Staging Alienation: Petre Otskheli at Tbilisi’s National Gallery

Staging Alienation: Petre Otskheli at Tbilisi’s National Gallery

For the ill-starred heroes of Greek tragedy, the life of the individual was a study in alienation: the self, whether Oedipus or Antigone, forever caught in the meaningless machinations of quibbling deities or subdued by the incomprehensible decrees of Fate. So too for one of Georgia’s greatest modernists, Petre Otskheli (1907-37), the theatrical wunderkind whose creative partnership with Kote Marjanishvili, director of the avant-garde Marjanishvili Theatre, was cut short by the terrors of Stalin’s Great Purges. Otskheli’s phantasmagoric collection of stage sets and costume designs, currently on display through September 7 at Tbilisi’s National Gallery, suggest an equally grim picture of the plight of man. Trapped in increasingly geometric worlds of sharp angles and collapsing shapes, dwarfed by swaths of fabric that grotesque distort the body’s silhouette, Otshkheli’s characters, from the battered Othello to the imperious Beatrice Cenci, contend with a surreal landscape that is at once profoundly Classical and, in its nods to Art Deco and expressionism, thoroughly twentieth-century. That Otskheli’s pieces should be understood not merely as drawings for stage productions but indeed as works of art in their own right is underlined by the innovative, if reverential, layout of the exhibit: pieces are provided with their own theatrical spotlights, arranged thematically rather than chronologically (one room, filled to bursting with pieces and designed to overwhelm as well as to invite, is entertainingly titled the “Room of Frenzies”) and accompanied by fitting mood music by Stravinsky. Otskheli certainly understood the link between abstract concept and its multifaceted representation – at its best, his sets and costumes convey a visceral, if non-literal, sense of the worlds suggested by his source texts, and his keen sense of an audience’s capacity for holistic experience is here echoed by the museum’s non-linear, playful approach to the exhibit experience.


Othello, 1933, Paper, Pencil, Watercolor, 54×69
(K. Marjanishvili State Theatre)


While the geometric lines and interlocking cubes of Otskheli’s stage sets recall the Art Deco posters of a Lempicka or an Erte, their onstage potential renders them not merely visually appealing, but indeed almost dangerous: in designs for 1931’s The Master Builder, Otskheli uses three grey ascending concentric circles as a base for a stage set that manages, through a few subtle changes, to look uncannily different in each scene: a spiral staircase, a collection of vertical poles, a triangular  multicolored carpet that, creating a slice of color in Otskheli’s determinedly greyscale universe, becomes almost painful to look at – all these serve to create a non-literal landscape of geometric order than cannot but alienate the actors from their surroundings. Indeed, the actors’ costumes are themselves seemingly designed to distort their wearers into grotesque inhabitants of this landscape: one unnamed character, sporting a blue wimple reminiscent of a cabaret wig and an enormous black ruffled cape that gives its wearer the elongated torso of a particularly gruesome insect, is less reminiscent of Erte than anticipatory of Blade Runner. Otskheli’s universe is far from a welcoming one for the human beings who find themselves stranded in it: the self is at once at odds with this surreal and mechanistic universe and yet incapable of escaping it; the human body itself is subsumed into the space, as costume and set meld seamlessly into one another.


Othello, 1933, Paper, Pencil, Watercolor. 60×47
(K. Marjanishvili State Theatre)


Perhaps the most arresting of Otskheli’s work is his series of designs for the 1933 Othello, Shakespeare’s study of obsessive jealousy here translated into a modernist meditation on the collision between the starkly austere Classical world (here, prefiguring the shadows and lines of German Expressionism) and the rare human passion that threatens to tear it down. In one of Otskheli’s most famous images, a study for the costumes of the characters he refers to as the “senators”, three elderly statesmen, their headpieces resembling the buttons of automatons, sit motionless, their arms and legs invisible as their bodies merge into three elongated, conjoined cuboids. Their faces mask-like, they are not humans but rather machines, rendered identical by the offices they hold. By contrast, Othello himself (presumably – individual sketches are often identified only by the play’s title) – sporting chessboard garments of black and a rare red – is entirely circular: he holds out his robe so that it engulfs him in a checkered corona; twelve spears, emerging like wings from his belt, give him the appearance of a wounded St. Sebastian. So too is Desdemona’s feminine figure barely discernible beneath grey, ovular robes – echoed in the shape of her pearl diadem; in another sketch, an oversized crown gives her an unsustainably large head that recalls the outline of a queen bee.


