Ohio State and the Columbus Museum of Art team up for a surprising Shakespeare exhibition.
An exhibition about Shakespearean costumes and sets brings to mind certain images. Some might imagine Elizabethan dresses affixed to mannequins; others might envision a model of the Globe Theatre in London, where the Bard's works were performed long ago.
When Ohio State University theater professor Joseph Brandesky approached the Columbus Museum of Art about a Shakespeare-centered exhibit, executive director Nannette Maciejunes had similar expectations. “I said, ‘OK, so we're going to do England now?'” recalls Maciejunes, who'd worked with Brandesky before. “And he said, ‘No, no, no, no—we're going to do Shakespeare productions coming out of Central Europe.'”
Shakespeare in Prague: Imagining the Bard in the Heart of Europepresents avant-garde and altogether unexpected stage and costume designs—plus posters and full-size costumes—created by Czech artists for use in Shakespearean productions from 1909 to 2014. The exhibit (on view at the museum through May 21) was prompted in part by the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death—commemorated in 2016—as well as a desire to showcase the inventive handiwork of the Czech artists in a manner accessible to Central Ohio museumgoers.
“Most people, even if they don't know Shakespeare well, they know him a little bit,” says Brandesky, one of the exhibit's curators. “They can say, ‘Wow, I've never seen a ‘Romeo and Juliet' that looks like that.'”
The Czech artists' works—most of which were borrowed from two Prague institutions, the National Museum and the Arts and Theatre Institute—differ from traditional takes on Shakespeare. For example, Frantisek Muzika's designs for a 1941 production of “The Tempest” make use of surrealist imagery. “They were contemporizing Shakespeare,” Brandesky says. “It's very common today, but to see … a 1930s production [with] Ophelia wearing a drop-waisted dress that looks like she just stepped out of a nice fancy cocktail house would be a shocking way to portray Ophelia in those days.”
While the playwright was living, his works were performed in Bohemia, part of today's Czech Republic. “There were two powerful Protestant countries in the world during the time of Shakespeare: One of them was England, and the other was Bohemia,” Brandesky says. “In the 17th century, there was a lot of exchange between the two countries.”
The exhibit is one of the latest projects supported by the OSU Arts Initiative, a program that advocates and aids in collaborations with groups outside of the university. In the case ofShakespeare in Prague, both the CMA and OSU contributed resources. For example, the museum facilitated the borrowing of objects from Prague. “It's easier for the museum to borrow international objects … because there's sort of a network or a system for art museums to borrow from one another,” Maciejunes says.
The university, meanwhile, helped to offset the costs of shipping, travel and installation, as well as contributing personnel to the project. “OSU gains access to world-class opportunities that we might not have on our own,” says Arts Initiative executive director Valarie Williams. “The work that's coming is all loaned to CMA, but our staff and faculty and students will have access to it.”
The museum benefits from the partnership, too. “I don't have anyone on my curatorial team [who] are experts in theater,” Maciejunes says. “We now have lots of friends in Prague, in the Czech Republic, because of Joe.”