Costume as living sculpture: the Ballets Russes

28 January 2011 | By Anna Sutton

The costumes on display at the National Gallery of Australia’s Ballets Russes: the art of costume exhibition are imbued with a fascinating history befitting their heralded place in modern art.

Iconic artists from Pablo Picasso to Georges Braque turned Russes costumes into living sculptures. Exhibition Assistant Simeran Maxwell points to Henri Matisse’s ‘Costume for a mourner’.

“It’s very striking – the way it’s so angular”, she says. “(Henri) Matisse is a draftsperson and you can see he got very hands-on, painting directly onto the fabric.” Describing the thrilling design for Le Chant du Rossignol, Matisse said, “They’re like a painting, only with colours that move”.

The most striking designs do at times belie troubled waters in terms of production. Leon Bakst’s ‘Costume for the Bluebird’ from Sergei Diaghilev’s The Sleeping Princess is a relic from a production so extravagant that it resulted in bankruptcy.

Three hundred extraordinarily beautiful costumes and sets were not enough to save the production from alienating its audience, who were displeased with the staging of such a drawn-out classical ballet. It was one of the few Diaghilev ballets that misjudged what the audience wanted.

Bakst produced garments that are very wearable: he used non-constrictive bodices and favoured loose fits. Garments such as the Scheherazade harem pants and caftans were more than just a source of amusement – they channelled the spirit of the times in a dazzling mixture of opulence and athleticism. The costumes for The Buffoon by Michel Larionov, on the other hand, were so cumbersome that ballerinas threatened to strike.

Fifty new costumes have been restored, some to untarnished glory, while others cling to a more fragile state.

Before-and-after illustrations and untreated pieces on display teach us much about the art of conservation in the process. Maxwell paints a clear picture of the challenges faced. “Some pieces needed to have all their embellishments removed in order for them to be cleaned, while some of the silk costumes can’t be washed because the dyes aren’t fixed. There are mould problems and details like gelatin sequins are troublesome.”

‘Costume for a squid’, designed by Natalia Goncharova for Sadko, took nine months to stitch back together. Head of Conservation Debbie Ward worked with conservator Micheline Ford to restore the ultramarine silk-and-gold lamé dress to its former glory.

The conservation process extends to the staging of the exhibition, with lighting done in house by Tui Tahi. “He has spotlighted each costume with appropriate light levels so the light is not harsh enough to degrade the fabrics but is bright enough to make the costumes sparkle.”

Ballets Russes: the art of costume continues until 20 March 2011 at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Image: Léon Baskt Tunic from costume for the Blue God c 1912 from Le Dieu Bleu
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1987