Diaghilev: A Life

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Sjeng Scheijen's book has put the spotlight once again on the man behind the ballets Russes.

Dutch art historian Sjeng Scheijen's biography of Sergei Diaghilev, "Diaghilev: A Life" was published in English to great acclaim last year. Frances Wilson wrote in the Sunday Times that "reading this biography is as stimulating as plugging yourself into the national grid." Scheijen has long had an interest in Russian art history and recently served as the cultural attache at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Moscow. He spoke with us by phone from Amsterdam.

How did you get interested in Diaghilev?

I was interested in the music of Igor Stravinsky from a very young age. It was mainly through Stravinsky that I got interested in Diaghilev as well, because, when you come to study Stravinsky, you see that Diaghilev plays such in immense role in his life and his artistic career. And that it's a very strange thing that a nonartistic person like Diaghilev, he was not an artist himself, could play such a guiding role in the life of somebody who was considered to be a musical genius. So that really triggered it for me.

In 2005, I had the chance to curate a big exhibition on Diaghilev. I had a large budget and we could borrow pieces from everywhere: a lot from Russia of course, also from the United States, UK, Australia even. And that started my professional interest in Diaghilev. Because in preparations for that exhibition, we stumbled upon an archive in St. Petersburg where the correspondence with his stepmother is located. I hoped to find a few letters maybe, but it turned out that there were 80 letters between him and his stepmother and other documents from his stepmother. Letters from his brothers, letters from his father. It was a huge family archive. And that was, in a sense, the start of the book.

Had anyone seen these documents before?

Russian scholars had seen them, but in the Soviet Union it was almost impossible to publish something about Diaghilev.

Diaghilev was, in a way, persona non grata in the Soviet Union. He was one of those people that were written out of history. When you go to the various editions of the Soviet Encyclopedia, you see the section on Diaghilev becomes smaller and smaller and smaller and then disappears. That is a very striking symbol of the way he was treated in the Soviet Union.

In the 20s, he was still considered as somebody who represented Russian art abroad, and people were very proud of what he did. In the 30s he was seen as a cosmopolitan, a friend of capitalism. And then he just completely disappeared. It was impossible to publish on him.

His two brothers were repressed: Valentin died in Solovki, only three weeks after Diaghilev himself died in Venice, and his second brother was sent to Central Asia somewhere and he died there in the 1950s. The family itself was an enemy of the people.

How did you find out about the letters?

We went to Perm, where he grew up, there is a small museum dedicated to him there. In Perm there's nobody left who knows him, but there are some people who know something about the house where he lived. We spoke to a very old lady who worked in the house, before the revolution.

And from them we heard that there were still relatives in St. Petersburg.

We were filming in St. Petersburg for the exhibit and it was his grandniece who told me that there were letters over there and we said, "Ok, would you mind going with us to the archive so we could film her reading out one of his letters?" And when we were in that archive, we saw a whole box of old materials.

The family was repressed. They lost everything. They were rehabilitated during the Khrushchyov thaw. But they are still living in a communal flat. They're very intelligent people, they're cultural, they speak three languages, but they have never travelled to Europe.  

You spent four years on the book, living with his character. Did you still like Diaghilev by the time you had finished it?

That's a difficult question. It is very difficult to live with anybody and still like them after four years. I still have a lot of admiration for Diaghilev because he was, in a way, a tragic figure and you don't really start to hate him because he also suffered tremendously. But of course he could be a very nasty person, at some moments he is almost intolerable — his selfishness and his egomania. Of course, you develop a kind of relationship with your subject, but I think I tried, and mostly succeeded, in keeping a distance. But it's difficult. I had more difficulty though with Alexander Benois who is in the book and who is an enormous intellectual figure in Russia and loved in Russia, much more I think than Diaghilev is. In the end I really developed an antipathy against Benois, which is a personal thing. I also tried, of course, to keep a distance, but that was more difficult.

What do you like and admire the most about Diaghilev?

Though I lived with him so many years, he is still in a way a riddle; he is a magical figure still for me. Because of the enormity of what he did, it is almost inexplicable. For example, if you try to imagine about how he managed to get that whole operation working: that enormous company, an opera and a ballet company who travelled at the same time through Europe, all the time. If you compare that to a contemporary ballet company — they have a staff of 20-25 people and they rarely travel.  They have an enormous administrative staff and they're almost all overworked. Diaghilev worked with a staff of three or four people, mostly doing everything by himself and he travelled the world, literally. Everyday to another city; he didn't have a home, he didn't have a place to stay — he was always in financial trouble.

He was very much willing to sacrifice anything for an artistic success. That really strikes me still and I really cannot understand how he did it. But he did it.

I was a bit skeptical when I started about whether the company was really so small and that they didn't have real administration — but they really didn't. So that is still quite magical to me. And that's why I'm quite certain that it cannot be repeated. Certainly not in the current climate. Historically, it was something very, very unique.

