Naum Gabo

Model for the Set of ‘La Chatte’


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Not on display

Naum Gabo 1890–1977
Plastic, wood, metal and fabric
Object: 603 × 801 × 547 mm
Presented by Nina Williams, the artist's daughter and her husband Graham Williams 1986

Catalogue entry

Naum Gabo 1890-1977

T04146 Model for the Set of La Chatte 1926-1927

Plastic, wood, metal and fabric 603 x 801 x 547 (23 3/4 x 31 1/2 x 21 1/2)
Not inscribed
Presented by Nina and Graham Williams 1986
Prov: By descent to the artist's daughter Nina Gabo, later Mrs Graham Williams
Exh: Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism, Tate Gallery, Feb.-April 1987 (22)
Lit: Herbert Read and Leslie Martin, Gabo: Constructions, Sculptures, Paintings, Drawings, Engravings, 1957, text between pls.38 and 39; Denys Sutton, ‘The Tsar of Ballet', Apollo, vol.90, Oct.1969, p.290, pl.4; Willy Rotzler, Constructive Concepts, 1977, p.106; Andrew Forge, An Appreciation of Naum Gabo, 1985, p.29; Steven A. Nash and Jörn Merkert (eds.) Naum Gabo; Sixty Years of Constructivism, exh. cat., Museum of Art, Dallas 1985, pp.29-31; Mary Rose Beaumont, ‘Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism', Arts Review, vol.39, June 1987, p.177; A.I. Grieve, ‘London, Tate Gallery: Naum Gabo', Burlington Magazine, vol.129; April 1987, p.265, pl. 45; William Feaver, ‘Naum Gabo at the Tate Gallery: Bruce Nauman at the Whitechapel and the Athens Art Awards', Observer, 15 Feb 1987, p.21; John Spurling, ‘Shining Through - Naum Gabo, Tate', New Statesman, 6 March 1987, p.30; Michael Clarke, ‘Naum Gabo - Sixty Years of Constructivism', Times Education Supplement, 3 April 1987, p.40. Also repr; Gabo: Konstruktive Plastik, exh. cat., Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, Nov.1930 (22); Cyril W. Beaumont, Ballet Design Past and Present, London and New York 1946, p.108.

T04146 was found in pieces in Gabo's studio by his family after his death. On examination by Gabo's former assistant, Professor Charles Wilson, (who also reassembled the model in his studio in Chicago in 1986 for the Tate Gallery leg of the Gabo exhibition, which ran from 1985-7), most of the original was found to have survived. No new parts were added, the reconstruction, made after examination of several documentary sources, is partially incomplete. Few photographs of the production survive, although original set photographs, one of which is now in the Tate Gallery Archive (unpublished) gave enough information to reassemble surviving pieces of the model (a similar view, shot during an actual performance and from a slightly different angle, is in Naum Gabo: Sixty Years of Constructivism 1987, p.30. A further photograpgh of the production, taken in 1927 by Henri Manuel, was offered for sale by Christie's (19th and 20th Century Photographs, Christie's 21 April 1988, lot 145).

‘La Chatte' was created in 1926-7 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The story of the ballet, after one of Aesop's fables, was written by Boris Kochno under the pseudonym ‘Sobeka'. The music was written by Henri Sauguet and choreographed by George Balanchine. Sergei Grigoriev directed the production and Roger Desormieres was the conductor. Naum Gabo with his brother Antoine Pevsner designed the set and the costumes. The first performance was given in Monte Carlo on 30 April 1927 and the ballet continued to be performed until 1929 all over Europe, including Paris, London (at the Prince's Theatre), Prague, Geneva, Belgium, Austria, Budapest and Berlin.

A number of authors have written about Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Diaghilev collaborated many times with musicians and artists. They include Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bakst and Picasso. Accounts which include discussion of La Chatte include W.A. Propert, The Russian Ballet 1921-1929, 1931, pp.52-6; S.L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet 1909-1929, 1953, pp.233-40 and Richard Buckle, Diaghilev, 1979, pp.482-90. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Dame Alicia Markova come from an interview conducted by the compiler and the Tate's Sculpture Conservator on 19 February 1988.

