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1945–1955: Traces of Modernity in Stage Design in the Post-War Period
Raimonda Bitinaitė-Širvinskienė
A Brief Introduction: What is Stage Design?
The concept of scenography was first used by the Greek philosopher and researcher Aristotle in the fourth century A.D., in his work Poetics. The term was revived in the early 20th century by the English director, artist and actor Edward Gordon Craig. Scenography (from the Greek word skēnographia – to write something in a space) is also referred to as theatre design (or stage art, scenic design in English) – is the art of creating stage imagery: the stage space, decorations, scenery, costumes, makeup, lighting design and implementation. Recently, the term "dekoracija" (decoration) in Lithuanian has been replaced with a more native equivalent term, "scenovaizdis" (scenery, sets).
The development of scenography is closely linked to changes in dramaturgy, directing, acting and visual art trends and styles, as well as with technological advancements and the locations in which productions are performed. Scenography is usually created by one or a group of theatre artists, including visual artists (sculptors, painters, graphic artists), video or computer graphics designers, lighting designers, stage engineers, costume designers and makeup artists. Various spaces are employed in the creation of theatre design (the theatre stage itself, as well as public spaces such as factories, religious buildings, streets) and different ways and means of expression are used (objects, visual materials, computerized imagery and lighting, film clips, painting, sculpture, and various combinations thereof).  Scenography is often categorized by the methods applied in its creation: architectural, sculptural (spatial), and painting (illustrative).
Scenography includes not only all objects visible during a production (tangible objects, images projected on a screen or other flat surfaces, lighting, costumes) or those present on stage, but also those items related to the production's concept, meaning, subtext and evocations. It is closely related to design, applied art, architecture, the visual arts and book illustration because it is created on the basis of a text and it is often planned and constructed as an aesthetic object. More precisely, it combines all forms of art and becomes part of the production itself. To create scenography is to write—or create—something in a theatrical space. This may be understood to mean the creation of a narrative through imagery that "speaks" and works together with—and sometimes in place of—the actor. While a production may exist without stage design, much is lost in its absence. Without it, a production loses the ability to deploy a first impression that can astound, captivate or even deceive audiences. Stage design expresses the elements of a production that cannot be described in words or movements. It is a fluid image that surrounds the actor, quietly working with him and with the stage space. It is an active participant in the production – at times the protagonist, at others, a supporting character.
There is also another side to stage design. It can reveal the creative individuality of the professional theatre artist: his or her ability to harmonize with a collective idea and introduce a new and contemporary understanding of a given dramatic work.
Lithuanian theatrical design experienced many upheavals, changes and challenges in the 20th century until it finally became a visual expression of the officially free and unrestricted creative ideas of stage designers.
Post-war Challenges
The first stage design challenges confronting theatres in the post-war Soviet era were the most difficult. As the political situation changed, theatre was required to correctly, thoroughly and accurately glorify the newly established reality. Theatre had to celebrate this reality without fail, acknowledging and exalting it, accepting any directives freely. The complicated start of the Soviet era was a precarious exercise of exploring this new reality. Every artist was concerned with how to preserve creative freedom while remaining an honest chronicler of events, while at the same clearly expressing the controlled ideas of the new idealized world.
Artists of the inter-war period had already had a sample of a Parisian education and had begun to liberate themselves from creative constraints, experiencing the blissful taste of modernism. It was particularly problematic to preserve creative inspiration for younger artists who, having started their theatrical careers with youthful fervour before the war, were now forced to deal with huge workloads, the strain of constant touring, and poor work and stage conditions. Time was needed to address a new demand on design: various holidays to commemorate assorted significant national events, often requiring the creation of easily understood propagandist symbols and colorful, vivid designs commissioned from theatre artists. The same pool of artists had to manage to fulfil the increasing amount of commissions from various Lithuanian theatres.
Theatres were established in all major Lithuanian cities in the 1940s, yet the circle of professional theatre artists remained small: many had left the country during the war years, while only a few of the remaining artists could boast of extensive experience or special training. The bulk of the post-war production schedule burden fell on the shoulders of Vytautas Palaima, who had worked in theatre in the inter-war period, Jonas Surkevičius and Mykolas Labuckas (former students of Stasys Ušinskas, an instructor of theatre design at the Kaunas School of Art) and painter Juozas Jankus. These young men scattered their energy between their duties, their responsibilities to the state, to the party and to theatre, and their own personal creative ambitions. Post-war stage design was expected to create a dramatic narrative—one that artists very often had little time to delve into because of the sheer number of "urgent" cases—and to relate the image directly to reality. Designers were always attending meetings and reminding their colleagues about the need to complete commissions on time, often identifying specific directors who had the tendency to inform designers of set needs at the last minute. Designer J. Surkevičius, for example, complained that "Juknevičius still hasn't found the time to meet with the artists. It would be wonderful if the artists knew what productions they will have to design." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1957 02 22, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 139, l. 9. 
