Monumentality, Reduction, and Distortion: Tracing a Trajectory from Troster to Svoboda to Hudson
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*Images are numbered consecutively, left to right, and appear above the paragraph they pertain to.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves

-Cassius, Act I, scene II, Julius Caesar

If you take a Baroque candelabra and you put it on a Baroque table, that’s one thing. But if you take a Baroque candelabra and you place it on a giant rock, that’s something else. And maybe it’s easier to see the candelabra when it’s on a rock than if it’s on the table. And in this theatre- it’s about that, it’s how do we see- how do I see the rock and how do I see the candelabra, and how do I hear?1

-Robert Wilson discussing Einstein on the Beach


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The centerpiece of Richard Hudson’s set design for the 2001 production of Handel’s Tamerlano was a giant foot perched on an orb (figure 1). The opera premiered at the Teatro alla Pergola in Florence. Tamerlano is a Tartar warlord who has just conquered the Turkish empire and proposes marriage to Asteria, the daughter of the defeated emperor Bajazet. The narrative is set in Tamerlano’s palace in the city of Pursa in 1402, but Hudson created a timeless architectonic space with classical motifs. The larger-than-life foot doubled as Tamerlano’s throne when it was turned 180 degrees to reveal a brilliant, gold-leafed enclosure housed in the hollow orb underneath the foot (figure 4). Hudson also designed the brilliantly colored and elaborate period costumes which stood out in stark contrast to the minimalist, all-white backdrop and major scenic elements (figure 5). Tamerlano’s tyrannical rule over the empire was symbolized by the absurdly over-scaled foot which rested on top of the orb, and Bajazet’s defeat was symbolized when he hunched under the orb, crushed by Tamerlano’s subordinating power (figure 6). The daunting physical scale of this set piece conveyed the dramatic significance of Tamerlano’s defeat of Bajazet to the audience on both a corporeal and an intellectual level.

After looking at these production stills of Hudson’s Tamerlano,2 and after noting the prevalence of monumental set pieces in stage design for twentieth and twenty-first century theatre, I sensed there was a tradition of singular, monumental set pieces in modern theatre. I wanted to trace a trajectory and create an inductive study so that I could come to some loose conclusion about where, what, and by whom the tradition emerged from. I also wanted to understand why single, monumental set pieces, oftentimes dismembered body parts, were so visually powerful. I figured that the aforementioned study would help answer this question, or at least some aspects of it because by tracing the modern history of monumental set pieces I would also be examining the social context and individual philosophies of relevant designers, theatres, and productions.

I discovered that two other scenographic techniques were closely related to the use of singular, monumental pieces; that of perspectival distortion and reductive minimalism. I found more often than not that designers who worked with monumental set pieces also worked with elements of distortion and reduction, and all three elements are actually related to the same surrealist interpretive technique. By examining a vast array of production photographs and drawings that used these monumental set pieces.3 I discovered that the roots of the tradition were anchored in Czech scenic design of the early-twentieth century, which is where the present study will begin with the work of Vlastislav Hofman and Frantisek Troster, and a trajectory will be traced from this point to the postwar designs of Josef Svoboda, and up to the present day and to the work of Richard Hudson.

Before delving into Czech scenic design, it is imperative to speak of the concurrence between Prague designers of the 1920s and the 1930s (First Republic) before Nazi occupation and the influence of cubism from western Europe. The connection between Prague and major European artistic trends was the city’s position as the seat of kings going back to the sixteenth-century, and this connection was the very reason why the Czech capitol was the center of international stage design.4 Expressionism and symbolism were the foundation of modern scenic expression in Czechoslovakia with Hilar’s direction at the Vinohrady Theatre in Prague beginning in 1910. Hilar believed the stage designer should be a creative partner with the stage director, and his fruitful collaboration with Hofman resulted in the realization of poetic theatre as early as 1919 in their production of The Hussites, a historical drama by Arnost Dvorak.

