An intriguing story exists about three formerly unknown works by Pablo Picasso which were, at one time, owned by Rudolf Nureyev. How did he acquire them? Why was it that Nureyev took little interest in displaying them in any one of his many homes and apartments?

Their provenance is best learnt from Michael Tietz, a fellow dancer and Nureyev’s European manager. Tietz and Nureyev shared a personal and professional friendship up to the final years of Nureyev’s life. An art collector himself, and the ultimate destination of the three works, Tietz was curious to know the story of their route to his collection. 

Picasso and the Russian connection

In 1909 Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929), a Russian art critic and ballet impresario set Paris ablaze with his Ballets Russes but, by the summer of 1916 he was a cultural émigré seeking refuge. As the war continued Diaghilev’s company of artists, composers, writers and dancers scrambled to leave Paris for a temporary sanctuary in Rome. It was in Rome that Diaghilev began to abandon his themes of Russia, the classical world and the Orient in favour of a 20th century modern, avant-garde aesthetic and it was in Rome that Léonide Massine emerged as an exceptionally talented new choreographer for the company. Massine was just beginning to choreograph the surrealist one-act ballet, Parade, a one-act scenario by Jean Cocteau with music by Erik Satie.

PARADE, first edition – programme design by Picasso, 1917

Parade explored the theme of a publicity parade, in which three groups of circus artists try to attract an audience to an indoor performance. As work progressed, Massine, Cocteau and Satie were joined by Picasso who was also in Rome. Neither Picasso nor the composer Erik Satie had worked on a ballet before but, by the summer of 1916, they were collaborating. Picasso’s spectacular costumes, sets and curtain designs featured a unique fusion of symbolism and cubism in modern choreography. Picasso’s designs were complemented by Satie’s music and Massine’s choreography. As Massine and Picasso’s collaboration progressed, their friendship flourished and a close bond developed.

Costume for Parade, design by Picasso,  1917

Picasso created designs for five Ballets Russes productions between 1917 and 1924 as well as drawings for printed programmes. Picasso was, however, proudest of a one-act ballet, Pulcinella, choreographed by Massine with his costumes and it was during this period of collaboration that Picasso gave Massine a gift of ‘Two Clowns’, an ink-on-paper drawing dedicated to him.

2 Clowns, dedicated to Massine by Picasso. Ink on Paper, 25 x 30cm, 1923 @Michael Tietz

The work is different from several of Picasso’s more intimate character studies of Massine – perhaps ‘Two Clowns’ was drawn just for the choreographer? Picasso made a number of well-known images of Massine as a Harlequin which focus on the individuality of the figure rather than presenting two clowns as Harlequin figures.

Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes never returned to Russia and, by 1920, Monte Carlo provided a winter base where, in seeking a home for the company in exile, Massine found the perfect setting. Having amassed significant wealth from his international success, Massine bought Li Galli, a tiny private archipelago off the Amalfi Coast of Italy in 1924. Li Galli was the ideal sanctuary for Diaghilev’s repertoire. Dubbed “the dance island”, Massine’s vision was “to establish a foundation that will keep the island as a centre of art” and where the tradition of Diaghilev would be maintained.  Massine expressed his deep love for Li Galli in the following words, “I now understand that it was a source of inspiration and brought me closer to a life of simplicity, offering me a kind of spiritual serenity and peace that I have never known anywhere else.”  In Li Galli, Massine created a dance studio inside an ancient Roman watchtower, a living space, and an open-air theatre which, sadly, was destroyed by a storm. Li Galli soon became known among Russian exiled artists and experimental work there flourished. Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Picasso, Bakst, Cocteau and Satie, to name a few, were regular visitors. Picasso and Massine continued to collaborate and a host of young painters, composers, writers, dancers, choreographers and intellectuals came to Li Galli to exchange ideas and develop new works.