The tale of ‘La Chatte' is a simple adaptation of one of Aesop's Fables, planned by Diaghilev as a vehicle for his principal ballerina Olga Spessivtseva. The male lead was taken by Serge Lifar:

A young man falls in love with a cat, and prays Aphrodite to transform her into a woman. But Aphrodite, having done so, seeks to test the passion this new-made woman now displays for the young man. She therefore causes a mouse to appear; when the woman immediately leaves her lover and chases it. She is thereupon changed back into a cat; and the unfortunate young man expires from disappointment (Grigoriev 1953, p.235).

Buckle describes how Gabo became involved in the production. His first meeting with Diaghilev had taken place when Gabo (along with Antoine Pevsner) had shown at the Galerie Percier, Paris in 1924. That autumn and during the following winter the two men met again in Gabo's flat in Lichterfelde, a suburb of Berlin, where the idea of Gabo designing a ballet was discussed:

In 1926 Gabo signed a contract with Diaghilev, which was to come into force when he had produced a model and it had been approved. One reason he undertook the work was to help his brother Anton [sic] financially, for he insisted that the decor should be attributed to them both. During the summer of 1926 Gabo stayed at his brother's flat near the Gare du Nord, and spent a week in a little dark, disused room making his model. He had brought his materials, including a non-inflammable plastic called Celon, from Berlin. Diaghilev climbed the stairs to examine the gleaming construction of transparent planes and curves against a curtain of shining black ‘American cloth'. It took him no time at all to pass judgement. Looking up at the sculptor, he exclaimed, ‘That's a real temple!' Diaghilev said there must be a statue of a goddess. Gabo had turned so violently against representation in art that he gave this job to his brother, who had done no sculpture before (this statement is contradicted by Alley 1981, p.587 see below). The rhomboidal Goddess was Pevsner's sole contribution, for Gabo designed the costumes as well as the set. The cat (into which the heroine was turned) was a big toy bought at a department store (Buckle 1979, p.483-4).

The mouse, Markova relates (and here she contradicts Buckle, who writes that it was clockwork);

was covered with a piece of American Cloth - it was another thing I used to have to watch. Then the moment came [a musical cue] and it was pulled across stage and that was the moment I went after it. It wasn't a clockwork mouse.

The model for Aphrodite mentioned above, belongs to the Tate Gallery (T02242) and is described and illustrated (on its own) in Ronald Alley, The Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, 1981, pp.586-7. (It is included in the official photograph of T04146). In a letter to the compiler dated October 1 1988, Aube Lardera, at present working on a catalogue raisonné of the works of Antoine Pevsner, suggests that the model for Aphrodite (T02242) is, in fact, probably a work by Naum Gabo. Her suggested re-attribution (pending fuller investigation) is supported by Monsieur Massat, president of the Association des Amis d'Antoine Pevsner, the curator Monsieur Dorival and Claude Bernarde, the art dealer. The figure of Aphrodite was placed 'in a raised position in the centre of the stage and was surrounded by various completely abstract structures in transparent plastic. They were all set against a background of black American cloth and dramatically lit (Alley 1981, p.587).

Reactions to Gabo's avant-garde stage set were varied. Grigoriev's first response was to find the designs out of keeping with the nature of Aesop's simple tale:

I had not seen the designs, and so when I called at the studios about repairs to something else, and found the place full of large wire constructions covered with celluloid. I asked Origo, our property master, what on earth they were.

‘Oh, didn’t you know?' said Origo. 'In his next ballet Monsieur Diaghilev's is going to have a laboratory on stage. This is the scenery for La Chatte. And so it was. The designs were by Gabo and Pevsner; very ‘modern' indeed; and I must say that, for one of Aesop's Fables, I thought them rather odd (Grigoriev 1953, p.234).