The influence of Parisian cubists like Picasso and Braque seeped into Prague from western Europe and had a strong hold on Czech artists after the first world war. The most prominent stage designers of twentieth century Czech theatre were all trained and worked as architects. It is therefore no coincidence that a group of artists working in Prague in the twenties which included scenic designers, were the only Europeans to experiment with a Cubist architecture. The enduring influence of cubism in Czech scenic design can be seen beginning with the work of Vtastislav Hofman. His generation borrowed from the modern concepts employed in painting and sculpture in their attempt to create a purpose-driven architecture.

The director Karol Hugo Hilar (1885-1935) was one of the most significant theatrical forces in independent Czechoslovakia after 1918. He was appointed the drama director of the National Theatre in 1921 where he was responsible for opening up traditional Czech theatre to international artistic influences. Hilar and members of the emerging avant-garde in Prague worked in the vein of expressionism, surrealism, and poetic theatre.5

Vtastislav Hofman (1884-1964) designed sets for many of Hilar’s productions at the National Theatre, including Oedipus (1932) and Hamlet (1926). Hofman worked as an architect, painter, printmaker, applied artist, and set designer. He shared an interest in cubist architecture and made use of its inspiration in his designs for sets, applied furniture ornament, and buildings. He designed almost irrespective of medium and with an interest in the morphology of objects, saying, “An ashtray can turn into a house, a house into an ashtray.”6 After he met Hilar at the National Theatre, he began working exclusively for the stage and went on to win awards at the Grand Prix at the World Exhibition in Paris and the Gran Premio at the Triennial in Milan. He abandoned cubism after he began his collaboration with Hilar and became influenced instead by the director’s expressive theatre.7

Hofman worked in several phases; he replicated Baroque painted wings and backcloth in The Hussites, created compositional interiors from cubist and constructivist-furnished environments for later historical plays, and finally displayed his style called “civilism” or a “new matter of factness” (die neue Sachlichkeit).8 He described the 1926 stage for Hamlet: “A flat stage floor without stairs, almost modern furniture on an enormous scale. Roller screens used for the first time.”9 His design for Macbeth in 1939 with the director Jan Bor managed to evoke Gothic architecture while being furnished by antithetical yet complementary contemporary furniture; Hofman managed this by subordinating visual criteria to dramatic requirements and by the direct application of visual motifs and styles. Jan Sladek was another Czech theatre designer who worked in the veins of expressionism and abstraction, and was one of the creators of symbolic scenic architecture: “The motifs of arcades, grills, and graphic articulation, related to a certain phase of Josef Svoboda’s postwar work and to some postwar designs by Frantisek Troster, appeared ever more frequently in Sladek’s designs.”10

Frantisek Troster (1904-1968) was a Czech set designer, architect, and urban planner who obtained his first degree from the School of Architecture and Construction in Prague. He was another Czech designer who embraced cubism after being strongly influenced by his professor Pavel Janak, a prominent Czech cubist, while he continued his architecture studies at the School of Applied Arts in Prague.11 During the 1920s he designed for amateur theatres and later with the Moderni studio in Prague where he met the director Jiri Frejka, with whom he would collaborate at the National Theatre on a number of productions. These productions are particularly notable because of the collaboration between Troster and Frejka that brought isolated and untraditional avant-garde approaches to the official stage.12 Later in his career Troster taught at the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava (Slovakia) from 1934-38, and at the Central School of Interior Design in Prague (1939-43). He was involved with the design of the Czechoslovak pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Exposition, and won a gold medal at the 1959 Biennial in Sao Paulo for best foreign stage designer.13

Czechoslovakia provided an asylum for artists during the thirties amid a period of fascism and communism and became a center for artistic production, especially for those fleeing Nazi Germany.14 The second world war drove a wedge into the creative trajectory of European theatre and ruptured the dialogue between two generations of designers and directors. Troster worked under aliases during the Nazi occupation and the realities of the war period seeped into his work; transformed and restructured through artistic means, and conveyed through abbreviation, reduction, and hyperbole. In fact Troster’s collaborator Jiri Frejka referred to the style of their stage productions as “hyperbolic realism,” combining elements of constructivism and surrealism.15 Theatre history scholars have stated that Troster anticipated later currents by a generation,16 and that Troster’s discovery of dramatic space in the 1930s anticipated the principle of sculptural architecture of the 1960s.17

