See Works by James Wyeth at the New Britain Museum of American Art

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James Wyeth on Rudolf Nureyev: The Artist Paints the Dancer

Through July 31, New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, nbmaa.org

In an age when celebrities and attendant stylists, trainers and dietitians are hyped as "brands" and media coverage is lavished upon contestants on "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars," it's difficult to comprehend what international fame once meant. The ultra-specialized sphere of classical dance seems a barrier to that sort of notoriety, yet artists of high-voltage charisma and technical brilliance have been worshipped by millions over centuries and across the globe. In the U.S., the earliest such supernova was the Austrian ballerina Fanny Elssler, whose 1840 debut in the country was deemed important enough for Congress to adjourn every night she performed in Washington, D.C.

Among male dancers even the mythologized Vaslav Nijinsky didn't incite mass mania on the scale surrounding Rudolf Nureyev. Instantly a household name in the West upon defecting from the Soviet Union in Paris in 1961, soon Nureyev's talent, animal magnetism and sheer sex appeal (to women and men, straight or gay) propelled him to pop star status equal to Elvis and the Beatles. High society embraced him.

By the time Nureyev capitulated to a request to model for realist artist James Wyeth in 1977, the dancer had appeared on television, in feature-length film documentaries and on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People. (That year he was cast in the title role of Ken Russell's Valentino.) More often than not, he was still at the peak of his powers.

Wyeth's early mentor and patron, Lincoln Kirstein, was aghast at the visual artist's interest in Nureyev, for he embodied what Kirstein and George Balanchine, the co-founders of New York City Ballet, abhorred: a star who would always supplant the choreography. And the self-described romantic dancer acclaimed for spine-tingling dramatic projection was at odds with Balanchine's famous instruction, "Don't act, dear, just do."

But Wyeth was intrigued by the inherent contradiction of depicting Nureyev in a static medium. Fascinated by his complex, perfection-driven personality, he was less interested in making images of him in motion.

Sixteen works on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art, loaned by Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa., are tantalizing for a jumble of reasons.

Dating from 1977 to 2003, most are elaborations on preliminary sketches done from life, since Nureyev died of AIDS-related causes in January 1993. For those fortunate, as I was, to witness the dancer's performances in the classical and contemporary repertory in the same seasons Wyeth did, the small, exquisite sketches of Nureyev's expressive face in a half smile or haughty glance, vividly evoke the Russian's quick, sly wit and magisterial presence.

Ink sketches of the dancer in his dressing room applying makeup for the solo "Pierrot Lunaire" in 1977 contain detailed notes on the makeup design, which served Wyeth well for his 2003 painting of the same title.

In contrast, Wyeth's two depictions of the dancer as the faun from "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," (2002), are gauzy suggestions of an auburn-haired satyr emerging from a dense green wood into a sunlit glade, not studies of the dancer in character.

These paintings are based on an adjacent nearly life-sized figure study, charcoal and white paint on ribbed cardboard, dating from 1977 and reworked in 1993. Another study from the same series, this one a full-frontal nude, brings to mind how, in 1969, usually reserved Brits at Covent Garden chanted, "We want Rudi, preferably in the nudie!"

Wyeth harkens back to Louis Anquetin or Toulouse-Lautrec with images of Nureyev as Basilio in Don Quixote, but the most peculiar homage is to Degas in Mort de Noureev (2001), a weirdly lurid elegy referring to intersections in the histories of art, ballet and the dancer's biography.

Nureyev, in white tights and burnt umber and cobalt tunic (resembling one of his princely costumes in The Sleeping Beauty), lies inert on his back downstage, eyes shut, his left arm flung beyond his head, in a pool of hot sulfurous yellow. Behind him are two oversized pastel semi-appropriations of Degas' "petits rats," girls studying at the school affiliated with the Paris Opera Ballet, at which Nureyev served as artistic director during the 1980s. In light blue bodices and tulle skirts, pink tights and soft slippers, they kneel in a "reverence," hands cupped over faces, as though weeping and unable to bear gazing at Nureyev's prone form. The clash between Wyeth's realism and Degas' impressionism is strange, but certainly thought-provoking.

 

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