Larionov: Diaghilev Mania

Yevgenia Ilyukhina

Magazine issue: 
#1 2005 (06)

December 2004 saw the opening of a new exhibition in Groningen, Holland, "Working for Diaghilev", which brings together Russian and European works from foreign, as well as Russian art collections. Aptly named, the exhibition not only showcases "World of Art” and Russian Seasons material, but also sheds light on Diaghilev's entourage with portraits of artists, composers, choreographers, wealthy patrons and performers. It includes sketches made by the artist Mikhail Larionov in 1915, the result of working with Diaghilev in Switzerland, which have never previously been exhibited. Together with Larionov's book on Diaghilev, these graphic memoirs create yet another original image of the eminent Russian impresario. This account of Diaghilev's life by one of his closest colleagues is all the more interesting for its obviously personal bias.

"No man was as well-loved and respected by Larionov than Diaghilev: both throughout his life, and after his death.”[1]
From an unpublished manuscript of Mikhail Larionov

Writing of himself in the third person, Mikhail Larionov makes this somewhat innocent admission all the more convincing. Like many of his other notes on Diaghilev, this was never published, yet serves to clarify the particular nature of Larionov's attitude towards the famous impresario. The "real" relationship between Diaghilev and Larionov spanned 15 years. Between 1914 and 1929, the two worked together on the "Ballets Russes"; this period was followed by the "virtual" relationship which Larionov maintained with Diaghilev after the latter's death, constantly remembering him in notes, drawings and manuscripts - three enormous cases in all! This latter relationship lasted until the painter's own death.

"Among the very first notes on Diaghilev to appear in the collection published in his memory by the Revue Musicale[2] was one written by me shortly after his death... From that time onwards, I attempted to record everything I could remember about Diaghilev and ballet," wrote Larionov.

On three occasions, Sergei Diaghilev could be said to have played a decisive role in Larionov's destiny: all three are well documented by the artist. According to Larionov, the two first met at a modern architecture exhibition in 1903. In 1906, Diaghilev invited him to take part in a grandiose Russian art exhibition in Paris. Decades later, he recalls receiving the impresario's letter with equal excitement and jubilation: "The iron bolt clacked against the gate, and the postman called: 'Letter for you, sir!'. The letter came flying through the air, swaying slightly, and fell onto the wet grass by the board. It was from Diaghilev. He was inviting me to participate in the Paris exhibition and wanted me to come to Moscow so that he could look at my work. I had not been planning to return to Moscow for a good two months, yet the very next day I decided to pack up all my paintings and leave, abandoning my dear Tiraspol, my grandmother's garden and the wonderful southern sun."

In 1914, again thanks to Diaghilev, Larionov returned to Paris - this time with Goncharova, to work on the premiere of "Le Coq d'Or" (The Golden Cockerel).[3]

The success of this production aroused significant interest in Larionov and Goncharova's Rayonist exhibition in the Galerie Paul Guillaume.[4] In his memoirs, written around the time of the debate concerning the emergence of abstract art, Larionov claims to have discussed figurative art and Rayonism with Diaghilev in 1 903[5]. The impresario's fame and authority ensured that Larionov was seen as one of the earliest and greatest figures in abstract art.

Following the triumph of "Le Coq d'Or", still unaware of Larionov's talent for theatre work, Diaghilev was eager to engage Natalia Goncharova. She, on the other hand, ignored his telegrams until he added the words: "Larionov will accompany you, of course." In 1915, at Diaghilev's invitation, the artists left Russia for a third time: this time, for good. Travelling via Paris, they reached Ouchy in Switzerland, where Diaghilev was already hard at work with Bakst, Grigoriev, Massine[6] and a number of ballet-dancers. The newly-arrived artists threw themselves not only into costume and stage design, but into the entire process of preparing the new ballet repertoire. As at the outset of the "Ballets Russes", the whole group was involved in composing librettos, discussing and selecting music and working on choreography. Yet new faces had replaced the friends of Diaghilev's Petersburg youth. Larionov himself became engrossed in choreography; Diag hilev's long-standing partners Lev Bakst and Alexander Benois also shared their ideas with ballet master Mikhail Fokine. Yet Larionov always insisted on his own choreography, disagreeing vehem-ently with Diaghilev and Massine.