The element of reduction that repeatedly showed up in the work of Troster, and eventually in designs by Svoboda and Hudson, was derived from Cubism as well as Surrealism. The isolation and unlikely combination of readily identifiable cultural symbols was a hallmark of the work of Rene Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, and when that tendency was combined with mixed scale from traditional puppetry and Czech theatre (more on this later) and Neo-Baroque architectural elements, the result was the absurdly monumental and singular set piece (ie: Hudson’s foot and orb for Tamerlano). Disembodied parts- busts, torsos, feet- gained a heightened degree of visibility because they were divorced from their context.

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Robert Wilson constantly references this basic surrealist technique in his scenic designs which convey a sense of mystery and heighten the visibility of an image by contrasting it against a traditionally unrelated image. Wilson explained surrealist reduction (quoted at the beginning of this paper) with an example of how the placement of a Baroque candelabra on a giant rock challenges how we see both the candelabra and the rock, versus the placement of the same candelabra on a Baroque table, which tells us less about each.18 This is also the foundational principle behind the Neo-Baroque movement in architecture and the decorative arts in which designers like Phillipe Starck intensify the effect of 17th century architectural motifs and designed objects by rendering them in modern materials. Starck’s Louis Ghost Armchair (figure 7), designed in 2002 for Kartell, uses the basic form of a Louis XV chair but renders it in injection-molded polycarbonate.

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Magritte’s painting Les Marches de l’ete from 1938 (figure 8) was likely the inspiration for Andreas Reinhardt’s set piece for a 1974 production of the Barber of Seville (figure 9). Giorgio de Chirico’s painting The Song of Love from 1914 (figure 10) includes a disembodied head as well as an isolated architrave section, both of which were used repeatedly in the work of Svoboda, Troster, and Hudson among others. The fragments of the Colossus of Constantine at the Capitoline Museum in Rome (figure 11) resemble the same isolation and reduction of forms sought out by Surrealists.

Troster was also working in the undeniably expressionistic vein of Adolphe Appia and Edward Gordon Craig, creating productions that seemed to exist outside of time and space through the ephemeral, three-dimensional qualities of light and movement. Christopher Baugh eloquently summarized Appia’s impetus for what became the expressionist treatment of nonspecific stage ‘places’:

Instead of the full, detailed and locationally illusionistic settings mounted at the Festspielhaus, Appia proposed a simple arrangement of spatial forms that would not serve to represent any specific location. The stage setting should merely provide an evocative stage ‘place’ in which the major emphasis would be upon the movement in space of the actor and the illumination of that actor with what he termed ‘living light’. The concept of the stage as ‘place’ rather than as ‘scene’ was also fundamental to Craig.19

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Appia’s 1913 design for Orpheus (figure 12) is an example of his ‘rhythmic space’ which capitalized on new lighting technology, and which he employed as the predominant scenographic element along with the reduced architectonic feature of stairs and the draped walls. It is critical to reiterate Appia’s belief in the stage as ‘place’ as opposed to ‘scene’ because it implied that the narrative took place in a vacuum in which the text became timeless and transcendent, thereby adding to the dramatic effect.

What is missing in this photograph of Orpheus, and not to mention in all of the surviving drawings and photographs of Appia’s work, are the actors and their costumes which would have had as dramatic an effect as the stairs and platforms when illuminated. Similarly, the major components of Troster’s stages were in a perpetual state of transformation because of his manipulation of their inherently phenomenological nature with the actor’s bodies and choreographed actions. After the second world war, Troster’s stage design was marked by clashing walls that were transformed through lighting in order to change the meaning of originally neutral objects and surfaces.20 A notable example of this was his production of Armand Salacrou’s Les Nuits de la colere (Nights of Anger) staged in 1947, but unfortunately no pictures exist.

