Russian Ballet Impresario and Art Critic
Summary of Sergei Diaghilev
Sergei Diaghilev took early 20th century Europe by storm with his modern dance company, the Ballet Russes. The company rapidly became known, not just for their ballet, but also for their sets and costumes and the impact of Diaghilev's artistic vision can still be felt today in both the art and dance worlds. Charming, ruthless, and powerful, Diaghilev identified and nurtured talent across a range of genres from design to composition and choreography, bringing household names such as Stravinsky to prominence and launching the careers of a number of highly influential dancers. He also worked with more established artists and designers including Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and André Derain giving them an outlet for new ideas. In doing so, he ensured that the Ballet Russes remained at the forefront of the avant garde for two decades through a turbulent period of history.
- Building on 19th century trends in Orientalism, Diaghilev's early productions were steeped in the romanticized idea of the exotic East and through their plots, costumes and set designs (many of latter were designed by artist Leon Bakst), the company exported a fantasy of Russia to Europe which is still referenced today. Their shows, particularly Scheherazade (1910), also sparked fashions for 'eastern' styles, opulent colors, and rich fabrics in both clothing and interior design.
- Throughout all his productions, Diaghilev ensured a close and seamless integration of music, plot choreography, and design to create a complete work of art (or Gesamtkunstwerk) which was greater than the sum of its parts. This was the first time that this concept had been applied to dance and the resulting ballets were known for their overall spectacle and experience.
- Diaghilev was openly gay, having passionate and tumultuous affairs with several of his lead dancers, and although this alienated more conservative factions it also won him patrons and supporters in some well-connected and aristocratic circles. As composer Nicolas Nabokov noted, "he was perhaps the first grand homosexual who asserted himself and was accepted as such by society".
Biography of Sergei Diaghilev
Diaghilev was born in Selishchev Barracks, a military community in the western Russian province of Novgorod. His father, Pavel Pavlovich, was a military officer, whose family had made their money from vodka distilleries. Following the death of his wife whilst his son was still an infant, Pavel married Elena Valerianovna Panaeva, an artistic woman and amateur singer. Elena introduced Diaghilev to the world of music and instructed his early education, encouraging in him a love of the arts. Throughout his life Diaghilev remained close to his stepmother, continuing to write to her until her death in 1919. The family moved from the military Barracks to Perm, and then to an apartment in St Petersburg in the 1880s.
Sergei Diaghilev and Important Artists and Artworks
The plot of The Firebird follows Ivan Czarevitch (initially danced by Mikhail Fokine) as he attempts to free the imprisoned Firebird (danced by Tamara Karsavina) from the hidden garden of the evil Koshchei. The settings and costumes were designed by Aleksandr Golovine, except for the three main characters, including this design for the eponymous Firebird, which were created by Diaghilev's World of Art companion Léon Bakst. In this sketch for the costume design, the headpiece and main part of the dress consist of feathers, which, when paired with loose and semi-transparent orange trousers, created a magical flying effect when Karsavina danced across the stage. The bright use of colors associated with fire - orange, yellow and red - added a dynamism and energy to the performance. Bakst furthered this mythical hybrid of bird and woman through the use of exotic and oriental patterns and embellishments to the costume.
The subject matter, music and style of The Firebird demonstrates the eclecticism of the World of Art movement. Stravinsky's music, teamed with Fokine's mix of classical and freer interpretive styles of dance, created a total work of art with the aim of transporting Western audiences to a magical Russia. When the performance debuted at the Paris Opéra on June 25th 1910, it was instantly acclaimed by the critics for its dancing and design, but also for this symbiosis. Writing in Nouvelle Revue Française in 1910, the critic Henri Ghéon enthused that the visuals "seem to have been invented to a formula identical with that of the shimmering web of the orchestra". The success of Bakst's costumes cemented his position and a key figure in the Ballets Russes for years to come.