The qualities of translucence achieved by the finished stage set, and prefigured by the discs and planes of Gabo's plastic materials used in the model and enhanced by dramatic lighting, impressed Propert (in 1931) enough to write:

The scenery shone with exotic simplicity. From its base of geometrical logic had emerged a fantasy as shimmering and evanescent as any mirage of the Arabian desert. A group of quadrilateral planes filled the right side of the stage, with one large disc in a curved balustrade, and all of them were made of talc. Behind them were two round windows in a black shrine, in one of which was the cat, and towering above it was a diamond-shaped form that symbolised the Goddess. The walls and the floor were of shining black, and the floor was so polished that no one could dance on it securely until it had been liberally dusted with sand. It was a suitably remorseless setting for the double tragedy that was impending (Propert 1931, p.54). [The relatively unfamiliar new material led to a number of different names being used, including mica, talc and celluloid.]

An English stage-hand was a good deal less complimentary about the set, describing it as ‘the fucking greenhouse' (Buckle 1979. p.491) when assembling it during the London run. There was, additionally, a fire risk involved in working with these new, unfamiliar materials. Propert, after praising the stunning visual effectiveness of the translucent figures and props explains:

The talc figures became rather a burden as soon as the Fire Brigade got to hear of them, and the ballet was only allowed to be played on condition that they were to remain in the theatre just for the few minutes it lasted and were then immediately returned to their warehouse (Propert 1931, p.55).

Gabo's involvement with the production went beyond designing the set. He also designed the costumes (several costume sketches are reproduced in Nash and Merkert (eds.) 1985, pls.104-107) and made suggestions about aspects of choreography. Buckle relates how Gabo, during rehearsal, found Diaghilev, Balanchine and Sauguet puzzling over the choreography for the final marche funèbre. Gabo's suggestion revealed how the constructivist principles behind his stage embraced his conception of the whole production:

Gabo suggested that the six men should walk, rather than dance, to the music. He had wanted to introduce a kinetic element, and he offered to make out of wood geometrical objects for the men to carry - a square, a circle, perhaps an ellipse and a trapeze, which would be painted black on one side, white on the other ... At the end, when the ‘dead' body of Lifar was lifted, he was to be simultaneously encased in these geometrical shapes, which would form a monument around him as he was carried off (Buckle 1979, p.484).

Markova relates how spectacular this entrance was, bearing in mind the difficulty of carrying large circular hoops (approximately a metre in diameter) while bearing the body of Lifar: 'The circular elements were carried when the boys brought Lifar in on their shoulders - it was a wonderful entrance. It was all very sculptural for the boys and for Lifar. Somehow they managed to carry both Lifar and the hoops'.

The costumes too, were new and unusual. Buckle relates how Spessivtseva caused difficulties about wearing a mica head-dress with two ears, as well as being reluctant to dance on the oilcloth Gabo's design foresaw. The costumes, he writes, were as follows:

The male corps de ballet of six had pale-yellow tops and light-grey shorts; all wore mica helmets and metallic belts. Spessivtseva had a cone of mica over her white tutu and tights; Lifar, a semi-breastplate in mica, hung from his left shoulder, like the tunic of Daphnis (Buckle 1979, p.484).

Spessivtseva did not survive the entire run of the production, which encompassed many European cities and extended over two years. After the opening performances she injured her ankle and was replaced in London initially by Alice Nikitina, subsequently alternately by her and Alicia Markova. Markova joined the company in January 1925, shortly after her fourteenth birthday. In this production, she danced initially in the corps de ballet and remembers how difficult it was dancing, with one bare and one booted foot, the mechanical movements demanded by the choreographer. Her slight build and relative inexperience made Diaghiley unwilling to promote her from the corps de ballet, although when Nikitina became indisposed, Markova took the lead role. (In her book Markova Remembers, 1986, p.27, she publishes a photograph of herself as the cat.) She relates how she managed to overcome the difficulties presented by the varied floor coverings:

The reason it was difficult was because the part covered in what we then called American Cloth was shiny and slippery and the rest was a very dull cotton mat. It was all pieced; one just did not know [where one was going to land]. I solved it - Balanchine had given me very difficult choreography; pirouettes and things which the other didn't do - by having my shoes rubbered, like when we had to dance on a ballroom floor.

