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Scene from the theatrical production Four Saints in Three Actsat the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, 1934.Photo by White Studio(c) Archives/Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

4 Saints in 3 Acts: A Snapshot of the American Avant Garde

9 December 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Oftentimes, exhibitions host retrospectives on individual careers, particular periods of work, or aesthetic movements. It isn’t often that a whole exhibition celebrates a particular performance or show. The Photographer’s Gallery host this challenge to the traditional scope of an exhibition by focussing on the production ephemera from groundbreaking opera, 4 Saints in 3 Acts, in which it raises the issues of documentation and posterity.

4 Saints in 3 Acts was written by Gertrude Stein, the influential modernist writer and critic, with composition by composer and critic Virgil Thomson. Unusually for the time, the opera featured an all black cast, made up of performers from the so-called Harlem Renaissance, including the famous Eva Jessye Choir, led by important figure Eva Jessye. This was the period from the late 1910’s to the 1930’s when the Harlem area of New York, home to a large portion of New York’s African-American population, became a hub for black culture. As well as those performers, there were many other figures from the bustling New York surrealist scene involved in the production and documentation of the performance. This exhibition, then, is testament to the inventiveness of several different creative forces, as well as the skill of those on stage. 


Image credit: White Studio, Photograph of stage set for Four Saints in Three Acts, 1934. © Archives/Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Gertude Stein was a queer writer, living openly with her female partner, Alice B. Toklas. Her writing is famously dense and esoteric, transforming the genres of autobiography and popular history into works that trouble the boundary between fact and fiction.  In this piece, she has again troubled the idea of genre by asking what should be in an opera; in a case are displayed some of the lyrics, that wildly repeat and double. An example ‘She can have no one no one can have any one any one can have not any one can have not any one can have can have to say so’.  These rhythmic and swaying lyrics do not communicate a narrative in the traditional sense, but instead suggest the otherworldly and the unknown. Though the subject of the opera is ostensibly religious, in its use of the real lives of saints such as St. Ignatius and St. Teresa, Stein has also invented new ones such as St. Plan and St. Settlement, seemingly references to the politics of space, perhaps referencing the layout of New York itself.


Image credit: White Studio, Photograph of stage set for Four Saints in Three Acts, 1934. © Archives/Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

The opera first premiered in Hartford, Connecticut on February 7 1934, before moving to Broadway New York on February 20, where it proved hugely popular.  Audiences had never seen anything of its kind; not only was this opera showcasing the talent of black opera singers, but Stein’s words were unusual and abstract, focussing on circular expression and phrases, whilst the costuming and sets were extremely innovative. Florine Stettheimer, famous salonist, poet and surrealist designed the cellophane sets; the exhibition contains many images of the production where the sets gleam and crinkle, complementing the lace robes of the saints. Even the palm trees at the very back of the stage are made from this gleaming plastic, giving the performance a strangely home made feel.

Many of the performers were singers and entertainers recruited from the nightclubs and venues of Harlem. Some of the images contained in this exhibition are the only recorded professional portraits of some of these performers.  Stettheimer’s friend and patron Carl Van Vechten took some of the images, as well as photographer Lee Miller.  The exhibition includes portraits of Edward Matthews, baritone, as well as contralto Bruce Howard, both of whom were pioneering opera singers from the time.  In showing these images here, The Photographer’s Gallery pays homage to the importance of those artists, acknowledging the importance of black performers in the popularizing of opera.


Image credit: Detail from Lee Miller, Bruce Howard as St Theresa II in Four Saints in Three Acts, New York Studio, New York, c. 1933 © Lee Miller Archives, England 2017

This fascinating exploration pays testament to the importance of 4 Saints in 3 Acts in both the queer and black avant garde; by bringing to light otherwise unseen portraits and production photography, viewers can understand the experimental work for themselves.  However, it also raises the importance of documenting new and experimental work to challenge the dominant narratives about artistic innovation.
 
4 Saints in 3 Acts: A Snapshot of the American Avant Garde is at the Photographer’s Gallery until 11 February 2018.
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