Opposites and Complementaires

In our January issue, we published the first part of Zsuzsa Szebeni’s essay on the stagecraft of Count Miklós Bánffy, novelist, draughtsman, politician, and Royal Commissioner of the Hungarian Opera during the First World War. That piece was called The Legend of the Palette of Miklós Bánffy, and looked at his stage and costume designs for productions of Mozart, Beethoven and Weber, with special regard to colour. In this next part, Zsuzsa Szebeni casts her eye at Bánffy’s stage and costume designs for productions of Béla Bartók, which he himself commissioned from the great modern composer: The Wooden Prince and Bluebeard’s Castle.

According to an anecdote,1 Miklós Bánffy came across Béla Balázs’s libretto for The Wooden Prince in the influential journal Nyugat (The West) long before he had ever heard the music composed by Bartók for the pantomime ballet. He immediately sensed, however, that the two artists held tremendous potential creativity working in tandem, so he patiently waited for a long time for Bartók to complete the score. As the superintendant of the Hungarian Opera, he not only included the piece in the programme (in spite of the reluctance of the conductors and the disapproval of the authorities of artistic life), but also participated as one of the contributing artists.


“Hungarian readers and regular theatre goers have long ago been familiar with the composers of the… innovative works that have been put on stage by the Hungarian Opera House: Béla Balázs, the outstanding writer and poet, and Béla Bartók, the brilliant composer. Now government commissioner Count Miklós Bánffy has joined up with the two authors, creating an appropriate environment for the music and the poetry. He has designed sets and costumes which will provide stylistically ideal complements to the work of the poet and the composer from the perspectives of fantasy, colour, and form. … As if someone had torn full-page pictures from a storybook, this is the impression Count Miklós Bánffy’s stage creates. The costumes are cleverly and gracefully expressive of their inherently Hungarian qualities as well. Count Bánffy sees the fairy-tale prince as he has been envisioned in the imagination of the story-telling Hungarian people: a fair-haired young shepherd in tight- fitting trousers and cordovan leather boots who wears a golden crown on his tall fur cap. These three names, Balázs, Bartók and Bánffy, or the three Bs, as they are referred to at the Opera house, in themselves guarantee success.”2

Gusztáv Oláh’s article discusses the difficulties of putting the ballet on stage, difficulties that resulted primarily from the immense complexity of the work. He also explains the ways in which different stylistic layers are intertwined to create the opera itself, and how this intertwining poses a difficult task both for the choreographer and the stage designer: “When the voice of nature resounds, when the forest comestolife,theauthor’sstyleis analogous to Wagner’s motives of ‘Natur’ and ‘Werden’. Conversely, the musical depiction of the princess, the prince and the streame vokes the world of their resistibly beautiful melodies of folk music, while the dance of the wooden doll shows the swell of the barbaric and grotesque musical elements until they almost reach the point of demonic fury. Reconciling these three musical styles on stage is not a simple task… On the stage of the world première (The Wooden Prince, 1917) the primitive nature of the work dominated. Miklós Bánffy, who at the time designed the scenery and the costumes, put emphasis on the primeval overtones of Hungarian folk tales. His setting, with the two tower-like castles and the rivulet stylized into a meandering line led the spectators into the world of folk fairy-tales.”3

The surviving descriptions provide a minute portrayal of the ballet’s setting, and fortunately, the stage design has survived the vicissitudes of the past century.4 The symmetrical structures amplify the gloomy oppressiveness of the towers, which is further echoed and augmented by the rows of evergreen trees and the cliffs. It is debatable whether this should be seen simply as a primitive, fairy-tale world. I would suggest instead that it represents the symbolism of fairy-tales, or perhaps a stylized transcription of folktales. Yet the most remarkable part of the setting is the refined treatment of colours. The dominant colours of the décor are light ochre and greyishblue, filtered through dim light. The quality of the material, which is visible in each scene, is created by the combination of the various shades of ochre and blue. The two towers, which bear both Gothic and Neo-romantic elements, seem to rise towards the sky from among the rocks surrounding them. They do not differ from the rocks in colour, only in form. Another element that adds to the effect of distance is the fact that the evergreen forest at the base of the crags bears not the slightest trace of green. Instead Bánffy creates the vast woodland, a splintery criss-cross of hatched lines, through a combination of vivid steel-cold blue and burned sienna. He uses these colours on almost every surface, creating contrasts through variations in blue and brown and the degree of saturation. The forests are combinations of cerulean blue and coffee-coloured brown, while the rocks are created through a mix – or rather juxtaposition – of particularly bright pastel blue and grey. This combination is all the more remarkable if approached from the perspective of chromatics:

