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Eugene Berman, curtain design for “Devil’s Holiday” (detail), 1939. Watercolor and ink on paper. Collection of the McNay Art Museum. Gift of the Tobin Endowment.

ST. PETERSBURG — Although the worlds of visual art and the performing arts often intersect, theatergoers and art lovers don’t often have an opportunity to peek behind the curtains.

“Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, will offer a rare glimpse at the extraordinary collaborations showing how visual artists designed for the stage. Adding to the experience will be a series of live performances.

“Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney” will open Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. The exhibition will continue through Sunday, May 10.

The exhibition includes the unique works of noted artists from the 19th century to present day, including Henri Matisse, Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Robert Indiana, Lesley Dill, and a host of others. These artists contributed stunning designs to world-renowned plays, operas, and ballets, such as “Pulcinella,” “La Création du Monde,” “King Arthur,” and “The Mother of Us All.” The exhibition showcases the historical breadth of theatrical collaboration and the ways in which artists, often having achieved great success in one area, took their artistic talents in a new direction. Many of these artists were drawn to depicting energy and movement in their art. Working in the world of stage became a natural fit to explore and experiment with that artistic desire.

“Art of the Stage: Picasso to Hockney” is organized by the McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas, culled from its prestigious Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg is the first museum in the country to host the exhibition after it debuted at the McNay in late 2019.

The late collector and philanthropist Robert Tobin firmly believed that “designs come to life only when they are used.” In keeping with that idea, the MFA is presenting nearly 30 live performances of classical music, opera, dance, and theater — as well as film screenings and lectures — on a performance stage inside the exhibition galleries and throughout the museum. The performances will truly bring the art of the stage to life. All the performances are directly tied to theater productions presented in “Art of the Stage.”

The MFA worked with celebrated designer Rush Jenkins of WRJ Design in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to transform the exhibition space. Jenkins was also the exhibition designer for the MFA’s 2018-19 popular “Jewels of the Imagination: Radiant Masterworks” by Jean Schlumberger from the Mellon Collection.

For MFA executive director Kristen A. Shepherd, the opportunity to create collaborations for live performances was part of the appeal for presenting Art of the Stage.

“I am immensely proud that the MFA is able to initiate this unprecedented level of collaboration between the museum and so many performing arts organizations, highlighting how we communicate and connect across disciplines,” she said. “We are very excited to activate the museum and our entire community with visual art and performance, echoing the collaborations between the artists and performers we are celebrating. We look forward to presenting this important collection, and seeing our visitors engaged and immersed in a way they have never experienced before.”

The exhibition spotlights an international roster of iconic artists and major art movements, including Cubism, Constructivism, and Neo-Romanticism. It is divided into six themes, with the anchor of the exhibition being a section that celebrates the legendary Ballets Russes. The famed dance company was founded in Paris in 1909 by Serge Diaghilev, and united daring visual artists such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso; choreographers such as Vaslav Nijinsky; dancers such as Anna Pavlova; and composers such as Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky. Together, these contemporaries created innovative, avant-garde performances. Of particular note, there are 16 designs, paintings, drawings and costumes by esteemed Ballets Russes artist Natalia Goncharova — the most of any artist in the show.

There are also spectacular costumes from the theater, such as dresses by Lesley Dill, and a number of costumes and designs by Robert Indiana. He designed the sets and costumes for Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s “The Mother of Us All” — an opera based on the life of Susan B. Anthony and her fight on behalf of women’s suffrage.

“This exhibition embraces and celebrates the collaboration and experimentation that is integral to stage design for ballet and opera, and it allows the audience to better understand the practices of artists we may typically associate with two-dimensional work,” said Katherine Pill, curator of contemporary art.

Performing arts collaborations

The MFA is collaborating with numerous performing arts organizations in the region and across the country, including two orchestras.

At performances at the museum on Jan. 26 and Feb. 5, the Florida Orchestra will perform selections from productions presented in the MFA exhibition, such as Darius Milhaud’s “La Création du Monde.”

The museum also will collaborate with Sphinx Virtuosi, comprised of 18 of the nation's top black and Latinx classical soloists. One of the nation's most dynamic professional chamber orchestras, Sphinx Virtuosi is dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic diversity in classical music. They will perform their program “For Justice and Peace” at the museum Feb. 21. In addition to a three-day residency at the museum, the MFA has also arranged for Sphinx Virtuosi to perform private events throughout the community at Dr. Carter G. Woodson African-American Museum, Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg, Creative Clay, and the Sunshine Senior Center.

Other collaborations forged by the MFA include:

  • The Sarasota Ballet Conservatory: Jan. 25, Feb. 29 and April 25
  • St. Pete Opera Company: Feb. 29, March 7 and 12
  • Pinellas County Center for the Arts: April 15
  • Open/Space Collective residency with international dancer Helen Hansen French: Final performance on May 2
  • Playwright and performance artist Andrea Assaf residency: Final performance on April 9
  • Pianist and New York Philharmonic teaching artist Robert Fleitz and violinist Giancarlo Latta of the New York-based classical duo escapeVelocity: March 20

Multiple films will also be incorporated in the exhibition’s public programming, including “Aelita, Queen of Mars,” with a new score composed and performed live by La Lucha. Other events include a special discussion with Philomena Marano, studio assistant to the late artist Robert Indiana on Feb. 1, March 7, April 11 and May 9.

For a complete schedule of “Art of the Stage” programming and live performances, visit mfastpete.org.

The Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, features a world-class collection with works by Monet, Morisot, Rodin, O’Keeffe, Willem de Kooning, and many other great artists. Also displayed are ancient Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Asian, African, pre-Columbian and Native American art. Selections from the photography collection, one of the largest and finest in the Southeast, are on view in a gallery dedicated solely to the medium.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Regular admission is $20 for adults; $15 for those 65 and older, Florida educators, college students and active duty military; and $10 for students 7 and older. Children 6 and younger and museum members are admitted free.

For information, call 727-896-2667 or visit mfastpete.org.