Artists racked their brains to find ways to satisfy assorted commissions, actors, and even the viewing public that participated in audience conferences organized by theatres. Often, they failed to complete their work on time and were forced to humbly apologize. The minutes from deliberations in 1948 about the production of Alexander Ostrovsky's The Forest recorded how Associate Professor Vytautas Palaima, a respected instructor of stage design, apologized "that the decorations were incomplete and the lighting was not finished." He regretted that he "did not have the physical capacity to do this" and promised that everything "will be finished for the production's premiere." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 05 14, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 33, l. 44. 
Theatre artists were forced to become rigorous investigators of the new reality because they were required to show in great detail how people lived in large cities, in the capital, or in a far-off provincial town or village, in Lithuania or in Russia. Because Russian plays had become part of the repertoires of many Lithuanian theatres, designers did not succeed in avoiding some confusion in the portrayal of specific locales in that country: "The lake was poorly lit, and the water was entirely un-Russian. The shore was far too clean." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 05 14 , Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3 b. 33, l. 45. 
Artists themselves offered to travel to Moscow "for art-related business trips [...] to learn how things are done there because there were constant misunderstandings happening in Lithuania." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1957 02 22, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 139, l. 9. 
In pursuit of historical and regional authenticity in stage design, Lithuanian theatres invited Russian theatre artists to visit.
There were plenty of instances of curious situations arising in terms of Lithuanian setting authenticity as well. During heated discussions over the mounting of Žaldokynė in 1948 after a preview show, artistic council meeting participants set out on a detailed examination of the realistic shortcomings of the play and the production. The play's author, Borisas Dauguvietis, emphasized that it was important to consider that the play "takes place three months after war's end." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 01 23, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 34, l. 3. Many opponents made their demands known. Regional [Communist Party] Committee Secretary Atamuk called for a "more vivid depiction of the conflict, [underscoring] that Sidabras was an enemy of his class." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 01 23, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 34, l. 4.  The renowned inter-war period modern artist Antanas Gudaitis, meanwhile, expressed his doubts about the realism of the set designs: "Some of the details are unclear to me. For example, the action is taking place in the autumn, and the young people come in from thrashing the grain—yet we can see the rye still uncut in the fields." Director Kazimiera Kymantaitė had to explain that "those are oats." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 01 23, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 34, l. 7. 
Sets and scenery had to meet the actors' needs as well. During the review of the sets designed for Nesusikurk dievaičio (Don't Create an Idol), it became evident that actors were unhappy that designers had failed to take note of their request to place furniture more conveniently on stage: "The table is not correctly placed. It's not possible to get to the closet." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1957 04 28, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 139, l. 44. 
Finding shelter in the classics
It was quite natural for theatre artists, like their colleagues in other artistic fields, to find solutions by returning to the traditions of classical art. So-called "prospects PospectA prospect (prospectus in Latin, meaning a vision or image) is an element of stage design that resembles a painting. It is placed in the background and painted on canvas or paper, depicting a perspective natural or urban landscape. Paintings were usually creating with acrylic paints. A large-format painting would be hung to cover the back wall of the stage, thereby creating a background for the action of the play. Together with the scenery flats and entryways, this method established the classical decorative composition and defined the stage space and was used from the 16th century onward to adorn stages. In the theatre of the 17th century, prospects corresponded to the traditional structure of painting, depicting figures and action (such as battle scenes). Prospects of more complex composition, including large-format pieces, became prevalent in the Baroque, Rococo and classical stage sets of the 19th century." appeared frequently in post-war productions. 
Typified stage designs conformed to ideologically framed objectives, with painted, nearly uniform scenes of realistic landscapes or urban and village panoramas harking back to the realism of the 19th century. At this same time scenography—influenced as it was by easel painting—was often referred to as theatrical painting.
