Stephen Matthew Ratpojanakul
A Thesis Presented to the Department of History of Art and Architecture
in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts
I have neither given nor received any unauthorized aid on this thesis
Stephen Matthew Ratpojanakul
April 28, 2006
Table of Contents
List of Figures and Sources v
List of Figures and Sources
Figure 1. Ilyá Yefímovich Répin, Zaporozhian Cossacks, 1880-91.
Oil on canvas, St. Petersburg, The State Russian Museum.
Figure 2. Léon Bakst, Cover to Mir Iskusstva (World of Art, No. 3, 1902).
Zinc engraving, St. Petersburg, The State Russian Museum.
The Age of Diaghilev.
Figure 3. Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Carpet Merchant, 1887.
Oil on canvas, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Figure 4. Léon Bakst, set design for Schéhérazade. 1910.
San Antonio, Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum.
Garafola, The Ballets Russes and its World.
Figure 5. Jean-Léon Gérôme, Turkish Women at the Bath, 1876.
Oil on canvas, St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum.
Figure 6. Henri Matisse, Harmony in Red, 1908.
Oil on canvas, St. Petersburg, Hermitage Museum.
Figure 7. Alexander Benois, Act I set design for Petrouchka.
Figure 8. Natalya Goncharova, Still-life with Shoe and Mirror, c. 1906.
Oil on canvas, Paris, private collection.
Figure 9. Natalya Goncharova, The Weaver (Loom + Woman), 1912-13.
Oil on canvas, Cardiff, National Museum and Gallery
Bowlt, Amazons of the Avant-Garde.
Figure 10. Natalya Goncharova, Costume design for a Russian Woman in Le Coq d’Or,
Gouache, Paris, private collection.
Figure 11. Natalya Goncharova, Costume design for an Apostle in Liturgie, 1915.
Garafola, The Ballets Russes and its World.
Figure 12. Photograph of Léonide Massine and Lydia Sokolova during rehearsals for
Garafola, The Ballets Russes and its World.
Figure 13. Mikhail Larionov, Study for a Cricket in Histoires Naturelles, 1917-19.
Garafola, The Ballets Russes and its World.
Figure 14. Poster advertising Chung Ling Soo’s act, 1916.
Figure 15. Pablo Picasso, Costume for the Chinese Conjurer in Parade, 1917.
Figure 16. Pablo Picasso, Costume for the French Manager in Parade, 1917.
Figure 17. Pablo Picasso, Costume for the French Manager, Horse, and American
Manager in Parade, 1917.
Figure 18. Pablo Picasso, Set for Parade, 1917.
Figure 19. Photograph of reconstruction of Parade by Edward Burbridge, 1973.
Figure 20. Louis Marcoussis, detail of cartoon, Schéhérazade au Bal des Quat’z’ Arts,
from La Vie Parisienne (15 Jun 1912).
Figure 21. Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1904-5.
Oil on canvas, Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art.
Figure 22. Pablo Picasso, Harlequin Playing Guitar, 1918.
Figure 23. Pablo Picasso, Harlequin, 1917.
Figure 24. Pablo Picasso, Au Lapin Agile, 1905.
Oil on canvas.
Figure 25. Photograph of Picasso with scene painters working on the overture curtain for
Figure 26. Pablo Picasso, Overture curtain for Parade, 1917.
Tempera on canvas.
Figure 27. Pablo Picasso, Diaghilev and Salisburg, 1919.
Before the Ballets Russes introduced Paris to Serge Diaghilev’s radical new vision of
the stage in 1909, the Western European ballet had languished for decades in dreary
repetitiveness. One ballet was indistinguishable from the next, and they always consisted of
“capable dancers spinning like tops,” with “scores of strong young legs in pink tights doing
the same things in the same little gauze skirts, and smiling the same smile whether they were
the witches in Faust or the sirens of the Venusberg.”1 The rehearsal salon at the Paris Ópera
showcased the ballerinas so the wealthy abonnés could lust after their favorite girls and take
them home. Artistically, the décors were stunted by historicity and imitation of the old
masters, and entrusted to handicraftsmen who knew nothing more than the slavish copying of
True artists, those who sought to depict a more serious reality on their canvases,
found little of value in the ballet. Instead, it was common for bohemian Parisian painters to
find their inspiration in cabarets and brothels, like Toulouse-Lautrec painting Loie Fuller or
La Goulue. The only artist known for his depictions of the ballet during this period was
Edgar Degas, who painted ballet rehearsals as a degraded symbol of modern Parisian
culture.3 The ballet had descended to the level of vulgar entertainment, and it lacked artistic
talent, creative innovation, and respect from the Parisian bourgeoisie.
Walter Archibald Propert, The Russian ballet in western Europe, 1909-1920 (New York: John Lane Co.,
Henning Rischbieter, Art and the stage in the 20th century; painters and sculptors work for the theater
(Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1968), 9.
Eunice Lipton, Looking into Degas: uneasy images of women and modern life (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1986), 114-15.
Parisian artists were in the midst of pioneering the greatest artistic revolution since
the Renaissance, yet they failed to see the ballet as a means of expanding their artistic
theories outside the canvas. After the Ballets Russes premiered in Paris and stunned
audiences with its unity of exotic décors, rich musical scores, and expert dancing from the
Russian tradition, it was only a matter of time before French painters realized its potential for
challenging themselves and promoting their work in front of brand new audiences.
The Ballets Russes’ most famous collaboration with a Parisian artist, of course, was
Pablo Picasso’s Parade, a one-act ballet that debuted in Paris on May 18, 1917. According
to Guillaume Apollinaire, the famous poet, writer, and art critic, the ballet achieved “for the
first time that alliance between painting and the dance, between the plastic and mimetic arts,
that is the herald of a more comprehensive art to come.”4 His comment was audacious and
gratifying, but it was also incorrect, for the Ballets Russes had been a modern theater
company since its inception, and it had always sought to achieve a Wagnerian unity between
the various elements of the ballet.
In the first chapter I will expound the argument that Diaghilev’s innovative spirit
guided the Ballets Russes towards Modernism long before Picasso’s participation. Diaghilev
pestered his comrades in the World of Art circle in St. Petersburg as soon as he joined their
ranks, urging them to question their conventional notions about art and demanding that they
push the limits of their own painting. Aspects of Modern art permeated Diaghilev’s creations
from his earliest pursuits as a magazine editor through to the premiere of Parade, but they
were most apparent and most significant in the context of the ballet.
Reprinted in Guillaume Apollinaire, Apollinaire on Art: essays and reviews, 1902-1918, ed. Leroy C. Breunig,
trans. Susan Suleiman (New York: Viking Press, 1972), 452.
In the second chapter I will argue that two of Diaghilev’s first scene painters, Léon
Bakst and Alexander Benois, held an important role in revitalizing the ballet by introducing
techniques and ideas from French Orientalist and Modernist painters. Although both artists
were reactionary when discussing the future of painting, they remained objective witnesses to
its development. The ballet was also a rare occasion where they participated in Modern art,
for the theater stage was especially receptive to unorthodox artistic techniques.
Despite their multitude of accomplishments in the Ballets Russes they are considered
to be eternally old-fashioned. Russian art scholars like John Bowlt have begun to repair their
legacies, but the majority of texts still praise Bakst for his exoticism and eroticism, or Benois
for his sensational Russian coloring, rather than recognizing them for their Modernist
tendencies.5 Both artists were well-acquainted with the avant-garde through research for
their magazine, Mir Iskusstva, their travels in Europe, or local exhibitions of French paintings.
Bakst’s designs for Schéhérazade from 1910 evoke the Romantic paintings of a half-century
prior, but their flat planes and vibrant colors resemble Matisse’s great textile paintings.
Benois’ Act I design for Petrouchka in 1911 is modern because its central architectural gate
mediates the relationship between the spectacle and its audience, an idea that was common in
contemporary painting. It also shares many common elements with Picasso’s later treatment
of a street scene for Parade, including the artists’ feelings toward theater. Bakst and Benois
may have looked to the past for inspiration, but they also looked to the West.
Diaghilev thrived on the innovations of his painters, but he also loathed any of their
works that he considered repetitive. When new designs by Bakst and Benois seemed to
repeat the same premises and styles as earlier ballets, Diaghilev focused his attention on
cultivating more innovative artistic directors for his company. In the third chapter, I will
Deborah Menaker Rothschild, Picasso’s «Parade» (London: Sotheby’s, 1991), 30.
argue that Natalya Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov were the first Ballets
Russes scene painters that can accurately be called avant-garde. Considering Goncharova’s
contributions to avant-garde painting and ballet décor, she is hardly given the attention she
deserves. I will show how Goncharova was trained to innovate from the beginning of her
career, and how her connections with French and Russian painters influenced her modern
approach to stage design. Goncharova’s and Larionov’s experiments with the Ballets Russes
anticipated Picasso’s revolutionary designs, but Apollinaire’s calculated praise for Parade
and the unfortunate demise of several ballets nullified their legacy. Nevertheless,
Goncharova and Larionov’s avant-garde ideas proliferated throughout the Ballets Russes and
ultimately prompted Diaghilev’s decision to commission Picasso in 1916.
In the final chapter I will interpret Picasso’s Parade in light of its Modernist forebears.
When Cocteau convinced Picasso to join the Ballets Russes, there was already a tradition of
collaboration with the avant-garde, and many of Picasso’s novel ideas had already been
developed, and some even staged, by previous artists. His designs for the Cubist scenery and
costumes were sensational to Parisian audiences, but they were not the first harmonious
décor as Apollinaire claimed. Picasso’s involvement is often considered a major influence
on the Ballets Russes, but his entry into a theatrical company also an even greater impact on
his own art. Although Parade is often considered an anti-historical ballet, it renewed
Picasso’s old fascination with the ballet and forced him to confront many of his feelings
about joining a theater company.
An art historical study of the ballet requires a methodology quite different from that
of traditional media such as painting, sculpture, or architecture. The first limitation is the
evanescent quality of the medium, a problem that applies to all types of performance or
installation art. Regardless of the amount of preliminary sketches, photographs, eyewitness
accounts, and recreations, it is impossible to experience the show as it was first presented.6 I
will primarily use the artists’ stage renderings and costume sketches to decipher their
Secondly, the vast number of collaborators in the Ballets Russes makes it difficult to
interpret their collective body of work in any meaningful way. Indeed, nearly all Ballets
Russes scholarship treats each individual artist or grouping of artists with its own essay, each
of which presents a disparate theme or argument. McQuillan’s dissertation was especially
helpful for conceiving of a structure for my own thesis, since it too was a purely art historical
study of the relationship between avant-garde painters and the ballet. McQuillan observes
that art history has been dominated by the methodologies of the “movement” and the
“monograph,” neither of which is appropriate for a study of so many painters and so many
creations.7 In my thesis, I will argue that Modernism inspired the creations of Diaghilev and
his Ballets Russes from the beginning, and I will verify that argument against the works of
five of Diaghilev’s most prominent artists.
