International Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing Arts
Société Internationale des Bibliothèques et des Musées des Arts du Spectacle
The Carl Grabow Collection at the Drottningholm Theatre Museum
The Theatre and Theatre Collections / Le théâtre et les collections de documents
Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing
des Bibliothèques et des Musées des arts du spectacle
London 1986, pp. 57-60
The Grabow Collection at the Drottningholm Theatre Museum is unique documentary material for those wishing to study Swedish scenography of the late 19th century and the first years of the present century. The Finnish theatre, too, is represented in the collection, since the Grabow scenery studio also carried out large-scale commissions from Finland. Finland and Sweden constituted a single cultural region in many respects well into this century, particularly in the context of the theatre.
The Grabow Collection comprises nearly five thousand scenery sketches in which the 1890s are the period most abundantly represented. The collection also contains technical drawings and bundles of clippings and prints used as prototypes and for inspiration. They are sorted under headings such as "rooms in various styles", "Nordic landscapes", "caves", etc.
The Grabow Collection has hardly been used at all for research into theatrical history. This is probably because the epoch represented by Grabow has been considered uninteresting since it was not innovative. Grabow has been characterised as artistically imitative, and people have more or less ignored the existence of forty years of scenic production.
I imagine that every country has had its Grabow, that is to say a scene decorator who has represented a Europeanised theatrical style in which the German element was prominent - the Munich School and history painting are generally cited as one of the impulses behind this theatrical style. Yet this is a style which also continues 18th century traditions as regards motifs, mode of painting, and scenic techniques.
I believe it may be of interest to introduce an international gathering to Grabow even though doing so may perhaps be overtaxing the subject of the Congress since it can hardly be said that the Grabow Collection is utilised by or could be said to have any influence on today's theatre. Nonetheless, I would be happy if an introduction to this "unknown" Grabow might initiate comparative systematic research which could qualify the picture of the epoch he represents, answering such questions as: what comprises the Europeanised element? Where lie the differences of national characteristics?
Who, then, was this Grabow? He was born in Stockholm in 1847. His father, an immigrant to Sweden from Germany, played the bassoon in the Stockholm Opera Orchestra. All the Grabow children were to devote their lives to the theatre in some form. Our Grabow, Carl, after completing compulsory schooling, progressed to the preparatory school for the Swedish Royal Academy of Art, where drawing was the main order of the day. Carl was sixteen when the three-year course there was completed but he was considered to be too young to begin studying at the Academy itself just then.
Instead he was sent to Berlin, where he came to work under a master painter called Richter. While he was with Richter, who presumably painted stage scenery, he met Carl and Paul Gropius, which resulted in his being accepted as a pupil at the Gropius Decoration Studio. He was a pupil or apprentice there until 1870 but carried on working in the studio until 1873. He returned home to Sweden in that year after spending ten years in Berlin.
We therefore know that the knowledge of theatrical painting which Grabow took back with him to Sweden was learnt from the Gropiuses. I presume that Carl and Paul Gropius are well-known names to you (though none of these people appear under their own names in the Enciclopedia dello spettacolo).
Grabow, now fully trained, returned to a burgeoning Stockholm. The busy years of the 1870s promoted building and culture. During the 1880s, things were to get worse: starvation in rural areas drove hordes of people looking for work to the towns. Large numbers of Swedes began to emigrate to the United States. The 1890s, however, brought better times again, and this decade was presumably the most hectic period in Grabow's life. He added extensions to his studio in 1904.
Stockholm of the 1870s had seven theatres, several of which were new. There was, in other words, a brisk demand for scenery. It did not take long before Grabow - or rather Grabow's studio - became the supplier of scenery not only to Stockholm's theatres (the Opera had its own studio) but also to nearly all those throughout the country. A series of elegant theatres had recently been built in the provincial towns, chiefly in the period 1870-1890, and Grabow made scenery and curtains for them all.
Like the Gropiuses, Grabow also engaged in extra-theatrical activities - decorating stairwells in the new apartment buildings, restaurants, and variety halls and participated with various arrangements at the large national and international exhibitions that were so popular in those days
The business was expanded in 1877 with a new studio, which was to be the home of the firm of Grabow until 1925. Carl Grabow died in 1922.
No one has ever systematically examined what was done at the studio. A study of the bills and administrative documents which1 have come down to us could throw light on the extent of activities there. During the studio's most productive period, Grabow seems to have had fifteen or so painters and apprentices in his employ. Grabow also had a seamstress whose efforts were of vital importance. We know that her name was Tilda, that she was considered to be poor, and that she worked for Grabow for almost 30 years.
The sketches, which I am now going to show you from the Grabow Collection, were made between 1876 and 1914. Two Italian landscapes - sketches for backdrops - one from 1876 and the other from 1914, show the stylistic shift which took place between those years, particularly the sharp move towards ever brighter colours. Perhaps we should also bear in mind that Grabow could have had help in making the sketches as well. There is much to indicate that several hands have been at work, and this is a reasonable assumption in view of the volume of production. The sketches, which are done in gouache, are roughs for backdrops or entire sets which might comprise backdrop, side wings, and/or openwork backdrops (arches). Occasionally, they are for so-called closed rooms. For Grabow - and probably this applied to all stage painters of the time - it was natural to follow original settings as closely as possible in his work. This was a professional ambition, and I can show flagrant examples in which Grabow proved himself no exception to this ambition.
