Alexander Golovin: A Multifaceted Master

Alexander Golovin: A Multifaceted Master

Perhaps best known for his work at the Mariinsky Theater, Golovin’s art blends Russian tradition with modernism.

Published: June 21, 2013 (Issue # 1764)


Golovin was know for his luminous realism.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the birth of famous Russian artist Alexander Golovin, the Russian Museum has organized a retrospective of his works.

The exhibition brings together 150 pieces from the collections of St. Petersburg museums, chief among them works from the Russian Museum itself, as well as treasures from private collections. There are also original stage costumes made to Golovin’s sketches and stage designs, on loan from the Alexandrinsky Theatre.

At the turn of the 20th century, Alexander Golovin was one of the towering figures contributing to the city’s artistic renown, and especially to its theatrical life. The blue and gold theater curtain at the Mariinsky, so well known to operagoers, was created by Alexander Golovin at the start of his engagement at the theater, which lasted nearly thirty years. It was at the opera house that he kept his studio, and in the foyer of the third balcony you can still find his self-portrait on the wall.

The timing of this exhibition is especially significant, given the recent expansion of the Mariinsky complex with the opening of Mariinsky-2. Among the items on view at the exhibition are paintings, graphic works, designs for costumes and scale models of opera stagings. In addition, landscapes, portraits and still lifes show the wealth of Golovin’s interests, even those outside the theater.

After finishing art school in Moscow, where he made the acquaintance of some of Russia’s future leading Russian artists, including Mikhail Vrubel and Vasily Polenov, the painter went abroad and continued his artistic growth in Paris. This was at the time when Moscow’s patrons of the arts, Morozov and Shchukin, were busily assembling a very important collection of contemporary French paintings with which Golovin was surely familiar. His appetite was whetted to see more.

Once established in Paris, Golovin continued his studies, and the local influence on his manner of painting is clear. He also traveled to Spain, which opened his eyes to yet another world. He later would draw on his time abroad to create his stage decoration.

He also composed a series of portraits of Spanish women. Before his move to St. Petersburg, Golovin worked in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, where his most well-received designs were for productions of “Boris Godunov” and “Maiden from Pskov.” He gained authority as a specialist in historical styles, particularly in trends of clothing and furniture. In the Mariinsky, following his appointment as chief advisor on artistic issues for the Imperial Theatres, there was not a single Russian opera that he did not stage. He set the scene for both classics and new pieces for, among others, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Twice he worked for Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons in Paris, creating sets for “The Nightingale” and “Firebird.” Golovin’s particular style, a unique blend of Russian artistic tradition and the turn-of-the-century modern that he discovered in Paris, is immediately evident at the retrospective.

His paintings contain a certain flatness, looking two-dimensional in the manner of the Nabi group of French painters. Among the many still lifes on display are flowers and porcelain vases combined in different groups. One thing unites them all: The artist’s elegant color schemes. In his landscapes and still lifes is a hint of his predecessors Levitan and Nesterov, together with a nod to con temporaries Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. In his portraits, especially in his Spanish series, Alexander Golovin followed the peculiarities of Edouard Manet. His works are frequently done on paper and board using gouache and pastels. He preferred these media to oil, because, in his opinion, they gave him brighter colors.He also liked to coordinate big sur faces or bright spots of color, but at the same time he was not a follower of the Impressionists. He always remained a resolute realist, rather than working as an assembler of mosaics. Alexander Golovin created a fair number of portraits, mostly of singers and actors. These were of his colleagues and famous figures from the Russian artistic world at the start of the 20th century. He preferred to paint models in his Mariinsky Theater studio, while he dressed singers in costumes of his own design and put them on stage in front of the decoration. Thus, he preserved the tension and dramatic impact of the performances. His portraits of Fyodor Shalyapin are world famous, especially in the role of Boris Godunov. The figures are all brightly lit, as if the footlights were directed straight at them.

In his work, he was close to his contemporaries and friends Mikhail Vrubel and Konstantin Korovin. He and Vrubel jointly did the majolica mosaic for the facade of the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. With Korovin he worked in the Mariinsky Theater, as they shared the same views and ideas. He also painted portraits of the artists Leo Bakst, Alexander Benois and Ivan Bilibin, with whom he shared talent, an inquisitive mind and a sense of hard work.

After the 1917 Revolution, many of show also gives viewers a visual tour of Golovin’s friends and colleagues emigrated, but he remained and continued working with Vsevolod Meyerhold Konstantin Stanislavsky, staging plays and creating opera sets at the Mariin sky Theater.

The exhibition brings back the legacy of an artist with an enduring role in the city’s artistic achievements. The show also gives viewers a visual tour of Russian theater, both music and drama, at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Alexander Golovin retrospective is on view through Sept. 2 in the Benois Wing of the Russian Museum.

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