The costume too, was adapted for Markova. She relates that fur was added to the sleeves when the costume was fitted: Spessivtseva and Nikitina used the same costume. All dancers had to wear the mica additions designed by Gabo:

The mica was a heavy, strong plastic, clear and transparent, the headdress was the same. Spessivtseva's hair was shingled and brushed at the sides to a point, high up on the cheeks. I used to have that too. We had to stick it so it didn't move ... Apart from a mica headdress and leggings, we also had a mica skirt, worn over the tutu, which one for the first entrance, the variation. Then one exited after the variation and quickly the skirt came off for the pas de deux.

Underneath the mica additions, the dancers wore white tights and satin shoes instead of the more usual flesh-coloured tights and shoes. Gabo's costume sketches (Nash and Merket (eds.) 1985, pls.104-7) demonstrate how closely the sculptural qualities of the mica and the integration of the dancers into their setting occupied him (the costume and headdress worn by Serge Lifar, as well as sketches relating to his headdress and the cat's costume, were offered for sale at Sotheby's 9 May 1984, lots 51, 53 and 54 from the Serge Lifar Collection).

The model and set for La Chatte cannot be viewed in isolation from Gabo's sculptural projects of early 1920s, many of which exploited the translucent and transparent qualities of plastics then becoming available. It also owes a debt to Russian stage design, although the pioneering nature of Gabo's set represents considerable advances in the field of stage design. Steven A. Nash writes:

The roots of Gabo's composition are found in earlier Russian set design, and even the use of plastic can be traced to Exter's costumes for the 1924 film Aelita, but no predecessor had carried the partnership of geometry, transparency, and light to such dazzling heights. Gabo was able to create an environment of shifting, fluid states, with material fusing into space. Integrated with movement and drama, the whole ensemble would have been truly a visual and sensual adventure. The importance accorded Gabo's stage set as an environmental statement is evidenced by its early publication in Arthur Korn's Glas im Bau und als Gebrauchsgegenstand of 1929 and Moholy-Nagy's Von Material zu Architektur of the same year (Nash and Mekert (eds.) 1985, p.31).

The set for La Chatte, emphatically geometric, balanced rectilineal elements with curvilinear forms. The sweep of the curved ramp in the foreground led to the circular disc at centre stage. A preparatory sketch dated 1926 (ibid., pl.103) shows how integral this curving ramp was to Gabo's concept. In the sketch it reaches right to the front of the stage. Perhaps for reasons of practicality and of providing adequate space, this aspect of the design was modified to occupy a smaller area of the stage. Behind this to the right, rose a number of flat frontal planes, mainly rectilineal though with some curved elements, which led up to the central, elevated, niche housing the statue of Aphrodite. A number of these right-hand sections are missing in T04146 (when compared with the surviving set and production photographs, although if they ever existed in the original construction of the model is unknown. Markova relates that Diaghilev was always willing to shift or move scenery in order to adapt it to the space available or the demands of the choreography.) The effects of intense lighting, translucency and geometry were enhanced by the dancers' costumes and props: 'In their reflective costumes, the dancers crawled, jumped, and spun around Gabo's transparent forms, sometimes carrying large geometric shapes painted black and white and always highlighted with intense illumination', Markova remembers finding the lighting terribly bright and difficult to dance under. She used often to attend lighting rehearsals and recalled, that, ‘Diaghilev was always there supervising lighting'. She continued:

They always lit from the floor in those days, which they don't today. Today they light from overhead. On the side of the stage we used to have these huge lights. This is why he was a genius. I still light my productions the way Diaghilev lighted them. You don't light from below, but from across; it's a through light - a different technique.

In addition to the footlights and those at the side of the stage, Markova was able to confirm that the pale, square area to the left of centre was sloped up toward the back of the stage. Underneath, a number of lights were concealed which illuminated the statue of Aphrodite and shone directly onto the American Cloth backcloth, giving the shimmering effect seen on the surviving documentary photographs.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.148-52

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