American avant-garde artist Robert Wilson in Europe and the Balkans

  • Miroslava Kortenska South-West University


The known trend that America is seeking "inclusion" in the field of modernity, especially in Europe, and particularly in the fields of art, is definitely confirmed in the bright biography of Robert Wilson. He is an avant-garde visual artist, opera and theater director and scenographer who presents in a postmodern way the forms, quests and style of European modernism in the 20th century, transforming them into a language of communication of today's culture, the culture of the 21st century. The focusing of an avant-garde artist like Wilson on the European dimensions of art has been materialized in the rich European career of an American who was born in Texas and who is currently the artistic director of an Arts Center in New York.

Robert Wilson's biography highlights how he has developed as an avant-garde artist specifically in Europe amongst its modern quests, in its most significant cultural centers, galleries, museums, opera houses and theaters, and festivals - Paris Autumn Forum, Chekhov International Theatre Festival in Moscow and BITEF in Belgrade. Wilson has worked with major European names such as playwright Heiner Müller -"Quartet" 1987, "Hamlet Machine" 1986 and "Hamlet - Monologue" where he performed as an actor, 1995, Samuel Beckett's - "Oh, happy days!", 2008, Luxemburg, "The Ultimate Band of Crap", 2009, Spoleto. He has also worked on classical texts as "Odyssey", Athens, 2012, Ibsen's "Lady from the Sea", 1998, Ferrara, "Per Gynt", 2005, Oslo, Georg Büchner: "Woyzeck", 2000, Copenhagen, "Leonce and Lena", 2003, Berlin.

In his visual projects and exhibitions Wilson has introduced the theatricality, the dynamics of the theater; and in his theatrical performances he has included mobile architecture, video, aesthetics of modernism, and has cited cult visions of great artists of European modernism as Magritte and others of his rang. In his performances, along with his visual style, there is an impressive musical score, and rhythm is the main instrument of his extraordinary style. He has been concerned with silence and the impact of body language, forms and light.

Robert Wilson won the theater award "Europe" for 1996 and is presently one of the leading names of the avant-garde, and a creator of the international theater language - visual, musical, summarizing the discoveries of the modernity in the 20th century.

Ionesco's "Rhinoceros", directed by Robert Wilson, on the stage of the Romanian Theatre in Craiova - 2014

The performance of the theater in Craiova is a real theatrical sensation, an event indicating that even a peripheral stage could become a cultural capital when there is a vision for what the modern theater is and who its leaders are. The Romanians answer these questions by referring to their dramatist - the absurdist Eugene Ionesco, directed by a world-famous name as Robert Wilson, an American working actively on the European stages. This choice has involved the entire theater troupe in Craiova in an artistic challenge and we can say that what has been achieved is a modern theatrical play at a level unseen. There is not a single compromise or an element of stage performance, which is not in synchrony with the high bar set by Wilson's decision. Several are the particularly important impressions that have been shaped by this performance. In the first place - the perfection which it emits, its explicit visual decision, built with an impressive knowledge of European modernism, and a remarkable aesthetic impact. It is integral, multifunctional - video landscape, scenery, actors-masks, music ... Wilson's theatre, where there is no experiencing, no psychology, no emphasis on the direct contact between the characters, and what we see is rather a technique and play of shapes, grimacing and extreme metamorphoses, unfolds as a modern opportunity to express the madness happening to man when both nature and civilization are withering away...

The performance "Rhinoceros" explicitly defines the absurdity in communication, speech, growing manipulation, as well as the piles of paper covered with writing, documents and newspapers, which modern societies produce. It shows all this garbage which they produce despite all the forms of collective existence overwhelming the opportunities for sincerity, contact, love and individuality. Wilson's performance shows vividly that we are moving as an avalanche toward the absence of normality, overwhelmed by mass psychosis, and the domination of the crowd. Especially strong is the impression of a repulsive world, of destroyed connections between the characters, a world of shudder and aggressiveness. Robert Wilson has reached a high note of tragedy, with almost antique sounding of the message: We are all rhinos! We even like our thick skins, our aggressive trample and cries as rhinos. Words, newspapers, logic are so much deformed as a means of manipulation that they are not even funny. The man must become a rhino like all who are around him. And this news develops into an observable diagnosis, which is in the core of "Rhinoceros." Berenger, the famous hero of several Ionesco's plays, is left alone, estranged and equally robbed as the mass of trampling rhinos. All relevant states of the modern world have been dramatically and vividly illustrated in Wilson's performance - from absurdity and lack of communication to psychosis, manipulations and at the end - to alienation and disintegration of humanity, sincerity and love and disintegration of the individual himself, crumpled under the pressure of the crowd.

