The interwar period in France was highly propitious to the inter-relation of painting, theatre and ballet. A reaction had taken place against naturalism in the theatre as early as the 1880s, and some directors commissioned painters such as the Nabis. The ballet proceeded to take the cooperation between the painters and the stage to new heights with Serge de Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1909-1929), Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois (1920-1925), and Etienne de Beaumont’s Soirées de la Cigale (1924). Their set designers were Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, Giorgio di Chirico, Fernand Léger, André Derain, Georges Braque, etc.
Due to the popularity of these artists, research performed on painters and the stage during the first half of the twentieth century is largely centered on developments within ballet, to the detriment of the theatre. Furthermore, contemporary theatre theorists, critics and producers were often sceptical about the involvement of the painter. The theatrical stage has specific constraints in terms of scenic space and submission to the text, and the painter was not always willing to sacrifice his autonomy. This study aims to show how the antinomy between the painter and the theatre could be resolved, through an analysis of the work of Christian Bérard (1902-1949). Bérard was a portrait painter, stage designer, and fashion and book illustrator who produced sets for some twenty ballets and thirty plays. We have selected those he created for three classical plays staged by Louis Jouvet (1887-1951): Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes (1936), Corneille’s L’Illusion (1937), and Molière’s Dom Juan (1947). The staging of classical French plays was particularly demanding due to its requirements in terms of stylisation, submission to the text, and to the fact that long-standing acting traditions had delayed a necessary renewal.
It was time to make the new out of the old. This study aims to describe how Bérard’s sets solved the riddle of the modernisation of classical plays, and the role graphic exploration played in this process. Our first hypothesis is that modernisation was achieved through cross-fertilisation and the vertical and horizontal integration of skills, i.e. Bérard’s command of the set design value chain and the transfer of his experience and know-how from ballet sets, oil portraits and fashion illustration to theatrical sets. Our second hypothesis is that, far from competing with the text, the visual element could in fact enhance it and make it more accessible to twentieth century viewers when the set was designed as a visual equivalent of the text and made to play an active role in the performance. Our third hypothesis is that Bérard’s inter-disciplinary drawing technique supported his work related to stylisation, abstraction, and simulation of the visual impact of the set on the viewer. We conclude by showing how he developed a specific architectural vocabulary and drawing technique for the stage, as he made the theatre and the visual arts meet in a common humanistic quest.