Serge Lifar's Ballets Russes archive on sale in Geneva
Serge Lifar, the principal dancer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, collected hundreds of drawings and photographs by the likes of Picasso, Max Ernst and Juan Gris.
By Colin Gleadell 05 Mar 2012 in The Telegraph
The last remnants of one of the greatest private collections of Ballets Russes material goes on view in Geneva this week, prior to being sold on March 13. The sale includes more than 300 drawings, paintings and prints by the likes of Picasso, Max Ernst and Juan Gris, 3,000 vintage photographs of celebrities from Coco Chanel to Charlie Chaplin, and a rediscovered trove of drawings and manuscripts by Jean Cocteau; all owned by Serge Lifar, the principal dancer of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes during its final years in the late 1920s.
One of the most celebrated male dancers of the 20th century along with Nijinsky and Nureyev, Lifar was born in Kiev in 1905, and joined the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1923. The company, directed by Serge Diaghilev, revolutionised ballet by merging modern dance, music and art into a dynamic whole. At first a vehicle for bringing Russian art to the West, it was ostracised by the Revolutionary Soviet government, and became a platform for collaboration between Russian and Western artists.
With his good looks and athletic physique, Lifar soon became a star and a member of high society, befriending not only dancers and choreographers, but leading artists, writers and composers of the day.
His collection of props, designs and costumes was acquired almost exclusively from such associates. A substantial amount of material came from Diaghilev either before or after his death in 1929. Lifar was an executor of Diaghilev’s estate, and took it upon himself to safeguard many of his possessions. By 1933, he had acquired enough material to mount an exhibition in New York, where he was touring with his troupe, of more than 200 works of art and costumes, including designs by Bakst, Gontcharova, Picasso, Ernst, and Miro. However, short of the return fare to Paris, Lifar sold the collection to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut for what was then a princely $10,000.
Lifar continued to collect throughout his tenancy as the director of the Paris Opera, which ended in 1958. It was then that he met up with the glamorous blonde Swedish countess Lillian Ahlefeldt, who became his devoted companion for the rest of his life. Lifar continued to add to his collection. During the 1960s, he received several dedicated drawings from Picasso including a portrait, now estimated at £210,000, and some coloured pastels (estimate £55,200) relating to the ballet Icarus, which Lifar revived in 1962.
But by the 1970s, the collection was becoming unmanageable. Lifar was a hoarder. “He never threw anything away,” says the dealer Julian Barran, who, as a director of Sotheby’s, conducted several sales on his behalf. In 1975, Sotheby’s sold Diaghilev’s library of rare Russian books which Lifar had inherited, and in 1984, a further 227 works for £830,000. This included a costume designed by Picasso for the 1917 ballet Parade, which was bought by the V&A for £65,000.
After Lifar died in 1986, Lillian Ahlefeldt looked after his collection, and made several disposals. In 1989, she arranged through Sotheby’s to sell Diaghilev’s collection of Alexander Pushkin letters to the Pushkin Museum in St Petersburg, and in 2002 she sold 35 items from his estate, including the silk handkerchief Diaghilev held when he died, for £310,000. It was, said Sotheby’s, “probably the last major archive of materials relating to the Ballet Russes to be offered for sale at auction”.
Not quite. When Ahlefeldt died in 2008, there was still a substantial amount of material left. Some of it was shown, though not offered for sale, at Barran’s Ballets Russes centenary exhibition in 2009. In her will, it stated that these, and other items that specifically related to Lifar as a dancer, be left to the Monte Carlo Museum. The rest comes up for sale in Geneva.
And it’s not just leftovers. A small cubist Picasso of a guitar player dates from his earliest association with Diaghilev. Also exceptional is a cache of drawings and manuscripts by Jean Cocteau, including a set of 40 drawings for the 1930 book Opium. The sale is packed with literary manuscripts, scores signed by Stravinsky, programmes, posters, costume and set designs – plus stacks of photographs, mainly of Lifar posing with celebrities from Dietrich to de Gaulle, some in batches priced as low as £200.
Even if the best material has long since left the collection, this is the last chance to buy from it.
Lifar was born in Kiev, Russian Empire. His year of birth is officially shown as 1904 (as on a 2004 Ukrainian stamp commemorating his centenary), but there is good reason to believe it occurred in 1905.
He was the pupil of Bronislava Nijinska in Kiev. In 1921 he left Soviet Union and was noticed by Serge Diaghilev who sent him to Turin in order to improve his technique with Enrico Cecchetti. He made his debut at the Ballets Russes in 1923 where he quickly became a principal dancer. He played the lead roles in the ballets of George Balanchine and at the death of Diaghilev in 1929 he entered the Paris Opera Ballet and created his first ballet.
From 1930 on, Serge Lifar was immensely successful, essentially in his own ballet creations, notably with Les Créatures de Prométhée (1929), a personal version of Le Spectre de la rose (1931) and L'Après-midi d'un faune (1935), Icare (1935) with costumes and decor by Picasso, Istar (1941) or Suite en Blanc (1943), which he qualified as neoclassical, all created for the Paris Opera.
As ballet master of the Paris Opera from 1930 to 1944 then 1947 to 1958, he devoted himself to the restoration of the technical level of the Paris Opera Ballet in order since the 1930s and until now to return it to its place as one of the best company in the world. He undoubtedly influenced Yvette Chauviré, Janine Charrat and Roland Petit.
He died in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1986, aged 81.