The set, too, is equally stunning. The clean, smooth circles of a Classical amphitheatre contend violently with the austerity of straight lines: chessboards threaten to implode upon on each other in the background in one scene, while in another, enormous crossed spears fence in the characters in the foreground, echoing raised crucifixes that appear in terrifying silhouette in the background. In another scene, falling white sails at various angles suggest the immanence of collapse.


From a theatrical perspective, these designs are all brilliant in their simplicity: the basic form of the amphitheatre remains, even as minor changes upend, destroy, and re-assemble Ostkheli’s unstable worlds. So too the flexible, varied world of The Cenci, in which a few boxes, a stairway, and a single curtained pillar are rearranged in kaleidoscopic variation to create an infinite M.C. Escher-esque maze of shapes and possibilities. Yet in the magnificent (and, the curator assures me, fully realized) stage set for The Dumb Open their Mouths (1932)  – a testament to the pragmatic as well as creative Georgian genius for theatre, Otskheli’s ambition reaches its pinnacle. Three slanted horizontal tiers – each bearing an independent set – appear to be floating in space; they bend and curve to accommodate a host of different scenes: two simultaneous domestic parlors, an urban street, a classical colonnade – in a feat of technological wizardry that would appear no less marvelous in today’s West End than in the Marjanishvili Theatre of 1932.


Spartacus, 1933, Paper, Pencil, Watercolor, 55×68
(K. Marjanishvili State Theatre)


Yet, for all his brilliance onstage, we are left to wonder about what Otskheli would have made of the cultural transition to film – arguably an even more visual medium. This, perhaps, is Otskheli’s own greatest tragedy: a few futuristic sketches for the 1937 film The Winged Painter are all that remain of Otskheli’s film work; later that year, he was shot in one of Stalin’s purges, and his name excised from the film’s credits. Our few surviving designs provide us with a tantalizing hint of what was lost: in one memorable design, the bulging neo-classical bodies of sculptures in what appears to be a traditional nineteenth-century Tbilisi entry hall (an architectural phenomenon in its own right) come to life to stare down at an utterly modern gentleman, sporting a tailored suit whose straight, clean lines are utterly at odds with the fleshly bodies of these reanimated sculptors. In another iconic image, an aviator stands with feet spread apart, a contemporary Colossus, seemingly harnessing the power of the small airplanes approaching in the background – a chilling fascistic foreshadowing of the new world order that, only a few years after Otskheli’s untimely death at thirty, would come to be seen as the inevitable outcome of the early twentieth century’s onslaught of modernity: the inexorable historic manifestation of tragedy.


In his treatment of theatre as a viable locus for full-fledged visual design, Otskheli is far from unique in the Georgian artistic pantheon. Georgian theatre, with its heightened physicality and reliance on the visual, retained its artistic independence long after a number of media had succumbed to the propagandistic demands of the Soviet Union, and a number of Georgia’s most eminent nineteenth and twentieth-century visual artists, among them Elene Akhlevediani and David Kakabadze, were involved in theatre design as well. Otskheli’s work, though stunningly original, is thus also indicative of a wider trend in the Georgian arts – a willingness to transcend traditional boundaries of genre and form no less evident here than, for example, in the chaotic pastiches of Robert Strurua, perhaps Georgia’s best-known contemporary theatre director, or in the Marjanishvili Theatre’s current impresario, Levan Tsuladze, whose recent Decameron ranks high among the best theatrical productions I’ve seen. The Otskheli retrospective thus serves not merely as an examination of one of Georgia’s most important twentieth-century artists, but indeed a much-needed call for long-overdue reawakening of interest in Georgia’s creative legacy, too often overlooked or else by Western sources to a footnote to Russian art history. This too, if Otskheli’s work is anything to go by, is a tragedy.


COPYRIGHT 2012 Tara Isabella Burton, All rights reserved.
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