The concept is simple, and yet it has never been applied to scholarship of the Ballets
Russes. It could successfully be expanded to include other artists, especially those World of
Art contributors like Nicholas Roerich who seemed to embrace French Modernism even
more than did Bakst or Benois. For the practical limits of this thesis, however, they have
been omitted in favor of a focused look at Bakst, Benois, Goncharova, Larionov, and Picasso.
Ballet Russes designs have been largely ignored in discussions of the most famous
painters’ careers precisely because they do not fit into conventional categories. I argue that
Melissa McQuillan, “Painters and the ballet, 1917-1926: an aspect of the relationship between art and the
theatre”. (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1979), 20.
these gray areas, where certain artists overlap with and influence others, provide the greatest
insight for understanding their ballets. The true art historical legacy of the Ballets Russes’
lies in its collaborative method, which encouraged original ideas about a modern ballet and
transmitted them to audiences throughout the world.
Chapter 1: Origins of the Ballets Russes and Diaghilev’s Modernism
I am firstly a great charlatan, though with brio; secondly a great charmeur;
thirdly, I have any amount of cheek; fourthly, I am a man with a great quantity
of logic, but with very few principles; fifthly, I think I have no real gifts. All
the same, I think I have just found my true vocation—being a Maecenas. I
have all that is necessary save the money—mais ça viendra.8
This is how Serge Pavlovich Diaghilev described himself in a letter to his stepmother
in 1895. It is a prescient note that simultaneously acknowledges his personal shortcomings
and predicts his means of overcoming them. It is true that Diaghilev demonstrated few
musical or artistic talents in his youth. Despite a lifelong exposure to Russian paintings,
literature, music, and theatrical performances, and countless opportunities to participate in
them, Diaghilev eventually settled into the role of the impresario. He was a scholar for his
various exhibitions of paintings and drawings, the editor of the St. Petersburg magazine Mir
Iskusstva, and the director of the legendary Ballets Russes from 1909 until his death in 1929.
Throughout his career, Diaghilev used his intuition to hire the most innovative musicians,
dancers, and designers he could find, and he had an impeccable sense of timing for pushing
his audience’s tastes and introducing it to Modern reinterpretations of the stage.
In his youth, Diaghilev sought out works of art that could stun and challenge him.
The date, nationality, and artist did not matter, and his allegiances to certain painters changed
frequently. He thrived on the innovation of others as fuel for his own projects, and he was
bitterly disappointed whenever he thought an artist was repeating himself or becoming
complacent. He held the same standard for the designers of the Ballets Russes; he considered
Schéhérazade and Petrouchka timeless works of art, but any imitation of them sacrificed the
Quoted in Arnold L. Haskell and Walter Nouvel, Diaghileff, His Artistic and Private Life (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1935), 87.
integrity of both. To continue to thrive, the Ballets Russes required a constant infusion of
new ideas and talent. Diaghilev’s insatiable need to innovate developed early in his artistic
As a young boy, Diaghilev spent summers with his large extended family interpreting
the roles of Tom Thumb, the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood9. When
he stayed at his grandfather’s house in rural Perm he studied paintings and engravings by
well-known Russian artists that hung on the walls. His parents’ weekly parties were a locus
for Perm’s bourgeois cultural elite where doctors, engineers and musicians gathered regularly
to enjoy string quartets, operas, and tableaux vivants depicting the latest themes in Russian
painting. He had the typical upbringing of an upper-class Russian youth, which led to an
exceptional passion for music, art, and literature.10
Throughout his early career, however, he faced skepticism regarding his artistic talent,
particularly at the Conservatory of Music. There, Diaghilev played an experimental piece for
the famous composer Rimsky-Korsakov and his friend Nikolai Andreyevich. Little is known
of what Diaghilev composed except that it rejected traditional composition. It is known that
they were appalled by the performance, since they responded, “either he has no ear
whatsoever or he’s decided to make fun of us.”11 In 1894, Diaghilev rearranged and sang a
scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov for his friends at a party. They hated it, and the
incident was so traumatic for Diaghilev that he abandoned any hope of becoming a composer.
Diaghilev faced rejection from his peers as much as from his instructors. When he
moved from Perm to St. Petersburg to stay with his cousin Dmitry Filosofov in 1890, he was
Lynn Garafola and Nancy Van Norman Baer, eds., The Ballets Russes and its World (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1999), 16.
V.V. Yastrebtsev, Reminiscences of Rimsky-Korsakov, ed. and trans. Florence Jonas (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1985), 90. Quoted in Ibid., 41.
introduced to a group of aesthetes who called themselves the Society for Self-Improvement,
or the Nevsky Pickwickians. The core group consisted of four schoolmates, Alexander
Benois, Konstantin Somov, Walter Nouvel, and Filosofov, who all assembled regularly for
abstract discussions about art and music. These St. Petersburg scholars were cultured
according to Western cosmopolitan standards, and most of them had no Russian blood at all.
Benois recalled his impatience with Diaghilev’s lack of refinement:
…his Russianism had for a long time a strong provincial flavour. It was not
that he was uncouth, or “simple” in a provincial way; yet he was infinitely less
educated than we and often shocked us by his manners and a very
disagreeable sans gêne, that was at times most embarrassing. For a
considerable period, too, he surprised and irritated us by his indifference to the
plastic arts, to history and literature—to all the things, in fact, that chiefly
Although the group received Diaghilev halfheartedly at first, his signature tenacity
helped him to become its unofficial leader when it transformed and expanded into the World
of Art circle. The World of Art did more than build his reputation, however. As publisher of
the group’s anthology, Mir Iskusstva, he gained access to influential Russian artists and
financiers, opened up important contacts with Western Europe, and learned how to
coordinate an extremely complex network of contributors to produce what quickly became
the most influential publication in the Russian art world.
Mir Iskusstva was first published in 1898 by the World of Art with Diaghilev as
editor. The initial focus of the magazine was to inform the public of contemporary trends in
Russian art, with significant attention also paid to the French Post-Impressionists and
Fauvists and the German and Scandinavian exponents of the style moderne: Symbolist and
Art Nouveau designers like Aubrey Beardsley and Edvard Munch. The World of Art was the
first major artistic group to emerge in Russia since the Wanderers almost thirty prior, and
Alexander Benois, Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, trans. Mary Britnieva (London: Putnam, 1941), 150.
Diaghilev made a strong effort to distance his magazine from any ties with the previous
The earlier protagonists of Russian art had been the Peredvizhniki, or Wanderers, a
group of realists founded in 1870 to challenge the academic genre system. Their subject of
choice, exemplified in the work of Ilyá Répin, was a scene where the characters were
arranged to create a dramatic and complex narrative [Fig. 1]. It was a Populist movement
that exalted journeymanship, questions of morality, and the labor of the lowest classes. The
art critic Vladimir Stasov praised and encouraged these Realists until they claimed the status
of the national art.
Diaghilev had a different and more political interpretation of the Wanderers. If the
Wanderers represented the national painting of Russia, then the drunk and toiling peasants on
their canvases represented the national character of Russia. He hoped that Russia would one
day be recognized as a cultural and economic peer of modern Western society, and he saw
Stasov’s artists as a backwards and provincial obstacle to Russia’s artistic and cultural
To prove that Russian artists were worldly and educated, Diaghilev and his peers in
the World of Art frequently emulated emerging Western European arts, particularly
Symbolism and the Art Nouveau. The most relevant to their situation at the time was the art
of printing, which several of them adopted with particular enthusiasm. Bakst became the
primary illustrator and designer for Mir Iskusstva, adopting a historicizing style that evoked
and often copied the book illustrations of the British sensualist Aubrey Beardsley [Fig. 2].
It was never clear in the World of Art or in the Ballets Russes how much of Russia’s
new artistic identity should be appropriated from Western society and how much should
come from other national traditions, so there developed an eclectic balance between the two
that defined their tastes. Easel painting never appeared in Russia until Peter the Great
imported it in the Eighteenth Century, but there was a strong legacy of icon painting and folk
handicrafts. More progressive artists guided Russian art away from clichéd paintings of the
working class towards a scholarly reinterpretation of the applied arts and indigenous Russian
culture, specifically in icon painting, woodcarving, the fairy tale, and the folk song.13
Diaghilev first encountered the Russian Arts and Crafts movement through Savva
Mamontov, a wealthy patron and the founder of the Abramtsevo artistic collective.
Mamontov had previously studied William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement,
but he recognized the potential for a similar Russian movement because Russia already had a
tradition of indigenous peasant handicrafts where the English had largely fabricated one. He
employed artists to study traditional crafts and to design buildings on the Abramtsevo
property; the greatest collaborative artwork at Abramtsevo was the Church of Spas
Nerukotvornyi, a building to which almost every artist in the collective contributed.
Mamontov was also an early patron of artists as scenic designers, and he
commissioned them for his Krotkov Private Opera Troupe beginning in 1885. For the
ensuing decade gossip about this wealthy “dilettante” and his novelty opera spread to St.
Petersburg, but the World of Art artists never saw his productions until he brought them to
the city in 1898. They then learned that Mamontov undertook opera “with the object of
presenting model performances of the best works of Russian composers and employing
young artists, unspoiled by success.”14 Diaghilev and Benois had never seen an opera with
John E. Bowlt, The silver age, Russian art of the early twentieth century and the "World of art" group
(Newtonville, Mass.: Oriental Research Partners, 1979), 24.
Benois, Reminiscences, 197.
so much attention paid to each of its individual components, and they were fascinated by
what could be achieved even with the company’s modest means. Benois stated,
I did not like everything—the planning was rather poor at times, and there was
a certain roughness in the technique…On the whole, Korovin’s décors amazed
us by their daring approach to the problem and, above all, by their high
artistic value—the very quality which was so often missing in the elaborate
productions of the Imperial stage.15
The Maryinsky Theatre and Romanov Court were considered brilliant for their
prodigious choreography and music, but their scenic design was plagued by the same overt
classicism that ruined the theater in Paris. Just as in Europe, directors of the operas and
ballets relied on overly historicizing artisans rather than “real” artists. Diaghilev had studied
music and theater throughout his youth, and when he saw a collaborative method similar to
that of Mir Iskusstva applied to the stage, he knew that he could do the same with Mir
Iskusstva’s tastes for the sensual, the exotic, and the modern.