“The real opposite of brown is blue. This leads us to another observation: if brown is dark red in its proper place, then it also has to take over the red/blue tension, even if it is darker. Thus, in addition to the red/blue tension, there is a brown/blue tension as well, and since the mixture of brown and blue results in grey, in this way brown and blue are complementary colours.”5 The cold colours and the almost ethereal atmosphere is somewhat broken by the bright ochre shades, which suggest the lights glittering on the rocks. Although at first sight the prevailing colour of the décor is neutral grey, if one observes the design in detail, it becomes evident that the presence of grey surfaces is limited almost to the more or less shadowy sides of the rocks and edifices. The remaining surfaces are overlaid with glimmering salmon-pink (such as the lights on the rocks, on the upper parts of the pointed arches and on the wooden surface of the gateway), while there are also yellow and ochre-coloured lights on the surface of the walls and the rocks. Yet the prevailing colour of the scenery is the blue, which, in part because it dominates the relatively large surface of the firmament, creates a feeling of spaciousness. This treatment of colour is perfectly suited to evoke the atmosphere Bánffy intends to produce:

“[The colour blue] is concentric, thought-provoking, the colour of ethereal tranquillity, which invites the observer into infinity. It belongs to the cold, saturated colours… the sky is dark, and it is darkest when contemplated from the highest mountains, but if seen through a semi-transparent medium, such as the air above the plains, it seems to be blue, and the thicker the air, the bluer it seems to be.”6

The green mound situated between the two castles, in other words at the central point of the almost rigorously symmetrical set, is the single “animate” element in the picture. White, yellow and light blue flowers can be seen on the grassy hill, as if suggesting that the basis originates from the combination of these colours. At the same time it is this element of the setting that creates a space for the characters appearing onstage: while the spaces for the princess and the prince are the two castle towers, the space for the fairies and the trees is the flowery hill. “Green is one of the cold colours. It is a medium-light colour. … Green is the colour of hope… green is one of the most usable colours from the perspective of the dynamics of colours. … It is a colour of mediation between yellow and blue. Its nature and significance alter according to the proportion of the primary colours, namely blue and yellow, in it. … The principal values carried by green are fertility and satisfaction, tranquillity and hope, the union and interpenetration of faith and science.”7

Compared to the background, the hill, which evokes nature, is without doubt a friendlier spot, but in reality this is a very cold green, in which blue prevails over yellow. As it becomes increasingly pale in the foreground, the green becomes colder and colder. Only the flowers offer a bit of life and cheer.

But what is the main source of the cold and ethereal atmosphere? One of the keys to understanding the use of colour here is the white disk of the sun, which can only be seen on misty days, when the fog filters and eliminates the warm shades of the sunshine. This strange, white sun is the secret to the sense of coldness in Bánffy’s setting for the ballet. Another key is the conscious construction employed by Bánffy for the sake of creating such bright costumes (primarily for the characters representing elements of nature) which would contrast with the background and stand out in a more striking way. It is a great loss that we can form an idea of these costume designs only on the basis of Bánffy’s description. “In the course of this work I endeavoured to emphasize Hungarian peculiarities and fabulous characteristics, while another aim was to accentuate the unrealistic nature of the figures of the ballet. If there was an intention, then it was to avoid the imitation of reality. … I was thinking about a kind of colourful illustration and I would rejoice if the whole thing made such an impression on the spectators. The figures dressed in very intense colours – blue, green and yellow – move and dance in front of a grey background, which is only slightly more than a drawn sketch, so that they would stand out all the more so and due to the sharp colour contrast would look like even more unreal.”8

Bánffy’s still extant costume designs bear witness to refined construction and delicate structures – it is to be regretted that we cannot be certain about their treatment of colours. The only thing besides these documents which may help to form an idea about Bánffy’s treatment of colours is the unquestionable affinity between his and Gusztáv Oláh’s works, with whom he often worked together and who subsequently designed the piece’s décor as well.

