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British Modernism and Chinoiserie$
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Anne Witchard

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780748690954

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748690954.001.0001

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‘Beautiful, baleful absurdity’: Chinoiserie and Modernist Ballet

‘Beautiful, baleful absurdity’: Chinoiserie and Modernist Ballet

(p.108) Chapter 6 ‘Beautiful, baleful absurdity’: Chinoiserie and Modernist Ballet
British Modernism and Chinoiserie

Anne Witchard

Edinburgh University Press

The post-war return of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes to London in 1918 was heralded by colourful posters of a ‘Chinaman’ complete with trailing pigtail. This was Picasso’s design for the Chinese Conjurer in Jean Cocteau’s ballet, Parade (1914). However Parade would not receive its London premiere until months later. While the avant-garde Parade had a distinctly minority appeal, Picasso’s Chinese Conjurer was a shrewdly commercial choice, testament to the British love affair with theatrical chinoiserie. This chapter examines the ways its engagement with chinoiserie contributed to the development of Modernist ballet. It starts with Alexandre Benois’ designs for Stravinsky’s adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story ‘The Nightingale’ in 1914. Diaghilev re-adapted it in 1917 as Le Chant du Rossignol, commissioning Italian Futurist designer, Fortunata Depero. In its juxtaposition of artifice with nature, ‘The Nightingale’ lent itself to modernist treatment. Depero’s kinetic sculpture garden of cones and discs peopled by geometrical court ladies and mandarins was never staged, but in 1919 Diaghilev revived the idea, bringing Henri Matisse to work with choreographer Léonide Massine in London. In 1925 Diaghilev revived Matisse’s Le Chant du Rossignol for a third time with new choreography by George Balanchine fresh from the Soviet avant garde.

Keywords:   Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, The Nightingale, Sergei Diaghilev, Fortunata Depero, Henri Matisse, Alexandre Benois, Ballets Russes

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