Evoking The Afternoon of A Faun

“Nijinsky has never been so remarkable as in his latest role. No more jumps – nothing but half-conscious animal gestures and poses. He lies down, leans on his elbow, walks with bent knees, draws himself up, advancing and retreating, some-times slowly, sometimes with jerky angular movements. His eyes flicker, he stretches his arms, he opens his hands out flat, the fingers together, and as he turns away his head he continues to express his desire with a deliberate awkwardness that seems natural. Form and meaning are indissolubly wedded in his body, which is totally expressive of the mind within… His beauty is that of antique frescoes and sculptures: he is the ideal model, whom one longs to draw and sculpt.”

Auguste Rodin

 

Programme illustration by Léon Bakst for the ballet

 

The ballet L’Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun)was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes and first performed in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 29 May 1912. On the opening night the ballet was met with a mixture of applause and booing, and again it was repeated. Now the audience applauded, and Auguste Rodin in the audience stood up to cheer.

Nijinsky danced the main part himself. As its score it used the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy. Both the music and the ballet were inspired by the poem L’Après-midi d’un faune by Stéphane Mallarmé. The painter Odilon Redon, friend of Mallarmé, suggested how much the poet would have approved, “more than anyone, he would have appreciated this wonderful evocation of his thoughts.”

 

 

The costumes and sets were designed by the painter Léon BakstL’Après-midi d’un Faune is considered one of the first modern ballets and proved to be as controversial as Nijinsky’s Jeux (1913) and Le Sacre du printemps (1913).

The style of the ballet, in which a young faun meets several nymphs, flirts with them and chases them, was deliberately archaic. In the original scenography designed by Léon Bakst, the dancers were presented as part of a large tableau, a staging reminiscent of an ancient Greek vase painting. They often moved across the stage in profile as if on a bas relief. The ballet was presented in bare feet and rejected classical formalism. The work had an overtly erotic subtext beneath its façade of Greek antiquity, ending with a scene of graphic sexual desire.

The ballet was developed as a possible new production for the Ballets Russes founded by Sergei Diaghilev. Most of the dances performed by the company were choreographed by Michel Fokine, who had worked as a choreographer with the Imperial Russian Ballet, from which all the different specialists for the new ballet company had come. Initially the Ballet Russes took advantage of the 3 months summer break, when the Imperial ballet closed and its staff were free to do other things, to stage ballet and opera in Paris. Diaghilev was looking around for an alternative to the style which Fokine customarily delivered and decided to allow his senior male dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky, to try his hand at choreography.

 

Menelaus intending to strike Helen is struck by her beauty instead. Louvre museum, Campana collection acquired 1861

 

The original idea was developed by Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Bakst and was inspired by the artwork on ancient Greek vases and Egyptian and Assyrian frescoes which they viewed in the Louvre museum. Bakst had already worked with Vsevolod Meyerhold, an innovative theatre producer and director who had introduced concepts like two-dimensionality, stylized postures, a narrow stage, pauses and pacing to emphasise significant moments, into his productions. Ninjinsky’s aim was to reproduce the stylised look of the ancient artworks on the stage. In his portrayal of the faun, Nijinsky managed to reproduce exactly the figure of a satyr shown on Greek vases in the Louvre. Such concepts appear transferred to ballet.

Jean Cocteau helped to explain the Mallarmé poem (Nijinsky spoke little French) and with developing a scenario for the ballet. The music by Debussy already existed in a fully orchestrated form. After the summer season in Paris, Nijinsky returned to St Petersburg for the new Russian season and there started to work on the choreography with the help of his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, who was herself a senior dancer and who later choreographed her own ballets for Ballets Russes. Nijinsky was much excited about the project.

 

Cartoon by Daniel de Losques published in Le Figaro, 30 May 1912

 

Nijinsky as the Faun, illustrations by George Barbier, 1913

 

Baron de Meyer  published a book of photographs of the ballet

 

The nymph dance in the dream sequence of the film Sunnyside (Charlie Chaplin, 1919) has been recognized as being a tribute to the ballet

 

A pastiche of the ballet (choreographed by the then leader of the Royal Ballet, Wayne Eagling, a friend of Mercury who had helped him before with the choreography of the Bohemian Rhapsody) forms part of the music video for Queen’s single I Want to Break Free (David Mallet, 1984). Freddie Mercury dances the role of the faun, with dancers from the Royal Ballet also performing, including Jeremy Sheffield. Mercury shaved his trademark moustache to portray Vaslav Nijinsky as a faun in the ballet L’après-midi d’un faune.

