What is Scenography?

The origins of stage design through architecture

by Michael Eagan

The term “scenography” includes all of the elements that contribute to establishing an atmosphere and mood for a theatrical presentation: lighting, sound, set and costume design.

“Scenography” has evolved
from historical roots in classical antiquity and connections to the architects of the Renaissance era largely due to the theatrical activity in Eastern Europe in the twentieth century.

This evolution is explored in Michael Eagan’s article.

Browsing in a bookstore in Prague, it was amazing to see that a large section was devoted to books and publications on the subject of stage design and scenographic art.

There were works on history, theory and criticism and an array of impressive monographs of various scenographers and their work, many of them lavishly illustrated with drawings and photographs. Judging from the sheer range and size of this section of books, it was clear that scenography was considered as equally important as other sections on painting, sculpture and architecture. Most of the works were in Czech, but there were several in Polish and German. Only a small percentage of this body of literature is translated or published internationally, consequently, this tremendous output of creativity and energy remains largely unknown outside Eastern and Central Europe. 

The Prague Quadrienial                

<em>Prague Castle at night, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons</em>

Prague Castle at night, photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Much of the awareness of scenography as an art form is due to the Prague Quadrenial, an exhibition of scenography and theatre architecture. The Quadrienial was established in 1967 and takes place every four years in Prague, a city which many consider to be the most beautiful in Europe.

A city of ogival cupolas and needles in the sky, Prague is situated around a bend in the River Vltava, spanned by the magnificent Charles Bridge. Prague’s architecture dates from the ninth century through subsequent periods in architecture to today.

The Gothic spires of Prague Castle and Saint Vitus Cathedral may be viewed from a modernist structure on the other side of the river, across a remarkable cityscape of roofs and domes. All of the complexity and variety of the architectural ensemble of the city co-exists happily, side by side. It is evident that esthetics and design have always been considered important here, making it difficult to imagine a more ideal city than Prague for an international exhibition of scenography, where the theatre has always been a viable and important form of artistic expression.

Even throughout the long period of Soviet domination, the theatre persisted (although sometimes subversively), and scenography continued to be an integral part of it. In some ways, because all of this artistic activity was taking place effectively behind the Iron Curtain, theatre production continued to flourish, shielded as it was from the rest of the world where it had become perhaps somewhat less relevant. It was a perfect setting for channeling some of this artistic energy into design for the theatre.

Since its inception, the Prague Quadrennial has evolved into a truly international forum for scenography. The best and most cutting-edge in stage design and theatre architecture is shown in an a stounding selection of drawings, models and photographs, and there are a number of conferences and seminars given by leading world-f igures in scenography.

There are the latest and most advanced ideas from Asia and South America as well as from Europe and North America. Scenography is subject to and influenced by the most current trends in design — as much as any other discipline — and it is endlessly fascinating to see the various regional and national versions of these styles. A graffiti-inspired design from contemporary Britain can be seen alongside Japanese minimalism and Brazilian post modernism. Thus, it is no accident that scenography first attained full legitimacy in the former Czechoslovakia.

The Bauhaus Movement in architecture and design and German Expressionism in painting and the theatre are both important artistic and intellectual antecedents to modern scenography. They established a design sensibility and esthetic that took root in Central and Eastern Europe in the period between the two world wars. After 1945, much of this region was cut off from the international community. While the rest of the world continued to be preoccupied with more literal and pictorial forms of representation; Eastern European artists, designers (and scenographers) seemed to be more concerned with a simpler kind of design that sought to find a visual metaphor, distill the image and evoke a mood.

This is not to say that this new scenography remained hermetically sealed behind the Iron Curtain, and although designers in Western Europe and America were slower to adapt, these design developments seeped out of Eastern Europe and gradually became known everywhere as a new vocabulary and lingua franca for contemporary scenography. In fact, the Soviet government actively promoted and supported all kinds of cultural and artistic exchanges. Not only did it seem harmless enough, but it reflected a kind of glory back onto an “enlightened” communist regime.

Josef Svoboda: godfather of modern scenography  

It was in this climate that Josef Svoboda (1920-2002) became known internationally as the godfather of modern scenography. Trained as an architect, he began to design for the theatre early in his career. Along with his increasing reputation as a leading Czech artist, he had acquired the support of the cultural officialdom, which afforded him unprecedented permission to travel abroad, so that along with the Bolshoi Ballet, Svodoba was an important artistic export promoting the high culture of the former Soviet bloc.

Throughout this period, he gave numerous conferences and seminars at prestigious European and North American universities and designed extensively for theatres around the world. In Canada, he gave workshops in scenography at both Dalhousie University in Halifax and the Banff Centre for the Arts. During this time, Hamilton Southam (founder and former Executive Director of the National Arts Centre) saw an exhibition of Svoboda’s drawings and models that was presented in the NAC Salon, off the main lobby. Impressed by what he saw, he urged Bruce Corder (then director of opera production) to engage the famous scenographer, and subsequently he designed The Queen of Spades (1976), Ariadne auf Naxos (1977) and Idomeneo (1981) for the NAC Opera.

<em>The Queen of Spades Production</em>

The Queen of Spades Production

<em>Ariadne auf Naxos Production</em>

Ariadne auf Naxos Production

<em>Idomeneo, R&egrave; di Creta Production</em>

Idomeneo, Rè di Creta Production

Svoboda’s scenography was already known in America, due partly to the great success of his Laterna Magika, staged in the Czech pavilion at Expo ‘67 in Montreal. It was universally acclaimed by theatre and architecture critics as the future of scenography, and was a blending of live theatre with projections and film techniques, in which actors entered and disappeared directly through projection screens composed of wide elasticized strips.

