Sergei Diaghilev: The man behind the 'Russian Revolution' in art
Anna Galayda special for RBTH
The famous Ballets Russes took Europe and the U.S. by storm during the early 20th century. It was the brainchild of one man, Sergei Diaghilev, who surprisingly wasn't a talented artist, composer, or choreographer himself. Despite this, his influence spread to every corner of the art kingdom and he possessed the gift of being able to spot talent and develop it in a way that still resonates today. Sergei's taste and style choice was gospel.
The 'Athens of Perm'
Sergei was born on March 31, 1872 in the former governorate of Novgorod in the northwest of the Russian Empire. He was the son of Pavel Diaghilev, a colonel of the Chevalier Guard Regiment. His mother passed away soon after his birth, but Sergei's childhood was filled with love and fondness thanks to his stepmother. The city of Perm (about 1,500 km east of Moscow), one of the industrial centers of the Urals, came to be the family's nest.
The Diaghilev family, R-L: Sergei Diaghilev, Yelena Panaeva (the father's second wife), Yuri, father Pavel, Valentin
In the heart of the city still stands a one-storey Russian neoclassical mansion, acquired in the mid-19th century by Sergei's grandfather. This house was nicknamed the "Athens of Perm." After his parents moved here, they swiftly transformed it into a cultural hub of the city, where its elite held weekly gatherings, singing songs, playing musical instruments, staging amateur performances, and sometimes showcasing visiting artists. Despite the city's remote location, far away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, the family felt like they were a part of metropolitan cultural life, and Sergei's stepmother Elena ordered the latest books, musical recordings, and magazines from St. Petersburg. The young Diaghilev's former classmates recalled that he found his school studies incredibly boring, and soon focused all his concentration on learning languages, reading books, playing the piano, and acting.
Onward to the art world!
In 1890, Diaghilev graduated and entered the University of St. Petersburg's law department. At the same time he started taking music theory lessons from the famous composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There he met Igor Stravinsky, who would become one of his greatest "discoveries," and someone he thrust into the limelight two decades later.
However, back then Diaghilev felt it was much more important to get close to his cousin Dmitry Filosofov. Thanks to Dmitry, Sergei – who possessed an irresistible charm from a young age – found himself at the center of a likeminded group of young artists.
Diaghilev became a regular guest at various concerts, exhibitions, and stage plays. His new friends helped him to get into the thick of the city's social life: The old nobility culture was fading as the 'Silver Age' – the era of modernism – was coming. The artistic movement Mir iskusstva (World of Art) founded by Diaghilev and his friends, the artists Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Valentin Serov, and others, became one of the pinnacles of this new dawn.
Sergei Diaghilev during his school years
After graduating from university, Diaghilev realized his interests lay far outside the realm of law. His ability to make even the most ambitious artistic projects come to life was already obvious. As a founder of Mir iskusstva he held exhibitions showcasing British and German watercolorists, as well as Scandinavian and Russian artists.
The next step of Diaghilev's career was the creation of the Mir iskusstva magazine – a project that united Russia's intellectual and artistic forces. It was the beginning of an artistic revolution, not just in Russia, but the whole world.
Sergei Diaghilev, 1893
Portrait by Konstantin Somov
Diaghilev in 1905
Portrait by Leon Bakst
Diaghilev in 1909
Portrait by Valentin Serov
A debut in Europe
In 1906, Diaghilev held a Russian art exhibition during the annual Salon d'Automne in Paris, with works by Benois, Repin, Serov, and Malyavin presented to the French public. Encouraged by the event's success, he went to Paris again the following year, this time with the Russian Symphony Concerts that showcased music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Sergei Rachmaninoff.
In 1908, he organized a production of Modest Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov in the French capital. It was a winning combination of powerful music by Mussorgsky (who broke off with the opera tradition), the stagecraft, the choir of the Bolshoi Theatre, and the acting talent of the famous Russian bass Fyodor Shalyapin. The show had a profound effect on the European audience.
