chicago; Duke University; Ohio State University; and the de Young Museum, San Francisco. In the light of recent, more inclusive art historical concerns, Anisfeld’s achievements clearly merit serious reconsideration.
1 His students included Jack Beal, Leon Golub, Leroy Neiman, Robert Indiana, Red Grooms, and Claes Oldenburg. 2 Roger J. Mesley, Boris Anisfeld “Fantast-Mystic,” exh. cat. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989), 14-15. 3 Christian Brinton, The Boris Anisfeld Exhibition, exh. cat. (Brooklyn Museum, 1918), n.p. 4 Thomas P. Bruhn, “Boris Anisfeld and The World of Art,” in Boris Anisfeld: 1879-1973: The Early Works / Theatre Sketches, exh. cat. (Storrs, Connecticut: The William P. Benton Museum of Art, 1979), 4. 5 Janet Kennedy, The “Mir Iskusstva” Group and Russian Art 1898-1912 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1977), quot- ed in Mesley, 3. 6 Brinton, n.p. 7 Ibid. 8 See Bruhn, 19, for a full discussion of the project, archival documentation, and status of the villa. 9 Mesley, 16. 10 Ibid., 8. 11 Ibid., 16, cites the source as Bland Getz, The Morning Telegraph, September 15, 1918. 12 Ibid., 10. 13 Louis Weinberg, “The Art of Boris Anisfeld,” The International Studio, November 1918, v, ix. 14 N.N., “A Russian Painter and New York Water Colorists,” The Nation, November, 1918. 15 “Music and Musicians,” Town and Country, February 10, 1919, 24, cited in Janet A. Flint, Boris Anisfeldt: Twenty Years of Designs for the Theater, exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institu- tion, 1971), 14. 16 Unsigned, “The Love for Three Oranges,” The New Republic, February 1, 1922. 17 See Chronology.