Worcester Art Gallery currently has two, separate but linked, exhibitions, running until April 27th: Matisse: Drawing with Scissors and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Matisse works are lithographs of the artist’s late works, touring from the Hayward Gallery, including the iconic Blue Nudes series. These works were created when Matisse was in his eighties, bed-bound, using scissors to create ostensibly simple shapes, while his assistants provided the glorious colour under his direction. The effects are a joy to the eye; the movement, colour and life of the works belies the age of the artist and indicates a blazing vision in which the apparently casual lines construct women’s bodies (in the case of the nudes) or flowers. I was fascinated by ‘Tristesse du Roi’ (1952) which, it is claimed, was his last self-portrait; it references other, classic works in his distinctive style:
‘The Sorrows of the King’ was Matisse’s final self portrait. This work refers to one of Rembrandt’s canvases, David Playing the Harp before Saul, in which the young biblical hero plays to distract the king from his melancholy, as well as to Rembrandt’s late self portraits. Here Matisse depicts the themes of old age, of looking back towards earlier life (La vie antérieure, the title of a poem by Baudelaire that Matisse had already illustrated) and of music soothing all cares.
Matisse has represented himself by the central black form, like a silhouette of himself sitting in his armchair, surrounded by the pleasures that have enriched his life. He has combined a number of recurring themes from his life. The yellow petals fluttering away have the gaiety of musical notation while the green odalisque symbolises the Orient and a dancer pays homage to the female body and sensuousness. (https://www.henrimatisse.org/sorrow-of-the-king.jsp)
Matisse was one of many artists invited to work with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, and there is a photograph of the artist pinning paper cutouts onto Alicia Markova’s dress for a production of Rouge et Noir. This provides a link to the second exhibition, which represents a private collection of ephemera related to Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. There are some fascinating objects here: costumes, designs, programmes, fans, drawings by Laura Knight, among other things. What the exhibition does is to highlight the extraordinary collaborative creativity of the Ballet Russes.
Sergei Diaghilev originally wanted to be a composer; he was also fascinated by art, and brought Russian art, opera and music to the West early in the twentieth century. After an early, ill-fated engagement with the Imperial Theatres (young, radical men being frowned upon by the authorities), he also developed an interest in ballet, as an art form which combined many different arts. The designs on display indicate how he brought together an enormous range of artists, composers and dancers to create productions – mostly in Paris – which were both modernist and forward-looking, and also audience pleasers (a sociable and well-connected man, Diaghilev made the most of his patrons to fund his productions).
There are designs by the Cubist painter Marie Lauroncin, set designs by Picasso for Parade (1917), and works by Dali, who collaborated with the choreographer Leonid Massine on three ballets. George Braque, Raoul Dufy, Leon Bakst, Natalia Goncharova also feature – artists who continue to be household names. There is less about the composers here, but Diaghilev’s connections included Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, while choreographers included Massine, Mikhail Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky, with Cecchetti as ballet master. The dancers too are still remembered, from Anna Pavlova, who made an early appearance with the Ballet Russes, to Alicia Markova, Tamara Karsavina, Nijinsky and Anton Dolin. The company was small, as the revealing quotations on the walls of the exhibition indicate, and often short of money, but Diaghilev’s vision held them together. The exhibition shows just how much Diaghilev did to restore ballet in the West, where it had become a lower art form: bringing the best of art, music and dance together with new ballets and radical modern ideas, there is a strong sense of cohesion to the art form which is often forgotten.
It’s possible that many visitors to the exhibition will not be familiar with Diaghilev’s work (not everyone spends their childhood reading ballet books as I did!) but the information offered, in exhibit labels, in handlists and in panels with timelines, do much to elucidate the works on display. There is a wonderfully vital feeling in all the works, from the dancing lines of Dame Laura Knight’s sketch of Karsavina to the Modernist designs for sets and programmes, and it opens up a whole world of the arts as they emerged from the nineteenth century and became more connected and more international.
Sergei Diaghilev might have been a difficult man to work with, but he made such a huge contribution via the Ballets Russes that ballet, music, costumes and sets were never the same in Paris again. I wouldn’t know who to look at first – Bakst, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Fokine, Nijinsky, Pavlova, Markova, Nijinsky etc.
I too spent the 1950s practising ballet and reading ballet books 🙂