Curtain Call: The ‘Grand Drape’ on the Polish Stage
default, Curtain Call: The ‘Grand Drape’
on the Polish Stage, Piotr Szmitke’s curtain at the Silesian Theatre, photo: Grzegorz Celejewski / Agencja Gazeta, center, teatr_slaski_nowa_kurtyna_fot_grzegorz_celejewski_ag_c7z7020.jpg
A large downstage curtain, whether hewn of red velvet or brilliantly hand-painted, often (quite literally) opens and closes a night at the theatre. Since the original ancient Roman version – the ‘auleum’ – countless artists have adopted and adapted this convention. Culture.pl presents five unique approaches to the ‘grand drape’ on Polish stages.
Słowacki Theatre – a tale of two curtains
Only four present-day theatres in Poland are home to decoratively painted front curtains, which became popular in the late 19th century. The Słowacki Theatre in Kraków offers two examples of this style – and the story behind them is as rich as the scenes they depict.
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In 1891, the institution, then known as the Teatr Miejski or City Theatre, opened a contest for a grand drape to grace its new stage. Amongst the competition’s entrants was Kraków’s own Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), still an art student in Paris at the time. His vision for the curtain, entitled Z Moich Fantazjów (From My Fantasies), presented a metatheatrical picture:
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A Muse, tearing open the curtain, wants to let in the fantastical characters emerging from the [River] Wisła’s current, who will take the place of these symbols of the living theatre. A bright Midsummer Night and the darkness of gloomy tragedy. The struggle of two worlds: the classical art of the past and poetic fantasy.
Krystyna Zbijewska, ‘Przekrój’ 48/1977, from www.kurtynawyspianskiego.pl/historia, trans. LD
Curiously, the theatre ultimately chose a curtain outside of the competition. Revealed to audiences in 1896, Henryk Siemiradzki’s design, as noted by Janina Zielińska, presented a triptych-like composition of allegorical figures, including Beauty, Truth and Tragedy, which recalled the tradition of altar painting. The cool, classical style of Siemiradzki’s design is a far cry from Wyspiański’s earthy and mystical vision.
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Upon his return to Kraków, Wyspiański saw the winning drape in person – and was not impressed:
The concept is most banal […] The whole composition, in my opinion, is collegiate and demonstrates no individuality of thought at all. […] The curtain is a zero.
From www.kurtynawyspianskiego.pl/historia, trans. LD
Wyspiański soon saw arguably greater success – when his own plays, like the sensational 1901 drama The Wedding, premiered on the very same stage. Still, Siemiradzki’s curtain remained the institution’s centrepiece for 124 years, until a recent initiative by its artistic leadership.
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The dream of having an artefact associated with Wyspiański at the theatre has followed me from the very beginning… Almost nothing has survived at the theatre that would indicate that this is [Wyspiański’s] home and that it will remain forever so – hence the idea of Wyspiański’s sketch and its realisation.
Krzysztof Głuchowski, artistic director of the Słowacki Theatre, from www.teatrwkrakowie.pl/aktualnosci, trans. LD
Based on Wyspiański’s original illustration of his idea, as preserved in the Jagiellonian University museum, the project was undertaken in tempera on linen by the artist, interior designer, painter and sculptor Taduesz Bystrzak. (Appropriately, he is also known for his reproduction of a large-scale oil painting by Siemiradzki, the 1876 Neron’s Torches.) The artist released the following video showing the curtain’s installation:
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Kraków audiences saw Wyspiański’s drape, which measures at nearly 9 by 12 metres, for the first time in October 2018, as part of the Kraków: City of Wyspiański programme. The curtain now hangs interchangeably with Siemiradzki’s on the Słowacki stage.
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The painter and sculptor Maria Jarema (1908-1958) honed her design and performance skills during the Interwar at the Cricot theatre. She created strikingly abstract sets and costumes there, until the outbreak of World War I. With Tadeusz Kantor and Krzysztof Miklaszewski, ‘Jaremianka’ co-founded the group’s post-war continuation, Cricot 2, and designed a curtain for the company.
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Created for the modernist Dom Plastyków (Artists’ House) café performance space, she gathered the drape’s rectangular peach, beige, and brown patches from leftover linen. Jarema passed away soon after she completed her curtain, only a few years into her collaboration with Kantor.
As Agnieszka Dauka writes, Jarema’s curtain was moved from the Dom Plastyków stage to the Krzysztofory Gallery, where Kantor’s company played in the cellar. Whilst it was occasionally used in performances, it was later stowed in the chimney – and badly damaged. Today, the roughly two-by-seven-metre curtain is safe in the collection of the National Museum in Kraków.
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In January 2019, Cricoteka, the museum and archive devoted to Kantor’s work, breathed new life into the drape’s fabric. It hosted a theatre workshop inspired by its vision of the curtain as a ‘spectral representation of Jaremianka herself’:
Once, the [theatrical] curtain was intended to divide the real world from the fictional one –and the audience from what was happening onstage. Rather than divide, however, the curtain designed by Jaremianka blurred these borders. It built an atmosphere thick with meaning – a space marked by gesture.
From www.cricoteka.pl/pl/warsztaty-i-performans-wokol-kurtyny-jaremianki, trans. LD
The events accompanied Cricoteka’s landmark exhibition on Jarema and the centenary of women at Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts. From their explorations of the object and its creator, the participants produced their own curtain, as well as an original performance.