Diaghilev and Mamontov consummated their shared vision when Mamontov agreed
to pay for half of the printing costs of Mir Iskusstva in 1898. The other half came from
Princess Mariia Klavdievna Tenisheva, a wealthy aristocrat who founded her own artistic
collective called Talashkino. Alexander Benois curated exhibitions at Talashkino, and
several Mir Iskusstva artists studied in her school to prepare for entry into the Imperial
Academy of Fine Arts.
Neither of Diaghilev’s primary supporters lasted beyond the first several issues of the
magazine. In 1899 Mamontov was arrested and revealed to be insolvent, and in 1900
Princess Tenisheva, fed up with her depiction in newspapers and cartoons as a pawn of
Diaghilev, decided to withdraw all of her financial support from Mir Iskusstva. The
magazine continued, however, as did its patrons’ legacies; several of Mamontov’s chief
decorators were employed for Diaghilev’s early stage projects, and the Degas ballet paintings
purchased by Tenisheva for World of Art exhibitions swayed its inner circle towards
embracing Impressionism and more recent movements in modern art. McQuillan even points
out that Degas was the most frequently reproduced Impressionist painter in Mir Iskusstva,
and acknowledges that it is “tempting to see some link between the frequency with which
Degas was illustrated in Mir Iskusstva, Degas’ interest in dance, and the later interest of the
Mir Iskusstva painters in ballet.”16
Following his experiences with the Russian artistic collectives, Diaghilev dedicated
himself to theater and reoriented Mir Iskusstva to reflect his new interests in theatrical,
applied arts, and Western and Russian painting. Diaghilev took his first foray into the ballet
in 1899 when he joined the staff of the Imperial Theaters as a special assistant to the Director.
He quickly proved to be competent and charming, and he received praise from the Tsar for
his fully illustrated yearbook of theatrical shows. Here, however, the confidence and
uncompromising ambition that would make him famous in the Ballets Russes was his
undoing; his demand for full control of artistic direction and his insistent employment of half
a dozen Mir Iskusstva artists caused him to be maneuvered out of a 1901 production of Sylvia
and banned from future work with the Imperial Theaters.17
Diaghilev had himself witnessed the sensational attraction of modern theater. In
addition to seeing the Krotkov Private Opera Troupe, he commended Richard Wagner’s
conception of the opera as a gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art.” It was an approach to
art that guided Diaghilev and all of the principals of the World of Art in their creation of the
Melissa McQuillan, “Painters and the ballet, 1917-1926: an aspect of the relationship between art and the
theatre” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1979), 57.
Carol Lee, Ballet in western culture: a history of its origins and evolution (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999),
Ballets Russes. In 1906, he met Vsevolod Meyerhold, the great director from the Stravinsky
Theater-Studio who may have encouraged Diaghilev to combine his interest in Symbolism
with his passion for the ballet.18
In the years preceding the foundation of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev recognized that
traditional ballet had peaked in Russia. Imperial pressure had already stifled Diaghilev’s
artistic vision for Sylvia, and it continued to limit the creativity of other theater luminaries,
particularly after the Revolution of 1905. Benois resigned from a post in the Conservatory of
Music to protest the dismissal of the liberal and outspoken Rimsky-Korsakov. The weight of
history also began to bear down on the ballet, just as it had done in France a century before.
The French tutus, corps de ballet, and pointe work were adored when they first debuted in
Russia, but they became repetitive and underwhelming when accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s
brilliant scores. Diaghilev keenly perceived the stifling influence of the Tsar and realized
that he could provide a fertile creative opportunity to many of Russia’s most talented and
underappreciated students of dance and music.
Diaghilev increased his activities abroad, and he began to realize the pathetic state of
ballet in France and the opportunity to introduce audiences to a completely new vision. It
was also an opportunity for him to absorb the foreign trends in modern art, and his letters
from that period reveal an intense dislike for the mundane and repetitive. His greatest lament
when visiting exhibitions in Paris in 1902 was the “abundance of advanced paintings” and
the number of young artists who “have become well behaved, moderate, and fearful of
advancing too far…Not enough mistakes are being made.”19 It was not until 1917 that
Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 53.
Serge Lifar, Serge Diaghilev, his life, his work, his legend; an intimate biography (New York: G.P. Putnam’s
Sons, 1940), 99.
Diaghilev challenged Jean Cocteau to “astonish me” with Parade,20 but his need to be
challenged by art had always informed his tastes and criticism.
Following this guideline, Diaghilev began challenging Paris audiences with a series
of Russian exhibitions. Mir Iskusstva ceased publication in 1904, but it lived on in 1906
when Diaghilev exhibited the section of Russian painting in the Salon d’Automne, one year
after Matisse and the Fauves had scandalized the Paris art world. With the exhibition
Diaghilev introduced Western audiences to the entire history of Russian painting from its
early icons to the World of Art painters like Benois, Bakst, and even Natalya Goncharova
and Mikhail Larionov, two of the most progressive painters of the Russian avant-garde. The
exhibition was so successful that it garnered the support of the Comtesse de Greffulhe, who
was sufficiently impressed by Diaghilev’s charm, vast knowledge and enthusiasm to finance
every subsequent season of Russian art until the outbreak of World War I.
In 1907 Diaghilev followed his success with a season of “Russian Music Through the
Ages,” a truly elaborate series of five concerts that spanned Russian musical composition
from the Eighteenth through Twentieth Centuries. Parisians had seen Russian painting the
previous year, and this year they went crazy for contemporary composers like Rimsky-
Korsakov and Mussorgsky. Russian culture was already fashionable in France thanks to
amicable diplomacy following the Franco-Prussian War, and Diaghilev’s exhibitions set the
stage for his ultimate vision of the unified work of art that would come the following year.
Diaghilev staged Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov in the Paris Opéra in 1908, and
it was a sensation to Parisian audiences who had never experienced a painter’s theater. It
was his first fully-realized theatrical production and the first time that his World of Art
painters applied their talents to his vision of the stage. Every act was designed by a separate
painter, and their standards of production could not compare to later seasons of the Ballets
Russes, but it was nevertheless an astonishing production that fascinated audiences.
After years of frustration with Mir Iskusstva and his ventures with the Imperial Ballet
in Russia, Diaghilev finally had control of his artistic pursuits. Paris eagerly awaited the
follow-up to Boris Godunov, and Diaghilev was in a position to create exactly what he
wanted to see on stage. His artists were eager to contribute, and dancers from the Imperial
Ballet were easily accessible. Diaghilev’s reputation in Paris was building, and he was
financially and creatively prepared to stun audiences with his vision of the modern ballet.
Chapter 2: Benois and Bakst
When Schéhérazade premiered on June 4, 1910, it seduced audiences with its exotic
décor and shocked them with its fantastic and sexually charged narrative. The most
fascinating aspect of it, along with the previous season of ballets, was its unity of music,
painting, costumes, and direction.
The ballet depicted the first tale of The Thousand and One Nights. It evoked
Orientalist themes from the art and literature of the previous century, but its execution was
entirely modern. It drew on Richard Wagner’s conception of the gesamtkunstwerk and Savva
Mamontov’s practice of intense artistic collaboration. Diaghilev infused his company with
seriousness, talent and innovation, and he financed it with the support of a wealthy
balletomane. The result was a profound contribution to the art of the theater, and one that
immediately surpassed the mediocre French ballet.
The two greatest artists in the first phase of the Ballets Russes, Léon Bakst and
Alexander Benois, elevated the art of theater into high culture. Although Diaghilev pushed
his painters to go in new directions, the artists controlled the décor and even the ballet
scenarios. Benois said,
It was we, the painters (not professionals in theatrical decoration, but ‘true’
painters who made the décor through free infatuation with the theatre), who
also helped to arrange the large patterns of the dances and all the staging. It is
this unofficial and non-professional direction which lent a very particular
character to our public appearance and which (I do not mean to err with an
excess of presumption) contributed very much to the success.21
In the early stages of the Ballets Russes, the artists were peers of Diaghilev rather
than his subordinates. Therefore the artist’s individual style determined the appearance of his
McQuillan, 75. Reprints Alexandre Benois, “Serge de Diaghilew”, Revue Musicale (December 1930), 31.
designs, and varied from ballet to ballet. In these early ballets Bakst and Benois worked as
eclectic Modernists, combining classical artistic movements with the most recent work of
Matisse and his contemporaries.
A review of the literature on these artists, however, gives the impression that they
stepped out of a time machine. Scholars will document the audience’s fascination with their
ballets and almost always add, “But these were marvellous succés de scandales… exotic and
erotic, but never so coarse as to be contemporary, popular, or typically French.”22 To say
that Bakst’s designs were not “contemporary” or “French,” one must make the same claim of
Matisses’ textile paintings, which strongly influenced Schéhérazade.
Bakst and Benois wavered between styles, and I will show that their assessment of
contemporary art was often hasty and overly serious, and even contradicted tendencies in
their art. Their temperaments reflected the structure of the World of Art organization, which
was based on abstract group discussion, and their immaturity, since despite their young age
and minimal experience they sought to define what was successful or not in painting, music,
theatre, and literature throughout history.
Bakst’s relationship with modernism is difficult to define. Certainly he loved the
historical epochs from Greece and the Middle East above all else, and his reactions to it were
exceptionally strong to the point of being sexual. When he traveled with Valentin Serov to
Greece in May 1907, he was struck by an urge to climb onto the pediment of a temple so he
could “run my hand over the marble, to find out what Niobe’s shoulders are like, what her
breasts are like.”23
Menaker Rothschild, 30.
John Bowlt, et. al. Theatre of Reason/ Theatre of Desire: the art of Aleksandre Benois and Léon Bakst
(Lugano: Thyssen-Bornemisza Foundation, 1998), 158. Reprints Léon Bakst, “Serov and I in Greece. Travel
He sought a timeless and beautiful art and, like the Orientalists, his images for the
stage were filled with dynamic compositions and vibrant palettes. Bakst had a strong kinship
with French artists of an earlier generation like Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose career was defined
by archaeological recreations of the Greek and Roman world and exaggerated depictions of
the Middle East. Bakst even took occasional lessons from Gérôme and other celebrity
painters after his first trip to Europe in 1891.24
One of Gérôme’s most famous paintings, The Carpet Merchant of 1887 [Fig. 3],
depicts a group of men discussing a rug for sale in a spacious and ornately decorated room.
