Shapero Rare Books has created a catalogue featuring Russian Art & Theatre. Russian arts are not always that well known in the West. A major part of the problem was the long Soviet era, when creativity was stifled, though some managed to seep through on occasion. Most of the great writers either go back to the Tsarist era or came from a handful of dissidents. However, there were some Russians who escaped to the West where they were free to create. In terms of theatrical art, there is one name well-known in the West. That is the Ballet Russes, which performed in Paris and toured other European nations and America. It is well represented in this catalogue. Here are a few selections.
Alexander Benois was a Russian artist of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. His watercolors caught the attention of two Russian art notables, Sergei Diaghilev of the Ballet Russes and noted painter and scene and costume designer Leon Bakst. The three founded the literary and art journal Mir Iskusstva (world of art) in 1899. In 1905 he moved to Paris where he focused on stage design. By the second decade of the new century, he was working for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes designing sets and costumes. He would return to Russia during the early years after the Revolution but returned to France in 1927. During the first few years of the century before his first move to Paris, Benois did some writing and artwork. This is his masterpiece, published in 1904, Azbuka v Kartinakh (alphabet in pictures). The book is both an instruction for children and a work of art for adults. The “A” stands for Arap (Moor in Russian) and the Moor takes readers on a journey through the alphabet, visiting aristocratic balls, theater productions, and fairy tales. At the end, the guide exclaims that he has learned to read and write Russian. The book is a rarity, Benois himself saying in 1958 he couldn't find a copy anywhere and had to borrow one from his daughter. Item 12. Priced at £10,000 (British pounds or approximately $13,772 in U.S. dollars).
Benois called this next work “a grandiose monument to Russian art.” In 1905, Diaghilev, with assistance from Benois, Bakst and others curated a spectacular exhibition of portraits from estates and private collections all over Europe. It was celebrated as the greatest cultural feat the nation had ever seen, as well as Diaghilev's finest achievement in his homeland,” writes Shapero. Grand Duke Mikhailovich Romanov was a wealthy member of Russia's ruling family, an eccentric who became a notable historian rather than a political or military leader like most in his family. He decided that something must be done to create a permanent record of the works on display in case the physical portraits were someday destroyed. It was a prophetic warning as a decade later, some would be ruined during the war and revolution. He created this massive work, six volumes bound in eleven, containing 1,087 plates, 250 of them full page. Over 1,000 important figures from the period of Catherine the Great (1762) to Alexander I (1825) are pictured. The text is in Russian and French, the title Russkie Portrety XVIII i XIX Stoletil, Portraits Russes des XVIII et XIX Siecles (Russian portraits of the 18th and 19th centuries). The edition was of 600 copies, most destroyed in the upheavals of the Great War and Russian Revolution. It was published from 1905-1909. The Grand Duke had great reservations about his relatives' governance, and fears for the nation's future. He was a political liberal, which did not make him popular with many of his relatives, but his outgoing, humorous manor made him liked by many anyway. He turned against the war after visiting injured soldiers in the hospital and described himself as a socialist. For a while after the Revolution he was left alone, but then exiled internally, returned to back to be imprisoned, and then summarily executed by the Bolsheviks. Item 15. £37,500 (US $51,623).
Next we have another set of portraits of Russians, but these are very different from the previous ones. These are not famous or important Russian figures. They are simply ordinary people. Actually, they aren't even real people, but rather images of typical Russian people as artist Boris Grigoriev saw them. He was a member of the World of Art with Diaghilev and Bakst, and his work was highly praised by Benois. He was influenced by the Impressionists but developed his own style. In the days before the Revolution, he painted Russian peasants, showing their poverty yet strength of character. While he was essentially apolitical, the Communists thought he was depicting life under their “workers' paradise” regime and banned his works. Grigoriev thought it best to leave. He spent the rest of his life in many locations in many countries, Europe, North and South America. Item 63 is his Faces of Russia, published in London in 1924. He no longer could go in the field and paint Russian peasants, but he had memories. Grigoriev explained, “I have been watching and studying the Russian people for many years, both before and since the war and revolution, and these paintings are the fruits of my observation...my conception of the Russian people is both intuitive and artistic.” £1,950 (US $2,683).
This next work was a tribute to the noted ballet dancer, Nijinsky. His career was long associated with the Ballet Russes. It consists of six poems by Jean Cocteau and six drawings by Paul Iribe. The title appropriately is Vaslav Nijinsky. Six Vers de Jean Cocteau, six Dessins de Paul Iribe, published in 1910. Iribe was a French illustrator, Cocteau a French poet. Nijinsky, though Polish born, grew up in Russia. Nijinsky is shown in these drawings in his performances of Scheherazade and Giselle. Cocteau wished to be associated with the Ballet Russes and hoped this would ingratiate him with Diaghilev. It was printed in a limited edition of fewer than 1,000 copies (999 to be precise). Item 33. £1,500 (US $2,063).