COLLECTING DESIGNS FOR THE BALLETS RUSSES: A CONVERSATION
Princess Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky and Prince Nikita D. Lobanov-Rostovsky
Nina: The collector must not be confused with the art lover. Of the two, only collectors have been considered worth studying by psychoanalysts, who see collecting fever as a sort of neurotic obsession with many ramifications. The collector has an exciting life: even if always short of money, he never lacks expectations, for he wakes every day hoping that fate will send him a marvelous find. I, a mere art lover, was the acolyte of a true collector for forty interesting, happy years.
Nikita and I met at a party inNew York City in March 1959. It was love at first sight for both of us. Nikita almost immediately asked me if I was interested in ballet and opera and then went on to enthuse about an extraordinary exhibition he had seen in London in 1954. This was the great Diaghilev retrospective organized by the eminent English ballet critic Richard Buckle, first shown at the Edinburgh Festival and then at Forbes House inLondon. Nikita described the beauty of the pictures, which had made him realize that in the early decades of the twentieth century, Russian stage designers were the best in the world and had subsequently influenced the development of European and American stage design. From him I learned that Diaghilev had revolutionized the world of dance with new choreography and much of the greatest music ever written for ballet, and had also radically altered ideas of theater design. He explained that immediately before Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, decor for ballets was carried out by competent craftsmen. The great impresario, however, returned the easel painter to a partnership with theater that never should have been abandoned, and for the first time in a century, the decor of a show became as important as the music and the choreography. With sets and costumes by Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Aleksandr Golovine and Nikolai Roerich, Diaghilev dazzled and enchanted Parisian audiences during his first ballet seasons.
Nikita: My first exposure to designs for Diaghilev productions was at the great 1954 Diaghilev exhibition. To gather his exhibition, Buckle was guided by the catalog of a 1939 exhibition organized by Serge Lifar at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, entitled “Ballets russes de Diaghilev.” Over a period of twenty years, Diaghilev used forty-two painters for his productions. Twenty-two of them had been born in the Russian empire and were considered Russian irrespective of their Armenian, Baltic, Georgian, Russian Jewish, Ukrainian, or other origins. The other twenty were predominantly French or Europeans residing inParis in the 1910s and 1920s. At the Forbes House exhibition—I was 19 at the time—I was particularly struck by the vivid colors and dynamism of the designs created by the Russian-born painters as compared with their Western counterparts. They made so strong an impression on me that, then and there, I decided I would one day create a similar collection. It took me fifty years and the help of my first wife, Nina, who was very much a partner and not a mere acolyte as she says. We have had the satisfaction of its breadth of roughly 1,000 pieces by 180 artists, its quality being acknowledged by scholars and collectors worldwide, and of the collection being bought forRussia early in 2008. For now, it is being stored and exhibited at theGlinkaMuseum for Theatre and Music in Saint Petersburg.
Nina: Money—or the lack of it—though a factor, is not at the core of collecting, and does not fully explain the development of collections. Strong desire, determination, and insatiable curiosity, as well as taste and knowledge, can be sufficient reasons and motivation. The true collector draws objects to him or herself. Owners of pictures will sometimes sell them for less than their true value to a passionate but penniless collector instead of a wealthy art lover. We were fortunate enough to receive this generosity several times.
In our early collecting days we had little money, for our salaries were small and we had no independent means. Furthermore, we were helping to support several older Russian relatives who had fallen on hard times. However, the major problem was the lack of information, in any language, about the stage activities of Russian painters. None of these artists belonged to the Socialist-Realism school, and that they were émigrés made them nonpersons in the Soviet Union. And so their names did not appear in Russian publications. Alexandre Benois received no mention until his death in 1960, the post-Stalin period, when a brief obituary written by I. S. Zilberstein appeared in Pravda. Our chief guides in our quest for information were books, especially Joseph Gregor and René Fülöp-Miller’s The Russian Theatre, Arnold L. Haskell’s, Diaghileff: His Artistic and Private Life, Richard Buckle’s In Search of Diaghilev, S. L. Grigoriev’s The Diaghilev Ballet: 1909–1929, and Camilla Gray’s The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863–1922.1 Essential pictorial material was found in commemorative programs, which Nikita searched for in specialized bookshops in London, New York, and Paris. Invaluable also, chiefly for their illustrations, were the fourteen issues of the Russian émigré magazine Zhar-ptitsa (Firebird) published inBerlin in the 1920s.
