When artist Henri Matisse designed costumes for Serge Diaghilev’s production of The Song of the Nightingale in 1920, he described the design process as “…like a painting, but with colors that move.” Within this simple statement is a lens through which to view the creative process and collaboration of ballet, music, and art in a grand production by Diaghilev. There is movement through video, sound, and glittering theatricality in the exhibition Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, 1909–1929: When Art Danced with Music, presented at the National Gallery of Art.
A fascinating figure, Diaghilev was an entertaining ringmaster, and a charismatic visionary. He brought together the best artists, designers, choreographers, and dancers, to develop a strong aesthetic that was on the cutting edge of modernism for the 20th century. The exhibition is huge, featuring over 130 original costumes, set designs, paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, photographs, posters, and media clips.
Meandering through the immersive details and elegant design of the exhibition, each section captures the viewer into a separate little world. Using accents such as swathes of fabric, flowing green lights, and deconstructed bricks, the gallery walls have been transformed and the visitor feels almost as though they are standing on multiple stages; the experience feels decadent.
Pulling from all avant-garde and surreal influences at the time, costumes delight both the eye and spirit. Set designs and flowing costumes are on view from the production of Schéhérazade, which had a raving and scandalous run. The costumes and promotional materials were highly sexualized and outrageous for the time period. Premiering in Paris in 1910, the performances ignited a frenzy and style obsession, which resulted in themed parties and haute couture.
These productions featured outstanding designers such as Leon Bakst and Natalia Goncharova. The exhibit includes Bakst’s drawing of dancer Vaslav Najinsky’s costume for The Rose, partially colored-in with a shimmery blue pencil, with details of flower petals and leaves. Visitors will see such primary sketches, photographs of Najinsky in the costume, and even the costume itself; a rare glimpse into the entire creative process through to production.
The exhibit has concept sketches, costume designs, programs, tickets, souvenirs, posters, and more. Visitors will see designs and pieces by Coco Chanel, Georges de Chirico, and Pablo Picasso. Even Auguste Rodin made a bronze sculpture of dancer Najinsky, the sculpted pose looks ready to spring or pounce.
From the towering backdrop of The Firebird, to the tiny framed pen and ink drawing of Igor Stravinsky playing the piano, there is a full cycle of vision and creation illuminated in this exhibition. Riding high on excitement, the exhibition ends with an enormous front curtain for The Blue Train designed by Picasso. Along with The Firebird backdrop, these two are the largest objects ever exhibited inside the Gallery.
The exhibition is conceived by, and adapted from, the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Just as it took an entire cast and crew to put together the original production, it took many departments and multiple museums to bring this exhibition together in a theatrical multimedia installation in the East Building.
Step into Diaghilev’s vision and soak up every drop of these radiant productions; be swept up through the brushstrokes, stitches, music, and movement.
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes is on extended view at the National Gallery of Art through October 6, 2013.