Conserving Diaghilev

This film takes you behind the scenes to watch V&A dress and paper conservators preparing costumes and posters designed by Bakst, Matisse, Picasso and de Chirico

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Video Transcript

Jane Pritchard, Co-Curator, V&A
I think people will be quite surprised at the range of material, in terms of the number of significant artists involved. Within the exhibition, we are putting an emphasis on the different elements that come together. In away we’re deconstructing the part, so the costumes, the sets, the music, the movement – trying to look at all those elements.

It’s very unusual to find so much talent that is of such lasting significance in one place at one time. We do go through so many different artists, and the change of art. The beginning is almost art noveau in its approach. We then have Art Deco elements, and then we have Cubism through to Surrealism.

I think one of the most exciting things about mounting the exhibition has been the opportunity to have conservation on our wonderful collection of Ballets Russes costumes. The V&A actually has the largest collection of Ballets Russes costumes anywhere in the world, and we’re showing 65 of them in the exhibition. They look a little bit sad when they’re in the store, just because they don’t come to life. Then when they’ve been through the conservation process, and when they’re mounted on the mannequins in particular, you suddenly see why they work so well as costumes. I think that’s really the important thing – it is like seeing something reawakened from the past, and taking on a new life.

Maria Susana Fajardo-Hunter, Textiles Conservator, V&A
This is the costume Le Festin, worn by Nijinsky. The date is 1909. This costume shows the Russian roots of the Ballets Russes.

Jane Pritchard
Some of the less obvious costumes I think are also very exciting, because they are costumes you think you know until you start looking at them. One of the things I really love is that at the beginning of the exhibition, we have a sylph from Les Sylphides. I was stunned when I first saw it and saw it had the double wing, so we know it’s an early version of the costume. Then at the end of the exhibition, you have the sylph from Le Bal, so you have a surrealist version of a very similar costume.

When we were selecting the costumes, it was almost like an audition as to which ones were going to be selected to go on show. I felt very strongly that Matisse needed to have a good representation, because the costumes that he designed are fascinating. In fact when he was working on the ballet he was researching Chinese and Tibetan cultures – those were the sources for it – and one of the places apparently that he came and got his ideas was the Victoria and Albert Museum. Which is one of those satisfying links that come round.

Maria Susana Fajardo-Hunter
This costume had a very extensive conservation treatment of 300 hours. Conservation treatments are there to secure the object, to make it safe, to preserve it. They should in no way interfere with the aesthetic value of the object or change the object in any way. The silk satin of the costume was very damaged, especially the upper area of the tunic, which was beginning to lift around the edges, and also obscure the paintwork. It is thought that this was probably done by Matisse himself.

The sleeves had a different problem. They had broken down at the fold, and there were areas of silk lost completely. We applied an adhesive underlay, but from the back to secure all the splits in the silk. Once the whole area was supported in this way, we again folded the sleeves, and we applied the conservation net; in this way we are able to handle the costume and display it safely on the mannequin.

This is the felt hat.

Jane Pritchard
One of the things we wanted were some posters. We had very famous posters in terms of the Cocteau designs of Le Spectre de la Rose – illustrations of Nijinsky and Karsavina. We have the Anna Pavlova Seraph first poster from 1909, and then we have a wonderful poster from Paris, which shows the Chinese conjuror, which was almost used as a logo whenever Parade was performed, and it’s mainly a typeface one but it’s a wonderfully bold poster.

Susan Catcher, Senior Paper Conservator
This was actually quite a difficult poster to have to do, because this is actually a collage piece over the top. This is obviously a very famous motif. There’s another object in the exhibition which is basically a
drawing of this and we have the costume as well, so it all tends to link. But the paper direction is going in two different ways, so we’ve got one paper direction going in this direction and this paper direction going in this [the other] direction, and it sets up some horrible pull. It came over to us as an object that was in desperate need of conservation, and because we didn’t have time it ended up being put in a draw for about eight years. Whilst all the material was being collected, this was discovered and was obviously absolutely perfect for the exhibition.

Maria Susana Fajardo-Hunter
This is the costume of the Chinese conjuror designed by Picasso for the Ballet Parade in 1917.

Jane Pritchard
Diaghilev had a remarkable ability for discovering talent. When I say discovering talent, it wasn’t necessarily talent that was unknown completely, but discovering people who could work together, bring them together, and actually raise their profiles. Artists like Picasso, Matisse, Derain were already known, they weren’t complete beginners, but they certainly didn’t have the same profile as they had after working with Diaghilev.

Maria Susana Fajardo-Hunter
The whole choreography of the ballet was joyous and active and they were very extrovert in what they were trying to tell as a story and also very humorous; but very expressive, so the costumes show the damage caused by the very demanding choreography.

Jane Pritchard
With an exhibition about theatre, you don’t always have all the material that you would wish you had, so we are actually recreating one or two things. In the workshops here they’re going to do reconstructions, at least they’re busy working on the reconstructions of the two Cubist Managers for Parade, which are stunning in themselves. In fact, it doesn’t really matter that they’re not actually the costumes – I think just to see those sculptures, or copies of those sculptures, is fascinating.


 Jane Pritchard, co-curator of Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes explains the  conservation challenge provided by the V&A's blockbusting exhibition about the great Russian ballet impresario. Around 70 per cent of the exhibits for the show came from the V&A archive and the 65 costumes that the curators chose to put on display included designs by some of the greatest artists of the early 20th century: Picasso, Bakst, De Chirico and Matisse among them.  

This film looks at the expert  process of conserving ballet costumes, backdrops and posters and programmes which were  damaged both by the athletic exertions of Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes dancers as well as a century's wear and tear.