Filled with sketches of sets, swirling dancers and portraits of the group members - Goncharova, Stravinsky, Massine and, above all, Diaghilev himself - Larionov's albums of that period reflect the atmosphere of intense creativity present in the group. His swiftly-penned caricatures built up around a few recognisable features speak for themselves. The image of Diaghilev with his disproportionately large head, expressive profile, famous monocle and bow tie was to be repeated time and time again, ten, twenty and thirty years after its model's death. Traced and retraced, it was to turn into a kind of mask. The impresario's aristocratic manners of a Russian gentleman, so irritating to the friends of Diaghilev's youth, appealed to Larionov. Preoccupied with comparisons between animal and human mime, Larionov distinguishes the features of a bulldog in Diaghilev's heavy physiognomy. Many years later, he will portray him as an enormous bulldog, surrounded by smaller dogs with the faces of Massine, Stravinsky, Ansermet[7] and others.

In Stravinsky's "Renard"[8], work on which began in Ouchy, Diaghilev's face indeed became a mask, lending its features to the Cat - the fairytale's most serious and well-rounded character and one always busy managing others.

Larionov's album of 1915 contains some striking full-length drawings of Diaghilev:   Diaghilev with a flower, Diaghilev stooping to stroke a dog. The drawings are accompanied by words to a Russian song. In the background of a costume sketch for the "Contes Russes"[9], we can also distinguish the familiar figure of Diaghilev as he sits watching Massine rehearse.

These are virtually the only sketches of the impresario made in the process of working with him. After Ouchy, Larionov made no more portrait sketches, focusing instead on mises-en-scene.

In 1929, Larionov designed his last work for Diaghilev - a new version of "Renard". Together with Serge Lifar[10], he was also responsible for its choreography. When the artist learned of Diaghilev's sudden death, he was with Goncharova near Monte Carlo, where the Ballets Russes had rehearsed for many years. Besides filling Larionov with acute personal grief, this event put an end to an important chapter in his theatrical experiments. The artist's relationship with Diaghilev had been far from idyllic: the two had argued, rowed, temporarily separated and even got into fights, as Larionov's writings testify. Yet only with Diaghilev was the artist able to explore beyond stage design. Many avant-garde masters such as Malevich, Chagall and Kandinsky had attempted to transform musical theatre, but Larionov, thanks to Diaghilev, proved the only artist almost fully to realise his theatrical ambitions on the big stage. By dealing with the practical arrangements, Diaghilev had provided Larionov with an ideal opportunity to experiment as he wished.

From the mid-1930s onwards, Larionov was bent on writing a book on Diaghilev. This was not only to "restore the true image" of the genius impresario, but also to shed light on his own role in the development of new ballet.

The book was begun many times: its title invented[11], and front cover, with Diaghilev's portrait, designed, illustrations prepared... As if taken from life, sketches of the manager and his group hard at work in Ouchy in 1915-1916 appeared. The artist's pencil faithfully reproduced and reworked images first captured twenty or thirty years earlier. Equally convincing is Larionov's portrayal of events he had witnessed, such as Diaghilev's meetings with Leonid Massine, Bronislava Nijinska or Serge Lifar, and things he had never seen, like Vaslav Nijinsky's rehearsal of "L'Apres- Midi d'un Faune"[12]. To complete the illusion of sketches made hurriedly at rehearsals, he used old and yellowed or torn paper. The technique varies: some illustrations are hazy, whilst others are like a flurry of ink on coloured paper. Detailed, laboriously executed pencil sketches appear to imitate life drawings, echoing the subjects of 1915 as the old images are refined and multiplied.

The text for his book did not come to Larionov so easily. Caught up in the process of illustration, he produced image after image, whilst the words gradually dried up. The textual passages and illustrations were then divided into separate blocks, each on similar paper and dating from the 1920s, 30s or 40s.

The overall aim of the book being to portray Diaghilev, creator of ballets, the illustrations show the impresario at rehearsals surrounded by dancers, colleagues - including Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bakst and Goncharova, but never Larionov himself. In his text, the artist argues heatedly with authors of other books on Russian ballet, notably the English critic Arnold Haskell, whose monograph on Diaghilev is dedicated to Walter Nouvel[13] and Benois. Larionov had sought Haskell's help in publishing his own memoir of Diaghilev and now accused him of stealing his title. He would outdo his rival by writing an entire series of books on Diaghilev, he claimed. These were to be:

  1. Diaghilev and His Time
  2. Diaghilev and His Ballet Masters
  3. Diaghilev. The Memoirs of Larionov
  4. Larionov. The Sources of Russian Dance and Ballet

Of these four books on Diaghilev, two would to an equal degree have focused on Larionov himself. The artist's stamp is clearly visible on all the materials gathered for this task. Claiming a unique right to write about Diaghilev, Larionov dismisses all real and possible competition.