The tapestries, with their complex patterns of red, blues, and greens, contrast sharply with the
tan walls of rough stone. The architecture’s strong vertical masses and perspective diagonals
defy the canvas’ upper boundaries but are cut off at the bottom by a disorganized pile of
carpets. Although Gérôme was restrained by classicism, he used the rugs as an expressive
and challenging study of value and local color.
Bakst’s stage design for Schéhérazade [Fig. 4] from 1910 shares the same genre and
dynamic perspective. Bakst uses the backdrop curtain as a means of overcoming the limiting
horizontal shape of the proscenium, with a roof that extends infinitely upward and walls that
recede along endless diagonals. Just as Gérôme does in his painting, Bakst anchors the steep
angles with more tangible objects below: the masses of bodies, rugs, and pillows on the floor;
the asymmetrical curtain on the upper left; the colonnade on the right.
It is unlikely that Bakst ever saw this painting in person, since it was shipped to
America soon after its creation. Bakst certainly would have seen Gérôme’s Turkish Women
at the Bath [Fig. 5], which had been in the St. Petersburg collection of Czar Alexander III
Bowlt, Theatre of Reason, 38.
since 1876.25 The painting contains the same emphasis on vegetal design and theatrical
depth, and with its graceful nude figures has a sensuality that surely would have incited
Bakst was not the only painter of his generation to admire the Orientalists. Even Paul
Cézanne responded to Eugéne Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger with the same visceral sensation
that swept Bakst’s Paris audiences. “Those pale pinks, those stuffed cushions, that slipper,
all that limpidity, what can I say, they penetrate your eye as a glass of wine into your throat,
and one is drunk at once.”26 Although the Orientalists had declined in popularity in the Paris
art world by 1900, they were far from irrelevant. Henri Matisse, a controversial artist after
his Fauvist exhibition at the Salon d’automne in 1905, is still considered “one of the last and
certainly one of the most ardent of orientalists,”27 for it was from the Middle East that he
drew inspiration for his celebrated textile paintings. His subject matter, however, differed
strongly from his predecessors, for he actually loathed artists like Delacroix and Gérôme and
the colonialist painters that they spawned.
Matisse’s influence on Bakst cannot be taken for granted, especially considering
Bakst’s typical comments about modern art. “Painting of the future calls for a lapidary
style,” Bakst predicted, “because the new art cannot endure the refined […] Painting of the
future will crawl down into the depths of coarseness.”28 Despite these remarks, however,
Bakst’s scenic designs betray an affinity for the bold colors and simplified patterns in
Matisse’s work. Bakst would have been aware of Matisse’s paintings either through his trips
to Paris or through visits to the Moscow collection of Sergei I. Shchukin, whose mansion was
Gerald M. Ackerman, The Life and Work of Jean-Léon Gérôme (New York: Sotheby’s, 1986), 238.
Quoted in Jack Cowart, et. al. Matisse in Morocco (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1990), 24.
Bowlt, Theatre of Reason, 28.
filled with the world’s greatest and largest collection of modern paintings, including the
Nabis, Vuillard, Carriére, Rousseau, Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, and others. Shchukin
purchased Matisse’s Harmony in Red [Fig. 6] in 1908, and the painting showcases Matisse’s
typical flattening of space and bold, colorful harmonies.
Even if Bakst claimed to dislike Matisse’s paintings, the necessities of the stage led
him towards similar solutions in his own designs. Theatrical scenery lends itself to a loose,
painterly style because slavish levels of detail are lost from a distance. This is one of the first
lessons that Diaghilev learned while preparing costumes with his designers for Boris
Godunov in 1908. He spent considerable effort shopping for authentic jewelry at local
bazaars only to discover that they could not be read from the audience. Bakst clearly took
this into consideration with his design for Schéhérazade, although he advanced it a step
farther. In addition to simplifying the patterns that cover his stage, Bakst used them
repetitively to unify the scenery and costumes and flatten the entire space like a two-
dimensional canvas. The entire process was very similar to that of Matisse, and critics
described it in a similar manner:
The barbaric, exacerbated, and magnificent sumptuousness of the décors and
costumes of the first ballets, was obtained by far simpler means than those
used by our Parisian decorators. The great Russian painters of the Diaghilew
company always had a horror of trompe l’oeil, of all that which was pretty,
little, of all that which tended to diminish, reduce, specify, of all that which
hindered the spectator’s flight of imagination. On the contrary, they put
everything in the work in order to give wings to this imagination, they excited,
they stimulated it, they delighted it, they made it attain the summits to which it
could not aspire without them.29
In a simplified sense, the ballet stage had traditionally been treated as a hollow box in
which the designer painted his trompe l’oeil sets on three walls and the choreographer filled
the void with his dancers. In his design for Schéhérazade, however, Bakst embraced the two-
McQuillan, 79. Quotes André Warnod, “Les peintres et les Ballets russes”, Revue Musicale, 81.
dimensional nature of his scenery and flattened the entire proscenium space by using a
unified palette of red, green, and blue for his décor and costumes. He unified it with the
stage by placing pillows, rugs, and architectural elements downstage. Some fans of Bakst’s
décor were enthralled by its flowing drapery in costume and sets, the ravishing array of
colors, and its sensual combination with music, choreography, and story. Others recognized
something more profound in his work, and appreciated that “the illusion does not rest on the
methodical utilization of traditional precedents of reproduction, perspective and trompe l’oeil,
and that it is not necessary that each of the parts which make up the scenic image produce an
‘absolute effect of reality.’ ”30
Naturally, Bakst’s new vision of the stage also had its detractors who saw the
flattening of the space as a lazy and poorly conceived solution. Sometimes those who
supported Bakst’s painterly use of color and texture were hostile to his treatment of the
proscenium arch as a flat plane, saying, “to make a picture of the scene, that is in integrating
it through the play of colors to the texture of the décor, that is to forget that it is firstly a
space which it is necessary to organize and structure.”31 Instead of trying to reproduce a
setting from reality, Bakst created a world that acknowledged its own theatricality.
While the adapted musical score by Rimsky-Korsakov and the choreography by
Fokine were both innovative in their own right, it was Bakst’s decorations that captivated
audiences. Each element of the stage, instead of receding in a naturalistic way, projected
forward its exotic beauty and vied for the audience’s attention to the point where the scenery
completely enveloped and even dominated the dancers and actors.
Ibid., 24. Quotes Denis Bablet. Esthétique Générale du Décor de Théâtre de 1870 à 1914 (Paris: 1965), 190.
Ibid., 214. McQuillan, in her analysis, treats these sources as if they came from different critics. Both were
written by Bablet and speak to the difficulty of confronting Bakst’s new approach to ballet scenery.
In the end, Bakst’s bold patterns and sensuous costumes came full circle when
Matisse joined the Ballets Russes and designed scenery and costumes for Le Chant du
Rossignol in 1920. At one point Matisse even asked Diaghilev to borrow one of Bakst’s
costumes from Schéhérazade as a model for his own creations.32 Diaghilev realized the
importance of this connection, and in 1928 he asked Matisse to update Schéhérazade with
new sets and costumes, a request that ultimately went unrealized.33
Bakst had a further connection to Matisse and the Orientalists that dealt more with his
conception of the imagery than his execution of the painting. After spending years painting
in Algeria, Delacroix discovered that his paintings were far more effective when executed
from memory, so that the labor of imitation gave way to the process of imagination.
Delacroix wrote about this transformation in his journal: “I began making something passing
out of my trip to Africa only after I had forgotten all the little details and, in my pictures,
retained only the striking and poetic side.”34 Matisse followed this example, using his
collection of textiles and costumes to create an image severed from its geographic origins.
He was fascinated by the patterns and costumes and allowed their formal qualities to dictate
his compositions. The World of Art circle and its painters utilized a similar technique of
selective memory, and they synthesized timeless art from their studies and travels into a new
style that was nostalgic, progressive, and stunning.
Alexander Benois, another of the first great Ballets Russes designers, also drew from
his memories to create a modern ballet with Petrouchka in 1911. Like Bakst, he had an
ambivalent attitude towards modern art that fluctuated between objective appreciation and
Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2004), 28. Refers
to a letter from Matisse to his wife.
Cowart, 23. Excerpt from Eugéne Delacroix’s journal.
contempt. He called Picasso a symptom of “our deplorable culture” because he abandoned
what Benois considered truly beautiful art for something vulgar and concerned primarily with
formalism.35 Although he recognized technical talent in the Futurists, particularly in the
theatrical work of Vladimir Tatlin, he believed their major shortcoming to be that “they do
not ‘tempt’, do not ‘infect’, do not enchant, and, no doubt, that explains the tedium, the
oppressive tedium […] the whole of their creativity and all of their activity is a total rejection
of love, a total affirmation of the cult of emptiness, of gloom, of the ‘nothing’ of the black
square in the white frame.”36 Like Bakst, however, Benois incorporated a modern palette
and brushstroke into his designs for Petrouchka [Fig. 7], and many of the ideas that governed
its creation may have come from contemporary painting in France. It is also widely
considered to be the greatest synthesis of Diaghilev’s equal interests in choreography, music,
and décor, a title that Apollinaire would later claim for Picasso’s Parade.
The ballet’s setting is a pre-Lenten Butter Week balagan, which was a street fair
typical in the St. Petersburg of Benois’ youth. In Petrouchka, puppets come to life and
escape from the puppet-theatre into their rooms to act out a love story. Petrouchka, the main
character, escapes the control of his master so he can seduce the Ballerina. She resists his
advance and ends up in the arms of the Moor, whose design comically references Bakst’s
Orientalist designs from Cleopatra and Schéhérazade. The supernatural and fantastic
elements of the ballet manifest in its bright scenery by Benois, discordant musical score by
Stravinsky, and naturalistic choreography by Michel Fokine.
Like Bakst, Benois had learned to loosen his brushstroke and simplify the details of
his scenery for maximum expressiveness and unity of décor. The ornate panels that adorn
Bowlt, Theatre of Reason, 28.
Ibid., 150. Reprints Benois, “The Last Futurist Exhibition” (1916).
the bright blue walls on stage left and right recall Matisse’s Fauvist still-life paintings from
the Salon d’Automne and Shchukin’s collection. Benois’ perspective is quirky and
unmeasured, far removed from the rigid academic paintings of his early years. Although
modern, it nevertheless accords with his vision of art: it is bold and painterly but still
comprehensible, and its lavish decoration reflects Benois’ bourgeois tastes.
