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Russian scenes.

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Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky has amassed one of the world's largest collections of Russian stage design. She talks to Apollo about her lifelong love of ballet and why she is drawn to this theatrical art

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Red is Princess Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky's favourite colour; upon entering her elegant fin-de-siecle London apartment, one is seized by the vibrant red walls in the hallway (Fig. 4). These are covered from floor to ceiling with set and costume designs by Alexandre Benois for Petrushka (1911), the touching tale of a puppet's unrequited love for a ballerina. 'It's my favourite ballet,' Nina exclaims. It is also Igor Stravinsky's most celebrated piece, together with Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Opposite these drawings hangs another of Benois' works, an intimate line drawing of Stravinsky sitting at a piano in the hall of the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, in May 1911, captured as he was finalising the score of this very ballet. So lively are these drawings that Nina confesses: 'When I come home from a trip abroad I am always enchanted by the vision of all these theatrical characters who appear to dance for me within their gilt frames.' The drawings affect others too: 'Upon his first visit, the Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, an old friend and regular guest, could not help but whistle the "ballerina-doll tune" on the doorstep. A year later, he presented me with a white linen cushion that his mother had embroidered in black thread with that first section of the whimsical score.'

Nina met Prince Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, her future husband, in New York in 1959. The collection they started together in New York in the 1960s, and which they continued in Paris, San Francisco, and London, was to become the largest and most comprehensive private collection of Russian stage design in the world. 'Remarkably, Nikita and I had in common a fascination for this explosion of Russian artistic creativity between 1880 and 1930. On our first encounter, we had little conversation other than the London Diaghilev exhibition of 1954, which had deeply enthused Nikita. While other young women would get invited to the theatre or to fancy restaurants, I was constantly asked to drive out to Sea Cliff, Long Island, to a colony of Russian emigres, where we drank endless cups of tea and discussed Russian ballets and sometimes even found some drawings. Many of these emigres had an uncle or a sister or a cousin who had been connected with the Ballets Russes or one of its many offshoots.'

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Nina was born Nina Georges-Picot to an art-loving family of French diplomats and senior civil servants. Her great uncle, Frangois Georges-Picot, was the co-signator of the Sykes-Picot Treaty that defined France and Britain's sphere of influence in the Middle East, and one of her cousins is the former French President, Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Her father, French ambassador successively to Argentina and to the United Nations, and his Russian-born wife, used to entertain key figures in the international art world. As a child, Nina developed a passion for ballet and dreamt of becoming a ballerina. The surprise visit of Serge Lifar (Fig. 3), a family friend, to her local ballet school made a memorable impression on her. Yet Nina's early vocation was not to be fulfilled. Lifar--one of the greatest male dancers of the 20th century and Serge Diaghilev's last premier danseur for his Ballets Russes was sent to discourage Nina and her younger sister Olga from pursuing such an arduous career. Having observed them at the dance school, he spoiled them with tea and cakes and took it upon himself to assess their resolve: 'Are you passionate enough to be the second dancer from the left in the third row of the corps de ballet through your entire career?' Nina answered, 'Of course not, I want to be a prima ballerina or nothing.' 'I see,' replied Lifar, 'then I must tell you that you will have to spend four hours per day exercising at the bar and will have no other choice than to give up horse-riding and chocolate.' As Nina recalls: 'This comment shattered my dream career, although not my fascination for the ballet.' Nina's marriage to Prince Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky in 1962 sealed her destiny to remain forever involved with the world of ballet; not as a prima ballerina, but as one of the greatest collectors of Russian stage design drawings.

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Many Russian artists worked for the theatre; if one word had to characterise the designs and the music produced by these artists and composers, it would have to be 'colour': 'Colour is what attracted me to the art of the Ballets Russes,' Nina adds. When Nina and Nikita started collecting, they encountered very few competitors. They knew a number of emigres and members of the Russian diaspora who were both touched and surprised that a young, dashing couple would desire such apparently peripheral material. 'In the 1960s, the two artists by whom we bought the most drawings were Alexandre Benois and Sergei Soudeikine because they were easily available in New York. A Russian book dealer who operated as a middle man for Soviet sales, and who was selling Russian books to the New York Public Library, also had many drawings by Soudeikine--the artist had emigrated to New York and worked for the Metropolitan Opera. There was also a Russian dealer called Vladimir Hessen who was a close friend of Alexandre Benois' eldest daughter, Anna Tcherkessoff, who still lived in her father's atelier in Paris. Once a year Hessen would visit her, returning to New York with a portfolio of Benois' drawings. He also had a few works by Bakst, Larionov and Lanceray. At the time almost no one else was interested in collecting stage design and most of our friends thought we were mad.' It is worth pointing out that there was little available in print on the subject.