Will there be a Russian edition of the book?

We're working on the Russian translation at the moment. There's very experienced translators working on it. I have good faith that the translation will be published next year.  I hope that this will ignite some new interest in Diaghilev in Russia as well. There is a lot of interest in Diaghilev, but there is not so much knowledge, because all the serious books on Diaghilev are in English. And few of them are translated.

He is more of a mythical figure in Russia. It always strikes me that when the Bolshoi or other companies do Diaghilev programs, they seem to have very little knowledge or exact knowledge of what really happened in Paris and in Europe with Diaghilev.

Diaghilev was one of Russian great figures who never performed in Russia. And his company, the Ballets Russes, never performed in Russia.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a study on the demise of the Russian avant garde. Not only on the political level, but more on the level of the individual artist. So I'm going to look at the legal documents, diaries, letters, autobiographies of artists who in a way collaborated or tried to fight against the demise of the avant garde. And to retell the whole story of the demise from the perspective of the artists.

Introduction: Death in Venice

An excerpt from the opening chapter of Scheijen's biography of Diaghilev.

On August 21, 1929, a funeral barge set off from the Grand Hotel on the Lido for the little island of San Michele, where the city of Venice has buried its dead since the beginning of the 19th century. The body in the barge, bound for the Greek Orthodox section on the cemetery, was that of Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, founder and leader of the Ballets Russes and one of the most influential pioneers of modern art in the 20th century. In the course of a 20-year career, Diaghilev had made his mark in Europe and the Americas, and in this relatively short space of time he transformed the world of dance, theater, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before (or has done since).

He transformed the world of dance, theater, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before or has ever done since.

From 1896, he was active in Russia as a critic, exhibition organizer, publisher and art historian. Through his journal, Mir Iskusstva, and exhibitions he brought Russian art out of years of stagnation, championed international symbolism, art nouveau, the Arts and Crafts Movement and Russian neonationalism and revived forgotten aspects of Russia's artistic past. He set up a traveling, privately financed ballet troupe and performed in Europe's and America's most famous venues, and for nearly quarter of a century it would be the world's leading dance company. Its early productions fed the craze for Slavic and oriental exoticism, catapulting the Ballets Russes to instant fame. Shortly before the First World War, Diaghilev reinvented his company as a laboratory platform for the avant garde, working with artists such as Picasso, Cocteau, Derain, Braque and Matisse, as well as Russian modernists such as Larionov, Goncharova and Naum Gabo. His ventures, which often met with strong resistance from those closest to him, entailed huge personal and financial risks. Diaghilev's company did more for the prestige and scope of the European avant garde than any other single entity.

Diaghilev achieved all this with an improvised organization that had no official headquarters for the first ten years of its existence and, even more incredibly, no regular funding. He himself had no home and almost no possessions. He roamed the world with his manservant and a couple of suitcases, staying at expensive hotels (which he sometimes left without paying the bill). He oversaw programming, contracts, publicity and casting and assumed creative responsibility for his productions, many of which bear his artistic stamp. Financial crises were the leitmotif of his life. He often teetered on the brink of ruin, and on at least one occasion he actually had to flee his creditors. Yet at the same time he was the feted guest of kings, noblemen and captains of industry.

Diaghilev spent his infancy in St. Petersburg and his youth in Perm, at the foot of the northern Urals, where his family had their roots. No one who knew him failed to say how Russian he was and how attached he was to his homeland, from which he was effectively exiled by the First World War. Even after 15 years of uninterrupted residence in Western Europe, at a time when his company was hiring more and more foreigners, his inner circle was almost exclusively Russian. Diaghilev's separation from Russia may well have been the greatest sorrow of his life. Yet it was not just the result of forces beyond his control; his European exile was also a very conscious choice.

Diaghilev saw the promotion of Russian art in Europe as his mission in life, and the West's acceptance of Russia, at the beginning of the 20th century, as a major European cultural nation, is in large part his personal achievement. His friend Alexander Benois, a renowned Russian intellectual, called him "one of the most interesting and characteristic figures of our fatherland, uniting in his person the boundless charm and indomitable strength of Russian culture."

Despite this, his relationship with the Russian establishment was a troubled one. The courtiers of Tsar Nicolas II frequently tried to frustrate and sabotage Diaghilev's success in Western Europe. By the time of the Soviet regime, Diaghilev was regarded as a has-been and ultimately as an enemy of the state. Yet in Europe and America, his death was front-page news, and in wake of his passing the papers were full of reminiscences and necrologies.

In his own country, his death merited only a solitary mention: a brief obituary on page 15 of the Red Panorama, a journal of art and literature.   


Russia - Holland 2010
Russia - Holland 2010
This business bilingual colour publication is devoted to cooperation between Russia and the Netherlands in the fields of business, tourism and culture and is published in partnership with the Dutch embassy.
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