The modern theories behind Benois’ designs are even more significant than his décor.
Benois isolated the stage from the viewer by framing it with a large architectural gate. All of
the ballet’s action unfolds within the gate, which gives the audience a feeling of distant
observation. Benois created a ballet within a ballet, and his painted frame within the
proscenium arch excludes the audience from experiencing the fair as a true participant.
Although the framing element could merely have been Benois’ way of intermediating
between the ballet’s supernatural aspects and its astonished audience, it was more likely
Benois’ attempt at meta-theatrical stage design, where the ballet recognizes the audience and
purposely prohibits its entrance. The artist’s acknowledgement of his own medium was a
common device in the fine arts of the time. McQuillan says that Benois’ frame “has
something of the artistic self-consciousness of Seurat’s specially painted, framing edges or
the enframing rope in Picasso’s almost contemporary Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912”.37
By designing the ballet and the frame that surrounds it, Benois asserted total control over the
design and involved himself in its entire creation from its inception to its viewing by the
public. An artist-created frame manipulates the physical boundary between a work of art and
its audience far better than an unaltered proscenium arch or, in the case of Picasso’s and
Seurat’s paintings, a traditional wooden frame.
The framing element is just one aspect of the décor that Petrouchka shares with
Picasso’s 1917 design for Parade. Benois was also inclined towards what he called
“historical sentimentalism”38 and affection for his childhood memories. Reflecting on the
street fair that inspired Petrouchka, he recalled, “That visit to Yegarev’s balagan was my first
experience of the theatre and to this day I consider it to have been a most wonderful
beginning to my artistic life, a beginning which had the greatest significance for the whole of
my existence.”39 Picasso himself had a strong affinity with the theater, evident and well
documented in his pre-Cubist years, and resurgent after his participation in the Ballets Russes.
Both painters were particularly fond of Harlequin from the commedia dell’arte.
Benois first saw him in 1874, and described him as “youthful, ideally built, with a charming
face that one imagined behind the mystery mask […] the darling of the fairies, who dressed
in clothes sparkling with spangles and performed the most wonderful miracles.”40 Picasso
had his own conception of Harlequin that transformed throughout his life and sometimes
served as an alias for himself and others.
Although Picasso never saw Petrouchka performed, it is likely that he was aware of
its brilliant design since it was the most widely popular production of the Ballets Russes.
Indeed the premise of Parade is basically a modern adaptation: the Puppet-master becomes
the towering Manager figures; the puppets become an American girl, a Chinese conjurer, and
a pair of acrobats; the Matisse-like architectural gate becomes a Cubist architectural gate.
Petrouchka was innovative for much more than its décor alone. Despite the
supernatural traits of Petrouchka and the other puppets, Fokine’s choreography was more
naturalistic than any of the formulaic creations of the Imperial Ballet and had a kinship with
Bowlt, Theatre of Reason, 29
Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theatre, which put on its first St. Petersburg season
in 1901.41 Although Stanislavsky directed plays rather than ballet, he had the same goal of
directing his actors to move naturally so that the story was advanced by logical gestures
rather than pantomimes. Fokine followed the same example, and his corps de ballet moved
like a chaotic crowd rather than a unified chorus.
Diaghilev perceived a level of creative tolerance for Stanislavsky’s theatre that he
sought for his ballet company:
The chief prerogative of this group lies in the fact that it can allow itself to
take risks which any other daring innovator, enjoying less popularity, would
pay dearly for. Here you have a group to whom everything will be forgiven:
more, every effort will be made to give credence to its sincerity and the
seriousness of its aims, however outrageous they may seem.42
Thus Diaghilev anticipated the need for a gradual shift towards the avant-garde,
incorporating artists only when he felt the time was right and the Ballets Russes had
developed enough trust with its audience. Although more progressive than Benois, he
recognized the past for what it could contribute to the advancement of art. Lifar described
Diaghilev’s relationship to the past and qualified his rampant progressivism: “What he hated
was not, properly speaking, ‘the past’, but the past when it laid claim to govern the present.
The past, as such, provided he could subscribe to its art, possessed in his eyes, an eternal
value.”43 To achieve the next evolution of a modern ballet, Diaghilev called on two painters
from his past, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov. They were two members of the
Russian Avant-Garde who Diaghilev knew primarily through Russian folk paintings that he
had exhibited in France in 1906. Benois, the same man who compared their generation’s
Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 19.
Quoted in Lifar, 79.
work to the “puerility, chaos, and unruliness of savages,”44 recommended that Goncharova
be the designer for Diaghilev’s 1914 follow-up to Petrouchka, the Russian folktale Le Coq
d’Or (The Golden Cockerel).
Bowlt, Theatre of Reason, 29.
Chapter 3: Goncharova and Larionov
When Diaghilev commissioned Natalya Goncharova to design scenery and costumes
for Le Coq d’Or in 1914, he charted a new artistic direction for his ballet company.
Goncharova and her husband Mikhail Larionov were two of the leading avant-garde painters
in Russia, and they had already established a reputation in Europe during Diaghilev’s 1906
exhibition at the Salon d’Automne. Goncharova’s Liturgie and Larionov’s Histoires
Naturelles, the artists’ two most innovative concepts for the ballet, had proposed an
unprecedented level of harmony between the scenery, the choreography of the actors, and the
shape and structure of the costumes. They were so radical, in fact, that Diaghilev decided
Parisian audiences would not tolerate them, and the ballets never proceeded beyond the
rehearsal stage. Nevertheless, Goncharova and Larionov were the first truly avant-garde
painters to join the company, and they provoked a culture of radical experimentation in the
Ballets Russes that opened up dialogues with Italian Futurists and led to the eventual
involvement of the School of Paris painters.
Historically, Goncharova has never received the attention she deserves for steering a
new artistic direction for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. Contemporaries of Diaghilev like
Serge Lifar wrote about her designs only in passing, usually restricting their discussion of her
to Le Coq d’Or. Only more recent scholarship, like that from the feminist Ballets Russes
expert Lynn Garafola, has successfully credited Goncharova with causing Diaghilev’s
“startling aesthetic turn…and his receptiveness to futurist ideas.”45 Even so, no one has
managed to capture the breadth of her artistic network and the multitude of her achievements
Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 83.
in the avant-garde. Using her early paintings and designs for the Ballets Russes, I will lay
out the various influences that predisposed Goncharova to experimentation and a career with
the avant-garde, identify the connections that made her a leader of the Russian futurists, and
show how these connections influenced Diaghilev’s acceptance of the avant-garde and his
desire to incorporate it into the Ballets Russes.
Neither Diaghilev nor Benois, who recommended that Goncharova join the company
in 1914, could have anticipated where Goncharova’s involvement would lead the Ballet
Russes. Diaghilev agreed to hire her on account of her early Impressionist and Primitivist
works from the Salon d’Automne in 1906. At that point Goncharova still depended heavily
on her knowledge of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painting techniques that she
learned in the Moscow College of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Soon enough, she
would begin to experiment with almost every Western movement she encountered, and she
and Larionov would develop their own respective techniques.
Although very little is known of Goncharova’s early painting career, it began in 1902
when her partner Larionov encouraged her to paint with the current techniques from the
School of Paris. She had previously studied under Prince Pavel Troubetskoi, the most
original sculptor in Russia at the time,46 who trained her to study forms from nature rather
than the antique casts and museum objects of the academy. This atypical instruction
ingrained her with modern attitudes about making art from the onset of her education. It also
gave her a strong awareness of space for her sculptural costumes for the Ballets Russes. For
all of Troubetkskoi’s originality, however, he could not keep Goncharova from quitting
sculpture; she perceived a limit to the medium’s expressive potential, doubtless an opinion
influenced strongly by Larionov.
Mary Chamot. Goncharova: Stage Designs and Paintings (London: Oresko Books Limited, 1979), 7.
Goncharova’s lack of classical training is precisely what allowed her to become a
thoroughly modern artist. Without the baggage of a classical education, she was free to
experiment from the beginning, and her early works show the simultaneous influences of the
Impressionists, the Nabis, the Fauves, and proto-Cubism [Fig. 8]. However, these early
paintings have also been criticized for their hesitant paint handling,47 likely a result of her
unusual education, and something that she would eventually master.
Most School of Paris painters had received a traditional education studying classical
art before pursuing their own paths. Goncharova’s training, on the other hand, began with the
Impressionists. Her museums were the Modernist collections of wealthy, progressive
Muscovites, and her antiquities were the religious icons and folk crafts of traditional Russia.
With so many influences to balance at once, and with new Western paintings constantly
being exhibited in Russia, her style developed and transformed at a staggering tempo. Few
inspirations remained constant, but one in particular had gripped her since her youth.
Goncharova was always fascinated with the Russian peasantry and its art, so bright
colors and abstracted imagery were a natural part of her cultural vocabulary. As an adult she
continued to study other forms of peasant culture throughout Russia. Like Picasso finding
his inspiration in Iberian and African sculpture at the Musée Ethnographie de Trocadéro,
Goncharova discovered a passion for indigenous Russian culture when she traveled south
with Larionov to the Ukraine. There she encountered the natural beauty of the coast,
Russia’s lush vegetation, and the colorful oriental costumes of the Tartars and Jews.48 Her
passion for national culture is what distanced Goncharova from other Russian Modernists,
who were often content with merely copying the techniques of the School of Paris rather than
developing a distinctly Russian art.
Goncharova was constantly innovating, and her style changed significantly following
her exhibition with the World of Art painters in 1906. This was due in large part to her
education at the Moscow School, which often led to collaborations with other students to put
on group exhibitions. Larionov and Goncharova co-founded the Jack of Diamonds group in
1910, which exhibited their work alongside Kazimir Malevich and Vasily Kandinsky. She
exhibited with Kandinsky’s Der Blaue Reiter exhibition in Munich in 1912, and with
Vladimir Tatlin in The Donkey’s Tail in 1912. Named after a group of students who had tied
a brush to a donkey’s tail and recorded its movements on canvas49, The Donkey’s Tail was
dedicated to experimental methods of making art and the promotion of a Russian artistic
culture. Goncharova’s artistic philosophies changed with her participation in each new
movement. Her passion for innovation and change resembled Diaghilev’s, surely one reason
for their fruitful collaboration.