Pablo Picasso (wearing a beret) and scene painters sitting on the front cloth for Léonide Massine’s ballet Parade, staged by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, 1917, Lachmann photographe @Wikicommons

The lure of Li Galli attracted and enchanted Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993). His infamous defection from the Soviet Union at Le Bourget Airport on 16th June 1961, aged 23, became an international sensation and he was widely sought after by major ballet companies – the Royal Ballet wanted him as a Principal and his career took off. While Nureyev sought the company of fellow dancers and celebrities, he also cherished the peace and tranquillity he found in Li Galli where he was a frequent guest and a close friend of Massine sharing the Russian spirit which permeated the atmosphere. Massine had kept scrapbooks from before the Revolution and the sense of history and Russianness was overwhelming meaning Nureyev felt right at home. When Massine died in 1979, he left his son Lorca to bear the costs of Li Galli but, when he could no longer afford its upkeep, he sold it to Nureyev and the sale included the ‘2 Clowns’, gifted to Massine by Picasso.

Rudolf’s Enduring Friendship with Michael Tietz

Young aspiring dancers and choreographers had been coming to Monte Carlo for many years and, in 1967 Nureyev was there with his lover Erik Bruhn, the Danish dancer, choreographer and star of the American Ballet Theatre. That same year, 21-year old German Michael Tietz met Nureyev. They had much in common. Obsessed by ballet, at 17 Nureyev had already been accepted by the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet of Saint Petersburg and had run away to Europe whilst Tietz had run from his home to Paris because his father disapproved of his intention to train as a dancer only to be traced by Interpol and forced to return home. The meeting of Tietz and Nureyev was the beginning of a complicated but enduring friendship which lasted for 26 years until Nureyev’s death.

Left to right. Professor Wilhelm Kewenig, Senator and Minister of Culture in Berlin, Michael Tietz and Rudolf Nureyev – Congress Centre, Berlin, 25. November 1984 @Michael Tietz

Their social backgrounds were significantly different. Michael Tietz had come from a cultured Berlin family who knew ballet and opera, where by contrast, Nureyev’s origins were peasant. This, however, did not appear to hamper any cultural pretensions. His reputation as the world’s most outstanding male dancer boosted his self-confidence and personal vanity and he quickly learned to appreciate the culture of the West, cultivating celebrities, artists and intellectuals with ease. By the late 1970s, he had accumulated a fortune which enabled him to indulge in an extravagant lifestyle and he acquired multiple homes throughout Europe and the United States. He was, it is said, paranoid about money despite having at least $10 million is various Swiss bank accounts. His obsession with buying properties included a farm above Monaco, a big flat in Paris, an apartment in the New York Dakota building, a house outside London in Richmond Park, a farm in Virginia, a seaside villa on St Barts and, finally, his own island. Li Galli.

Tietz remembers when Nureyev learnt of Picasso, “Massine asked Rudy if (he) wanted to go to meet Picasso – though Rudolf did not even know who Picasso was and thus he went to Picasso’s home, Californie in Cannes. Picasso had seen Rudolf’s performance of Harlequin. Rudy hoped that Picasso would make a portrait of him.” Tietz recalled, that Rudy’s view was: “If Picasso could paint for Massine, why can’t he paint for me?”** So when Rudy visited Picasso he asked him to paint his portrait and Picasso obliged. The portrait, a gift to Nureyev in 1969, was as a Harlequin, (pictured) an ink and wash work on paper but Rudy was totally shocked.

Portrait of Nureyev as Harlequin, oil on board, 50 x 70cm, Picasso gift to Rudolf Nureyev 1969 @Michael Tietz

The image Picasso drew was of Rudolf looking like a woman. He hated the painting. But he wanted Picasso to draw him again. Perhaps as a favour to Massine, Picasso did paint a second portrait. This one was based on a recent publicity photo. But again, Rudy was unhappy. He thought it was “too modern”. Tietz remembers going to Rudy’s house where the painting had been put up on a wall with nails – not even in a frame. Neither the portrait of Nureyev as a Harlequin nor the cubist full face image pleased him as Nureyev could not find his own beauty reflected in these works.

Portrait of Nureyev, oil on board 50 x 70cm, Picasso gift to Rudolf Nureyev 1969 @Michael Tietz

Ink and wash on paper, 30 x 40 cm “For my friend the Dancer”. Picasso gift to Rudolf Nureyev 1969 @Michael Tietz

After Nureyev and Tietz’s meeting, the two kept in close touch. Whilst Nureyev danced the world over and Michael was a principle head dancer in the National Ballet of Amsterdam, they still managed to dance together. Michael danced as a popular star guest performer with Maurice Béjart, at the Hamburg, Munich and Berlin Ballet Theatres where, as Tietz recalled, “We (Rudy and I) met again and I wanted to organise Ballet Galas. They [the galas] were so successful that I began to organise tours of dancers from all over the world.”** At that time Nureyev was having difficulty with his manager, Max Gorlinsky and asked Tietz if he would consider the role and, from then on, Michael promoted Nureyev’s performances as his European manager (a period he intends to write about), much to Nureyev’s financial satisfaction. According to Tietz, a mutual bond and trust developed which spilled over into other areas as theirs became both a professional and personal relationship.