After the success of the first season of the Ballets Russes, Bakst designed the set and costumes for the ballet Schéhérazade in 1910, composed by Rimsky-Korsakov and choreographed by Fokine. Based on a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales, the ballet combined Eastern exoticism and Russian designs. Bakst used bright colors, such as red and green, and luxurious golds to depict the sumptuous palace interiors. Architectural features, including intricate archways and domes, called on Eastern traditions but also the architecture of Russian orthodox churches. Bakst was not concerned with an ethnographically correct representation of the East, but rather the creation of a visual fantasy based on romantic ideas of the region, tapping into a long-held fascination by Western audiences.
Diaghilev was so thrilled with Bakst's designs for Schéhérazade, that shortly after the first performance he hailed him the "hero of our ballet". Alexandre Benois mirrored this praise, describing the décor as "a world of special sensations". Sketches of the designs for Schéhérazade were immediately purchased by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris: a tribute to their profound cultural impact. Bakst was interviewed by fashion magazines and then approached by Parisian women to design dresses for them. Couture houses used the cuts of the costumes for their latest designs, and skirts resembling oriental trousers soon became fashionable across Europe. Cocteau remarked that the ballet single-handedly "splashed all Paris with colors". This was seen not only in clothing but also in the interior design of middle-class homes: the vivid greens used in the stage sets were now available to purchase in cushions and carpets.
Composed by Rimsky-Korsakov and choreographed by Fokine, Le Coq d'Or opened at the Paris Opéra in May 1914. The scenery, produced by the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova, marked a departure from Diaghilev's usual choice of designer. Goncharova employed elements of older Russian art, such as popular prints called lubki, which used simple images to relay stories. Using bold graphic forms and colors, the artist created a new trend in painting. She employed lively color combinations of red, orange and yellow, inspired by the folk art of her homeland, and loaded with symbolic content. Such was the effect that Benois noted that "Goncharova has conquered Paris with her brightly multi-colored settings".
Goncharova's interpretation of the Russian tradition differed from that of the World of Art movement as her approach was more abstract and progressive. She viewed older art not just as something to admire, but as something that had contemporary relevance. Diaghilev's decision to commission Goncharova, therefore, marked a new aesthetic for the Ballets Russes as he was beginning to find the art of Benois and Bakst outdated. He travelled to Moscow to visit Goncharova in her studio after hearing about her work at the forefront of the Russian avant-garde. Impressed by what he saw, Diaghilev recognized that her work matched his own artistic aims: to use ideas from the past, particularly their shared fascination with the Russian-Oriental, to create something entirely new in the present. Such was his confidence in Goncharova, that he let her design the sets without ever seeing them. Le Coq d'Or became the only real hit of the Ballets Russes's 1914 season.
Influences and Connections
- Russian icon painters
- Russian church fresco painters
- Dmitry Filosofov
- Walter Nouvel
- Princess Maria Tenisheva
- Savva Mamontov
- The Pre-Raphaelites
- World of Art
- Medieval Russian painters
Useful Resources on Sergei Diaghilev
- Diaghilev: A LifeOur PickBy Sjeng Scheijen
- Diaghilev and FriendsOur PickBy Joy Melville
- Diaghilev: Creator of the Ballets RussesBy Ann Kodicek
- Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes 1909-1929By Jane Pritchard and Geoffrey Marsh
- Freedom from Violence and Lies: Essays on Russian Poetry and MusicBy Robert P. Hughes, Richard Taruskin, Thomas A. Koster
- Stage Design and the Ballets RussesOur PickBy John E. Bowlt / The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts / Vol. 5, Summer 1987, pp. 28-45
- The World of Art Movement in RussiaBy Stuart R. Grover / The Russian Review / Vol. 32, No. 1, January 1973, pp.28-42
- The Russian Ballet in Russia and in the WestBy Sergei Lifar / The Russian Review / Vol. 28, No. 4, October 1969, pp.396-402