Diaghilev had admired Goncharova’s work since he included her in the Russian
section of the Salon d’Automne in 1906, and he would have seen her enormous retrospective
of 758 works, the first of its kind, both for a woman and an avant-garde artist, in St.
Petersburg in 1914. However, he also would have been aware of her connections with the
Russian avant-garde, a group that was particularly hostile to the World of Art at the turn of
the century. Kazimir Malevich, a frequent collaborator with Larionov and Goncharova, once
wrote in a condescending letter to Alexander Benois and the World of Art, “My happiness in
not being like you will give me the strength to go further and further into the empty
Ibid., 12. Cited in Apollinaire, 483 as “a hoax engineered by Roland Dorgelés” to ridicule modern painting.
Dorgelés exhibited donkey-tail paintings by the invented “excessivist” artist Boronali at the Salon des
Indépendants of 1910.
wilderness. For it is only there that transformation can take place…You will never see sweet
Psyche’s smile on my square. And it will never be a mattress for love-making.”50 The most
radical Moscow painters loathed the sensuality and exoticism of Mir Iskusstva and used it as
a catalyst towards the austere styles of Suprematism and Constructivism.
The fact that Diaghilev was willing to accept a leader of the Russian avant-garde
shows how desperate he was to revitalize his company. The World of Art designers like
Benois and Bakst had begun to repeat themselves with their Orientalist, and neo-classical
themes. Although Diaghilev considered Petrouchka and Schéhérazade to be timeless works
of art, any echo of them was an anathema to him. Therefore, Goncharova represented
something new with her variety of styles: the Primitivist works that derived from Russian
peasant culture and religious icon painting; the Cubo-Futurist works that combined the
analytical modeling of cubism with the futurist obsession with mechanization and movement;
the new Rayonist style that attempted to model beams of light rather than the objects from
which they reflected [Fig. 9].51 Although her ideas were never fully realized on the stage,
they certainly influenced the company and prepared it for the innovations that would come in
Picasso’s Parade. Picasso continued Goncharova’s Cubo-Futurist experiments with
sculptural costumes, as well as décor that overwhelmed every facet of the stage scenery.
Goncharova took full advantage of the Parisian art world, and Larionov’s assistance,
when she arrived on April 29, 1914 to design the scenery and costumes for Le Coq d’Or, a
ballet choreographed to the opera by Rimsky-Korsakov. The ballet was modern, but it
featured Primitivist aesthetics that distilled Goncharova’s most recent and innovative work
[Fig. 10]. Nevertheless, audiences loved it, and it was the only highlight of the Ballets
Alla Rosenfeld, ed., Defining Russian graphic arts: from Diaghilev to Stalin, 1898-1934 (New Brunswick,
N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999), 76. Quotes a letter from Malevich to Benois.
Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 82
Russes’ 1914 season. Goncharova became immediately famous thanks to the ballet, and she
used her successful Modernist décors to ingratiate herself with the School of Paris painters.
Despite staying in Paris for only three months in 1914, Goncharova and Larionov
made a strong impression on their peers and even assembled an exhibition of their work in
June at the Galerie Paul Guillaume. Apollinaire was so full of praise for their talents that he
wrote the introduction to their exhibition catalogue. He called Goncharova the leader of the
Russian Futurists and said that in her art “the great and intellectually satisfying truths of
today’s scientific art are combined with the appealing subtleties of Oriental art.” 52 In both
artists, he was proud to see that “a universal art is being created, an art in which painting,
sculpture, poetry, music, and even science in all its manifold aspects will be combined.” To
give a proportional sense of the two artists’ rapid ascent, I point out that Pablo Picasso at this
time had not had a solo exhibition in at least four years, and his Demoiselles d’Avignon
would not be publicly shown at the Salon d’Antin until June 1916.
Considering the praise that Goncharova and Larionov received for their exhibition of
avant-garde paintings, I find it difficult to imagine why their designs for Le Coq d’Or were
less original. Goncharova’s The Weaver (Loom + Woman) [Fig. 9], painted in 1912-13,
shows a mastery of all of her simultaneous interests, and would have made a fascinating
transition onto the stage. One can only speculate how her Futurist obsession with mechanical
structures like the loom would have translated into an elaborate set. McQuillan describes a
set conceived by Larionov as a “circular arena with round, turning décors” with the audience
suspended above on a metallic net and with double actors to act out each role.53 Certainly
Goncharova’s interest in Rayonnism could have directed her towards a new manipulation of
light on the stage, since other Futurist theater-enthusiasts were already conceiving of scenery
projected with light.54 In Goncharova’s painting it is nearly impossible to discern the human
figure; perhaps her actors, too, would have eventually been replaced by light. Indeed, that
concept was realized two months before the premiere of Parade, when Giacomo Balla
presented a “ballet” called Fireworks that consisted entirely of light projections.55 Surely
these are all problems that Goncharova would have eagerly solved, so one must assume that
Diaghilev decided the limit of Parisian taste and restrained her innovations. Artists in the
School of Paris, however, were eager to accept her most radical work because they saw how
reflections of their own ideas manifested and transformed in Goncharova’s Russian culture.
Ultimately, Goncharova and Larionov were responsible for converting Diaghilev’s
tastes and convincing him that he should move beyond historicizing artists like Benois and
Bakst.56 After completing work on Le Coq d’Or, the couple returned to Russia so Larionov
could serve at the Russian front in World War I. Their experiments with the ballet had
hardly begun. After Larionov recovered from an injury at the front, they responded to a
frantic invitation from Diaghilev and joined him in Ouchy, Switzerland, in the summer of
1915, ready to commence the avant-garde phase of the Ballets Russes.
Many of Goncharova’s and Larionov’s ideas about the future of the Ballets Russes
developed from the theories of other innovators. The famous theatrical reformer Gordon
Craig said in his book of 1908, The Mask, that actors are the only things that ruin the
complete visual unity of the stage, and that by eliminating the actors you eliminate the last
Ibid., 124. Cites Pierre Albert-Birot’s vision of a contemporary theater from 1916.
Garafola, The Ballets Russes and its World, 332.
element of reality onstage and achieve art in all respects. In his most drastic vision of the
stage, the actor was to be replaced with his concept of an “über-marionette.”57
This conception of sculptural stage costumes resonated strongly with the Futurists’
interest in mechanization. Malevich was already exhibiting with Goncharova and Larionov
when he designed the sets and costumes for Victory over the Sun in 1913, creating masks for
the actors that were half the size of their entire bodies.58 Goncharova continued this concept
with her designs for Liturgie, and Larionov did the same for Histoires Naturelles in 1915.
Goncharova sought to bring her artwork to the stage in every respect. As such, the
human actors would have to be transformed just as Craig and the Futurists had already
predicted. Her costume designs for Liturgie [Fig. 11] are virtually identical to her Primitivist
icon paintings with their flat textures, exaggerated and angular facial features, and contorted
human figures. It is impossible to know how these would have translated into three-
dimensional costumes had the ballet reached production, but Goncharova’s own writings
help to expound her ambitions. She says, “The costume must not render difficult or
impossible any gesture necessary to the theatrical expression of a personage […] A gesture
can only be suppressed when it renders the necessary gestures more expressive.”59 Although
Goncharova’s sculptural costumes seem to be highly structured and cumbersome to the
dancers, particularly in the heavy robes of the Apostle, they were most likely designed in
close collaboration with the choreographer, Léonide Massine, to ensure the appropriate range
of movement for the dancer. Massine’s primary inspiration for the choreography for Liturgie
came from his visits to the Uffizi Galleries, where he was struck by the angular gestures of
Ibid., 90. Quotes Natalya Goncharova, “Quelques nots”, 21.
Cimabue’s Virgin and the flattened, unnatural poses of Byzantine icons.60 Photographs from
rehearsals [Fig. 12] demonstrate Massine’s unconventional choreography and show how
Goncharova’s severe and jagged costumes would have eliminated the roundness of the real
Larionov’s designs for Histoires Naturelles are more obscure since little evidence
from the production remains. The ballet, if it can be called that, was to contain no dancing,
but would instead be a montage of actors dressed in animal costumes with scenery that
moved behind them. From Larionov’s design for a Cricket [Fig. 13], it is clear that his
costumes would have restricted the dancer’s movements to an unprecedented extent.
Although the dancer clearly would have been on hands and knees throughout his
performance, it is impossible to know how much he could have moved in such an abstracted
and mechanized design. Although his wings appear to be hinged, how would the dancer,
positioned on his knees, have been capable of jumping or “flying”? Larionov and
Goncharova were pushing the limits of costume design when the Ballets Russes was still
dependant on the designs of Léon Bakst and Alexander Benois. It is likely that Diaghilev,
with his keen sense of timing, decided that these ballets were too dramatic for Paris
audiences, and that the debut of a Futurist ballet would have to wait. Unfortunately, little
was written about either work in contemporary accounts, so the reasons for their demise
By taking them so close to completion, however, Diaghilev allowed their ideas to
spread throughout the Ballets Russes. Although well-trained in classical dance, Massine was
eager to experiment with modern choreography for these radical costumes, an experience that
would serve him well for Picasso’s Parade. In 1915, Diaghilev directed Stravinsky to
Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, 85.
compose a score to Liturgie based on noise machines he heard in Marinetti’s Futurist
orchestra. The majority of the Ballets Russes’ great experiments during this period occurred
outside of France, since Diaghilev was unable to bring his company to Paris at the height of
the war. Therefore, France was unaware of the great advances Diaghilev’s designers had
made during these years.
In between tours in other parts of the world, Diaghilev agreed to let Jean Cocteau
create a modern ballet with Pablo Picasso as the designer. When the Ballets Russes returned
to Paris in 1917, it had undergone a quiet, three-year-long transformation thanks to the
innovations of the Italian Futurists and the collaboration of Goncharova and Larionov. The
fruits of these developments were revealed with the premiere of Parade.
Although Apollinaire contributed to the Russian couple’s extraordinary fame
in Paris, he later regretted how much acclaim they received at the expense of the
School of Paris, saying, “Russian futurism will thus be given all the honors at the
Opera House, while the new French painters, whose work is the source of all today’s
artistic innovations the world over, will continue to reap nothing but ridicule.”61 The
praise that Goncharova received from Le Coq d’Or granted her immediate credibility
with the Parisian elite. Spectators went to the theater expecting to be thrilled, and the
stage presented a haven for presenting the avant-garde to the uninitiated. Apollinaire
recognized this as an opportunity to promote the School of Paris, and he likely
encouraged his artists-friends to pursue collaboration with the Ballets Russes. His
statements in the boastful program note for Parade in 1917 would set things right. In
his praise for Picasso and Massine he purposely ignored, and thereby negated, years
of work by the Russian designers to strengthen the Ballets Russes legacy of the
School of Paris painters.