"The magazine and exhibitions[14] were far less serious a contribution than Diaghilev's ballets. Of the twenty years he worked on the Ballets Russes. the period between 1914 and 1929 was one of the most productive and important, as it allowed him to create the New Ballet. New Music and New Art were championed by him, but New Ballet he actually created, making people interested in it and providing models. There, his life stopped. But his work made the people who are now taking his vision forward and, for this reason, it remains alive to this day."

In Larionov's view, Diaghilev's ballet work could be divided into two periods: 1909-1913 and 1914-1929. The second period, of course, in which the artist was actively involved, had far more influence on 20th-century ballet: "First and foremost, it was the new discoveries in ballet and the wonderful masters such as Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine, whose contribut-ions to the art of ballet and contemporary theatre in general have shown young choreo-gra- phers the way forward."

Larionov saw Bakst, Benois and Fokine as adhering to the "illustrative method", literally copying historical models, whereas "Nijinsky, Goncharova and Massine were proponents of a second, freer [model] of anachronisms. and distortion of historical and retrospective truth." The "modest" Larionov does not include himself among the "great reformers" of ballet, yet the fact that he and Goncharova worked on many ballets together inevitably draws him into this circle. At other times, the author is quite unequivocal: "From 1913 onwards... Diaghilev, founder of the 'World of Art' movement, sought to distance himself from the group. Although he maintained close personal friendships and continued to work on ballets with the main members such as Alexander Benois and Lev Bakst, Diaghilev brought in Goncharova and Larionov, and it was mainly their artistic sense which served to shape all the famous director's work from that time onwards. Goncharova and Larionov were responsible for the shift towards the latest French art."

The first period of Diaghilev's work is dealt with by Larionov in a cursory fashion. The account of the pre-Larionov years merits no illustrations: the artist is not about to sing his rivals' praises. Diaghilev's youth, on the other hand, is dwelt on at length. Larionov describes Sergei's last, moonlit night in Perm, inventing, Pushkin- style, a conversation between Diaghilev and his nanny. A map of the Diaghilev estate with a view of the house in which Sergei was born, and the Diaghilev family tree are attached. Himself from Tiraspol, the artist takes pleasure in dwelling on Diaghilev's provincial roots - perhaps to spite the city-raised Benois: "All the new people came from the provinces. The difference of tastes between D. and his first colleagues Benois, Nouvel and others was the difference between Petersburg's semiWestern city culture and the Eastern or, if you like, Mongolian Russian provincial, adventure-seeking culture of the Volga, of which Diaghilev was a part." Taken almost entirely from Goncharova's letter on East and West to the "Russkoye Slovo" newspaper[15], this extract makes Diaghilev out to be some warrior-like Scythian, bursting onto the Paris theatre scene with a clatter of horses' hooves.

As if to demonstrate his own independence, Larionov describes his altercations with Diaghilev in great detail. "A petty character, envy and the desire to get on - Diaghilev used these admirably.

Strauss, Prokofiev, Braque, Goncharova and Picasso were able to remain independent and even somewhat aloof, yet the majority were under the distinct impression that Diaghilev was doing them a favour by allowing them to work for him." Nevertheless, the rows between Diaghilev and Larionov always appeared to end in reconciliation. Maybe the artist, not dissimilar to Diaghilev in his interaction with others[16], finally proved to be a worthy partner and rival.

Primarily, however, Larionov strove to present Diaghilev as a reformer - an innovator. Boldly doctoring Diaghilev's biography, he creates an appropriate image somewhat reminiscent of himself. More and more similarities between the two emerge: one has the impression of reading a double biography. Parallels are constantly and deliberately drawn between the two lives. Larionov, it seems, truly believed that Diaghilev's fate mirrored his own. The artist attempts to enter Diaghilev's very personality, trying on Diaghilev's image - the mask reproduced time and time again in his sketchbooks. Even Larionov's hidden ambition is akin to Diaghilev's. "In 20 years, not once did Diaghilev's portrait appear in a programme[17]. He did not wish to be discussed." It was the "Ballets Russes", named as they were after the impresario, that were to speak for him.