Nikita: During the five years after I was first seduced by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes designs, I had no funds whatsoever. I was a penniless scholarship student, first at Christ Church, Oxford, and then at Columbia University in New York. In the 1950s, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov sold their theatrical drawings at prices I could not afford: $2 for costume sketches and $50 for large stage designs. So instead of collecting, I did a lot of looking and reading and listening to people who had seen, or been connected with, the Ballets Russes. I visited the painters, wives, widows, mistresses and children of the artists. I concentrated most of my efforts on gathering information about the twenty-two Russian-born painters who had worked for the Ballets Russes. The information I accumulated was first published in 1968 in the Transactions of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in the USA, under the title “Russkie khudozhniki i stsena” (“Russian Painters and the Stage”), and it served me well thereafter. For, when I visited the painters and their families and friends, they saw my dedication to their art, which helped me to buy pictures at below-market prices.
Nina: In the 1950s and 1960s,New York City had two principal dealers in Russian pictures. One was Pyotr Pavlovich Tretyakov, who owned an elegant gallery onEast Fifty-seventh Street, and the other was Lydia V. Kamyshnikova, who had a very large room in the Ansonia Hotel on the corner of Broadway andWest Seventy-second Street. They dealt primarily in oil paintings, but also carried costume and stage designs, which then, as now, were sold at a disproportionately lower price than oil paintings of the same size by the same artists. Nikita tracked down the great Russian book dealer Semyon Akimovich Balan, who maintained an inventory of about three thousand theatrical works, principally by Soudeikine, with lesser amounts by Goncharova, Larionov, Konstantin Korovin and Nikolai Remizov. Balan had bought most of the contents of Soudeikine’sNew York atelier by promising to sell the pieces to theSoviet Union, thereby satisfying Soudeikine’s wish that most of his work end up in his native land. When Balan’s efforts found no response with Soviet officials, he attempted to sell his treasures locally. There were few buyers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, aside from George Riabov (whose fine collection is now at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University), Tom Steiger, Robert Tobin in San Antonio,Texas, and us.
We were fortunate that Nikita’s employers sent him twice to Paris for periods of six months, in 1965 and in 1966, and that I was able to split my time between Reader’s Digest’s New York office and its European editorial office in Paris. This gave us the chance to become acquainted with local picture dealers and to forge close, lasting relationships with the families of Bakst and Benois and with Larionov’s widow, as well as ballet personalities such as Serge Lifar who, being a friend of my parents, came to our wedding in 1962. We also frequented the dealers, the foremost of whom were Issar Saulovitch Gourvitch and Semion L. Belits, who dealt in high-quality paintings. We developed a close relationship with Benois’s eldest daughter, Anna Tcherkessoff, and her son and her brother Nikolai, who for thirty years was the chief designer of Teatro alla Scala inMilan. Tcherkessoff, who exuded the kindliness for which the Benois family was known, was aware of our limited finances and extended credit to us over two to three months. A few years later Nikita convinced her, and then her brother Nikolai, that in order for the Benois name to be remembered, it should be featured in auction catalogs at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He used the same arguments with Bakst’s three nieces, from whom we bought some beautiful examples of his work, as well as with the son and the daughter of Zinaida Serebriakova. All of them entrusted Nikita with works to take to theLondon auction houses on their behalf. Initially, Serebriakova’s nudes sold for about £500–700, as compared with the £70,000–700,000 they fetch today. There is nothing surprising about this. They are worth the price. What is astonishing is how long it took for people to pay attention to Russian artists, even the best ones. For instance, when Nikita offered in 1967 to donate a set of fifteen pochoirs by A. Exter to a major East Coast museum, he received a polite reply thanking him for the offer but declining, as they did not know who Exter was . Throughout our collecting years, we donated 450 designs to various museums, mostly in theUnited States, in our desire to have examples of Russian stage design represented inAmerica.
During ourParisyears we were able to visit several artists’ studios, which was always a thrill. We visited Georges Annenkov and also the Serebriakovs—Zinaida, Alexandre and Catherine—in their studios at 31 rue Campagne. Annenkov’s was on the ground floor and the Serebriakovs’ was on the third floor. The studios had been purpose-built for artists in a nineteenth-century building. Both Annenkov and the Serebriakovs wanted to paint Nikita’s portrait free of charge, but we felt we should not accept. Now we regret that decision.
An exciting studio was that of Goncharova and Larionov at 16 rue Jacques. It was up four flights of steep wooden steps, and the chaos that reigned therein was indescribable. Although most of the paintings were kept in a warehouse, dozens of paintings by both artists had been stacked against, or hung along, the walls. There were also hundreds of portfolios containing theatrical designs, abstract drawings, and caricatures executed on every kind of paper, including tracing paper and toilet paper. Boxes of letters and photographs filled the space, and piles of papers and, receipts, and even Goncharova’s drawings,—only by Goncharova— sat scattered on the floor to be stepped over. Goncharova died in 1962, and Larionov then married his longtime mistress, Alexandra Klavdievna Tomilina, who lived on the floor above. She was as chaotic as the studio. If she liked you, she would sell paintings to you; if not, she would shoo you back down the stairs. Fortunately for us, she had decided that she liked us, so she sold us some theatrical sketches for Le Renard. We were present when another visitor wanted to buy a painting by Larionov but mentioned that he regretted it was not signed. We observed, fascinated, as Tomilina proceeded to sign it herself, but unfortunately with a final “a”: Larionova.