 

Queen’s video can be seen on The Genealogy of Style‘s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Genealogy-of-Style/597542157001228

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In the Ambiguous Realm of the Undetermined

Butterflies, Odilon Redon, around 1910

 
 

Odilon Redon‘s work represents an exploration of his internal feelings and psyche. He himself wanted to “place the visible at the service of the invisible”; thus, although his work seems filled with strange beings and grotesque dichotomies, his aim was to represent pictorially the ghosts of his own mind. A telling source of Redon’s inspiration and the forces behind his works can be found in his journal A Soi-même (To Myself). His process was explained best by himself when he said:

“I have often, as an exercise and as a sustenance, painted before an object down to the smallest accidents of its visual appearance; but the day left me sad and with a not satiated thirst. The next day I let the other source run, that of imagination, through the recollection of the forms and I was then reassured and appeased.”

The mystery and the evocation of Redon’s drawings are described by Joris-Karl Huysmans in the following passage:

“Those were the pictures bearing the signature: Odilon Redon. They held, between their gold-edged frames of unpolished pear wood, undreamed-of images: a Merovingian-type head, resting upon a cup; a bearded man, reminiscent both of a Buddhist priest and a public orator, touching an enormous cannon-ball with his finger; a spider with a human face lodged in the centre of its body. Then there were charcoal sketches which delved even deeper into the terrors of fever-ridden dreams. Here, on an enormous die, a melancholy eyelid winked; over there stretched dry and arid landscapes, calcined plains, heaving and quaking ground, where volcanos erupted into rebellious clouds, under foul and murky skies; sometimes the subjects seemed to have been taken from the nightmarish dreams of science, and hark back to prehistoric times; monstrous flora bloomed on the rocks; everywhere, in among the erratic blocks and glacial mud, were figures whose simian appearance—heavy jawbone, protruding brows, receding forehead, and flattened skull top—recalled the ancestral head, the head of the first Quaternary Period, the head of man when he was still fruitful and without speech, the contemporary of the mammoth, of the rhinoceros with septate nostrils, and of the giant bear. These drawings defied classification; unheeding, for the most part, of the limitations of painting, they ushered in a very special type of the fantastic, one born of sickness and delirium.”

À rebours, chapter V

Redon also describes his work as ambiguous and undefinable:

“My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”

Fiesta in the Air

Plate 53, “Fiesta en el ayre (“fiesta in the air”). “Buelan buelan” (“they fly they fly”). El Toro Mariposa (The Butterfly Bull),  Francisco de Goya, between 1824 and 1828

 
 

It is a sketch of a black bull, caught in mid-leap, with what seems to be a bouquet of faces and butterflies flowering from its back. The idea of a toro mariposa might suggest a sexual ambiguity. The drawing, simple but with a great expressiveness, was created during Goya’s voluntary exile in Bordeaux. As the auction house Christie’s quotes: ” the composition is the perfect expression of Goya’s reputation as the first truly modern artist with a surrealism that prefigures Odilon Redon and a searching line that anticipates the young Picasso.” The auction house sold the drawing in 2006 and next year it was acquired by the Prado.

In his Bordeaux albums, Goya abandoned the medium of pen, brush, and ink he had used in earlier private drawings in favor of black crayon—a choice undoubtedly inspired by his work in lithography. This softer medium allowed for greater breadth of execution and compensated for a certain loss of manual dexterity. The drawings from Album G are inscribed with short, enigmatic texts, as in most of the earlier albums; in Album H he signed the sheets but wrote inscriptions on only six. The figural style here is energetic and cartoonish, rather than classical and correct. Flashes of satire and mockery — recalling the spirit of his famous prints, Los Caprichos — run through the sheets. These intimate, freely executed works draw us into the artist’s stream of consciousness as he reacts to novel sights in Bordeaux, revisits long-standing themes, and conjures enigmatic images out of his imagination to puzzle his friends.

A Statement in Favor of Individual Freedom

 
 

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) – originally titled Le Bain (The Bath) – is a large oil on canvas painting by Édouard Manet created in 1862 and 1863. Rejected by the Salon jury of 1863, Manet seized the opportunity to exhibit this and two other paintings in the 1863 Salon des Refusés where the painting sparked public notoriety and controversy.

