Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes

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Ida Rubinstein as Zobeide and Vaslav Nijinsky as the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade (1913) by Georges Barbier.

Another great exhibition at the V&A, London, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes gathers a wealth of costumes, stage designs, photographs and ephemera—including some of Stravinsky’s manuscripts—to present a history of the legendary ballet company and their visionary impresario. For those who can’t get to London the museum website shows some of the items which will be on display, and there’s also a blog about the installing of the exhibition. The enormous frontcloth from 1924 based on Picasso’s Two Women Running on the Beach received a flurry of attention in the press here but my own attention was caught by the picture of Natalia Goncharova‘s even more enormous backcloth for The Firebird. The exhibition runs to January 9, 2011.

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Cover of Le Théatre showing Tamara Karsavina in costume as the Firebird, May 1911.

While we’re on the subject, a new biography of the impresario, Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen, was reviewed last week in the New York Times:

Diaghilev loved beautiful young men, and at a time when the fashion in ballet was to exchange patronage for sex, his company provided a bounty. Scheijen dexterously plays his sources against one another to examine the erotic and professional dynamics between Diaghilev and his stars.

For a fictional (and necessarily heterosexual) account of those erotic and professional dynamics, I recommend Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) which not only has a central character based on Diaghilev but includes among the cast of real dancers Léonide Massine, dancer and principal choreographer of the Ballets Russes from 1915 to 1921.

See also:
Russian Ballet History | An archive and documentary site.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Pamela Colman Smith’s Russian Ballet
The art of Ivan Bilibin, 1876–1942
Jack Cardiff, 1914–2009
Magic carpet ride
Le Sacre du Printemps
Images of Nijinsky

Jack Cardiff, 1914–2009

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Robert Helpmann, Moira Shearer and Léonide Massine; The Red Shoes (1948).

Jack Cardiff, who died this week, was one of the great cinematographers from the postwar era, a period when British cinema was raised for a time to world-class level. His three films for the Archers, aka Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, are masterpieces of Technicolor photography. He won an Oscar for one of these, Black Narcissus, while his photography in The Red Shoes includes Moira Shearer’s 18-minute ballet performance, one of the most strikingly surreal sequences in the whole of British film.

Cardiff taught himself about lighting from scrutinising the Old Masters and the Impressionists, and teaching himself to observe colour, shade and reflection in everyday things. “As they say, ‘Love comes by looking’, and I was looking all the time. That’s how you learn.” He picks up one of the dozens of books on Rembrandt that he owns and draws my attention to the exquisitely painted shadow of a nose in one of his favourite portraits. We look at the interiors of other Dutch masters – Pieter De Hooch, Vermeer. It was to the work of Vermeer that the starkly beautiful images of nuns he created for his Oscar-winning movie Black Narcissus (1947) were likened.

Elizabeth Lowenthal, The Independent, 1994.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Deborah Kerr, 1921–2007
Freddie Francis, 1917–2007

Deborah Kerr, 1921–2007

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The Innocents.

A great British actress died this week. She was also something of a movie star in the Fifties, rolling in the surf with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity (1953) and standing up to Yul Brynner in The King and I (1956). Prior to that she starred in two films for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) (where she played three roles) and Black Narcissus (1947). But for me she’ll always be the (literally) haunted Miss Giddens in The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s superb adaptation of The Turn of the Screw. Still one of the most effective screen ghost stories; try and see it this Halloween.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Freddie Francis, 1917–2007

Arnold Böcklin and The Isle of the Dead

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Another favourite painting for many years and Böcklin’s most well-known work.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901) produced several different versions of the painting. All versions depict an oarsman and a standing white-clad figure in a small boat crossing an expanse of dark water towards a rocky island. In the boat is an object usually taken to be a coffin. The white-clad figure is often taken to be Charon, and the water analogous to the Acheron. Böcklin himself provided neither public explanation as to the meaning of the painting nor the title, which was conferred upon it by the art dealer Fritz Gurlitt in 1883. The first version of the painting, which is currently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, was created in 1880 on a request by Marie Berna, whose husband had recently died.

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