Light was an expressionistic influence that Troster borrowed from Appia and Craig and passed on to Josef Svoboda, and which is still prevalent in the work of contemporary scenographers like Robert Wilson. Curtains of light, a strong architectonic tradition, and the creation of scenographic architecture almost exclusively through lighting form the foundation for the theme of reduction in modern theatre. Josef Svoboda (1920-2002) has become the most celebrated member of a generation of Czech designers who gained international standing beginning in the latter-half of the twentieth century and who benefitted directly from the legacy of Hilar, Hofman, and their interwar colleagues. Svoboda’s scenographic mode is described using similar adjectives that were applied to his predecessors in Czech theatre including Hofman and Troster: symbolistic, constructivistic, expressionistic, cubistic, and illusionistic.21

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After the war Svododa created highly expressionistic scenic designs for Drahomira (figure 13), which along with another production from 1960 called Svatopluk, exemplified his ‘low-voltage curtain’ or ‘wall of light’:22

To a great extent we solved the problem of scenic space in both.. by the use of curtains of light. For both, we divided the stage into five planes demarcated by strips of light placed across the entire width of the stage. Transversely, the stage was divided into three sectors, so that we were able to organize dramatic space here directly by changing the walls of light.23

Svoboda used black drapes that became walls of light when they were illuminated and which created the sectors of dramatic space that he described. In Drahomíra, raked lighting accentuated the arched stone surface of a floating architectural fragment suspended invisibly over the dramatic space, which showed Svoboda’s tendency for the surreal, singular, and monumental. Svoboda revealed that he kept the scenography of the classic Czech drama highly stylized and rejected all traces of naturalism, and that the technical conditions of the production led him to, “strip the stage of everything not directly involved in the action.”24 Svoboda returned to a monumental flight of stairs for Oedipus (figures 14, 15) in 1963 staged at the Smetana Theatre in Prague. The stairs ran the entire width of the stage and appeared to occupy endless heights as it rose from the orchestra pit up into the flies, again not representing any particular moment in time.

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For Tristan und Isolde (Wiesbaden, 1967) (figure 16) and Sicilian Vespers (Hamburg, 1969) (figures 17, 18, 19), Svoboda’s stages went even further towards Appia’s rhythmic spaces (figure 11) and he even commented that Appia and Craig would have “marveled at the outcome” of Vespers.25 Again, Svoboda was invested in the creation of reductive space and “pure architecture,” which is connected to the theme of monumentality because both demonstrate the selection, isolation, and over-scaling of a specific architectonic feature: the suspended arch in Drahomíra and the staircase and arched opening (figure 18) in Vespers. Svoboda also made technical strides in the creation of true light curtains in Vespers and a monumental light column in Tristan und Isolde achieved through low-voltage light beams, which made Appia and Craig’s lighting look rudimentary by comparison. However, Svoboda’s most reduced stages weren’t replete of references to the dramatic narrative at hand, and the layered curtains of light for Tristan und Isolde were intended to evoke the steamy, sun-drenched climate of Sicily.26

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Contemporary scenographer Robert Wilson inherited the tradition of reduced dramatic space, and his solo show Hamlet from 1995 (figure 20) illustrates his desire not to set a dramatic narrative in any specific time or place:

I tried not to have the play set in any period. The productions that are dated or updated are not interesting to me. It only diminishes the work to try to locate it in a specific time or place or to give it a specific interpretation. It’s not timeless but something that’s full of time. It could be the Renaissance or it could be the year 3000.27

Like every scenic designer discussed so far, Wilson used reductive scenographic techniques in order to achieve ‘time-full-ness’: He created volumetric spaces and scenographic architecture through lighting alone, employed colored light against a draped background to punctuate moments in the dialogue (see video above), and he used an isolated, monumental black pile of slabs in the foreground that he performed on and around as he performed the title role himself (figure 20). Colored light was used in conjunction with a monumental set piece in a production of the Mozart opera Luccio Silla, designed by Robert Longo in 1993 (figure 21). The flight of stairs provided a blank canvas for the colored light effects cued by shifts in narrative.