However, there was not always any original scenery to copy or use as a rough. New Nordic drama with national motifs, historical or contemporary, sometimes required entirely new settings which could not be created with the usual stock scenery owned by every theatre and of which Grabow was also a major supplier.
Ibsen's Band was first performed in Stockholm in 1885 and Grabow provided the scenery for it. He did the same ten years later for the version which went on tour under the Swedish direction of August Lindberg. We can compare these versions and find that, in the latter, Grabow had pushed his style to a sort of perfection. The romantic-idealist school demanded precise subject-matter, and when you look at the first version of the Brand sketches you do in fact get the impression that Grabow had drawn Norway's mountain world on the spot. On the other hand, the rocky panorama with its view out over water was an utterly traditional subject. It had already appeared in Florence in 1589.
The atmospheric changes rung by the weather in Brand play an important role. Lines are uttered when "the sun comes out" or "it clouds over". It is not easy to say how this was arranged on stage. But it can be shown that these lighting effects were frequently painted direct on the canvas (I would go so far as to say this was done regularly). The Brand sketches indicate that Grabow was greatly interested in these atmospheric changes, but many questions arise, of course, when we try to translate the sketches into actual scenery. Questions relating to lighting are not unimportant. During the course of the 1890s, for instance, gaslight was finally abandoned in favour of electricity.
Cyrano de Bergerac was played in Stockholm in 1901, and Grabow's series of sketches for its scenery shows that a number of motifs, popular since the 18th century and accompanied by deliberate historical décor, were used.
To what extent these landscapes, city views, and camp sites hark back to the Paris production I cannot say. That the scene played at the theatre in the Hôtel de Bourgogne is copied from the original French production can be demonstrated with the help of a photograph published in Le Théâtre a magazine to which Grabow subscribed.
Strindberg's historical drama entitled Bjalbojarlen was set up in 1909 (this piece has never been translated into English). This play, whose stage decoration may be seen as a parallel to Cyrano, treats of Earl Birger, the founder of Stockholm. Here the idea was to re-create 13th century Stockholm with the help of historically "accurate" documentation. (Strindberg had a broad knowledge of history and wrote a number of works in popular historical vein. He presumably contributed scenic directions.) We know that the artist Vicke Andrén occasionally helped Grabow to find or create the right historical milieu. In a sketch for Bjalbojarlen, Andrén reproduced a room from Glimmingehus, one of the few profane medieval buildings which still exist in Sweden. Written on the drawing, which is intended as a model for Earl Birger's study, are the words, "Might this do?" Grabow thought it would and prepared a version in gouache. Here, then, we know that an effort was really made to choose "accurate" and unique subject matter. And yet this vaulted room is just one of innumerable similar ones that Grabow produced.
The 1880s, as I have already indicated, was a troubled period in Sweden's history. Yet no decade ever turned out to be so rich in different kinds of theatrical forms. Earlier, now-forgotten forms of dramatic trivia continued to exist side by side with the new, in which the contemporary drama of Ibsen and Strindberg in particular has attracted the attention of research. What were called fairy dramas, with lots of stage machinery and changes of scenery, were still extremely popular in the 1890s. An example is Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp, which was performed in 1893. The play was a free interpretation of a work by Cremieux with music and choreography by Swedes. I do not know whether Grabow was able to refer to some original setting in this instance. Probably not. Nor would it have been necessary, really, since the pictorial world of the entire piece consisted of familiar and treasured motifs. Though on this occasion in a strongly orientalised vein.
We see a series of palace rooms, then comedy street, "La place publique", dark cellar vaults, the cave, and a barn interior, which was a favourite subject throughout the 19th century and can be regarded as an offshoot of the farmhouse interior of the 18th century.
Grabow painted the scenery for a number of first performances of Strindberg's plays. Of these, study has mainly been directed towards the settings for To Damascus (1901) and A Dream Play (1907). Grabow's efforts in this context take on a negative aspect since it was strongly emphasised how his painting on canvas failed to convey to these plays the immaterial dreamlike quality they demanded.
Grabow used a fixed proscenium arch in both plays. The action took place on an inner stage and moved from scene to scene with changes of backdrop. The technique was not new - Grabow had already used it in Pelleas and Melisande - but it was unusual. To Damascus was a success, while A Dream Play seems to have bored its audiences (it ran for no more than 12 performances). A closer study of Grabow and the pictorial world of 19th century stage settings would probably enrich Strindberg research. What sort of theatre was it that influenced Strindberg's own theatrical outlook? We can find in his plays elements from styles which have been long forgotten. The fairy drama is one example. We also know that Strindberg was interested in the special performance technique of the variety stage.
To conclude, I would like to give you a few substantive examples of how one work method was pursued at Grabow's studio, the making of a straight-forward copy of an original setting. Quo Vadis was put on in 1912. This was a French dramatisation of the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The Grabow Collection contains cuttings from Le Théâtre of 1901 in which the Paris performance is described in words and photographs. Grabow translated these magazine illustrations into scenery sketches, and we can compare each of the photographs with Grabow's drawings. We can see how he measured off a metric grid on the cutouts to help the transposal. The method can be studied very clearly in a backdrop depicting alps which was done for Franz Léhar's operetta Endlich allein, which was performed in Stockholm in 1914. In this example, Grabow had an illustration of the Vienna setting to work from in the form of a picture published in the Illustrierte Zeitung.
By the end of the 1890s,
the art of scenography as represented by Grabow was well
on the road to decay. His large studio closed in 1925.
Two years later the buildings were torn down and an epoch