Nina was first drawn to Alexandre Benois' set designs, such as those for the Pavilion d'Armide (1907) or Petrushka. Despite his French-sounding name, Benois belonged to the Russian artistic intelligentsia. His father Nicholas was a renowned imperial architect who worked at the Winter Palace, Peterhof Palace, and other areas in or near St Petersburg. Together with Serge Diaghilev and Leon Bakst, Alexandre founded the World of Art magazine in the early 1890s, and its associated movement, as well as the Ballets Russes. These artists promoted a cult for beauty that they saw threatened by the anti-aesthetic nature of an emerging industrial society. While promoting and preserving the artistic heritage of the past, they embraced a world of Western and Russian folklore--legends, fairytales, carnivals and masquerades. Venice proved the centre of this world of dreams and mirrors and it is there, on the island of San Michele, that Diaghilev and Stravinsky chose to be buried. Diaghilev revolutionised the art of ballet and conspired to attract, with unparalleled success, the most talented personalities in each artistic discipline: music, writing, dance, and design. Attracted by the opportunities offered in the West and eager to leave Russia's political instability and censorship, he became the single most powerful ambassador of Russian art and culture abroad.

Nina's collection embraces these Russian artistic stars and the various phases of their careers. Diaghilev worked with 40 different designers, 20 of them Russian born. All the Russian designers are represented in the collection, which itself covers over 50 years of Russian stage design.

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As the Russian scholar John Bowlt has said, it encompasses the entire history of modern Russian art, from Neo-Nationalism and Symbolism, through Cubo-Futurism and Supremativism, to Constructivism and Socialist Realism. The major figures in each of these movements are included: Benois, but also Bakst, Alexandra Exter, Pavel Filonov, Natalia Goncharova, Konstantin Korovin, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, Liubov Popova, Alexander Rodchenko, and Vladimir Tatlin.

Building such an extensive collection was no mean feat and could happen only through relentless research and encounters with members of the Russian diaspora. Among them were Lydia and Josephine Pasternak, sisters of Boris Pasternak, the author of Doctor Zhivago, and daughters of the famous Russian painter Leonid Pasternak. The two sisters lived in Oxford; both kept old diaries and notebooks, providing Nina and Nikita with an inexhaustible source of information on many of the key Russian painters, writers, and musicians of the pre-i930s period--including Somov, Levitan, Tolstoy, Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. As is often true with collecting, the investigative journey is, in itself, a fulfilling experience.

Nina and Nikita ended up buying drawings from all over the world, marginally less in auction houses than from dealers and private owners. Sometimes, luck played a part. Nina recalls one chance encounter: 'While having a lemonade in a traditional Greek cafe in Athens, strangely named Petrograd, Nikita and I stumbled across a fabulous ensemble of Russian drawings displayed like postcards on the walls. We could not spend more than our last $ioo in travellers cheques, but we purchased Pavel Tchelitchew's Costume Design for a Male Dancer with a Leopard Motif on Trousers [c. 1920].' John J. McKendry, then curator of prints and drawings at New York's Metropolitan Museum, chose this exuberant drawing to illustrate the cover of an exhibition of the Lobanov-Rostovsky drawings at the Met in 1967. Since then the collection has been lent in full or in part to more than 68 exhibitions around the world. Nina is adamant: 'Exhibitions ought to encourage scholarship and draw new light on the chosen artefacts.' The extensive catalogue raisonne of the collection embodies this spirit and has become a reference work; it was published in 2012 by The Antique Collectors Club in two magnificent volumes entitled Encyclopedia of Russian Stage Design, with contributions by Nina, Nikita, and their friend John Bowlt.

The major drawback of such a collection of works on paper is that their archenemy is light. This explains why, for the most part, the drawings are kept in the darkest areas of Nina's apartment. One wall of the main corridor is dedicated to the finest selection of portraits of Russia's key artistic figures. Among them, the artist Konstantin Somov by Bakst, Bakst himself, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Prince Alexandre Shervashidze by Benois, Serge Lifar by Tchelichew, Nicholas Roerich by Burliuk, Goncharova and Diaghilev by Larionov, and a self-portrait of Sergei Soudeikine. 'Collecting such material is probably the closest thing to meeting these artists themselves in their studios or at Russian parties.' The drawings exude intimacy, a feeling enhanced through Nina's informed conversation. It is quickly apparent that all these artists knew each other well and that their portraits were made by friends and for friends. Most of them are humorously or tenderly dedicated, according to the degree of closeness and the shifts of affection that they shared. Larionov, for instance, not only founded two seminal artistic groups with Goncharova--Jack of Diamonds (1909-11), and Donkey's Tail (1912-13)--but eventually became her husband. In the course of her artistic career, Goncharova, today one of the most esteemed women artists, embraced a variety of styles, yet she always remained faithful to her Russian roots. She often revisited traditional folk designs, exemplified in her powerful set designs for Act I of the Coq d'Or, an opera ballet first produced in 1914 by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes in Paris (Fig. 5). Goncharova's Backcloth Design for the Finale of 'L'Oiseau de Feu' (The Firebird) (c. 1926; Fig. 6), is equally hypnotic with her tridimensional rendition of a fabulous Christian city, full of golden church spires which seem borrowed from early Russian icons.

