The art of Andrey Avinoff, 1884–1949

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Man Emerging from a Tree Stump (no date).

Yet another artist I’d be unlikely to have come across had it not been for the web. Andrey Avinoff’s art manages to be both mystical and homoerotic in equal measure and there’s a good selection of his paintings and drawings to be found in a collection at the Kinsey Institute. Avinoff was an entomologist and worked as director of the Carnegie Museum along with that other famous butterfly enthusiast, Vladimir Nabokov. He was also a friend of Alfred Kinsey’s for many years and the art which Kinsey collected seems (perhaps inevitably) more sexual than the artist’s mystical work or his butterfly pictures. As with other artists discussed here, we learn that “he may have been homosexual”, an equivocation which seems particularly silly when looking at his study of a (naked) young man entitled My Special Longing. He was also a Nijinsky enthusiast and one of his portraits has the dancer as a naked faun bestride an overgrown butterfly.

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left: Standing Nude Man with Figure of Saint (no date); right: Nijinsky (1918).

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Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

salome1.jpgWe tend to think of cinema as a modern medium, quintessentially 20th century, but the modern medium was born in the 19th century, and the heyday of the Silent Age (the 1920s) was closer to the Decadence of the fin de siècle (mid-1880s to the late-1890s) than we are now to the 1970s. This is one reason why so much silent cinema seems infected with a Decadent or Symbolist spirit: that period wasn’t so remote and many of its more notorious products cast a long shadow. Even an early science fiction film like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis has scenes redolent of late Victorian fever dreams: the vision of Moloch, Maria’s parable of the tower of Babel, the coming to life of statues of the Seven Deadly Sins, and—most notably—the vision of the evil Maria as the Whore of Babylon. Woman as vamp or femme fatale was an idea that gripped the Decadent imagination and it found a living expression in the vamps of the silent era, beautiful women with exotic names such as Pola Negri, Musidora (Irma Vep in Feuillade’s Les Vampires) and the woman the studios and press named simply “the Vamp”, Theda Bara (real name Theodosia Burr Goodman).

Alla Nazimova was another of these exotic creatures, and rather more exotic than most since she was at least a genuine Russian, even if she also had to amend her given name (Mariam Edez Adelaida Leventon) to exaggerate the effect. Like an opera diva or a great ballerina she dropped her forename as her career progressed, and is billed as Nazimova only in her 1923 screen adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Nazimova inaugurated the project, produced it and even part-financed it since the studios, increasingly worried by pressure from moral campaigners, regarded it as a dangerously decadent work. Nazimova had a rather colourful off-screen life and the stories of orgiastic revels at her mansion, the Garden of Allah, probably didn’t help matters.

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Salomé lobby card (1923).

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The Decorative Age

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Continuing the George Barbier theme from the Nijinsky post, his work reminded me I’d had Artdecoblog bookmarked for some time. Searching there turned up some more of his pictures including this mythological scene done in his post-Beardsley style. The men in the picture below are hilariously effete for rugby players, they look more like a couple of costumiers casting aspersions on the poor woman’s outfit.

Artdecoblog is a great resource for pictures from this period and well worth a browse. The woman responsible has an equally excellent blog devoted to Belle Époque art and design.

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The illustrators archive

Images of Nijinsky

nijinsky_faun.jpgI have an abiding fascination with the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev‘s company which electrified the art world from 1909 up to the impressario’s death in 1929. One of the reasons for this—aside from the obvious gay dimension and the extraordinary roster of talent involved—is probably Diaghilev’s success in carrying the Symbolist impulses of the fin de siècle into the age of Modernism without losing any richness or exoticism along the way. Diaghilev’s arts magazine, Mir Iskusstva (1899–1900), was as much a product of fashionable Decadence as The Savoy, and its principles were easily transported into the world of ballet.

A big subject, then, that’ll no doubt be returned to in later postings. Looking around for images of dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky in his celebrated (and notorious) role in L’Après-midi d’un Faune turned up not only Leon Bakst’s luscious drawing but some marvelous Beardsley-esque pictures by George Barbier (1882–1932). I’d seen some of Barbier’s work before but didn’t realise he’d created a whole book devoted to the dancer. Artists like Bakst, Erté and Barbier show how Aubrey Beardsley’s art might have developed had he not died prematurely in 1898. You can see the full set of book plates here.

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Nijinsky as faun by Leon Bakst (1912).

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Designs on the Dances of Vaslav Nijinsky (and below) by George Barbier (1913).

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L’ Apres-midi d’un Faune.

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Narcisse.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The gay artists archive
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Nicholas Kalmakoff, 1873–1955