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However, this is not the only new work of art inspired by Jarema’s drape. In 2013, the Zachęta National Gallery of Art presented The Splendour of Textiles, which featured a bold reimagining of Jarema’s curtain in red, black and white by the American painter Sarah Crowner.
The exhibition also presented a dance performance by Iza Szostak inspired by Crowner’s piece:
The performer invites you to an experience of and communion with ‘the world of the body’s structure and the texture of cloth’, probing the relationships that emerge between them. […] The body coexists with this matter and is immersed in the rhythm of the tangled shapes.
From www.zacheta.art.pl/pl/kalendarz/zwiedzanie-wystawy-i-performans?setlang=1, trans. LD
If Jarema remains an under-recognised artist, these events endeavoured to draw back the veil on her legacy in Polish avant-garde theatre. Ultimately, they highlighted her potential as a source of creative stimulus.
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Silesian Theatre – tradition meets technology
Imagine a grand drape that could both honour and evolve its own legacy. That’s what the interdisciplinary Katowice artist Piotr Szmitke had in mind with his ‘multimedia curtain’ for the city’s Silesian Theatre, which is dedicated to Wyspiański.
The 2007 design, created in the tradition of painted drapes, depicts a palace set in a local landscape. Within it, there looms an eclectic mix of characters, from Wyspiański himself to other figures more open to interpretation. As interpreted by Tomasz Malkowski in Gazeta Wyborcza, the curtain’s viewers can find:
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[…] eminent actors and directors of the Silesian Theatre – Gustaw Holoubuka and Jerzy Jarocki, but also mysterious people and characters from the borders of waking life and dreams. An aggressive crowd of critics or art profiteers fills the bottom of the curtain. At the very top, two symbols of the present: a satellite antenna and a Pegasus which is in fact a winged donkey.
From www.encyklopediateatru.pl/artykuly/39722/katowice-kurtyna-multimedialna-w-slaskim, trans. LD
Malkowski highlights that in further reference to tradition, Szmitke sought the support of local businesses – as 19th-century grand drapes often featured the likenesses of their aristocratic patrons. The curtain, of about 7 by 10 metres, was ultimately created thanks to a partnership between the theatre and the city.
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Szmitke’s curtain ‘premiered’ at the theatre’s November 2007 performance of Wyspiański’s The Wedding, directed by Rudolf Zioło – with an animated film, hand-drawn in charcoal and with music by the artist. Reportedly, the audience applauded the curtain itself.
Gdynia Musical Theatre – a truly grand drape
In 2016, the Danuta Baduszowska Musical Theatre in Gdynia unfurled a 300-kilogramme curtain created from deep-blue Polish velvet. The proscenium of its Main Stage is reported to be Poland’s largest – which makes this drape the country’s grandest as well.
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Its design, by the Polish set and costume designer Kalina Konieczny, offers a twist on the tradition of red velvet. The artist elaborated for Onet magazine her simple yet elegant approach:
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Gdynia is very young, compared to [nearby] Gdańsk and Sopot – which is why I decided on a very simple, geometric ornamentation, more of the 1920s art-deco style. I placed it modestly, gently, at the border. The ornamentation is also dark blue, but made from another fabric, satin, with a very wide, custom-made ribbon. It’s only visible at a certain angle.
From www.kultura.onet.pl/muzyka/wiadomosci/nowa-najwieksza-w-polsce-kurtyna-dla-teatru-muzycznego-w-gdyni/tgpwwkg, trans. LD
According to Onet, this 8- by 19-metre curtain was financed by Gdańsk Airport, as well as a European Union subsidy. Konieczny’s grand drape can now be appreciated by over 1,000 theatregoers at once thanks to the 2013 renovation of the theatre’s Main Stage seats.
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National Opera – no curtain needed
The grand drape is not the only standard curtain in theatre – the black ‘legs’, for example, allow actors to await their entrances unnoticed in the wings. In recent years, the Grand Theatre of the National Opera in Warsaw has hosted an unusual informal event – it features no curtains, nor even a performance, at all.
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At Teatr Bez Kurtyny (Theatre Without a Curtain), the theatre shows off the bare bones and mechanics of its opera performance space – which it calls the largest of its kind in Europe.
A performance without artists. The main character is the technology of our stage. We run the trapdoor, the revolving stage, the lighting and sound effects. After the showing, you yourself can stand upon the largest opera stage in the world.
From www.teatrwielki.pl/repertuar/kalendarium/2015-2016/teatr-bez-kurtyny, trans. LD
These components, like the architectural elements of the stage itself, can often go less noticed. With no grand drape in sight, this sort of event highlights their quiet importance to the extravagance of opera… while its title affirms the curtain’s timeless place in the theatre.
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Written by Lauren Dubowski, Oct 2019
contemporary polish theatre
słowacki theatre in kraków
art and technology
grand theatre - national opera
Sources: ‘Historia Kurtyny Teatralnej’ by Agnieszka Kuczyńska in ‘Rocniki Humanistyczne’ LV 4 (2007); Kurtyna Wyspiańskiego; Teatr w Krakowie; Krakow.pl; National Museum in Warsaw; Szum Magazine; ‘Jaremianka’ by Agnieszka Dauksza (Warszawa: Znak, 2019); Cricoteka.pl;Zachęta Gallery; Encyklopedia Teatru; Onet.pl; Teatr Wielki.