The key to theater, it is said, is “suspension of disbelief” among the audience members. The actors, the lines they speak, the backdrop, and props all combine to create a level of illusion at which the story, and the emotion it evokes, feels real enough to believe.

But the actor’s art becomes more apparent from a rarely seen vantage: onstage. The Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage exhibition at the McNay Art Museum offers just such perspective, with a treasure trove of scenic and costume designs drawn from the extensive theater arts collection of Robert L. B. Tobin.

The 7,000-square-foot exhibition gallery is divided into three sections, separated by huge proscenium arches that span the width of the gallery and amplify motifs in the show. The arches are derived from a 1920 Picasso scene design for the ballet Pulcinella and Hockney’s set for the 1981 version of the Metropolitan Opera’s Parade revival, both made from painted canvases with reverse sides left blank.

“We decided to leave the structure open to get that sense of what it’s like to be on stage,” said R. Scott Blackshire, curator of the Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. A happy accident of exhibition lighting also mimics spotlights shining into actors’ eyes from offstage, he said.

“We really want these theatrical moments that people normally don’t get in the museum experience,” said assistant curator Timothy James Retzloff of allowing audiences to almost literally walk “backstage.”

By revealing the set construction, Blackshire said, viewers of the exhibition can get a sense of how theatrical magic is created. “You’re looking at the ugly side, while the audience is looking at the beautiful side, and the story that you’re telling.”

The story of the exhibition is in three parts, opening with the era of the 19th-century Ballet Russes, moving through the Modernist period, then into Pop Art and the contemporary era. While featured artists Pablo Picasso and David Hockney are known primarily for their paintings, they’ve drawn raves for the set designs, costumes, and stage motifs they made for the theater.

The two artists also are connected by having made theater designs for productions of Parade – Picasso for the Ballet Russes in 1917 and Hockney for the Metropolitan Opera in 1981. Picasso’s elaborately constructed cubist costumes and illusionistic backdrop inspired French poet Guillaume Apollinaire to coin the term “surrealism,” which later developed into a full-fledged art movement. Hockney is said to have referred to Picasso’s earlier work in his own designs for the 1981 revival of the one-act ballet.

Though recognizable names populate the McNay show, including Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Giorgio de Chirico, Sonia Delaunay, Louise Nevelson, Jim Dine, and Robert Indiana, extensive sections are given over to lesser-known artists.

The exhibition opens with a selection of paintings, collages, and costume designs by Russian artist Natalia Goncharova, who also worked with the Ballet Russes. Edward Burne-Jones, who can be seen currently in the Victorian Radicals exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art, is represented by two elaborate costume designs for the play King Arthur, a theme popular in his time.

The last section highlights contemporary performance artist Lesley Dill, illustrating both her own themes of loneliness, pain, fear, divinity, and ecstatic realization, and the breadth of Tobin’s interests, from classical theater to contemporary expression.

Though the exhibition is anchored by Picasso and Hockney stage designs, most striking are the set designs and costumes by Pop artist Indiana for the 1967 production of Virgil Thompson and Gertrude Stein’s 1947 opera The Mother of Us All.

Suffragist and abolitionist Susan B. Anthony is a character, as is President Ulysses S. Grant, stage actress Lillian Russell, a “Votes for Women” figure, and the problematic but proud top-hatted “Negro Man” and elegant “Negro Woman.”

The sensibilities of Indiana and Hockney combine in one interactive element in the exhibition: a set of children’s alphabet blocks that play off Hockney’s Parade design and closely resemble Indiana’s LOVE painting motif, also on display. Another interactive element, stationed inside the Picasso Pulcinella house, allows kids to move character dolls and props around miniature sets projected in video on the wall.

“What we’re trying to do with this show is create as many entry points for the general public as possible,” said Richard Aste, the McNay’s director. The show is for everyone, Aste said, but especially for fans of visual art who might not be as familiar with theater arts and for theater aficionados who might not see their art form commonly represented in museum exhibitions.

Aste expressed pride that Tobin’s collection is featured for the first time in the museum’s main gallery. “We’ve never [before] given this much real estate to one of the legs that we stand on at the McNay,” he said.

Another first for the Tobin collection is a tour to three other museums. After the exhibition closes Dec. 29, in 2020 it will head to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, then the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio, and finally the Telfair Academy in Savannah, Georgia.

More information on Picasso to Hockney: Modern Art on Stage and its companion show Painting for Performance, which features Georges Rouault, Jeff Koons, and Terry Winters, is available on the McNay website.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...