The collection is particularly rich in avant-garde material, with female artists occupying a central role. Alongside Goncharova, another Russian female artist represented is Alexandra Exter, who trained partly in Kiev and throughout Europe (Fig. 7). Familiar with Apollinaire, Braque, and Picasso, she contributed to the 'Triangle' (1910) and 'Union of Youth' (1910-14) exhibitions in St Petersburg. Exter was encouraged by Malevich and Tatlin to investigate non-objective paintings and became an influential costume and set designer, for both theatre and film. Her costume designs for Alexei Tolstoy's 1923 novel Aelita coincided with the fashion for sci-fi culture in the period just preceding and following the 1917 Revolution. Exter also invented the concept of 'epidermic costumes' for a ballet project in which the dancers were painted and not dressed. Russian-born Sonia Delaunay is also a major female artist to feature in the collection. With her husband Robert, she produced set and costume designs for Diaghilev's revived production of Cleopatra (1918) at the Coliseum Theatre in London.

Bakst also created illustrious costume designs for Cleopatra, but in Diaghilev's earlier, original Paris production of 1909. Nina draws attention to another Bakst work, and one of the jewels in the collection: the sensual representation of dancer Ida Rubinstein wearing the Blue Sultana costume designed for Scheherazade (1910; Fig. 8). This iconic costume design, together with that of La Peri (1911; Fig. 1), has been lent to many major international exhibitions. La Peri is quintessential Bakst and certainly the drawing of his that Nina would choose among the many she owns: 'Swirling scarf, peacock-hue ornaments, colourful costume, headdress feathers and exposed breast, make La Peri one of the most enchanting and desirable of Bakst's female costumes.'

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Nina and Nikita's encounter with the eminent Russian art historian Ilya Zilberstein in 1965 gave life to the departed subjects and authors of these drawings. Zilberstein had not only been able to study and compile thousands of documents by or on the protagonists of the World of Art circle, but had also met their surviving friends and relatives. His accounts would never cease to inspire Nina and Nikita in their continuous quest for knowledge. Taking considerable risks during the darkest hours of the USSR, he had resurrected from oblivion these distant figures banned from official Soviet historiography. He also managed to create an astonishing collection of around 3,000 paintings, watercolours, drawings, and prints at a time when private property was banned. His encyclopaedic knowledge of and numerous publications on this prolific artistic milieu, as well as on the respective techniques of each artist proved an essential reference for the collectors. This scholarly approach has informed much of Nina's collecting. Thanks to many trips to Russia she became acquainted with the original designs of the State Lomonosov Porcelain Factory--formerly known as the Imperial Porcelain Manufacture. As a result, she has become an expert in this field: Nina's book, Revolutionary Ceramics: Soviet Porcelain, 1917-27 was published in 1990 and, she tells me, she is currently working on another about Kandinsky and ceramics.

In 2008 Nina and Nikita agreed to sell a sizeable proportion of their collection to the Konstantine Foundation in Russia, which in turn gave it to the St Petersburg Museum of Theatre and Music, located in three buildings in St Petersburg. One of these houses the museum apartment of legendary opera singer Feodor Chaliapin. Prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain, with the support of Ilya Zilberstein and the long-serving director of the Pushkin Museum, Madame Antonova, Nina and Nikita became founding members of the Museum of Private Collections in Moscow. The main goal of this groundbreaking museum was to prevent the dispersion of private collections by relatives after the death of the collector.

Although the couple divorced in 2001, they still share the same passion for the collection and often enjoy animated conversations about mutual discoveries, memories and ambitions. Nina, however, decided to keep some of her most treasured drawings and will continue collecting for as long as she can: T go to all the Russian auctions and am still on the look out for preparatory drawings for my watercolours.' With a generosity of spirit that defines her character, she has promised to present the majority of her collection to several museums in Russia, as well as the Dansmuseet in Stockholm. Her passion for ballet should flourish among new generations in the decades to come.

Thierry Morel is an art historian and an independent curator.

Photography by Robin Friend
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Author:Morel, Thierry
Publication:Apollo
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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