In seeking to specify the location of a setting, artists also employed architectural experience. Plays taking place in domestic environments were performed against pavilion-type Pavilion (box) scenographyPavilion (box) scenography is a stage design element that presents the illusion of reality within an enclosed interior space. Box scenography is comprised of three walls (blank or with openings) and a suspended ceiling. Realism is established by a meticulously rendered interior architectural space that occupies the entire stage and that includes interior decoration and placement of furniture. This form of design is used in productions with a psychological focus or a domestic setting to create a place of action that conforms to the time setting of the play. scenery that was popular in the 19th century. The domestic environment of such set designs was augmented with various objects and props. ButaforijaThe Lithuanian term for stage properties—"butaforija"—comes from the Italian words buttare (to throw) and fuori (out).  Butaforija refers to decorative stage accessories and fake objects that imitate certain real items (furniture, dishes, weapons, sculptures, etc.). A buttafuoro was a stage worker in Italian theatre who brought objects and properties on stage. The term was later used to refer to models and simulated objects such as furniture, dishes, decorations and sculptures specially created for a production and made from inexpensive and light materials. Master property craftsmen would make the objects from wood, papier mache, cardboard and fabric based on sketches created by the artists. Butaforija referred to false stage properties, while real objects were called rekvizitai. Both comprised the whole of a production's accessories.Set designs often used coulisses Coulissecoulisse (from the French word "to slide") is an element of set design using either mobile or stationary flat panels to mask the wings of the stage, or may also refer to hanging pieces of fabric. These panels featured either a monocolour palette or were adorned with various decorations. The panels permitted easier lighting of the stage from the wings and helped actors to easily enter and exit the stage. Panels also were used to mask areas of the stage used for supportive structures. These flat panels helped to fortify the authenticity of a stage scene, giving it real dimensions and a sense of space. Moving panels, fixed on wheels and travelling along tracks set in spaces on the stage floor, were first used by the artist Giovanni Battista Aleotti in 1628, in the Teatro Farnese in Parma, Italy. At the start of the 20th century, English theatre reformist Edward Gordon Craig used fabric pieces of neutral colours in place of painted panels. Panels became widely used in Lithuanian theatre in the first half of the 19th century. They are now still often used for ballet productions. (sliding panels), which were essential for classical stage decor. 
Stage sets are often called theatre decorations due to their decorative and passive role in the background of the action on stage.
The terms theatre painting and theatre decoration were also used in the post-war years to refer to the study of set design, which had resumed during the occupation period. Theatre art design courses began in the 20th century, during the inter-war period, at the Kaunas School of Art and the Stefan Bator University. A theatre decoration studio and workshop operated at the latter institution as part of the Arts Department from 1919 to 1939, and hosted training in theatre decoration, decorative sculpture and ornamentation. The studio was run by theatre designer and sculptor Zbignew Pronaszka and, from 1924, after Pronaska's departure to Krakow, by the painter Liubomir Slendzinsky. The Arts Department operated until 1940 until it was transferred to the Vilnius School (Academy) of Art.
Theatre art studies were also taught at the Kaunas School of Art, the cradle of Lithuanian arts education in the inter-war period. Plans were initiated in 1922 to establish a decorative arts studio at the school, but these efforts only came to fruition in 1929. The renowned artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky was invited from Paris to head the studio. After some disagreements his services were refused and the decorative arts studio was headed by Adomas Varnas in 1930, and later by Vladas Didžiokas from 1931 to 1934. In addition to instruction in acrylic painting, Didžiokas also added a new discipline to the training program—the production of models.
Stasys Ušinskas took over the leadership of the studio in 1934 and soon became an authority in set design, demanding that his students master constructive thinking and logic in design, and emphasizing the importance of new technologies, also instructing students in the proper exhibition of artistic works. From 1930 to 1933, many artists interested in theatre design studied at an art studio established by Dobuzhinksy at the newly established Kaunas Institute of Applied Arts (renamed the Kaunas State Institute for Applied and Decorative Art in 1944).
Professional theatre design takes root
Young people were drawn to the new and relatively unknown profession of theatre design. It seemed to be more promising and less burdened by ideology than the visual arts. With the founding of a department for theatre design in 1947, new opportunities arose to fulfil their aspirations. Until then, future theatre designers specialized in studies at the decorative painting studio. The newly established department at the Kaunas Art Institute was headed by the renowned inter-war theatre artist Liudas Truikys (1904-1987), who had studied in the art schools of Paris and Berlin and worked at various theatres in both cities. Truikys devoted considerable attention to various elements of theatre design, not just the creation of sets and costumes. A theatre painting studio also operated at the Vilnius Art Institute, led by one of the most prolific inter-war artists of the State Theatre, Vytautas Palaima (1911-1976).
After the struggle against formalism intensified in 1949, the modern artist Truikys was dismissed from the Kaunas Art Institute, and was also unwelcome in the theatre for many years. With the merger of the Kaunas and Vilnius Art Institutes in 1951, Vytautas Palaima remained to head the theatre painting studio at the newly established Lithuanian State Art Institute. Thanks to his efforts, the institute admitted many talented and promising young artists who later dominated the Lithuanian set design "scene" beginning in the 1950s. As department head, Palaima and his team restructured the instructional program, adapting it to new stage requirements and demands, while still maintaining the concept of monumental painting.
