Matyushin’s ‘’Total” Theater

The ideas of an Organic culture, a synthetic approach to the study of the qualities of artistic language (form-color) and their connection with sound, and the concept of a unified Existence had to have led Matyushin to the idea of a new synthetic theater.
From 1920 until 1923 Matyushin organized performances annually in memory of Elena Guro. They took place in the apartment belonging to the Enders, the entire second floor of a three-story building on the Petrograd side. The central room - a hall about 60 sq. m - served as stage and space for audience. The participants included Matyushin, the Enders -Boris, Maria, Xenia, and Georgy - Nikolai Grinberg, Olga Gromozova (Matyushin’s wife), and the pianist Raissa Eshman-London. Among the guests were the artist K. Petrov-Vodkin, the architect A. Belogrud, the critic N. Punin, the artist K. Malevich, and the writer Andrei Bely. Usually, the themes of the performances were taken from Guro’s works: “Autumn Dream,” “Baby Camels in the Sky,” and so on. The goal Matyushin set in creating the performances was to “break up” the old academic box of a stage and plunge the viewer into a color-form and sound environment. The audience was placed in the middle of the action, with the “stages” around them. The audience’s attention was “regulated” by sounds and music. The sounds filled the space, coming from above, the sides, jumping across the viewers. The sounds came from a grand piano, string instruments, the thrum of a long string stretched across the room, the rustling of a branch. The instruments were used in the most varied combinations. The varied localization of sound created a “sound perspective.”
Another innovation was the absence of actors as characters: they were hidden mechanisms that brought the objects of the play into action. These was modern performance art, when the viewer is brought into the spatial action of the play with a metaphoric concept of the meaning.
For the play of “Baby Camels in the Sky” a way was found to create the illusion of expansion of space. Upon entering the viewers found themselves in a cramped space pushed in on all sides by volumes symbolizing white clouds. The could gradually moved apart and up, drawing in the viewer. In the search for timber and color for the sound and timber and sound for the color. Matyushin suggested the creation of a musical instrument called “Light-Form-Sound-Noise.”[1] A rope was stretched out in the shape of a square with a side about a meter long. On one side was suspended a red ball the size of a pumpkin and sounding like a gong. Opposite it hung a green cube that made a crackling noise. On the third side was a yellow rhomboid, sounding the low bass of a string piano. Across from that shape hung a blue spiral that whistled. The color-sound kinetic object was supposed to demonstrate the connection between form and sound and color. In 1923 Matyushin and the Enders made a performance called “Birth of Light, Color, and Volume.” In the middle of the room a lighting construction stood from floor to ceiling: a column of white paper, which with the aid of a lamp inside, created a running light. The beams from lanterns moved across the ceiling. This symbolized the birth of Light. At the bottom of the column were hidden color volumes: a tall cone, cube, ellipse, and sphere, each painted in the color appropriate to the form. People were inside the shapes. Gradually the shapes rose and moved, and the sphere, inside which was a man dressed in red, started rolling among the shapes. The main idea of this performance action was to give a picture of the growth of these volume shapes under the influence of light. Light in the organic worldview not only illuminates, it is the source of growth, of inner movement, and the source of color, which plays a formative role. Two cosmogenic sources together - heavenly and earthly - which give rise to the essence of the organic world. Sound penetrated space, creating an inseparable unity. The essence of Matyushin’s total, nonobjective theater is the “new, living (organic) geometry,” which was the basis of artistic thought for this artist and his students. Matyushin’s ideas were far ahead of his time. He was laying a vector into the future. “Cosmic realism” was Boris Ender’s definition of artistic perception of Reality, and he called Matyushin “one of the first conceivers of a concept as yet unnamed.” [2]

Alla Povelikhina

[1] M. Matyushin, “Zvuko-Tsvet” [Sound-Color], RO IRLI, f. 656, d. 36..

[2] Boris Ender, Diary, Notation for 29 July 1959. Private Archive, Rome.