Ionesco's text in the second part of the performance is read by an actor who has the vision of the man with the bowler hat, a prominent figure in the paintings of the modernist René Magritte. This has dictated the director's decision that the characters in the play should not communicate directly with each other and created a repulsive picture of the human landscape - lacking sincerity and emotion. There are only masks of the characters through which they communicate like in a puppet theater. An accentuation in the performance is an intermedia running in the English language - a conversation between two women on the phone. The downstage is strewn with human heads - this is how Wilson creates the image of rhinoceros, which, according to Ionesco, rush into the world of the characters. The director's intermedia between two talking heads is filled with brutal hypocrisy, with patterns and formal questions and answers, intrusive intonations typical for aggressive communication, of which Wilson is apparently fed up as a result of the deformed American way of life. The performance ends with a children's song from the 60s, when Ionesco wrote his play, slightly infantile and candied as a true Hollywood happy end of the terrible absurdity: We are all rhinos! In the performance there is some lightness and airiness, detachment and even elegance, a graceful, ironic picture of modern metamorphoses of man and the crushing crowd. Written more than 50 years ago, the play "Rhinoceros" was perceived as an image of Nazism and later of totalitarianism, of mass deformation of societies and suppression of man's individuality. Today, Wilson opens the fan of distortions that have lead to dehumanization of the modern world.

The performance in Craiova has attracted great interest. It is a manifestation of the strategy to renovate and revitalize a cultural space with innovative ideas, techniques and inspiring culture. The theatre is no fun! says Ionesco. The theater is a development strategy. And when the public deformations of the modern world are shown with such an utmost accuracy, clarity and aesthetic precision, the viewers can laugh, and also situate themselves in the accumulated experience to dehumanize the world and make it an animated series that has been multiplied threateningly in the 21st century.

Having also seen some other performances of Robert Wilson /"Hamlet Machine", Buchner's "Woyzeck", "Iron Horseman" in "Thalia Theater" Hamburg/ I can sum it all up that the director possesses a complex identity in the modern cultural landscape of the 21st century. When 44 years ago Ionesco saw the author's performance of Wilson in Paris, and wanted from Wilson to stage one of his plays, there happened an event that later created the profile of the director as a contemporary artist. In the 60s, when Rene Magritte was still an icon of modernism, Ionesco, a representative of absurdity or the so-called postmodernism, thought he could be best realized via the instruments of the favorite style and visions of the previous generation. Wilson, in that particular period - the second half of the 20th century - was still looking for his original style and therefore he refused to stage one of Ionesco's plays. But in the late 20th century and nowadays, Wilson is the figure that is realizing precisely this cultural task. The collage style of his directing, which is based on his knowledge about modernity in the first half of the 20th century, and his taste and refinement in practice do not make him a rebel - postmodernist. Rather, his profile is that of a cultural figure of the late 20th century, as he managed to impose the modernist way of thinking and the aesthetics of modernism of the time of its inception in Europe. In this sense, Robert Wilson is an avant-garde artist who has changed the cultural landscape using however the ideas and visions of European modernists of the first half of the 20th century. This is a significant contribution that only a few European artists have perceived as a direction, a step leading to the 21st century.

In the Balkans, where Wilson is less known, and mainly with his participation in BITEF in Belgrade /Buchner's "Woyzeck", 2002/ and now with the performance in Craiova, he is really rearranging serious layers - ignoring psychologism, the dominant system of experiencing, staging of everyday life and setting the framework of a modern form, unused by the theater in the Balkans, highlighting and interpreting social conditions already known in Europe - absurdity, dehumanization. In the post-totalitarian East European countries it is still difficult to surmount the traumas of communism and the Iron Curtain and finding new directions is in a standstill. Renovation of this cultural environment is still caught between ignoring the legacy of ideologization and making attempts, in the individual countries, at searching for identity before totalitarian times. Maybe this is why the avant-garde quests in the Balkans are more concerned with folklore or traditional, conservative forms of art in the countries of the peninsula.

In this context, Wilson has brought cosmopolitanism, well-established forms and principles that are important purely in civilizational terms for a landscape such as the Balkans and through which the European modernism and postmodernism of the 20th century somehow have penetrated into that quite peculiar cultural space attributing universality, already known in this region from the TV videos, from animation films, which came into the region mainly from America through the media. This important alloy of universality, communicativeness of a new type which is characteristic of the 21st century is bringing really ozonating air into the cultural environment in the Balkans. In this sense, Wilson's presence gives direction to the artists and also provides the audience with an opportunity to acknowledge the theater as an innovative part of modern culture of the 21st century.

June 2015

Craiova, Romania

How to Cite
Kortenska, M. (1). American avant-garde artist Robert Wilson in Europe and the Balkans. Postmodernism Problems, 5(2), 119-130. Retrieved from