Respect for the great impresario does not prevent Larionov from commenting on his shortcomings or, ultimately, from upholding his own views on the development of Ballet (Larionov spells the word with a capital). Reviewing the progress made thus far, he outlines its future development, listing the companies which, in his view, are on the right track - Diaghilev's track; these are "de Basil's Ballet, Massine's Ballet, the English Ballet and Lifar's Ballet at the Opera". Larionov sees himself not only as Diaghilev's biographer, but also as his successor. Whilst his rivals Benois, Nouvel and Lifar were busy carving up the past, each attempting to prove his supreme importance to Diaghilev, Larionov looked to the future, preparing to take over Diaghilev's role. His memoirs are written as he attempts to realise his grandiose plans for ballet. Ironically, in the early 1930s he acts as advisor to his rival's relative Michel Benois and his ballet troupe. Designing the costumes and sets for several productions with Goncharova, he also helps to plan the company's repertoire. The troupe proves too small for him, however, and he moves on to Colonel de Basil's "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo"[18], offering a multitude of new ideas and revolutionary changes in return for the posit-ion of artistic director.

Thinking big as always, Larionov put forward plans for a ten-year contract which would allow him, the artistic general director, the absolute freedom to work as he wished. "I have every opportunity to do this," he claimed. Larionov sees himself endowed with all the power wielded in the past by Diaghilev, with the exception of financial management. Mindful of Diaghilev's constant pecuniary worries, Larionov helpfully suggests that a "director for practical matters" be appointed. He himself would in turn support this director with his experience and connections.

Larionov's apocryphal writings on Diaghilev gradually acquire new chapters on the development of ballet, openly written from the artist's own standpoint. New illustrations from the Ballet de Monte Carlo appear. One almost expects to encounter Diaghilev himself bequeathing his role to Larionov. Writing to an American publisher about his book, Larionov claims: "its title is in direct opposition to Haskell's 'Diaghileff. His Artistic and Private Life'. One must learn to be generous and have enough titles in store, so that those who steal them are only disappointed. Thus, my book will be called 'Diaghileff: His Tragic and Fantastic Life'."

The volume "M. Larionov. Diaghilev et les Ballets Russes"[19], containing a portion of the artist's writings, appeared after his death and finally united artist and impresario, paying lasting tribute to both. Filled with Larionov's drawings from different periods, made chiefly from memory, it documents the pair's collaboration. At the same time, the mythical dates given by Larionov and preserved by the editors serve to fulfil Larionov's main ambition: to present the real and fantastic life of Diaghilev's "Ballets Russes".


