Not currently on display at the V&A

Backcloth Design

1926 (drawn)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

Squared up design, showing a traditional Russian cityscape with onion domes, minarets and towers, piled one upon the other from the bottom of the design, defined by a crennelated brick wall, to the top turrets which form the skyline. The design is in pencil overlaid with a grid in red ink and numbered in red ink along the bottom, 1 to 12, and up the side, 1 to 10, each square being numbered from left to right starting at top left.


object details
Categories
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Pencil and pen and red ink on tracing paper mounted on paper
Brief Description
Squared up design for the backcloth for scene ii of the ballet The Firebird revived by Diaghilev Ballets Russes, Lyceum Theatre, 25 November 1926, designed by Natalia Goncharova (1881-1962).
Physical Description
Squared up design, showing a traditional Russian cityscape with onion domes, minarets and towers, piled one upon the other from the bottom of the design, defined by a crennelated brick wall, to the top turrets which form the skyline. The design is in pencil overlaid with a grid in red ink and numbered in red ink along the bottom, 1 to 12, and up the side, 1 to 10, each square being numbered from left to right starting at top left.
Dimensions
  • Height: 750mm
  • Width: 960mm
Production typeUnique
Marks and Inscriptions
'1 Metre = 7½ centimetres / Backcloth [?] : ballet / "The Firebird" 10M x 12M / IInd scene / scenery N S Gontcharova' (Textual information; Russian; Handwriting; Ink)
Credit line
Purchased with the assistance of the London Archives of the Dance
Object history
The Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu) was an archetypal 'Diaghilev' ballet, and one of the most successful of the early works of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes. Premiered in Paris in 1910, it was distinguished not only by Mikhail Fokine's imaginative and magical choreography and production, but by being Serge Diaghilev's first commissioned score from Igor Stravinsky, his greatest musical discovery. It was the beginning of a distinguished collaboration between Stravinsky and Diaghilev's company.



The ballet was designed by Alexander Golovine except for the leading dancers' costumes, which were by Leon Bakst. By the mid-1920s, when Diaghilev wished to revive the ballet, the original designs were seen as old-fashioned. Diaghilev therefore commissioned new sets and costumes from Natalia Goncharova, whose style, deriving from icons and Russian folklore, with bold colours and simplified shapes, was admirably suited to the folk tale elements in the ballet. The Firebird has a large cast and, because of the financial straits of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes at this time, not every costume was redesigned and remade: the finale calls for a large number of extras and for these Goncharova reworked the existing Golovine costumes.



The backcloth for Scene II evokes a traditional Russian city skyline of towers and minerets: the colours are bold reds, blues and ochres with gleaming golden onion domes. The set, combined with Stravinsky's sublime music and the grave procession paying homage to the Tsarevitch and his beautiful Tsarevna, creates an overwhelming sense of joy, majesty and celebration that movingly evokes Russia. It is one of the great moments of the Diaghilev Ballet.



The first performance of the redesigned production was seen at the Lyceum Theatre, London, on 25 November 1926. The ballet remained in the repertory until Diaghilev's death and in the 1930s was acquired, along with the remaining Diaghilev repertory, by the De Basil Ballets Russes and was performed by them in London and internationally during the 1930s and 1940s.



Goncharova's design for the backcloth (E.2137-1932) was given to the V&A by W.A. Propert, a friend of Diaghilev and author of two books on the Diaghilev Ballet. The Theatre Museum acquired the backcloth itself (S.455-1980) from Richard Buckle and the Friends of the Museum of Theatre Arts. The design, now in PDP, is curious in that it is incomplete - it is almost square, an unlikely format for a backcloth design and the left hand side is irregular, seemingly cut around some of the buildings and towers. The design matches the right hand two-thirds of the backcloth.



The squared up drawing is that from which the backcloth in the Theatre Museum's collections was painted. The only discrepancy is that the backcloth has additional side pieces which have been added to allow it to be used in larger theatres. There is no evidence that the squared up drawing is by Goncharova herself : the style does not appear to be hers and it is unusual for a design to square up a set in this way. The presumption is that it was drawn by the scene painter, who is uncredited in the programme.



The Theatre Museum also owns Goncharova's drawing for the final scene backcloth and the costume design for the Beautiful Tsarevna, made for the 1954 revival by Sadler's Wells Ballet.



The drawing originates from a private specialist collection of Goncharova's work.
Literary References
  • The Firebird
  • L'Oiseau de feu
Associated Object
E.2137-1932 (Design)
Collection
Accession Number
S.751-2000

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record createdNovember 2, 2000
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