Chapter 4: Apollinaire appropriates the Ballets Russes
The cubist painter Picasso and the most daring of today’s choreographers,
Léonide Massine, have here consummately achieved, for the first time, that
alliance between painting and the dance, between the plastic and mimetic arts,
that is the herald of a more comprehensive art to come.62
Guillaume Apollinaire used these words in his program notes for Parade when it
debuted on May 18, 1917, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. Since then, the statement has
been cited in nearly every book and article about Picasso’s first ballet as evidence of its
revolutionary qualities and its role in transforming the Ballets Russes. Apollinaire had a
talent for publicity, and he often made similarly bold statements to support his School of
Paris painters. In this case, he boasted of Picasso’s and Massine’s achievements on the stage
in order to draw greater attention to Picasso’s cubist paintings in the galleries. This same
effect had strengthened Goncharova’s reputation as an easel painter after the debut of Le Coq
d’Or in 1914. However, Apollinaire’s statement about Parade was specifically intended as
propaganda for the French painters: its audacious claim was largely unfounded, and for
nearly a century it has misinformed the art historical study of the ballet.
Picasso’s Parade was unlike anything the Ballets Russes had previously staged. Its
mediocre reception testifies to this fact, since Parisian audiences were generally unprepared
for its strange and extremely short scenario. Picasso’s cubist costumes were bizarre; Erik
Satie’s music was discordant, and Massine’s dancing broke with traditional choreography.
However, all of its various elements derived from identifiable influences and predecessors
within the same company, whether or not they were ever staged. Picasso’s main
contribution to the artistic direction of the Ballets Russes was the fact that he was the first
School of Paris painter to join its ranks. Far more important was the influence that the
Ballets Russes had on Picasso himself: his status, his career, and his conception of the world
Apollinaire calls the collaboration between Picasso and Massine “this new alliance”
because “until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds.” He asserts
that the theater had never before achieved such a dramatic unity between stage and costume.
Certainly this had been the case in Paris before Diaghilev created the Ballets Russes, since
décor at the Paris Ópera had been plagued by “a false calico realism, ill-drawn stuff done
over with worse colour, and dresses that harmonized neither with each other nor the
scenery.”63 The entire premise of the Ballets Russes since its inception had been to remedy
that schism and create an artistic synthesis between scenery, costumes, choreography, and
music. A “comprehensive art” had already been realized in Benois’ Petrouchka and Bakst’s
Schéhérazade, and Goncharova and Larionov had already collaborated with Massine to
propel dance and costume into the avant-garde between 1914 and 1917. Unfortunately, the
bulk of their work was either cut before it premiered or shown only on tour when the Ballets
Russes was unable to perform in Paris.
Instead of documenting a true milestone for the ballet, Apollinaire used the program
for Parade to devalue the Ballets Russes’ previous efforts in favor of one of the artists in his
own circle. Scholarship was fooled by this invocation of Picasso’s stature, and it has
continued to follow Apollinaire’s influential statement as fact. Parade’s modernity is
founded on its musical score, its depiction of banal Parisian street life, its atypical dance
costumes, and its application of Cubist theory to the mise-en-scène. The elements of art
historical relevance, those designed and executed by Picasso, are indeed modern, but they are
derived from innovative work by Benois and Goncharova that have until now been
overlooked by most scholars of the Ballets Russes.
Art historians have uncovered excellent source material for Picasso’s costumes and
set designs for Parade. Deborah Menaker Rothschild has been particularly effective in
researching the ballet and identifying characters from contemporary films that inspired the
American Girl,64 minstrel characters who may have influenced the Managers,65 and postcards
collected by Picasso during his visits around Italy. She even identifies the horse as a typical
vaudevillian “cheval jupon” that was being performed in music-halls at the same time as the
premiere of Parade. By searching in less obvious locations, however, she fails to recognize
major sources within the Ballets Russes.
Menaker Rothschild identifies Chung Ling Soo, a music-hall magician who often
performed in Paris just a block away from the Théâtre du Châtelet, as the primary inspiration
for Picasso’s Chinese Conjurer costume [Fig. 14]. 66 There are doubtless connections
between the two, for Picasso has done little more than simplify the design of the performer
and apply exotic make-up to his face [Fig. 15]. It is the same process of abstraction that
Natalya Goncharova utilized frequently to simplify the costumes of Russian peasants [Fig.
10]. Menaker Rothschild fails to see that Goncharova has already achieved Picasso’s
“modern” interpretation of costume, to the point where their two designs even share the same
hat, costume shape, and color palette.
The two Managers in Parade were undoubtedly the most sensational elements that
Picasso contributed to this or any other ballet, but they too rely on his predecessor’s theories
and experiments. Nearly twice the height of the dancer within, the costumes towered over
Menaker Rothschild, 111.
the rest of the action and provided an absurd counterpoint to the naturalistic figures of the
Acrobats, the American Girl, and the Chinese Conjurer. The French Manager [Figs. 16, 17]
is a Cubist study in black and white. His business side on the front loosely resembles
Diaghilev with its curved moustache and tiny hat. In keeping with Picasso’s Synthetic
Cubism, the abstracted shapes of the French Manager are grounded in reality by real-to-life
elements: the enlarged pipe, the cane, and the dress shoes. It is truly a three-dimensional
manifestation of his Cubist paintings from 1914 to 1916, and Picasso would continue to
duplicate it in several of his paintings in the next decade.67
In an article written about the Ballets Russes season of 1917, Léon Bakst described
Picasso’s Manager figures as “mobile constructions…of the wittiest kind” and says that
Picasso’s “feeling for the right proportions guides him here as elsewhere.”68 Picasso’s
Manager costumes were not, however, derived exclusively from his conception of Synthetic
Cubism. They also responded to Craig’s and the Futurists’ call for an über-marionette to
replace actors and heighten the visual unity of the stage. Goncharova had already created an
armor-like suit out of jagged fragments of icon paintings for Liturgie, and Larionov had
already contorted his dancers to fit into animal and insect costumes in Histoires Naturelles.
Picasso’s creations continued Goncharova and Larionov’s unfinished experiments.
Picasso also failed to maintain the rigor of Goncharova’s theories of costume by
severely limiting the dancer’s range of movement within the costume. Although the
Managers were physically imposing, they did nothing to contribute to the choreography of
the ballet. No longer was the dancer a living motor that animated a machine-like shell,69 as it
The moustache and body structure of the French Manager is identical to that of Harlequin in Three Musicians,
1921, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Rischbieter, 46. Reprints Léon Bakst, “The Renewal of the Ballets Russes” (1917).
had been for Goncharova and Larionov; rather, the “dances of the Managers, who wore no
costumes at rehearsals, lost all their lyric force when the dancers had to put on Picasso’s
carcasses.”70 Those dancers that required a full range of motion were given relatively
conventional costumes, and for all of Picasso’s natural sense of the ballet, he never
succeeded in creating a Cubist costume that functioned for a dancer.
Picasso’s Cubist scenery for the ballet also falls short of Apollinaire’s lavish praise.
He claimed that it existed in unprecedented harmony with the costumes, but this is
impossible because half of the costumes themselves are not Cubist. Even the Cubist
elements were incongruous with each other, since the Managers were provocative and
shocking compared to the painted set, which Cocteau claimed was “calm and beautiful where
an unnamable extravagance had been expected of it.”71 The scenery had an unmistakable
sense of gravity that was uncommon for Picasso’s Cubist paintings, and despite its
disproportionate and stylized setting it created an image that was entirely legible and
surprisingly conventional: a balustrade flanked the entrance to a variety theater tent, an
elaborate doorframe covered in chintzy baroque décor [Fig. 18]. Buildings rose chaotically
to both sides of and behind the tent, and a Pointillist plant framed the lower right corner.
The centerpiece of the composition was the entrance to the tent, which Picasso
created as a gateway to the variety theater within. For the audience, it was a mysterious third
dimension in a predominantly flat street scene, and it was intriguing to spectators because
they were never granted access. The entrance also served to frame the action onstage,
focusing the viewer’s attention on the dancer performing within its borders [Fig. 19].
Douglas Cooper, Picasso Theatre (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1968), 25. Quotes Jean Cocteau, Le Coq et
Menaker Rothschild, 33. Quotes Cocteau, “Parade Réaliste: In which Four Modernist Artists Have a Hand”,
Vanity Fair (Sept 1917), 90.
Without such a defining central element, the stage would have been a dull procession of
indistinguishable Cubist building facades. The inclusion of such a framing element
demonstrates Picasso’s aptitude for ballet design, but it also shows his familiarity with his
Benois was the first designer to use the device of a painted frame to focus the
viewer’s attention within a larger proscenium space in his 1911 design for Petrouchka [Fig.
7]. Surrounding the entire scene, a large painted gateway acts as the entrance to the street
fair. Even the premise of the ballet was similar: a Sorcerer brings out his dancing puppets to
perform for the audience, just as the Managers call out their music-hall performers to entice
the Parade audience. Unlike Parade, which ends after one twenty-minute act, Petrouchka
follows the puppets into the central tent and reveals their elaborate living quarters.
The essence of Parade’s modernity was its appropriation of Parisian street life.
Benois’ conception for Petrouchka came directly from his childhood memories of the
balagani fairs leading up to Lent, and in that sense he had already accomplished the same
goal as Picasso by elevating street life into art. It is problematic, however, to draw
connections between Benois’ classic designs for Petrouchka and Picasso’s 1916 designs for
Parade since Picasso never set foot in a Ballets Russes production before joining the
company.72 He preferred the variety theater and music-hall, the same forms of entertainment
that he repackaged in his own ballet.
There are several reasons why Picasso must have been aware of the Ballets Russes’
most famous innovations in stage design. Apollinaire was one of his best friends, and had
been a patron of the Ballets Russes at least since the premiere of Le Coq d’Or in 1914. The
Ballets Russes was also deeply ingrained in elite Parisian culture immediately after its debut
in 1909. A 1912 cartoon shows that Picasso could not have avoided the spectacle of the
Ballets Russes [Fig. 20]. It depicts Picasso walking in Bohemian attire with his recent
girlfriend Eva Goeul, who he famously nicknamed “ma jolie” in many of his Cubist paintings.
The figures in the painting represent character designs by Bakst for Schéhérazade: the new
bachelor, in the role of the Golden Slave, jumps for joy as he is freed from his shackles.
