‘Diaghilev: A Life’ by Sjeng Scheijen

In 1919, the painter Henri Matisse travelled to London to work on Sergey Diaghilev’s newest ballet. Matisse was reluctant and the work was tiring. He later wrote:

Diaghilev is Louis XIV. You’ve no idea what he’s like, that man… He’s charming and maddening at the same time.

This paradox of charm and madness comes through quite well in Sjeng Scheijen’s recent biography of the impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes. Scheijen, a Dutch scholar of Russian art, has produced a substantial book of Diaghilev’s life, well researched and meticulous in details, that is a fine addition to the Diaghilev bookshelf.

The biography has all the aspects of a good 19th century Russian novel, peopled with a host of characters and conflicts, passions and bankruptcies. But throughout it is the overbearing and charming personality of the central character that prevails.

Diaghilev was born in Russia in 1872 to an aristocratic family. He spent his childhood between the cosmopolitan excitement of St. Petersburg and the quiete, provincial town of Perm at the foot of the Urals, where his family owned distilleries.

As he went off to the university in Moscow, all was set in place for the young Diaghilev to pursue a career in the Russian civil service, an honorable and comfortable life for such men in his social class.

But his law studies bored him, and instead he pursued his interests in music, literature, and the history of Russian art. He started a literary journal, curated exhibitions, gained a reputation within artistic communities in St. Petersburg, and found support among important aristocrats, including the Tsar himself.

He was often pursued by noted writers and artists of his time. Scheijen relates the intriguing story of the young Diaghilev’s encounter with the aging Tolstoy, and his conversation with Oscar Wilde in Paris, where, according to Diaghlilev’s own recounting years later, the two walked arm and arm down a Grand Boulevard while prostitutes looked on.

His aesthetic interests were a paradox of old Europe and new ideas. Like the times he lived in where Tsarist Russia and 19th century Europe were in decline, Diaghilev held both a passion for older traditions as much as he looked towards new forms and new aesthetics.

While he found inspiration in the art of Renaissance Florence and Venice (the city he loved the most), he was, as Scheijen writes, “aware that to be truly innovative, an artist has to be an iconoclast, to break with the past.”

As Scheijen shows, the impresario’s passion for modernism was not anchored in politics (as, for example the futurist movement in Italy, which Diaghilev admired), but rather in aesthetic concerns in creating a new “cult of beauty.” Beauty was “energizing and ambivalent” and “by its very nature provoked extreme reactions and emotions.”

In founding the Ballet Russes, he transformed not only ballet, but also the interactions between dance and the visual arts, integrating music and design as significant components of the performances. He also brought modernists aesthetics from avant garde circles to wider audiences in Europe before World War I.

Throughout the book you encounter so many familiar names of artists who were inspired by their collaborations with the Ballet Russes: Stravinski, Prokofiev, Chanel, Picasso, Nijinski, and Balanchine, to name a few. The question one wonders while reading this biography was what would have been the path of modernism had Diaghilev stayed with his law studies, become a civil servant in Tsarist Russia, and the Ballet Russes was never created?

While Scheijen is best in detailing with careful accuracy the interactions between Diaghilev and his collaborators, and the constant and tiring work of keeping the Ballet Russes financially and artistically vital, he provides little discussion of the actual performances. For someone unfamiliar with the Ballet Russes the artistic innovations will feel a mystery. This distance from the performances themselves limits the larger world that the book invites us into.

Though a big part of the world does include Diagheliv’s sexual relationships. His first relationship was with his cousin Dima, consummated after the two toured the cultural capitals of Europe in 1890. Importantly, Scheijen revises earlier interpretations of Diaghilev’s well known five‐year relationship with the young dancer Vaslav Nijinski who has often been presented as the victim of Diaghilev’s aggressive advances.

Scheijen argues:

In reality, Nijinsky Nijinski was not the passive victim later observers claimed him to be” but rather he was “a young person taking an older lover to further his career, intellectual growth, and social development.

What this biography does so commendable well is to recast Diaghilev’s romantic interests in all their power and complexities, showing how they were central to his artistic energy and vision.

Diaghilev died of diabetes in Venice in 1929. He had come to the city, as he often did, for a break from his frantic schedule. The previous two decades were a hectic time of collaborations, near constant tours of Europe, South America, and the United States, and a constant struggle for financial stability.

The essence of Diaghilev, according to Scheijen, “was a man driven by an overpowering need to explore the mystery of human creativity in its highest forms.” But even this claim betrays how difficult it is to pin down one definition of the iconoclast. Perhaps it is Diaghilev’s own words that offer the best understanding of him.

Writing to a friend in 1902 about his love of Venice, Diaghilev prophetically noted:

I will end my days here, where there’s nowhere to hurry to, where one needn’t make any effort to live; and that’s our main problem, all of us don’t just live; we strive terrible to live as if without those efforts our life would come to an end.

A Life
by Sjeng Scheijen
Oxford University Press
Hardcover, 9780199751495, 560pp.
September 2010