The visits we enjoyed most were to the former studio of Benois, which was virtually unchanged and inhabited by Anna Tcherkessoff. The space featured an expanse of north-facing windows, and a refectory table that ran the entire length of the vast room was piled high with portfolios, magazines, and papers of all sorts. Bookcases and sofas divided the studio into working space, sitting room, and library, and a spiral staircase led up to the sleeping quarters. There was an ordered chaos to the room
Xenia Boguslavskaya Puni’s studio at 86 rue Notre-Dame-des Champs was not very special, but the three names next to the doorbells were memorable: Boguslavskaya, Jean Puni, and F. Leger.
In the early 1960s in Manhattan, Nikita went off one evening with $40, which was our surplus money that fortnight, to visit the retired ballerina Elizavetta Andersen. She had told him over the telephone that she had a large painting of a soldier’s head by Larionov, and somewhere, though she could not find it, a lovely mezzo-busto portrait of Goncharova, also by Larionov. She suggested that Nikita come to her place to help her search on top of the wardrobe and behind the bookcases, as she was too old and frail to do so. He returned very late, declaring that Elizavetta was charming and overflowing with ballet stories. They had not found the portrait, but Nikita had bought the Larionov so as to have first refusal on the portrait when it was found. When he unwrapped his purchase I was indignant, for I found it hideous and a waste of our limited funds, even though it was signed “M. L.” Furthermore, the frame was both ugly and filthy. I asked Nikita to unframe the picture forthwith and to put the frame out onto the street. As he did so he found, on the reverse side of the canvas, a beautiful portrait. After some soul-searching Nikita telephoned Elizavetta the next day to tell her about our find and to let her know that we would pay her another $40 in a month’s time. She was overjoyed and told all the other retired ballerinas that Nikita Dimitrievich was not only charming but honest. This led to several other fortuitous purchases.
In 1966 while based inParis, we traveled to Greece for a week’s vacation. As we walked along one of the main avenues in Athens on a scorching July afternoon, Nikita suggested that we stop for lemonade. We glanced at the names of the nearby cafés: the Acropolis, the Ancient Hero, andPetrograd. Automatically, we chose the third. As we sat in the dark, cool room drinking our delicious lemonade, we looked around. Nikita who had eagle eyes, remarked that were we not inAthenshe would think the watercolors decorating the wall opposite us were Russian. He got up to have a closer look and returned, visibly excited. “They are by Tchelitchew and by Kandinsky. The Tchelitchews are all costume designs.” He asked the waiter who owned the café, and the waiter replied, “Nicky Iakovleff, and he usually comes in aroundmidnightto dine with his wife, who is a nightclub singer.” We returned atmidnightand met the eccentric and charming owner. He told us that he needed money for a house he was building on one of the islands and that he would sell us the pictures on the wall—all fifteen of them—for $10,000. Alas, it was the last day of our trip and we only had a $100 traveler’s check left. We bought one Tchelitchew. Later, we were able to buy another five. Pavel Tchelitchew had made these designs for the Boris Kniaseff Ballet Company in Istanbul, Turkey, where they both stayed for a time after leaving Russia, before moving on to Sofia, Berlin, Paris, and London.
Nikita: I was always intent on having at least one example of each artist’s work, which is why, even though it meant spreading ourselves thin, our collection eventually contained work by 180 Russian-born artists. Nina preferred to have several works by the same artist, preferably for the same ballet. She was always urging me to buy one or several set designs plus costume sketches for a production. That is how we came to have all the various set designs and costume sketches (100) for Benois’s Petrouchka, Nina’s favorite of the Diaghilev ballets, as well as many set and costume designs for Le Pavillon d’Armide. We also owned numerous costume sketches by Bakst for the ill-fated 1922 London production of The Sleeping Beauty, all the costumes for Goncharova’s Liturgie, and many set and costume designs for Larionov’s Chout and Le Renard. But whether we owned only a single sketch or the sketches for an entire ballet, living with these vivid, dynamic pictures has been an exhilarating experience.
. Joseph Gregor and René Fülöp-Miller, The Russian Theatre (New York, 1968); Arnold L. Haskell, Diaghileff: His Artistic and Private Life (London, 1955); Richard Buckle, In Search of Diaghilev (New York, 1956); S. L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet: 1909–1929 (New York: Penguin, 1960); and Camilla Gray, The Great Experiment: Russian Art, 1863–1922 (London, 1962).
Alston Purvis et al., The Ballets Russes and the Art of Design, Monacelli Press, New York, 2009. pp. 163-181.