Odilon Redon, for example, did not like it. There is a discussion of it, from this point of view, in Marcel Proust‘s Remembrance of Things Past. One interpretation of the work is that it depicts the rampant prostitution that occurred in the Bois de Boulogne, a large park at the western outskirts of Paris, at the time. This prostitution was common knowledge in Paris, but was considered a taboo subject unsuitable for a painting.

It is not a realist painting in the social or political sense of Honoré Daumier, but it is a statement in favor of the artist’s individual freedom. The shock value of a nude woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men, which was an affront to the propriety of the time, was accentuated by the familiarity of the figures. Manet’s wife, Suzanne Leenhoff, and his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, both posed for the nude woman, who has Meurent’s face, but Leenhoff’s plumper body. Her body is starkly lit and she stares directly at the viewer. The two men are Manet’s brother Gustave Manet and his future brother-in-law, Ferdinand Leenhoff. They are dressed like young dandies. The men seem to be engaged in conversation, ignoring the woman. In front of them, the woman’s clothes, a basket of fruit, and a round loaf of bread are displayed, as in a still life. In the background a lightly clad woman bathes in a stream. Too large in comparison with the figures in the foreground, she seems to float above them. The roughly painted background lacks depth – giving the viewer the impression that the scene is not taking place outdoors, but in a studio. This impression is reinforced by the use of broad “photographic” light, which casts almost no shadows; the lighting of the scene, in fact, is inconsistent and unnatural. The man on the right wears a flat hat with a tassel, of a kind normally worn indoors.

 
 

Judgement of Paris (circa 1515). Engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi to a design by Raphael

 
 

As with the later Olympia (1865), and other works, Manet’s composition reveals his study of the old masters, as the disposition of the main figures is derived from Marcantonio Raimondi‘s engraving The Judgement of Paris (c. 1515) after a drawing by Raphael.

Scholars also cite two works as important precedents for Manet’s painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, The Pastoral Concert, 1508, attributed to either one of the Italian Renaissance masters, Titian or Giorgione, and Giorgione’s The Tempest, both of which are famous Renaissance paintings.

 
 

The Pastoral Concert (c. 1509), attributed to either one of the Italian Renaissance masters, Titian or Giorgione

 
 

The subject was perhaps the allegory of poetry and music: the two women would be an imaginary apparition representing the ideal beauty, stemming from the two men’s fantasy and inspiration. The woman with the glass vase would be the muse of tragic poetry, while the other one would be that of the pastoral poetry. Of the two playing men, the one with the lute would represent the exalted lyric poetry, the other being an ordinary lyricist, according to the distinction made by Aristotle in his Poetics. Another interpretation suggests that the painting is an evocation of the four elements of the natural world (water, fire, earth and air) and their harmonic relationship.

 
 

Giorgione, The Tempest (circa 1508)

 
 

There is no contemporary textual explanation for The Tempest, and ultimately, no definitive reading or interpretation. To some it represents the flight into Egypt; to others, a scene from classical mythology (Paris and Oenone) or from an ancient Greek pastoral novel. According to the Italian scholar Salvatore Settis, the desert city would represent the Paradise, the two characters being Adam and Eve with their son Cain: the lightning, as in ancient Greek and Hebrew times, would represent God who has just ousted them from Eden. Others have proposed a moral allegorical reading, or concluded that Giorgione had no particular subject in mind.

Charting the Course of Modern Art

Alfred H. Barr Jr., 1936. This chart illustrates the historical development, currents and crosscurrents of modern art

 
 

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., founding Director of The Museum of Modern Art, wrote in the introduction to the catalogue for Cubism and Abstract Art in March of 1936 that the exhibition was “intended as an historical survey of an important movement in modern art.” It was the first in a series of five exhibitions that were curated between 1936 and 1943 devoted to the principal movements in modern art. The series also included Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism and Romantic Painting in America.

 
 

From the Museum of Modern Art Archives

 
 

This chart, hand-drawn by Barr, was a working draft of the first version of the chart that would appear on the dust jacket of the catalogue for Cubism and Abstract Art. Barr reworked the chart a number times thereafter; he never considered it definitive.