Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hail, Mr. Producer: (Missing) Diaghilev at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Who but the world's greatest impresario could attract stage sets by Braque, costumes by Chanel and choreography by Massine, all to guide and enhance the faltering steps of a young Russian composer?

Serge Diaghilev... celebrated in a beautiful new show which has just opened at the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum]... was a tastemaker, a despot, a hustler and a genius: he not only “jump-started Western ballet”, as the critic Joan Acocella has said, “but he staffed it”. He gave Nijinsky and Pavlova to France and the world, but he also gave Marie Rambert to Great Britain, George Balanchine to America, Léonid Massine to Hollywood and Monte Carlo, and Stravinsky to himself. It might be time to say that the great avant-garde artist of the 20th century was not really an artist at all, but a producer.

-- “Diaghilev: Lord of the dance," Andrew O'Hagan, The Guardian

[Portrait of Serge Diaghilev by Valentin Serov]

Add to the short list of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I missed with my all-too-brief stay in London--the Les Miz 25th Anniversary Concert at the O2 Arena, a trip to Bath and Stonehenge, touring the Tower of London (though I did get a rare summer-only peek at what's inside Buckingham Palace)--was an upcoming exhibit on the great Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev at the Victoria and Albert.

The exhibit opened this week, some 18 days after I had left London--major major bummer. Let me share with you instead some pictures I took of the V&A Museum. (First batch--lots more to follow.)

Photography without flash was allowed inside the building. Entrance was free, which is true of all the museums in London. How good of the city to make its arts and cultural heritage accessible to all! The only galleries at the V&A where you had to pay for tickets were those hosting the visiting exhibits on Grace Kelly as style icon and some Raphael tapestries on loan from the Sistine Chapel. Picture-taking wasn't allowed at these exhibits because, as the very accommodating front desk woman told me, “the items there are not owned by the museum, so we have to be careful with them.”

May I urge you to read as well Andrew O'Hagan's masterful appraisal (link above and here) of the singular, and singularly complex, man behind the Ballets Russes--“the champion of all things beautiful [who] transformed not only ballet but all the arts in the 20th century.”

The magnificent facade of the V&A Museum, with banners announcing the forthcoming Diaghilev exhibit. The building was built in 1899-1909, with Queen Victoria herself, on the 62nd year of her reign, laying the foundation stone.

The main lobby of the museum. The sculptural glass chandelier hanging from the central dome is a modern and temporary addition; at the time I was there, works by contemporary artists were on display at strategic corners of the V&A, often strikingly juxtaposed with the Old-World interiors (such as this ceiling decoration) but never detracting from the imposing architectural integrity of the museum.

Even before you reach the reception desk, if you happened to glance sideways, you'd notice two staircases on the left and the right. Since entrance to the museum is free, you don't even have to drop by the front desk, unless you're going to the special paid exhibits, which require tickets. You can go right ahead and climb the staircases to the second floor balcony, which rewards you with these views.

On the right side of the lobby is the first major gallery containing various European sculptures, busts and statues, church altars, choir screens, marble sarcophagi of knights and nobles, mostly from the Medieval period and beyond. The second picture shows how well the space was planned and is lit, allowing for greater up-close appreciation of the art treasures.

A banner in one of the corridors announces the Diaghilev exhibit. It wouldn't open until some three weeks later, but this early, the museum's bookshop and souvenir store had already made available to visitors the book/catalogue that would accompany the exhibit. Now, that is advance marketing.

After three hours of exploring the V&A, a last look at that venerable building. Up next: the British Museum. Before the V&A visit I had, entirely by accident, seen Princes Charles and William at a military ceremony in front of Westminster Cathedral (how many first-time London visitors could claim that?). Now I was off to see, among others, the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles. It was 1 p.m., and my hectic last day in London was turning out to be a triumph of exhilaration over exhaustion. Later in the evening, I still had Covent Garden to explore and, finally, the stupendous cherry on top, a ticket to the National Theater's Olivier Award-winning production of War Horse. Life was--is--good.

1 comment:

john chen said...

i wonder if the u.k. will ever return the elgin marbles to the rightful owners.... i get a rise from my brit friends whenever i bring this up. ha!

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