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The Spirit, Colour and Vitality of the Ballets Russes Brought to Life at the National Gallery of Australia
Léon Baskt Tunic from costume for the Blue God c 1912 from Le Dieu Bleu. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1987.
CANBERRA.- The National Gallery of Australia opened its major summer exhibition Ballets Russes: the art of costume. The exhibition celebrates the centenary of the first Paris seasons of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet), the dance company that revolutionised ballet with its sensational fusion of art, movement and music.

Featuring 150 costumes and accessories from the ballet as well as film, drawings, photography and original programs, the exhibition brings to life the famed ballet troupe’s stunning avant-garde performances in the largest Ballets Russes display ever held in Australia.

“In this exhibition you will see works of art by some of the greatest modern artists such as Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Natalia Goncharova, Léon Bakst, André Derain, Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso, but these works are costumes that were designed to be lived and breathed in on the stage,” said Ron Radford AM, Director of the National Gallery of Australia.

“This collection of Ballets Russes costumes which is one of the largest and finest in the world is incredibly significant for the National Gallery of Australia. One of the central aims of the National Gallery is to celebrate modernism and to show how arts across all media contribute to an understanding of its influence. Ballets Russes: the art of costume is only on show in Canberra, and we would like to thank our Presenting Partner ActewAGL for supporting this exhibition”.

A third of the costumes and accessories displayed in this exhibition have not been seen since they were last worn on stage. Ballets Russes: the art of costume is the result of a five year Gallery conservation project, painstakingly conserving fragile costumes often thread by thread.

Ballets Russes: the art of costume also features new acquisitions purchased in recent years including costumes and accessories designed by Matisse, Picasso and de Chirico.

The nature of the Ballets Russes costumes means they are some of the most fragile pieces in the national collection and therefore only rarely displayed.

“The costumes designed and made for the Ballets Russes were conceived in the context of powerful and emotional artistic collaboration and command attention as persuasive works of art in their own right, long after they ceased to be worn on stage. Their ingenious design, cut and construction, innovative colours and patterns, the use of a variety of fabrics and trim materials, come together with the purpose of being worn in complex action by athletic dancers for maximum visual impact on stage,” said Senor Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and exhibition curator Dr Robert Bell AM.

Michael Costello, CEO of ActewAGL, said “ActewAGL is thrilled to partner with the National Gallery of Australia for this major exhibition, Ballets Russes the art of costume which is sure to draw visitors to Canberra over summer and autumn. This partnership demonstrates our continued commitment to supporting Canberra tourism, business and the community”.

The National Gallery of Australia’s collection of Ballets Russes costumes began with the purchase of nearly 400 significant pieces at a Sotheby’s auction in London in the 1973, another considerable purchase was made in 1976. The Gallery has added to the collection in the decades following and this exhibition includes new acquisitions purchased in the last few years.

The exhibition showcases 34 productions from 1909 to 1940, evoking the exoticism and drama of its performances.

Serge Diaghilev was instrumental in bringing together the finest artists of the early 20th century including visual artists, composers and choreographers to create a new modern art form. The company originated in Russia under Diaghilev’s charismatic leadership – but they never performed there. They toured throughout Europe and America and brought together the talents of composers such as Igor Stravinsky (who launched his career with the Ballets Russes and was Diaghilev’s closest musical collaborator), and Claude Debussy; choreographers, Michele Fokine, Leonide Massine and George Balanchine and dancers such as Vaslav Njinksy.

After Diaghilev's untimely death in 1929, several new companies were formed to continue and develop his legacy, the most important being Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, formed in Monaco in 1932 by the Russian entrepreneur Colonel Wassily de Basil. This company toured in Australia three times during the 1930s, enthralling audiences with its productions.

This exhibition aims to celebrate the centenary of the Ballets Russes by showing how its spirit continues for our time and place.

The National Gallery of Australia | Ballets Russes | Henri Matisse | Georges Braque |


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