When mental illness began to bring a premature end to Vaslav Nijinsky's career early this century, the renowned ballet dancer turned to visual art for self-expression. Unfortunately, until recently his works were dismissed as the idle, worthless doodlings of a madman.
"The drawings are psychopathic charts," wrote American painter Marsden Hartley in the early 1940s, "and that is all that can be said of them."
Nijinsky, a dance legend known for unprecedented technical brilliance, had no visual art training. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic some 20 years before Hartley's critique, and he spent three decades moving in and out of psychiatric hospitals before dying in 1950 at age 69.
None of which means the dancer's artwork is anything less than profoundly powerful, full of beauty and thematic, well-thought-out imagery--not random scribblings. So assert organizers of "Vaslav Nijinsky: Art of the World's Greatest Dancer," opening Monday at Irvine's Severin Wunderman Museum.
"I believe that Nijinsky's work will be appreciated today in a way that he could never have been appreciated in his lifetime," said William Emboden, the museum's research director.
"People often assume that if a person is judged to be mentally unstable or psychotic, you can't take their art too seriously. But I think that assumption is being progressively dispelled," said Emboden, citing major recent exhibitions of so-called outsider art, work by mentally ill or self-taught artists who operate outside of the professional art world.
The Irvine exhibition was organized by Emboden and the museum's executive director, Tony Clark, who believes it is the first comprehensive showing of Nijinsky's works on paper. It contains more than 75 pieces in media ranging from inks to colored chalks, plus several paintings, marquee posters and sculptures of Nijinsky by such contemporaries as artist and writer Jean Cocteau, to whose works the museum is dedicated.
The show also includes photographs of the dancer on and off stage, purple petals from his famous "Le Spectre de la Rose" costume and other costumes, ballet slippers, elaborate costume designs by Leon Bakst, and such personal effects as his birth and death certificates, letters, hairbrushes and a dressing-room tablecloth.
These items are part of the 200-piece Vaslav and Romola Nijinsky Foundation collection, now on permanent loan to the museum (Romola was the dancer's late wife). The Irvine museum will make the collection available to scholars and hopes to tour the exhibit.
Tamara Nijinsky, the couple's youngest daughter, established the foundation in 1991 and made the loan recently, convinced that a museum focusing on Cocteau would make a worthy home. Cocteau was a close friend of Nijinsky's and wrote the scenario for "Le Train Bleu," a ballet Nijinsky danced.
"I must confess (that) originally I wanted to keep it in Phoenix," said Tamara Nijinsky, 74, in a recent phone interview from her home there. "But I visited the museum and met Tony Clark, and realized that they will care for the collection as if it contained their own belongings. They have their hearts in what they do."
Nijinsky, born in Russia of Polish lineage, achieved widespread celebrity with Ballets Russes. The touring troupe was directed by famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who brought Russian art, music and dance to Western Europe and elsewhere.
While Nijinsky's ballets are now considered to have foreshadowed pivotal developments of avant garde choreography, they were rejected during his time. The 1913 Paris premiere of "Le Sacre du Printemps," set to Igor Stravinsky's equally anti-classical yet seminal score, still stands as ballet's grandest fracas, replete with hissing, catcalls, fistfights and tiaras atilt.
"All the elements of a scandal were present," Cocteau wrote. "The smart audience in tails and tulle, diamonds and ospreys, was interspersed with the suits and bandeaux of the aesthetic crowd. The latter would applaud novelty simply to show their contempt for the people in the boxes."
Soon after this, Nijinsky's inner and outer life began to deteriorate. When he married fellow Ballets Russes dancer Romola de Pulszky, Diaghilev, who had been his lover as well as his mentor, fired him. Later, forced internment in Hungary during World War I was followed by years moving in and out of sanitariums.
Most works in the Severin Wunderman show date between 1916 and 1919, the year schizophrenia was diagnosed but long after symptoms of mental instability appeared, Emboden said during a recent phone interview. (Despite the diagnosis, some still dispute the exact nature of Nijinsky's problem.)
Nijinsky was 29 when he gave his last public performance.
"Mental illness ran through his family, and when Vaslav was a young boy, he had some neurological disorders," Emboden said. "I think as early as his first ballet creation he was evidencing things that set him apart from another person. But I don't know when it becomes a malady and disadvantageous. If he had not had the madness, we would not have had the genius of Nijinsky."
The dancer's visual art and his choreography share certain aesthetic principals, Emboden continued, one of which was "total simplicity."
For his 1913 ballet "Jeux" ("Games"), Nijinsky rejected the then-popular exotic Orientalism, telling his sister Bronislava Nijinska, also a Ballets Russes dancer, "that he wanted nothing but a barren stage that would represent a tennis court."
"She said, 'You can't do this, you have to have decor,' " Emboden explained. But Nijinsky insisted, "No, let's give the people utter simplicity."
Several drawings on view reflect this inclination, Emboden said. "There's a simplification of the palette--reds, blacks, occasionally a bit of orange or blue--and bold, powerful strokes juxtaposed with a few other, equally bold strokes."
Likewise, the "massive moving spirals" and circular group patterns of Nijinsky's "Sacre du Printemps" choreography would later reappear over and over in two-dimensional form.
By 1917, Nijinsky "was drawing constantly with almost every motif based upon the circle," and each facial feature in the portraits on view is composed of amalgamations of circles, according to Emboden. He explained that Nijinsky, an avid reader of Tolstoy, adopted the author's belief that "life was a spiral."
According to the book "Nijinsky" (Simon & Shuster Inc.) written in 1934 by Romola Nijinsky, the dancer told his wife in 1917 that "the circle is the complete, the perfect movement. Everything is based on it--life, art."
Related serial images on view offer evidence that Nijinsky used a calculated rather than haphazard approach to his art, Emboden said. One series is based on the human eye, another contains black and red ink washes.
"Nijinsky was never trying to represent anything other than his soul," Emboden said.
* What: "Vaslav Nijinsky: Art of the World's Greatest Dancer."
* When: Opening Monday, Nov. 7. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Feb. 7.
* Where: Severin Wunderman Museum, 3 Mason, Irvine.
* Whereabouts: Santa Ana (5) Freeway to Alton Parkway. Go north and make a right on Muirlands Boulevard, then another right on Mason. Museum will be on the right.
* Wherewithal: Admission is free.
* Where to call: (714) 472-1138.
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