  1. All Mikhail Larionov's manuscripts on Diaghilev are kept in the State Tretyakov Gallery Manuscripts Department (Archive no. 180). All texts from this archive are subsequently quoted without further reference. The author's original style is preserved in the quotations.
  2. "La Revue Musicale. Les Ballets de Serge Diaghilew". Paris, December 1930.
  3. "Le Coq d'Or" (The Golden Cockerel) - an opera and ballet with music by Nikolai Rimsky-Kor- sakov, produced by Mikhail Fokine, with sets and costumes by Goncharova and Larionov. "Les Ballets Russes de Diaghilev", the Paris Opera.
  4. Goncharova and Larionov's exhibition was held in 1914 in the Galerie Paul Guillaume, in Paris. The foreword to the catalogue was written by Guillaume Apollinaire.
  5. Larionov's first attempts at figurative painting dating from the beginning of the 1910s, this conversation could not have taken place in 1903. The early date is chosen in order to demonstrate Larionov's prowess in the area of abstract art and his superiority over such painters as Malevich and Kandinsky.
  6. Sergey Grigoriev (1883-1968). Dancer and producer of the "Ballets Russes". Leonid Massine (1895-1979). Dancer and choreographer. Worked for the "Ballets Russes" between 1914 and 1921, and again between 1924 and 1928.
  7. Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969). Swiss conductor and composer. Musical director of the "Ballets Russes" (1915-1923).
  8. "Renard", a ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky produced by Bronislava Nijinska, with sets and costumes by Larionov. The Paris Opera, 1922.
  9. "Les Contes Russes", a suite of choreographic miniatures with music by Anatoly Lyadov produced by Leonid Massine, with sets and costumes by Goncharova and Larionov. "Les Ballets Russes de Diaghilev", San Sebastian-Paris-London, 1916-1919.
  10. Serge Lifar (1905-1986). Dancer and choreographer. "Ballets Russes" soloist (1923-1929). Produced "Reynard the Fox" (1929).
  11. Larionov approached the English ballet critic Arnold Haskell with the suggestion of publishing a book to be entitled "Diaghileff. His Artistic and Private Life". The artist claims that Haskell, however, wanted to write the book himself using Larionov's material. Larionov refused. Haskell then wrote the book with the aid of Benois and Nouvel. In 1935, to Larionov's indignation, the book appeared in London under his original title.
  12. Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950). Dancer and choreographer. Principal (1909-1913) and ballet master (1912-1913) of the "Ballets Russes". Nijinsky rehearsed and produced "L'Apres-Midi d'un Faune" in 1912, when Larionov was not yet involved with the "Ballets Russes".
  13. Walter Nouvel (1871-1949). A friend of Diaghilev since his student days, Nouvel was actively involved in the "World of Art" magazine and Diaghilev's theatre work. Acted as administrator for the "Ballets Russes".
  14. Larionov is referring to the "World of Art" magazine (1898-1904) and exhibitions organised by Diaghilev, namely, the Exhibition of English and German Watercolour Painters (1897), Exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists (1898), first "World of Art" exhibitions (1899-1903), Historical Russian Portrait Exhibition in the Tauride Palace (1905) and Russian Art Exhibition for the 1906 Paris Autumn Salon.
  15. Letter to the "Russkoye Slovo" newspaper published in Tatiana Loguine's book "Gontcharova et Larionov. Cinquante Ans a Saint-Germain-Des-Pres", Paris, 1971.
  16. In the 1910s, Larionov established a number of art groups such as the "Jack of Diamonds", the "Donkey's Tail" and "The Target". Whenever he felt that a group had run out of momentum or needed a change of members, he would provoke a row and part company with his former allies.
  17. Larionov evidently attempted to make up for this by producing scores of Diaghilev portraits.
  18. The "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo" changed its name repeatedly. For a time, it was known as the "New Monte Carlo Ballet". The company emerged in 1932 out of Diaghilev's "Ballets Russes". After the war, at the time Larionov was writing, it divided into two troupes. The first, managed by Denham, moved to the USA, whilst the second remained in Europe and continued to rehearse in Monte Carlo.
  19. "M.Larionov. Diaghilev et les Ballets Russes". Paris, 1972.
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with a Flower. 1915–1916
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with a Flower. 1915–1916
A sheet from the album, lead pencil on paper. 35 by 26.2 cm
State Tretyakov gallery
Мikhail LARIONOV. Profile portrait of Sergei Diaghilev. 1915–1916
Мikhail LARIONOV. Profile portrait of Sergei Diaghilev. 1915–1916
A sheet from the album, lead pencil on paper. 42 by 26.5 cm
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev
Cover design for book on Diaghilev
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with a Dog. 1915–1916
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with a Dog. 1915–1916
A sheet from the album, lead pencil on paper. 42 by 26.5 cm
Мikhail LARIONOV. Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev. 1930s
Мikhail LARIONOV. Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev. 1930s
Copy of an earlier drawing. A sheet from the album, lead pencil on paper. 38.3 by 26.3 cm
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with the Score. 1940s
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with the Score. 1940s
Ball-point pen, ink, lead pencil on paper. 21 by 27 cm
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev and Leonid Massine at Table. 1930–1940s
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev and Leonid Massine at Table. 1930–1940s
Indian ink, pen on cream-coloured paper with water-mark. 23.2 by 36.9 cm
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with a Newspaper. 1930s
Мikhail LARIONOV. Sergei Diaghilev with a Newspaper. 1930s
Lead pencil on green paper. 17.8 by 22.8 cm
Мikhail LARIONOV. Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rehearsal of 'L’Après-Midi d’un Faune'. 1930s
Мikhail LARIONOV. Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rehearsal of "L’Après-Midi d’un Faune". 1930s
Indian ink, pen, zinc white, black pencil on paper set on paper. 32.4 by 40.5 cm





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