"I am first a charlatan, but full of dash; secondly, a great charmer; thirdly, cheeky; fourthly, a very reasonable man with few scruples; fifthly, someone afflicted, it seems, with a complete absence of talent. And yet I think I have found my true vocation: to be a patron of the arts. For that I have everything I need except money, but that will come," Serge Diaghilev - self-portrait penned to his stepmother, Elena Panaev-Diaghilev, in 1895.
This is the last weekend you have, if you happen to be in London, to visit the exhibition “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes” at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Let me tell you that it's an absolutely marvellous event, probably the best and most comprehensive exhibition about the Ballets Russes ever organised in Europe (the V&A has got a wonderful collection of pieces from the Ballets Russes, but it also got some loans from different collections for this event).
I visited the exhibition a while back and I think I'll use today's post to convince those visitors who may feel reluctant about going to see this event because they do not consider themselves as "balletomanes" to drag themselves to the V&A and discover the world of the most avant-garde corps de ballet in the world.
Curated by Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh, “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes”, is indeed an event that celebrates many different arts, from music to painting, drawing, costume design (by the way, hundreds of hours went into the conservation and restoration of the costumes exhibited here) and even writing.
This is one of the main reasons why it would be criminally wrong to miss this event.
Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are brought back in time to the end of the 1800s, with a painting portraying the coronation of Nicholas II (1896), pieces of furniture such as a side table from the Winter Palace and assorted luxury goods used in the Russian court like table lamps, bowls and jewels and prints of the Russo-Japanese War.
Though he had a talent for music, Diaghilev never became himself an artist, yet he was a born-talent spotter and superb organiser and, in 1898, he founded the Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art) group with his friends Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst.
Looking at early Russian art and architecture, this interdisciplinary group interested in painting, sculpture, book illustration and graphic design, was also open to influences coming from the West.
During the early 1900s, the Mir Iskusstva group infused new vigour into Russian art and culture. It was only natural for such a group to spark up a dialogue with theatre and ballet, the Ballets Russes company was indeed born out of this artistic circle.
This part of the exhibition showcases also paintings, illustrations and videos about other iconic ballets from the same period of time, among them Edgar Degas’s painting of the ballet scene from Meyerbeer's opera 'Robert le Diable' (1876); posters for Loïe Fuller's performances and for the 1881 “Excelsior”, the most successful and spectacular Italian ballet in history, that, choreographed by Luigi Manzotti and inspired by the monument to the Frejus Road Tunnel in Turin, focused on industrialisation and progress (in one of the videos included in the exhibition Vittorina Galimberti stars in the role of Civilisation).
Though this part of the exhibition features quite a lot of drawings and sketches for costumes for "Les Sylphides" and "Petrushka", chromolithographs of dancers, early "Swan Lake" costumes by Alexander Golovin, Bakst's beautifully poetical sketch for a fairytale-like young rajah in "Le Dieu bleu" (1912) and Jean Cocteau's lithographs and posters for the Ballets Russes' performances, the focus remains on the costumes.
Made using silk, cotton, tarlatan, rayon and gauze, richly embroidered and decorated with pearls, gems, glass beadwork or metal thread, the costumes bear testament to the one and only corps de ballet that ever managed to go beyond the world of dance, influencing with its sensuous exoticism and Orientalism also fashion designers and interior architects.
Bakst's oriental costume for the Zobeide character from "Schéhérazade" (1909), his cossack costumes in vivid colours decorated with silver musket charges in the breast pockets for "Thamar" (1912) and the brigands' tunics with bold geometric patterns from "Daphnis and Chloe" (1912), literally sent shock waves pulsing through the Western world.
It's impossible not to detect in Paul Poiret's lampshade designs a derivation from Alexander Golovin's costumes for "L'Oiseau de feu" (The Firebird, 1910), while his harem pants and turbans were directly borrowed from the Ballets Russes more exotic and voluptuous Oriental performances.
A special section of this part of the exhibition is dedicated to Vaslav Nijinsky.
In the early days of ballet, many believed that, by dancing, man could break his earthly ties and raise himself up to perfection, getting closer to God.
It was only obvious then that Nijinsky was considered almost a superhuman being, the epitome of manliness and youthful beauty.
Showcasing small accessories – even pearlised glass and gilded copper earrings worn on stage by Nijinsky – this section allows visitors to admire Benois’ costumes for "Le Pavillon d'Armide" (1907) and Bakst’s works for "Le Die bleu" (1912).
The latter was inspired by a performance of the Bangkok Court dancers in St Petersburg and by Fokine and Bakst's studies about Indian and South-East Asian art.
Among the other works showcased in this section there is also Bakst's iconic image of Vaslav Nijinsky in "L'Après-midi d'un faune" (The Afternoon of a Faun) for the cover of the Théâtre du châtelet programme (1912) and a drawing by Nijinsky from the time he was hospitalised in London, characterised by curved lines and sweeping circular forms evoking movement.