Another important source and the only reliable reference regarding Bánffy’s treatment of colours is Katalin F. Dózsa’s remark according to which the colours of the costumes were later immortalized by Tivadar Márk. “The colours of the figures were painted by another great artist, Tivadar Márk, who as a young designer discovered the shabby and ruined costumes in the costume repository of the Opera in the 1930s. Immediately recognizing their value, here solved – fortunately – to preserve them for future generations. Bánffy’s and Márk’s drawings together provide a complete documentation of the designer’s conception, all the more so, because the stage design survives as well.”9

The disparity perceptible in these three qualities calls into being an atmosphere of the “unreal”, which according also to Bánffy the distinctive mood of the piece necessitates. Bánffy is modest with respect to his work, and puts Bartók in the spotlight: “I designed a small stage for this fine tale, but when at Tango’s gesture the orchestra began to play during the rehearsal, it seemed as if Niagara Falls were pouring down onto the stage and into the auditorium. The stage seemed confining, and Bartók’s music tore it open. The reception of the work was similar: it overwhelmed everyone with the force of a waterfall.”10

Bluebeard’s Castle had already been presented at the Erkel Ferenc Competition organized by the Club of Lipótváros in 1912, but without success. Miklós Bánffy’s inimitable flair and boldness were necessary in order for it to be put on stage in May 1918, though at the request of the composer The Wooden Prince, which had been completed in the meantime, was the first of Bartók’s stage works to be put on stage, with Miklós Bánffy as the stage designer.

“Putting Bluebeard’s Castle on stage is not a simple task, either for the director or for the stage designer. The outward frame of the drama, the castle in some way should project the protagonist’s inner life and a cross-section of his soul with the help of the décor, muchas Béla Balázs moulded it into visible symbols.…The other problematic point in terms of the set is the proper arrangement of the seven doors. It is crucial that the doors should be visible from every seat in the theatre. In addition, they should be sufficiently large, since they alternately provide the shifting centre of the action. … For example in the Berlin performance the seven gates were placed one after another in the centre of the stage. Thus due to their placement and size they dominated the stage. Conversely, the Budapest world première in 1918 relied to a great extent on the imagination of the audience. The scene represented the enclosed courtyard of a castle with towers reaching to the sky. Of the seven doors, three opened onto the right wall and three onto the left wall, leaving only the seventh door in the middle. The audience of course was entirely unable to see into the doors on the sides, even when they were open. The contents of the chambers beyond the doors were indicated visually only by the lines (streams) of light projected from them, which were of various colours.”11

As in the case of The Wooden Prince, the tension in the stage design is intensified by the opposition of the colours of the décor and the colours of the costumes. The bright-coloured costumes stand strikingly in the space, which seems neutral and functional, yet at the same time abounds in symbols. In the case of the opera, the costume worn by Judit, which is particularly beautiful and rich with colours, has also survived. Regrettably the carelessly made costume worn by Olga Haselbeck differs significantly from Bánffy’s delicate design.

The distinctive costume is the epitome of Bánffy’s work in the field of costume design. The treatment of colours builds on the contrast between vermilion and purple. Judit’s ethereal and fragile figure is enfolded in layered garments of Oriental tones, the outermost tunic of which is a purplish-crimson shade. “Purple is the colour of mysteriousness, it can make you happy or it can be threatening, depending on the contrasts … disasters lurking in the background come forward from dark purple, as its various sections brighten up from time to time.”12

Vermilion and purple, which are adjacent colours of the rainbow, create tension when placed side by side. Vermilion figures frequently in Bánffy’s visual universe: he uses it often as a kind of counterpoint to enhance or finish a figure, or as an element of the design. He also uses it very consciously as a framework to counterpoint his caricatures of almost entirely cold colours (such as turquoise and black). This colour is capable of a rousing attention and creating tension, and its use in its purest form is a characteristic element of Bánffy’s art. It is “no small wonder that civilizations that still preserved archaic knowledge in some form or another attempted to use the transcendental aspects of various colours as fundaments to develop a system of social practices, both in the case of everyday life and in the case of festivities. Thus for example in Ancient Rome the bridal veil of secular women was flamingred (flammeum), adorned with golden trim. The brilliant shade of red indicated that these women were obliged to immerse themselves in the systems of duties imposed upon them by the laws of the mirage world to ensure the continuity both of the nation and of the lineage.”13 The following extract also offers an interesting explanation, which can be connected to one of the most frequently recurring elements of Bánffy’s peculiar universe. It concerns the inner glow of his artistic temperament: “This vermilion had to further the evocation of that ‘internal heat’, which refines and transmutes ‘tendencies of desire that are generally awakening’ in the astral body of the neophyte who partakes in the Dionysian initiation rites. During this initiation the vermilion concealed in the womb of the earth is called upon, that is, the material root of nature, which due to some fatal error committed during the rite will make its way to the surface as a destructive force through the chimney of Vesuvius.”14

