Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen

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Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the leading Russian impresario of the arts at the turn of the 20th century.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846681646

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Sergey Diaghilev was one of the towering figures in the artistic world of Russia, and indeed Europe, at the start of the 20th century. Born in 1872 the ambitious son of a bankrupt vodka producer from Perm, and a mother who died a few days later probably from puerperal fever, by his early twenties he was on close terms with such names as Tolstoy, Zola, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. He worked his way into the ranks of the cultural cognoscenti at St Petersburg and launched the itinerant troupe which would become the Ballets Russes, playing to packed houses as far west as Britain and the United States.

As Scheijen’s detailed book of his life and times demonstrates, it was his good fortune to have at his disposal a formidable array of talent, from the music of Rimsky-Korsakov and the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky to the designs of Léon Bakst. It was largely due to his direction that the world of dance, theatre, music and visual arts was transformed throughout not only his native country but much of Europe as well. As an art critic, historian and collector, a champion of art nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement, and a friend of the new wave of painters including Picasso, Derain, Matisse and Braque, and the avant-garde composer Satie, he did much to win public acceptance for them in the face of a sometimes hostile public.

In doing so he took considerable personal and financial risks. Although he had an influential patron in Grand Duke Vladimir, the art-loving uncle of Tsar Nicholas II, the official world often regarded him and his work with suspicion, partly through their suspicion of ‘the shock of the new’ and partly because of his homosexuality. In retrospect, he was probably fortunate to avoid suffering the same fate as Oscar Wilde. He had his enemies at the court of the Tsar, and they often tried to frustrate if not sabotage his ventures. Yet he was virtually exiled from his beloved homeland by the First World War, while the new Soviet regime viewed him as an enemy of the state and made it plain that his return would not be welcomed.

When peace came, he was still full of ideas, and continued to launch new ballet shows throughout western Europe. But he had always been a volatile personality with his full share of artistic temperament, charming and tyrannical in turn. On one occasion he quarrelled with a stage manager, struck him with his walking stick, and was nearly beaten up by angry stagehands.

In his later years friends and colleagues found him increasingly difficult to work with, and he would often shut himself off from those who were closest to him. His financial woes multiplied, and it was not unknown for him to stay at hotels and leave without paying his bill. Overworked, leading a peripatetic existence and suffering from diabetes, living the high life which he could ill afford, soon told on his health. He had once told his stepmother that Venice was the city where One can’t live – one can only be, and he had long been convinced that he was destined to end his days there. It was while in the city’s Grand Hotel that he died in 1929, impoverished and exhausted, diabetic and suffering from blood poisoning, yet constantly ignoring medical advice to slow down.

Illustrated with eight colour plates and black and white images throughout the text, this colourful, well-researched biography of a larger-than-life character portrays vividly his life and times, his artistic passion and his often troubled personal relationships. It also conveys the atmosphere of the unfolding cultural revolution in his homeland and beyond – a revolution which he did much to bring about.

Our thanks to the publishers for sending a copy to Bookbag.

For further reading on the general subject area, you might enjoy The World on Fire: 1919 and the Battle with Bolshevism by Anthony Read, while I Wish I'd Been There: Twenty Historians Revisit Key Moments in History by Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K Rabb (editors) contains a chapter including Picasso and the Ballets Russes in Paris.

Buy Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen at Amazon.com.

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