Art dances with music at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

The era of Diaghilev’s Russian Ballets

Diaghilev 1.jpg
Photo: MNBAQ

Detail of the cover of the exhibition catalogue

Don’t go thinking that this exhibition at the MNBAQ is just about a man, even though the name of Diaghilev is often mentioned.  It’s not about ballet costumes either although many of them are displayed in the museum’s galleries.  The truth is that it’s an exhibition about the Russian Ballets through which one can get an idea of the creativity that prevailed in various artistic disciplines in the early years of the twentieth century.

Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) became to ballet what Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was to painting, what Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was to music.  But the most extraordinary thing about this Russian born lawyer, passionate of the arts, was the facility with which he was able to involve in his productions the greatest artistic geniuses of his time.

Artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso as well as Leon Bakst designed decors, and covers for the Ballet’s programs.  They also were involved in designing costumes, as was a woman who was to become a fashion icon: Coco Chanel.  The most remarkable composers of the time created music or adapted scores for the Russian Ballets.  Among them were Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Richard Strauss and Sergeï Prokofiev.  They were part of what was referred to as the «avant garde», a term used at the time before the introduction of the expression «modernism». 

The changes undergone at the time by the western society were bound to bring about the emergence of movements tending to do away with the old boundaries in the arts, thus offering new perspectives to a much larger public.  When founding the Russian Ballets in 1909 with a will to develop a new approach to ballet and stage design, Diaghilev and his associates sought to reach this wider public, previously essentially aristocratic. It would not be farfetched to say that the appeal of the Russian ballets, the use made of bright colors taken from Russian folk art, the blend evoked of the tangible (narration, sensuality, eroticism…) and the abstract, are all elements that have participated in the development of the visual arts of the early twentieth century.  The stage costumes commissioned by Serge Diaghilev and magnificently displayed may therefore be seen as the starting point of an extraordinary journey in the early days of modernism were the visitor will find  a time line, scores of sketches and  photographs, where he will  hear and see sound recordings and contemporary video sequences. 

The exhibition Diaghilev's Ballets Russes: When Art dances with Music is a must see, this summer.  It is on until September 5, 2011 and is accompanied by a superb catalogue.