Vermilion prevails in the costume. The glow of the dark shade of the lower tunic is intensified by wreathing flamboyant forms. Their dynamics enhance the effectproduced by the colour both on the collar and on the asymmetrical lace in the lower part of the tunic. The distinctive secessionist meandering tracing is emphasized also by the two long, tapering extensions bearing the form of swallow tails that trail around the closing of the tunic. These extensions recur on the purple tunic, which evokes both Gothic forms and Oriental kimonos. Vermilion can also be found in two essential accessories of the costume, which is harmonious, yet reflects an intense state of mind: the shoes with pointed toes (which also recall Gothic elements) and the tiny high cap. On the shoes this colour appears in the motifs of bursts of flames, while on the high cap there are vermilion concentric streaks. The other essential colour present in the accessories is the gold on the ornamental mediaeval feathered key, the bracelets, and the purple tunic, where it is found in the form of a gold braid ending in a fringe, as a sort of colourful complement. According to László Orosz, “gold is the principle of all shades of yellow; that is why there is no civilization in which it does not have a prominent status… One must not forgot, however, that gold, despite its distinguished function in ancient civilizations and in alchemy, is after all a colour, which is thus subject to the order of laws in the mirage world… however, this is the sacral colour, which, as opposed to the generic dynamism of purple, is completely imbued with the transcendental power of the immanent Light…”.15

Gold, as a kind of allusion to transcendence, also appears on the closing of the lower tunic at the waistline, with the same Gothic forms and metalline effect, as a kind of echo of the motif of the “lock”, which plays a central role in the plot.

These colours and hues are framed and at the same time dissolved by the snowy whiteness of the floor-length undergarment, which is also the colour of the veil covering Judit’s arms, her cap, and the sash on her waist. Thus, the grandiose tranquillity and the coldness of this colour hold together the young female figure, who wears a waving costume and grapples with similarly surging emotions. For in this case as in the vast majority of his costume drawings, Bánffy did not simply design a garment, but created an animated figure, face and character: his own Judit, a fair-haired woman with slender, long and youthful limbs, a penetrating glance, a firm chin indicative of resoluteness, and sensuous vermilion lips, very much at odds with the vogue of the era.


1 Illés, Endre: “A dilettante”, in A nagyúr. [“The Dilettente”, in The Grand Seigneur]. Ed. Péter Sas, Nap, Budapest, 2008, p. 158.

2 Színházi Élet (Theatre World), 20–27 May 1917.

3 Tempo 14, Second Bartók Number, London, 1949–1950, pp. 4-8.

4 Count Miklós Bánffy’s costume design for the 1917 world première is to be found in the Bartók Archives, BBA 2156/a.

5 Nagy, József: A színek harmadik világa [The Third World of Colours]. Median, Bratislava, 2010, p. 34.

6 Op. cit., p. 34.

7 Op. cit., p. 35.

8 Bánffy, Miklós: “A fából faragott királyfiról”, in Magyar Színpad [“On The Wooden Prince”, in The Hungarian Stage], 12 and 24 May 1917.

9 F. Dózsa, Katalin: Bánffy Miklós gróf a színházi látványtervezô. Tanulmányok Budapest múltjából XXV. (“Count Miklós Bánffy, the Theatre Stage Designer”), in Papers on the Past of Budapest XXV, 1996, p. 343.

10 Illés, Endre: “A dilettante”, in A nagyúr. (“The Dilettante”, in The Grand Seigneur). Ed. Péter Sas, Nap, Budapest, 2008, p. 159.

11 Új Zenei Szemle (New Musical Review), September 1955, p. 15.

12 Orosz, László Wladimir: Szivárvány hídon át [Across the Rainbow Bridge]. Norna, Miskolc, 2006, p. 15.

13 Op. cit., p. 73.

14 Op. cit., p. 72.

15 Op. cit., p. 86.

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