Sergei Diaghilev and Important Artists and Artworks
Costume design for The Firebird (1910)
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.
Watercolor on paper - Béarn Collection, Paris, France
Sketch of the scenery for Schéhérazade (1910)
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.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Nikita and Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, London
Sketch of the scenery for Le Coq d'Or (1914)
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.
Watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper - Private collection
Costume design for Parade (1917)
Picasso had never seen a ballet when he was asked by Diaghilev and the writer Jean Cocteau to collaborate on the Ballets Russes's upcoming production Parade. The ballet was based on a one-act scenario by Cocteau, with choreography by Léonide Massine and music by Erik Satie. Picasso accepted the comission to design the sets and costumes, believing that it could launch his avant-garde art in a new forum. The plot was based on a Parisian music-hall with three groups of circus artists positioned outisde a vaudeville theater attempting to lure in passersbys to watch their show.
Picasso's designs were strikingly modern, taking formal cues from American skyscrapers and boulevards and inspiration from the flamboyant colors of the vaudeville halls he frequented. He employed his Cubist style to create the impression of building blocks with odd angles and uneven perspective: a three-dimensional representation of his paintings of the time. However, Picasso's naivety in costume designed was revealed in his choice of cardboard as the material, which only allowed the dancers minimal movements. The outfits were described by a London critic as "craziness with a touch of genius".
Diaghilev saw obtaining Picasso as a designer as a major achievement in his objective to keep the Ballets Russes fresh and innovative. By 1917 Diaghilev had begun to hire non-Russian composers and artists in his productions in an attempt to be on the cutting edge of the avant-garde; only his choreographers remained Russian until the company's end. When Parade premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet amid the First World War in May 1917, it received bad reviews. The audience were so incensed at the use of machine-gun noises and Picasso's unconventional designs, instead expecting a patriotic programme, that they began to shout "down with foreigners". Diaghilev took the decision to cancel the ballet after two days. However, he revisited it in 1920, to better reviews, prompting him to describe the work as "my best bottle of wine. I do not like to open it too often". Despite criticism, Parade marked Diaghilev's least-Russian ballet to date and a shift in his directorship to a more international company. It changed the perception of the Ballets Russes with its originality and modern subject matter and designs. For the first time, European modernism was on the stage and in the awareness of mainstream culture. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote the programme notes for Parade when it debuted in 1917, described Picasso's designs as "a kind of surrealism", laying claim to this term three years before the Surrealism movement fully emerged in Paris.
Photograph of the costumes for Le Chant du Rossignol (1920)
Le Chant du Rossignol was written by Stravinsky, based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale, and choreographed by Massine. In typical Ballets Russes style, it incorporated a strong Eastern theme, based around a nightingale who sings and dances for the Emperor of China. Veering away from the sumptuous productions the company had stage before the First World War, Matisse saw the work as a tale about renewal and focused on "spring-like, very fresh and youthful" designs. He used simple shapes and light hues against a white backdrop, basing the costumes on traditional Chinese patterns. Instead of the deep colors and thick materials used previously, the artist opted for silk with delicate print and embroidery. For the chorus costumes, as seen here, Matisse took care in creating the impression of a single pattern, inspired by Chinese scroll painting.
Diaghilev used all his infamous charm to convince Matisse to design the sets and costumes for Le Chant du Rossignol. He wrote to Matisse, declaring "it's absolutely essential you do it...there's no one but you who could". The ballet was part of a season for which Diaghilev had already secured Picasso and Derain as designers, and Matisse was hesitant to be entered into comparison with such rival artists. However, after much chasing he was persuaded, but continued to dislike Diaghilev's manner and approach.
The production premiered on February 2nd 1920 at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra in Paris to positive reviews, although the critics found it to be tame compared to Stravinsky's ground-breaking pre-war compositions. Despite this, it was restaged in 1925, with different choreography by George Balanchine. Matisse, however, unlike his rival Picasso, did not collaborate with Diaghilev again.
Mixed media - Library of Congress
Sketches for the costumes and set designs of Chout, featured in the official program (1921)
Chout was a ballet based on a Russian folk tale, suggested to Diaghilev by Stravinsky. In the tale, seven buffoons murder their wives after being told by an eighth buffoon that he has the magic to bring people back to life. When the eighth buffoon fails and the others seek revenge, he disguises himself as a woman to escape. Such a tale suited the art of Larionov, who (along with Goncharova) looked to the Russian past in his use of form and color. Diaghilev and Larionov had a long history of collaboration as Diaghilev had featured the artist in two of his exhibitions of 1906, in St Petersburg's Catherine Hall and again in the Paris Salon d'Automne.
In his set designs, Larionov created fairytale-like worlds through the use of Futurist and Primitivist ideas, such as bold graphics, stripes and triangles. The costumes mirrored the décor in their use of pattern, derived from traditional rural Russian dress. Again, Diaghilev sought to use an artist from his homeland to promote the unique and fascinating style of Russia and the East. After the ballet's premiere in May 1921 at the Théâtre Municipal de la Gaîté in Paris, one critic described Larionov's sets as being like the famous 19th-century Russian artist's colony Abstramtsevo, only "after an earthquake". Larionov's work did not, however, suit all tastes, and when the ballet debuted in London, the dance critic Cyril Beaumont said "the color contrasts were so vivid and dazzling that it was almost painful to look at the stage".
Chout was one of the hardest ballet's Diaghilev had ever produced, and he relied heavily on his old acquaintance Larionov not just in the set and costume design, but also in the choreography. At the time, French critics were speculating that Diaghilev had lost his ability to identify cutting-edge artists and creatives. Diaghilev hoped that his first commission from Sergei Prokofiev for the ballet's score and his employment of the young Polish dancer Tadeusz Slavinsky to choreograph would silence the critics. However, from the rehearsals it was clear that Slavinsky found the complex music too difficult, so Diaghilev turned to Larionov for help; an odd choice given the artist's lack of musical skills. Prokofiev found Larionov's designs and creative input helpful, stating "he did everything I wanted, and I relied on his huge resourcefulness and good taste".
Watercolor on paper - Bibliothèque nationale de France