Published  10/09/2003

Picasso's designs for Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes

Picasso's designs for Diaghilev's Les Ballets Russes

The Edinburgh Festival is not always as strong in the visual arts as it is in the range of excellent performances in ballet, music and theatre. However, it was an inspiring and appropriate venue for an exhibition of one of the finest collaborative projects in the arts in the early 20th century. Picasso was one of a number of leading artists who designed costumes, stage sets and curtains for Sergei Diaghilev's, (1872-1929) Les Ballets Russes, on show as part of the exhibition at the Edinburgh Playhouse, Bordeaux Opera Ballets Picasso and Dance Programme.

The Russian impresario's greatest achievement was as founder of Les Ballets Russes, which exerted a profound influence on dancing, music and the visual arts. Les Ballets Russes (1911-29) began as a series of concerts of Russian music in Paris; in 1909, he organised a Russian ballet company to travel to France. By commissioning outstanding musicians (Erik Satie), choreographers and dancers (Nijinsky, Pavlova) and designers in Russia (Leon Bakst, Natalie Goncharova) and artists in France he created a sensation. Artists included the best of the time: Braque, de Chirico, Derain, Matisse and Picasso. Costumes, sets and curtains were superbly designed and executed.

Picasso designed six ballets for Diaghilev and others. It provided a wide range of stimuli and encouraged him to travel to the performances of the ballets. As part of the Edinburgh Festival Picasso's first two, Parade and Tricorne (The Three-Cornered Hat), were presented this year by the Bordeaux Opera Ballet, along with the much later work, Icarus for Serge Lifar. For Parade, a realist ballet in one scene centred on a group of circus performers, Picasso designed the set and costumes and painted the vast curtain. Picasso was painting cubist works at this stage of his career, so that certain critics found his set designs an appalling diversion into the decorative. His earlier works of harlequins, acrobats and performers and his identification with the outsider in society, however, gave his work a depth that an illustrator could not have achieved. In fact, the Parade works liberated Picasso who resented being tied to one stylistic mode; it also represented his love of the theatre. Douglas Cooper, in his study of Picasso and the Theatre, states, 'In Picasso's mind, there exists a parallel between painting and the theatre … he has come to regard both as being different though comparable ways of creating an illusory world with images which nonetheless reflect, and so help us, the spectators, to recognise more about, the world in which we live'. Picasso's stylistic liberation took the form in Parade of a mixture of styles, from highly realistic to a vast pseudo-baroque drama. Parade extended Picasso's predilection for working almost simultaneously in a number of different styles. For Picasso, it ensured that he never lost his creative freedom. The theatre provided a platform, literally for him to identify with different characters, historical periods and styles.

Parade made its debut in Paris in 1917. Picasso then travelled with Les Ballets Russes to Italy, Spain, and London, and married one of the dancers, Olga Koklova, in 1918. Critics have claimed that Picasso's work in the theatre diverted him from Cubism and from Modernism. In stylistic terms, it enabled him to work in a range of styles and on a great scale, making later works such as Guernica (one of his very greatest works) possible. This was a splendid exhibition, echoing the collaborative ambitions of Diaghilev and more recently of the Edinburgh International Festival.




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