Picasso escorts Eva, in the role of Schéhérazade, while wearing a cube-covered overcoat and
dragging a ball and chain.73 Considering that Petrouchka was one of the most famous ballets
in Diaghilev’s repertory, Picasso would have at least been aware of its premise, especially
considering his strong attraction to Petrouchka after he began work on Parade. Both ballets
were on the same bill when Parade premiered in 1917, so Picasso sketched several drawings
of Petrouchka’s mise-en-scéne during rehearsals and often hummed one of the melodies
from Stravinsky’s score.74
The Ballets Russes exposed Picasso to a new world of critics, friends, collaborators,
and patrons, and forced him to confront his memories and notions of the stage. While
designing the scenery for four ballets between 1917 and 1924, he dedicated himself to
Diaghilev’s company more than any of the other French painters that would follow. Unlike
most of the School of Paris designers, who usually charged craftsmen with the task of
enlarging their designs, Picasso executed much of the scenery himself. He even painted
designs on the Acrobats’ costumes while they were wearing them to ensure that the paint
kept its shape after drying.
The amount of time that Picasso spent working in the theater revived the great interest
that he had shown as a young man, when he was fascinated by the “breathless acrobats,
John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, v.2 (New York: Random House, 1996).
ungainly children, famished Harlequins, rugged athletes or obese clowns…eking out a
painful caravan existence.”75 He soon discovered that these characters did not exist in the
Ballets Russes; instead, he saw robust, enthusiastic, and highly skilled dancers who were
complemented by choreographers and composers of the highest quality. They had no
miserable existence with which he could empathize, and in fact Picasso’s own social position
was elevated because of his role in the Ballets Russes. A comparison between Picasso’s
saltimbanques paintings of 1905 [Fig. 21] and his sketches made during the production of
Parade reveal his changing interaction with the theatre and his climbing class attitude.
During and after the creation of Parade, Picasso portrayed servile and eager
performers who exist for the spectator’s entertainment, far removed from the despondent
acrobats of the previous decade. In Harlequin Playing Guitar [Fig. 22], painted in 1918,
Harlequin is seated on-stage with no empathy from the artist. His smile is as false as the
fictive architecture and painted scenery behind him, and he lives to perform his one-man
spectacle. Picasso had assumed the role of creator instead of performer, so he
subconsciously cast off the Harlequin disguise because it no longer reflected his position. In
Harlequin of 1917 [Fig. 23], for example, Picasso rejected the oft-utilized opportunity for
self-portraiture. Although the character at first seems to evoke the same loneliness of the
blue-period actors, the proscenium curtain and stage balcony distill his “emotions” to mere
actor’s gestures. Instead of placing himself in the role of Harlequin, Picasso was concerned
with designing and manipulating the character as a body on the stage.
These paintings poignantly demonstrate Picasso’s changing personality when they are
compared with Picasso’s 1905 painting, Au Lapin Agile [Fig. 24]. The painting shows
Harlequin, often identified as Picasso himself, in a familiar setting: drinking alone with his
back turned to his fellow patrons. The work generally reflects the decadent fin de siècle taste
of contemporary Barcelona76 and specifically responds to the suicide of Picasso’s best friend,
Carlos Casagemas.77 In almost every image from this period, Picasso’s performers are
removed from their natural stage setting and forced into our world to comment on the nature
of performance, masks, and true identity. With the advent of Parade, however, their function
for Picasso evolved to match his changing disposition and lifestyle.
A photograph taken during the creation of Parade shows Picasso sitting on the
overture curtain while collaborating with a group of scene painters [Fig. 25]. This curtain
presents an insightful opportunity to compare Picasso’s depictions of the saltimbanques
before and after his participation in the theater. The group of characters relates strongly to
Picasso’s Blue Period works, and it is one of his greatest treatments of the commedia
dell’arte family [Fig. 26]. In the context of a fictive stage setting, there are two Harlequins, a
columbine, a napoletano sailor, a guitar-playing torero, a Black servant, and a winged mare,
among others. Although the characters come from fantasy, their depiction is grounded in
reality: Picasso explicitly revealed the theatricality of the scene by showing the proscenium
curtains, the hardwood stage floor, and the harness around the mare’s torso that seems to
support her false wings. This interest in the mechanics of the theatre is another manifestation
of Picasso’s new and exciting role as a designer.
Apollinaire’s poetic response to the 1905 saltimbanque paintings commented on
many elements that Picasso reprised in this overture curtain. Apollinaire describes “the
familiar monkeys, the white horses, and the bearlike dogs,”78 all typical circus animals and
Phoebe Pool, “Sources and background of Picasso’s art 1900-6”, in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 101, no.
674 (May 1959), 176-82.
Mary Matthews Gedo, Picasso: Art as Autobiography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 39.
all included in Picasso’s curtain. He continues, “Adolescent sisters, treading and balancing
themselves on the great balls of the saltimbanques, impart to those spheres the radiant
movement of the planets.” Picasso transforms Apollinaire’s image into a winged girl
balancing on top of the horse’s back, which in turn stands over a ball covered with celestial
drawings. Picasso vaguely suggested Apollinaire’s poetic mood in Family of Saltimbanques
[Fig. 21], but in his overture curtain he makes the imagery explicitly clear. Menaker
Rothschild dedicates an entire chapter to Apollinaire’s poetic influence on the saltimbanques
of 1905, 79 but draws no connection between this commentary and Picasso’s 1917 curtain.
Picasso’s evocation of Apollinaire’s writing further confirms that he was influenced by
Apollinaire to join the Ballets Russes. His literal depiction of Apollinaire’s poetry in the
overture curtain, his largest painting ever, is a tribute to his friend and a show of gratitude.
Picasso’s status also changed dramatically at this point in his career. When he joined
Parade as its designer, he was essentially promoted to the upper classes. Picasso was a man
of strong ego and ambition, and he enthusiastically embraced his new social position, if only
for a limited time. He upgraded his friends as quickly as he did his wardrobe and
environment. Out was the bohemian set of Montparnasse and his friends Max Jacob, Juan
Gris, and George Braque. In was the fashionable Paris city center with Madame Eugenia
Errazuriz, who greatly coached his refinement and appearance, and Paul Rosenberg, who
became his dealer, an intermediary to the wealthy and elite.
Picasso’s backstage sketches reveal his changing personality; instead of seeing
saltimbanques languishing in their circus booths, we see caricatures of managers and
directors, almost always plump, comfortable, and refined [Fig. 27]. Mary Matthews Gedo
argues that Picasso’s deluge of Harlequin imagery during Parade shows his enthusiasm for
Menaker Rothschild, 253-58.
finally “living out in reality his old phantasy that he, Harlequin, belonged to a troupe of
strolling players.”80 Why then, does he never portray himself as Harlequin in these pictures?
On the contrary, it seems that Picasso was relishing his opportunity to run the show and meet
the elite. He eagerly fraternized with Diaghilev, Cocteau, Massine and Satie, while
Harlequin was relegated to a subservient role.
Indeed, the Ballets Russes’ impact on Picasso was far more profound than was
Picasso’s impact on the Ballets Russes. The truly avant-garde elements of Parade were
those contributed by its choreography and musical score, since its décor drew heavily upon
the previous achievements of Goncharova and Larionov, and even Benois. Nevertheless, the
restless and ambitious Diaghilev savored the opportunity to work with the art world’s most
famous painter, and other artists actively began to seek a partnership with the Ballets Russes.
By the time Diaghilev died in 1929, he could count almost every painter in the School of
Paris among his designers.
Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes left an astounding impact on the ballet of Western Europe
and the Americas, and one that continues in the repertories of ballet companies around the
world. In only its first season at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1909, the Ballets Russes
redefined the status of ballet in France and set a new standard for impresarios, scene painters,
composers, choreographers, ballerinas, and danseurs.
Carol Lee, in Ballet in western culture: a history of its origins and evolution, says that
Ballets Russes dancers like Karsavina, Lopokova, Nijinsky, Bolm, and Fokine were adored
as heroes by the French public.81 Thanks to Diaghilev’s contributions, and the credibility
given to the ballet by his collaborators, the Paris Ópera was no longer the for entertainment
of children and lusty bourgeois men, as it had been during Degas’ time. Its ballerinas were
no longer glorified prostitutes, either. As further evidence of this claim, one need only
consider that Picasso met his first wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, while working on
Parade. When the Ballets Russes set off to South America after its season of 1917, the
couple took leave to be married.
Although Parade was not the milestone that Apollinaire purported it to be, Picasso’s
participation in the Ballets Russes was nevertheless a monumental occasion. Its most
significant consequence was opening the Ballets Russes to the Avant-Garde painters. The
list of contributors before Diaghilev’s death includes André Derain, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris,
Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Giorgio de Chirico, and the list would continue
to grow when Colonel Wassily de Basil and René Blum recreated the company in 1932.
The work of the French painters was not to everyone’s liking. Some believed that, in
choosing his artists, “Diaghilev apparently considers only their success in the art market, or
the sensation they provoke in it […] Thus the pictorial elements of the production are no
longer half as much concerned with aesthetics as with publicity, an experiment in art, or a
speculation in snobbism.”82 This is an unfair accusation, for although Diaghilev was eager
for fame and success, he was primarily motivated by his passion for artistic innovation.
Some critics were disappointed in the artists’ contributions, saying,
It is not the best Braque, it is not the best Matisse, it is not the best Derain who
give the décors of Les Fâcheux, Le Chant du Rossignol, La Boutique
Fantasque. For one Sonia Delaunay who applies her theory of simultaneous
contrasts with ease to the costumes of Cléopâtre, a large number of these
occasional decorators see in the commission of Diaghilev only pleasant
exercises of style.83
Even if the painters’ ballet designs were not as innovative as their easel paintings, the
collaborations were significant as a great cultural experiment. Just as the School of Paris
painters loved to see how Goncharova interpreted their own innovations, audiences clamored
to see how the School of Paris painters would utilize the monumental scale of the ballet stage.
Picasso’s contribution to Parade is a perfect example. In addition to presenting his largest
painting ever, the overture curtain, it is also one of the greatest incarnations of the
saltimbanques and a true, psychological insight into Picasso’s love for the theater and his
changing class status.
McQuillan, 92-3. Quotes Andre Levinson, “A Crisis in the Ballets Russes”, Theatre Arts Monthly, X, 11
Ibid., 308. Quotes Schlumberger, “Un bond en avant," 98.