Costumes of dancers for the Khovanshchina folk opera, written by Modest Musorgsky. Designed by Alexander Lozhkin, 1909
A year later, Diaghilev visited Paris yet again, this time bringing with him the Russian Ballet. The troupe included dancers from Russia's Mariinsky and Bolshoi theaters. Diaghilev picked the performances himself, relying on the 29-year-old Michel Fokine for his production skills, who had a hard time making his career in the conservative Mariinsky Theatre. Fokine's Le Pavillon d'Armide, Les Sylfides, and Nuit d'Égypte all referenced the art of Europe, while the Le Festin and Les Danses dances represented exotic Russian art. The backdrops and props for the performances were designed by Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst. The tour's true symbol was the dancer Anna Pavlova: An image of her in the arabesque position adorned the posters.
Posters of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes
By the early 20th century, Paris – the city that once gave the world La Sylphide and Giselle – had almost forgotten about ballet as a separate form of art , which was mostly confined to brief skits in operas. All the more powerful then, was the impression made by Ballets Russes and its incredibly professional troupe.
But the real furore was that this half-forgotten genre presented performances which astounded spectators with their artistic integrity and incredible creative freedom. The "barbaric art" the Parisian newspapers anticipated shortly before the opening night of the first Ballets Russes, conquered Europe.
Ballets Russes in Seville, 1916. Sergei Diaghilev (center)
The triumph of 'barbaric art'
A conflict with the directorate of the Russian Imperial theaters and the state art institutions who wouldn't acknowledge Diaghilev's triumph, due to the experimental nature of the performances, eventually urged him to create his own ballet troupe.
Pablo Picasso (wearing a beret) and scene painters sitting on the front cloth for Léonide Massine's ballet Parade, staged by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 1917
Diaghilev's new stars were Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky. Deprived of stable funding and constantly on tour, the impresario was forced to dispense with multi-act ballets – his company mostly staged one-act productions, letting it tell three completely separate stories during a single night. Thanks to Diaghilev, the three part ballet night still remains the most popular performance style in the West.
During the early years, each new tour of Ballets Russes was more successful than the previous one. At first, Diaghilev sold tickets promising Russian exoticism, which he delivered with aplomb. Productions like Petrushka, The Firebird, and Scheherazade surprised the public with their avant-garde style, even compared to the innovative European performances. The famously controversial 1913 production of The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky became a turning point for Ballets Russes – it basically cut Diaghilev and his troupe off from Russia even before the onset of World War One. During the final rehearsal of the ballet, things truly kicked off as the audience was divided into two groups based not on their ethnicity or class, but rather their taste: Traditional ballet fans and avant-garde aficionados attacked each other, brandishing chairs and umbrellas.
From this moment on, Ballet Russes was no longer an "expo" of Russian art.
Design sketches of costumes for Ballets Russes
Ahead of his time
Ballets Russes during Australian tour, 1936-1940
The premier of the Parade ballet was another milestone for Diaghilev. To create this performance, he assembled a team consisting of Frenchmen Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie (responsible for the music), Spaniard Pablo Picasso (who designed the sets and costumes), and the Russian choreographer Léonide Massine. The "cubist ballet" they produced was only staged once, and it was poorly received. But this did not deter Diaghilev, even without stable funding; the opportunity to experiment was the most important thing for him.
For this reason, his company often found itself ruined financially, and he was personally teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Sometimes he didn't even have the money to pay for his hotel room. But Diaghilev was not prepared to sacrifice his principles. Thanks to this, Ballets Russes gave the world Nicholas Roerich, Natalia Goncharova, Achille-Claude Debussy, Sergei Prokofiev, Vaslav Nijinsky, and George Balanchine, among others.
Actors of Ballets Russe, above L-R: Anna Pavlova, Adolph Bolm, Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky Below L-R: Michel and Vera Fokine, Gertrude Hoffmann, and Theodore Kosloff, Lydia Lopokova and Alexandre Gavriloff, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky
Interested only in the most avant-garde, artistically promising, and courageous of acts, Diaghilev was ready to part ways with his collaborators if they weren't able to generate new ideas. Granted, he adored old art – he made his debut by reviving 18th century Russian painters, and his Parisian venture was marked by the homecoming of the great ballet Giselle and the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty by Marius Petipa in France. But the roads not yet explored were equally, if not more, tempting to him. As he followed this route, he showed Europe the backbone of Russian art that would provide sustenance for the entire Western world throughout the 20th century.
Diaghilev died in his treasured Venice in 1929 at the reasonably young age of 57, but his legacy lives on.
Walter Nouvel, Sergei Diaghilev, and Serge Lifar on the Lido in Venice