This production was originally created in the early 1960s for the famous experimental theatre in Prague known as the Aquarium. Designed by the Czech architect, Karel Prager, it was largely state-funded. It is a huge cube-shaped building, clad on the exterior in square frosted-glass tiles, and was intended as a showcase for contemporary and avant guard theatre productions. Its location was significant - virtually next-door to the National Theatre, home to both the Czech National Opera and Ballet.

It is an imposing architectural complex in the Beaux Arts style of classical revival, and an important expression of Czech national pride as its construction was financed through public subscription in the nineteenth century. There is an inevitable dialogue between Laterna Magika and The National Theatre which together represent the extremes of theatrical art in Prague: the most experimental forms of production juxtaposed against the classical and ultimate in establishment theatrical art.

<em>Laterna Magika, Prague. Designed by Karel Prager</em>

Laterna Magika, Prague. Designed by Karel Prager

The theatres are located directly across the street from the wonderful Café Slavia at the intersection of two principal boulevards, famous for its coffee and poppy-seed cake and as a hang-out for artists and politicos. All of this constitutes a hub of artistic and intellectual activity and a major chunk of the urban fabric of central Prague.

The term “set design” has a certain artisanal connotation but scenography has a long history and pedigree. As early as the first century B.C., Vitruvius spoke of stage design in De Architetura, today known as The Ten Books on Architecture. He wrote of how theatres built by Greeks and Romans in classical antiquity were conceived by architects as places for public assembly and spectacle. Theatre design and architecture have long enjoyed a privileged relationship.

<em>Theatre &agrave; l&rsquo;italienne style at Paris&rsquo; Op&eacute;ra Garnier</em>

Theatre à l’italienne style at Paris’ Opéra Garnier

Historical Interrelation of Architecture and Scenography

The separation of stage design from architecture is a modern notion. There has historically been less specialization and more cross-pollination of design disciplines. Indeed, Baldassare Peruzzi and Sebastiano Serlio, who designed the earliest theatres and perspective sets in the Italian Renaissance, had both studied architecture. Andrea Palladio, perhaps the most famous architect of the sixteenth century, designed the Teatro Olimpico (“Olympic Theatre”) and its permanent sets at the end of his illustrious career. Inigo Jones, the English architect, designed stage sets in the eighteenth century, transferring perspective ideas learned in Italy to the theatre in England, and Joseph Furttenbach did the same thing in Germany. The Italian design clan of the Galli da Bibiena family worked extensively in scenography in many of the major European court and state theatres, popularizing what we know now as theatre a l’italienne. All of them had a firm grounding in architecture.

Scenographic depictions in Urbino panels

The three Urbino panels are fascinating, not only for their much-disputed attribution and provenance, but mostly because they are not so much paintings, as they are scenographic depictions, describing a public square enclosed in an architectural arrangement. Each of the three panels is different, but the intention is the same, and each could easily be reproduced as a stage setting.

The great monuments to the life of the city are on the back panel, including a coliseum-like building, an octagonal structure similar to the Florence Baptistery, a circular temple and a triumphal arch. This is framed by blocks of less noble buildings, some residential, and expressed in a contemporary (ie. sixteenth century) style. The symmetry is informal, but at the same time rigorous, and the effect is unmistakably one of a beautiful and harmonious architectural ensemble, suitable for great and important events. In this sense the panels are not simply architecture and scenography, but they have a social dimension as well: a lesson in civic politics and collective pride in citizenship. They are essays in the meaning of the ideal city, an idea that has preoccupied writers and scenographers from Piero della Francesca in the fifteenth century to Italo Calvino in the twentieth.

Modern scholarship has caught up with the Urbino panels. For many years, they were thought to be by Piero, but it has been established that they are the work of Luciano Laurana (1420-1479), a lesser-known architect. For centuries the authorship of the panels was one of the great mysteries of art history. Were they the product of a single hand, or painted by three separate artists? Perhaps they were executed by several painters working together in a workshop. What has always been certain about them is that they are clearly produced by an architectural mind, and are scenographic in nature.

The relationship between scenography and architecture

It was in this way that the relationship between scenography and architecture was forged. The annotation is identical in both cases: scale drawings of a plan, section and elevations, and often scale models. Architecture has always historically been expressed this way, and scenographic concepts must ultimately be represented in the same manner. The essential difference, of course, is that the stage is a fictional universe, a neutral space for imagined places. Even the most distorted early perspective sets are obviously plan-driven.

The modern theatre owes much to its historical and traditional connections with architecture, and lighting and sound design have been tossed into the mix because technology has made it possible to control and reproduce them, along with set and costume design. These four separate but inter-related disciplines are included in producing the scenography.

The director is involved throughout, but the look and feel of the performance is ultimately the result of a collective creative process. This idea of a design committee is taken literally in many contemporary European theatres and is often the practice in Montreal theatres - wherein no individual design credits are given, and the scenography is signed collectively by a group of “conceptors” (concepteurs). Historically, conception has been a reference to the set designer. This is the traditional usage, common in western Europe and America, along with specific credits given to costume, lighting and sound designers. This is normal, in that usually it is the set designer who first gives an architecture to the space of the stage.

So it is that the term “scenography” has evolved from its historical antecedents in classical antiquity and its connection to the architects of the Renaissance. Largely due to the theatrical activity in Eastern Europe in the twentieth century, it has broadened its meaning to i nclude all of the elements that contribute to establishing an atmosphere and a mood for a theatrical presentation.

Other Articles by this Author:

The NAC Studio as a Theatrical Space
Collaborations between Designers and Directors in the Collection
Archiving Theatre
Iconography as Scenography
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