Both shared a serious interest in art and collecting. Tietz was a collector in his own right. “I have quite important artworks from my family and I have bought over 200 paintings throughout my career.  My grandfather collected and his paintings came into my collection. So when Rudy was buying houses everywhere, he turned to me and always asked – can you come with me? I went many times with him to cities and to antique shops and auction houses. He was always searching for antiques –paintings, figures or bronzes – whatever. His particular passion was male nudes and Old Masters.  He trusted me and through our mutual love of antiques he acquired the furnishings for several of his houses and apartments.” **

Nureyev’s desire to live luxuriously is best revealed by looking at the ways he furnished his homes, to say that his taste had more than a touch of extravagance, is an understatement. For him, modernist designs were fine on stage and in the arts generally, but he did not want to live with them. Whilst he transformed Li Galli, it was in his Paris apartment where he was most indulgent with interiors from another, Imperial Russia, age. The rooms contained rich dark wood antiques, bright oriental carpets and textiles, precious objects assembled from across Europe. Given his headstrong nature, his outrageous taste was authentic but the finery of his life contrasted starkly with the modesty of his origins.

As Nureyev’s health from AIDS-related illnesses deteriorated, a Farewell Tour was, of course, a momentous turning point and Nureyev was eager to fit in as many performances as possible. Tietz recalled, “I gave him more than 30 performances and 22 dates in England alone and he was very excited. He couldn’t believe I gave him 30 performances in one month, one a day, but for Rudolf this was normal – he always killed his body on the road for that was the way he liked it. The stage for him was everything.”** When Nureyev’s stamina declined, Tietz encouraged him to pursue more interest in music and take coaching lessons. “I was the one who told Rudolf to become a conductor for, whilst he was not a great conductor, he had great musicality.”** Nureyev showed a flair and understanding of many works and gave concerts with a Viennese orchestra which critics admired. But it didn’t last long.

Nureyev was nearing the end of his career and Tietz recognised that they were also nearing the end of their relationship. Nureyev had travelled with the three Picassos over the years and Michael hoped to acquire them. Nureyev told Tietz that he had brought them for his Paris apartment but that they did not fit with the décor, known for its opulence. “I went to Rudolf’s apartment in Paris and asked where are the Picassos?” His collections of male nude paintings featured on the walls but there was no sign of the Picassos. I asked where they were only to be told “they’re under the bed”.**

Rudolf Nureyev’s bed – Paris apartment

Nureyev giving Michael Tietz the Picasso Portrait in Wiesbaden @Michael Tietz

It was in Frankfurt, before the end of the Farewell Tour, that Tietz acquired the three Picassos. “Nureyev asked his assistant, François Douce to bring the Picasso artworks to me from Paris to where he was performing in Frankfurt in the summer of 1991. Douce brought them to a hotel near Wiesbaden, where we were staying for the Frankfurt performance… (that’s) where Nureyev handed them to me and my assistant, Peter Bank, took photos of the event. It was an exchange between artists based on Rudy’s appreciation for all the work I had done with him in the past and organising the tour in England and, as Rudolf knew, I had always admired the paintings. I did, however, pay him the asking price!” **

Tietz attachment to the Picassos lasted for years. “They hung in my living room; but now I need to sell them.” In 2018 Tietz sold the Harlequin to a private Danish collector which pleased him, given the long relationship Nureyev had had with Denmark. “My greatest wish would be to find someone who could purchase the painting for a museum for public display in either St Petersburg or Ufa where Rudolf spent his youth. In this way two of the greatest artists of the 20th century can beappreciated and Nureyev can be better remembered in his homeland.”**

Picasso portrait of Nureyev in the Berlin home of Michael Tietz @Michael Tietz

** Abby Cronin interviewed Michael Tietz, October 23. 2019