Palaima established goals for theatre artists "to help express a play's main idea, setting, time and mood, and to assist actors in creating imagery", Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1949 06 18, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3 b. 33, l. 55.  referring to the organizational function of imagery and the role of theatre design in a production—something that was constantly being referenced in production meetings: "after all, design is now particularly significant." Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 03 05, Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 35, l. 7.  
An important event in theatre artistry was the resumption of exhibitions. In 1955, all theatre artists came together to show their work at the first Republican Theatre Artists' Exhibition. (The first, small exhibition of theatre art had been held in 1925 at the State Theatre, while the exhibition movement in Lithuanian theatre art is considered to have properly begun on 8-22 January 1933, with the mounting of a review of State Theatre decoration designs at the Independent Artists' Society salon in Kaunas.)
The exhibition in 1955 showcased the creative works of theatre designers from the inter- and post-war periods, including Armenas Grigorjancas, Semionas Lukackis, Romualdas Lukšas, Michailas Percovas, Albertas Stepanka, Jonas Vilutis and an entire group of young female set design artists who had joined the ranks of the previously male-dominated profession: Juzefa Čeičytė, Laima Kirlytė, Aldona Papartytė, Joana Taujanskienė, and Danutė Ūsaitė, who had worked with the inter-war artist Marija Bespalova.
The exhibition was dominated by the most prolific designers: Vytautas Palaima, Jonas Surkevičius, Juozas Jankus, Mykolas Labuckas and Regina Songailaitė. Immediately after the war these artists had the courage to explore classical decorative designs and lay the foundation for finished flexible shapes. Vytautas Palaima, while greatly influenced in his professional training by Dobuzhinksy, was not merely his follower. Alongside masterfully drawn sets of rich colour palettes that conformed to the rules of classical works, he also created youthful creations of undefined shapes and forms.
Advances in modernism
The first advances in modernism derived from the optimism of the first post-war years and a diminished sense of ideological pressure. A production in 1945 at the State Academic Theatre of Anton Chekhov's vaudevilles The Proposal; The Bear; The Anniversary, under the direction of Romualdas Juknevičius, was distinguished by its unique austerity and mobile spatial forms. The production was mounted on an almost entirely bare stage on a small circular platform, upon which only one window frame and a chair were placed.
Vytautas Palaima, like many artists, believed in the unlimited opportunities of the new reality and immediately responded to the endeavours of master Lithuanian directors and theatres in neighbouring European countries, where it was not required to mount solely dramatic and serious dramatic works or to experience and understand a production according to an established model, or create set designs within the limits of painting.
In the initial post-war years, the Panevėžys Drama Theatre became known (and thus much criticized) in Lithuania for its high appreciation of theatre design and its pursuit of meaningful, fluid imagery.  The creative exchanges between two young and rebellious artist—theatre designer Jonas Surkevičius and director Juozas Miltinis—produced new choices of motifs and staging construction ideas, where everyday life began to merge with metaphor. New sets appeared that no longer portrayed a literal depiction of a plot or setting, but rather employed ambiguity, expressing a play's narrative in a more abstract sense, drawing attention to the temperament of the story's characters.
Early post-war productions featured efforts to combine forms of imagery and musical language. The ideological pressure, control and repression that intensified after 1948 had less of an impact on musical theatre. Liudas Truikys further developed the expressive fluidity of musical works after receiving a commission at the State Opera and Ballet Theatre in 1948. Regina Songailaitė, a student of Truikys, further developed the decorative style of her mentor.
Truikys' musical plasticity also influenced the work of Mykolas Labuckas. His visually graceful and laconic sets, created for historically themed productions, avoided the usual pomposity and instead developed a harmony between images and musical rhythms.
Post-war stage design focused on painted theatre art and the structure of classical sets. Yet there was also some attention given, however infrequently, to a more laconic form and to a fluid musical language in pursuit of more mobile and spatial solutions that distanced themselves from realism. These were efforts to preserve the artistic principles of the pre-war renaissance and to revive an unconstrained, fluid language. These pursuits testify to the presence of an optimistic belief in the mood of liberation that followed the war, and to the differences between various theatrical genres in the context of ideological constraints.


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Sources and links

Minutes of the Academic Drama Theater Artistic Council meeting on the 23rd of January, 1948
Archive of Lithuanian Literature and Art, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 34, l. 3, 4, 7
Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 03 05
Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 35, l. 7
Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1948 05 14
Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 33, l. 44, 45
Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1949 06 18
Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 33, l. 55
Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1957 02 22
Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 139, l. 9
Akademinio dramos teatro meno tarybos protokolas, 1957 04 28
Lietuvos literatūros ir meno archyvas, f. 200, ap. 3, b. 139, l. 44
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