- Melissa McQuillan
Russian collector, patron and impresario. He is best known as the director of the Ballets Russes. He arrived in St Petersburg in 1890 to study law, at the same time taking music lessons from Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov; he became involved with the Nevsky Pickwickians, a circle of young musicians, writers and artists including Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Konstantin Somov and Yevgeny Lansere, who later became known under the name World of Art (Mir Iskusstva). Diaghilev edited the group’s periodical Mir Iskusstva from its first edition in November (October) 1898 (dated January 1899) to its last, in December 1904.
Diaghilev organized eleven exhibitions between 1897 and 1906, six under the auspices of the World of Art; these introduced western European artists to Russia (e.g. Monet, Renoir, Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Whistler and Frank Brangwyn). He wrote a monograph on Dmitry Levitsky and began one on Vladimir Borovikovsky, tracking down many works subsequently lost in the Revolution of 1917; the research served as a basis for his grandiose exhibition of historic Russian portraits in the Tauride Palace in St Petersburg, 1905.
From 1899 Diaghilev was special assistant to Prince Sergey Volkonsky, director of the Imperial Theatres. He edited a lavish issue of the Yearbook of the Imperial Theatres (Ezhegodnik Imperatorskikh Teatrov) in 1901 but he was dismissed in that same year, aborting plans for a production of the ballet Sylvia to have been designed by the World of Art associates. He organized an installation (designed by Bakst) of Russian art at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1906 and accompanying concerts of Russian music. He also presented a season of Russian music at the Paris Opéra in 1907. In 1908, with assistance from the Imperial Theatres, he brought a production of Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov to the Opéra; designed by Aleksandr Golovin, Ivan Bilibin and Benois, and starring Feodor Chaliapin (Shalyapin), the production anticipated the unity of spectacle and visual richness that later became a hallmark of the Ballets Russes.
Diaghilev’s first season of Russian ballet and opera, with dancers and singers from the Imperial Theatres, opened in Paris on 19 May 1909 (répétition génerale 18 May) at the Théâtre du Châtelet, and from 1911 he managed his own touring company, its fusion of visual art, music and choreography guided by the aesthetic of the World of Art. At first Diaghilev employed his World of Art colleagues Benois, Bakst (for illustration see World of Art) and Roerich, but in 1914 he commissioned sets and costumes for Le Coq d’or from Natal’ya Goncharova (for illustration see Ballets Russes). He never returned to Russia after 1914 and began to move away from the more exotic richness and splendour of his earlier productions towards a western European orientation, employing artists such as Picasso (e.g. Parade, 1917), Gris (e.g. Les Tentations de la bergère, 1924), Braque (Les Fâcheux, 1924; Zéphyr et Flore, 1925), Ernst and Miró (Romeo and Juliet, 1926), and the Russian sculptors Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner (La Chatte, 1927) and Georgy Yakulov (Le Pas d’acier, 1927).
Diaghilev’s virtues as an impresario included an inquisitiveness about contemporary artistic movements and an ability to spot and nurture talent, especially choreographers and musicians; most of his designers, however, came to him as mature artists. He knew how to forge successful collaborations over which he presided as lighting designer: the 1924 production of Le Train bleu employed Darius Milhaud as composer, Jean Cocteau as librettist, the Cubist sculptor Henri Laurens as designer, with costumes by Coco Chanel (1883–1971) and a drop curtain by Picasso (London, Theat. Mus.), with the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska and the dancers Anton Dolin and Lydia Sokolova.
Diaghilev bought paintings for himself while a young man and established collections of sketches and paintings by the Ballets Russes designers for his young male protégés. In the last few years of his life he developed an increasing passion for rare books. His schemes encompassed far more than he was able to realize: in the mid-1920s he contemplated presenting art exhibitions, experimental dance and theatre and traditional operas at the winter base in Monte Carlo, although these never materialized, and he continued to plan future seasons up to his death in 1929.
As an impresario Diaghilev contributed to the acceptance of avant-garde modernity as a chic, fashionable commodity. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler assessed Diaghilev’s interventive patronage in his monograph on Juan Gris: ‘Diaghilew was quite capable of permitting several little novelties (even so he rejected a great number) which seemed to him interesting eccentricities, so long as they remained on the surface and did not fundamentally alter his conception of the stage.’
- Regular contributions to Mir Iskusstva, 1899–1904
- D. E. Levitsky, 1735–1822 (St Petersburg, 1901)
- A. Haskell: Diaghileff (London, 1935)
- S. Lifar: Serge Diaghilev: His Life, his Work, his Legend (New York, 1940)
- B. Kochno: Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes (New York, 1970)
- R. Buckle: Diaghilev (London, 1979)
- L. Garafola: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Oxford, New York, Toronto, 1989)