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The tendency toward the massive that was exhibited in the work of Appia and the Expressionists reached literally colossal proportions in arguably the best example of Troster’s monumental set pieces in his production of Julius Caesar in 1936 at the National Theatre in Prague with Jiri Frejka (figure 2). The theme of monumentality was epitomized in this production with an absurdly monumental, disembodied bust of Caesar (figure 22) and the lower portion of an equestrian statue that ascended into the stage flies (figure 23), both balanced on plinths that anchored them to the dramatic space. The production is the best example of surrealism in Troster’s work, and the absurdly monumental set pieces were symbolic of the megalomaniacal European leadership at the dawn of World War II. Cassius’ cynical reference was rendered visually as the citizens passed under the pedestal: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus, and we petty men Walk under his huge legs, and peep about To find ourselves dishonourable graves.”

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The larger than life elements, like the horse’s hoof stepping forward, were presented to the audience on a massive inclined plinth set at a disturbing angle that gave them further visual strength by spatially crushing the figures of the actors; a technique that Marie Zdenkova links to the influence of Soviet film montage and the creation of a diminutive “worm’s-eye view.”28 The inclined plinth also gave the audience members the impression that the larger than life elements could crush them, introducing an element of perceived physical danger to the theatre. A noteworthy contemporary example of this perceived threat to the audience’s physical safety was the monumental centerpiece from Sasha Waltz’s 2000 dance production Korper (figures 24, 25) that stood nearly 40 feet tall, and fell over toward the audience to reveal a ramp on the reverse side that was used as an additional performance space.

The American theatre designer John Conklin (b.1937) also used a dismembered classical head for his 1987 production of Pericles (figure 3). Troster’s bust of Caesar was built in quadrants that are visible in the production photograph (figure 2), while Conklin’s monumental head is split in half lengthwise with the top half suspended over the dramatic space slightly upstage from the bottom half.

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Mixed scale played a strong role in Troster’s productions, and his signature monumental or hyperbolic style had its origins in Czech puppet theatre in which a character is represented multiple times in differing sizes during the course of a single production. A drawing of Vlastislav Hofman’s design for a production of The Tempest from the 1920s shows human-scale characters dwarfed by painted figures of mysterious giants on Prospero’s Island in the background of the dramatic space (figure 26). In Troster’s 1936 production of Julius Caesar, the title character walked amongst the other actors in the dramatic space but appeared larger than his fellow characters because the stage was steeply raked. The statue doubled Caesar’s presence on stage like a massive puppet, and its visible joints/cracks invoked a sense of dramatic irony with the decomposition of the state and of the emperor’s reign. The sculptural head eventually toppled apart into four fragments and a preliminary drawing (figure 27) depicts toppled columns, a fallen bust of Caesar, and a slab carved with the letter ‘C’. Marie Zdenkova explains that Czech designers like Troster adapted accepted theatrical trends to suit their own needs by lightening the austere interwar climate with irony, playfulness, and humor: “Under a totalitarian regime, metaphor and irony became weapons and, by conspiratorial method, a means of communication with an audience which came to the theatre to taste at least the atmosphere of freedom.”29

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A description of Josef Svoboda’s postwar design is reminiscent of Troster’s singular, over-scaled, dynamic set pieces that change with the stage action:

Several productions illustrate Svoboda’s use of a single, powerful scenic image to represent the essence of a given work. Rarely, if ever, does such an image remain either static or merely visual; that is, it usually alters its shape or composition in response to the action, and it is usually functional in one or more ways rather than a mere element of decor.30

Svoboda’s first production after the second world war was the opera Kunala’s Eyes by Czech composer O. Ostrcil. It was performed in Prague in December of 1945 under the direction of J. Fiedler. The monumental set piece was a pyramid form with stepped sides and two rectangular openings. Three production photographs (figures 28, 29, 30) demonstrate how one piece was used in three different arrangements to create a dynamic dramatic space. Svoboda had an interest in kinetic stage elements like the dynamic curved walls from Sicilian Vespers (figure 18) that hugged the laterally-staggered flight of stairs and that could be moved to create another dramatic space (figure 19).