This first part of the exhibition closes with a focus on "Le sacre du printemps" (The Rite of Spring, 1913), comprising sketches and drawings (among them also a caricature by Jean Cocteau of Igor Stravinsky playing "The Rite of Spring" - View this photo), plus the men's and maids' heavy cotton flannel costumes with leather and metal details.
Dance fans will also be able to take a rest in this section and enjoy a video showing a performance of "The Rite of Spring" by Pina Bausch.
If the exhibition closed here, visitors would have already seen and learnt a lot, but at this stage you practically haven’t seen anything.
The second section tries indeed to analyse the inspirations behind the Ballets Russes performances, looking at the influence of 18th century Italian works, of coloured souvenir prints, toy theatres and Russian tales such as “Baba Yaga”.
It's in this section that visitors start realising that it was only after Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes that ballet became a perfect synthesis of movement, music and images, a kind of celebration of the collaborative efforts between choreographer, composer and pictorial artist.
This part of the exhibition is indeed a collection of sketches for choreographic engravings and dance patterns, assorted notes for various ballets, illustrations, paintings, sketches, manuscripts, scores, props, set models, photographs of dancers applying their make up, iconic portraits such as Bronislava Nijinska’s by Man Ray (1922) and small accessories, from ballet shoes to the castanets used in "Le Tricorne".
The most beautiful pieces showcased in this part are definitely the front cloths, in particular Natalia Goncharova’s astonishing 1926 backdrop for "The Firebird".
This piece (actually the largest one stored at the V&A) remains the most beautiful of the entire exhibition.
The colours used for this scene of densely populated buildings that call to mind the Kremlin and that symbolise Holy Russia in pre-revolutionary time, were inspired by Mantegna’s frescoes in Mantua.
The next section of the exhibition is introduced by another large piece, the front cloth for "Le Train Bleu" (1924), recreated by Prince Alexandre Shervashidze in just 24 hours from Picasso’s “Deux Femme Courant Sur La Plage” (Women Running on the Beach).
Picasso’s cubist "Parade" (1917) – with its rigid costumes representing skyscrapers and boulevards – was for example the first step towards the avant-gardism of the 20s.
There are quite a few rare pieces here, including Picasso’s silk satin costume with gold swirls and wide striped trousers for the Chinese conjuror in "Parade" (View this photo), inspired by music hall magicians à la Chung Ling Soo (William Ellsworth Robinson), and Goncharova’s costumes for “Sadko” (1916), an epic Russian folk poem set under the sea among monsters and fantastic creatures.
Between sketches for fabric designs by Goncharova, the Cubo-Futurist costumes for “Chout” by Mikhail Larionov and the extravagantly lavish costumes in silk, velvet, brocade and lace by Bakst for “The Sleeping Princess” (1921; Diaghilev spent at the time something like £10,000 - £300,000 today – on the sets and costumes for this ballet).
This section also includes the famous costumes for a mourner (ankle-length with appliqué triangles of dark blue velvet - View this photo) and a chamberlain (yellow padded silk with gold lame discs - View this photo) in “Le Chant du rossignol” by Henri Matisse; sketches for “Jack in the Box” by André Derain; Alice Nikita's costume for Flore in Massine's “Zephyre et Flore” (1925 - View this photo) designed by Georges Braque; a crinoline-skirted dress with mesh mask for Massine's “Ode” (1928) by Pavel Tchelitchev, an innovative young artist who took this ballet towards radical Constructivism; Coco Chanel’s knitted wool costumes for "Le Train Bleu" (1924) and Giorgio De Chiricos’ gabardine, flannel, silk and wool costumes for "Le Bal" (1929), inspired by architectural elements and with stiff features that made them look as if they were made out of plaster or paper.
The exhibition closes with a focus on the influence of the Ballets Russes on fashion with Yves Saint Laurent’s designs covered in sequins and pearls inspired by the Ballets Russes (Autumn/Winter 1976), by Picasso and Diaghilev (A/W 1979), by Bakst (S/S 1991) and by Russian style (A/W 1999).
For choreographer Balanchine, ballet was an art of the angels, yet, at the end of "Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes" you realise that ballet is actually a holistic pictorial experience.
The Ballets Russes brought with them a genuine artistic revolution and it’s an absolute shame that, for lack of funds, will or bravery, there are no corps de ballet that can currently bring back the Ballets Russes' thrill, that special power that attracted painters, fashion designers and composers and that allowed them to take ballet goers beyond the world of dance.
The dancing master in Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme stated at some point: “All the misfortunes of mankind, all the disasters of which history is full, the bungling of politicians and the mistakes of great generals, all come through not learning to dance.” Maybe he was right and, if we could bring back a bit of Ballets Russes magic, exuberance and sensuality, our world would lose all its shades of grey and turn into a much more pleasurable and poetical place.
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