Picasso and Matisse are the big draw in Cork as set and costume designs for Ballets Russes go on display

An exhibition of set and costume designs by great artists for the Ballets Russes are currently on display at the UCC gallery, writes Colette Sheridan

IN SOMETHING of a coup for UCC’s Glucksman Gallery, works on paper by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse are among 33 drawings in an exhibition, Set in Time, which portray set and costume designs by some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century.

This curated selection of the Serge Lifar collection is being shown in Ireland for the first time. Some of the drawings, on loan from the Wadsworth Museum in Connecticut, USAhave not been shown in Europe since they were created at the start of the last century.

The drawings were originally made as set and costume designs for the famous Ballets Russes, a ground-breaking ballet company based in Paris that performed between 1909 and 1929 throughout Europe and on tours to North and South America. Widely regarded as the most influential ballet company of the 20th century, it collaborated with choreographers, composers, dancers, artists, and designers, thanks to its founder, impresario Sergei Diaghilev.

The exhibition has two drawings by Picasso. One is of two male dancers, one of whom is leaning on a ballet barre with another dancer sitting at his feet.

Giorgio de Chirico, Design for the Cover of the Souvenir Program of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the 1929 Season in Monte Carlo and Paris
Giorgio de Chirico, Design for the Cover of the Souvenir Program of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes for the 1929 Season in Monte Carlo and Paris

“With just a few lines, it’s absolutely Picasso’s early work,” says Glucksman director, Fiona Kearney.

The other Picasso drawing is of a set design. “Picasso was so fluent in his ability with a pen that he could do anything. You can see in these two drawings a kind of fragmenting, moving towards the cubist style for which he really became known. There’s confidence in his own line and that’s something you can see with the Matisse drawing also.” (The Matisse piece is of two lions flanking the sides of a front cloth with a recurring flower motif in the drawing.)

Other artists featured include Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst.

“One of the great things about Diaghilev was his ability to convince so many different artists, already pursuing their own vision, to get involved with composers like Erik Satie and Prokofiev.

“Their names are historical to us now. It feels like we’ve got the patina of the past, which makes it all so special. It reminds me of what the great commissioners working with the Manchester Festival are doing now, where they bring the likes of Arcade Fire together with a contemporary artist.”

When Serge Lifar took over the Ballets Russes, the company was almost bankrupt. Lifar (who had been Diaghilev’s principal dancer) was forced to sell his collection (which Diaghilev encouraged him to build up) and that’s how it ended up in the Wadsworth Museum.

Georges Rouault, Design for the Backcloth for Scenes 1 and 3 - ‘Home’ from ‘Les Fils Prodigue’, 1929.
Georges Rouault, Design for the Backcloth for Scenes 1 and 3 - ‘Home’ from ‘Les Fils Prodigue’, 1929.

“Lifar was an interesting character. He was apparently a glorious dancer, mesmerising to look at. I think a lot of the artists, men and women, fell in love with him. In the beautiful drawing of him by Jean Cocteau in our exhibition, there’s definitely a sense that Cocteau was in love with Lifar.”

Kearney says the exhibition makes her really question whether we are adventurous enough.

“Where are the great ambitious collaborations? It seems to me we’ve almost become more entrenched in our own disciplines, but here was Diaghilev persuading the most wonderful dancers, the most cutting-edge artists and avant-garde composers to come together and work on singular productions that really did change the cultural landscape. It wasn’t a single discipline.

“It’s fascinating to see how most of the artists retained their own voices and were determined to bring their modern sensibility to the productions.

Georges Rouault, Design for the Backcloth for Scenes 1 and 3 - ‘Home’ from ‘Les Fils Prodigue’, 1929
Georges Rouault, Design for the Backcloth for Scenes 1 and 3 - ‘Home’ from ‘Les Fils Prodigue’, 1929

“Now, when you think of ballet productions, you think of something much more conservative.”

Along side Set in Time is a contemporary exhibition entitled Enter Stage Left. In it, various dramatic devices such as sets, props, and script are used by Irish and contemporary artists to undercut the sense of artifice in stage craft.

Together, the two exhibitions act as a perfect complement to each other.

  • Set in Time continues until July 23 at the Glucksman in UCC, Cork.
  • Enter Stage Left continues until July 9. www.glucksman.org


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