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Frejka and Troster’s collaboration on a production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector from 1936 achieved monumentality and perspectival distortion (figures 31, 32, 33, 34), another scenographic theme related to monumentality that was embraced by Svoboda and Hudson as well. A head-on image of the production (figure 31) shows how the longitudinal series of super-sized doorways and classical balustrades dwarfed the actors. The first doorway appears level, but a model of the stage reveals the doorways actually tilted forward (figure 32). Subsequent doorways further upstage are set off-kilter at opposing angles to make the audience’s perspective of the stage appear distorted (figure 33, 34). The side view of the model also reveals that the doorways further upstage are much smaller than those downstage, which enhanced the audience’s sense of distortion by mimicking and heightening the effect of foreshortening. The doorways also moved so that their distortion mimicked the inebriated condition of the characters Khlestakov and the Mayor.31 This coordination between actor’s gesture, kinetic stage element, and the deformation of audience perspective was the result of Troster’s investment in nonmaterial scenographic elements including movement, time, rhythm, and light.32 The combination of distorted perspective and massive set pieces created an unsettling effect for the audience, like the statuary for Julius Caesar perched on plinths and angled toward the theatre house. In the tradition of Expressionism, Troster and Frejka were credited for turning the direction of the expression toward the audience.33

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Troster employed distortion in his production design for Cocteau’s Knights of the Round Table (figure 35) with a large black and white harlequin pattern that extended from the stepped stage floor up onto the back wall. Like Svoboda’s hyper-foreshortened doorways, the checkerboard pattern on the back wall mimicked perspective so that the pattern appeared to continue for an infinite amount of distance. A monumental cross was placed downstage, and against the checkerboard pattern, resembled a pawn in a game of chess. Svoboda’s Don Giovanni (figure 36) also had a checkerboard pattern on the stage floor, but the designer went one step further toward mimicking a giant chessboard by having the scenic props moved about the stage like giant pawns during the production. A plan of the stage (figure 37) shows the location and direction of movement for each set piece used during the production. Svoboda selected the chess board as his scenic device because it is an allegory for fate. Every movement on the board, like a game of chance, had a consequence, and Don Giovanni’s murder of the Commendatore sealed his fate, which was symbolized when he was literally checkmated by a statue of the Commendatore.34

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Finally, several examples from the contemporary oeuvre of Richard Hudson will reinforce the three themes of monumentality, reduction, and distortion, and will bring us back to the beginning of this scenographic trajectory that started with Hudson’s Tamerlano. His design for Luccia de Lammermoor (figure 38) premiered in 1989 at the Zurich Opera.35 Coffers covered the ceiling and walls of a corridor that led upstage to a set of doors with a distorted perspective like The Government Inspector. The corridor was actually broken into several longitudinal segments like the legs of Svoboda’s chessboard set for Don Giovanni so that light could penetrate and heighten the contrast of light and shadow created by the coffers. Hudson’s 1992 stage for La Bete included a reduced architectonic interior space that had a severely raked floor (figure 39) as well as a correspondingly raked ceiling which warped the audience’s perspective when the two planes practically converged at the rear of the stage. The Baroque furniture and costumes were set off against the comparatively spare interior architecture. In 2000, Hudson designed the scenography for a production of Pique Dame at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (figures 40, 41, 42, 43). Historic elements like the surreal repetition of Greek Revival armchairs, a monumental flight of stairs, a classical turned balustrade that was repeated in different scenes like a surreal leitmotif, and a monumental set of Baroque doors clashed against the abstract painted enclosure which was set a distorted angle.

After tracing a historical trajectory for the scenic devices of monumentality, reduction, and distortion, a fairly accurate argument can now be made for the genesis of the singular, monumental set piece in twentieth and twenty-first century scenic design: The technique of mixed scale taken from puppetry and the principle of reduction introduced through Cubist and Surrealist movements were combined by Czech designers who were steeped in their own national stage tradition as well as in principles of Expressionist theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century. This phenomenon was taken to new limits with the inclusion of Neo-Baroque elements in the late twentieth and early-twenty-first century that heightened the effect of over-scaled motifs and surrealist reduction.


Monumentality, Reduction, and Distortion PREZI

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