National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 11 (VI:1), 1968

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Van Dongen's Souvenir de la 
Saison d'Opéra Russe, 1909

by Jean Sutherland Boggs
Director, The National Gallery of Canada

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

The exotic beauty of Rubinstein was one of Cléopâtre's surprises. Ida Rubinstein was, by Russian standards, hardly trained as a dancer at all. Fokine had begun to give her private lessons in 1907 and continued in 1908 in Switzerland. He wrote about that period in which she wanted to be prepared to appear in Oscar Wilde's Salome: "The work on the Salome dance was unique in my life. I had to teach Rubinstein simultaneously the art of the dance and to create for her the Dance of Salome. Before this, she had studied very little, and showed very little progress in it. Her energy and endurance were of great assistance, as was her appearance...She was tall, thin and beautiful." (26) Bakst and Fokine nevertheless succeeded in persuading Diaghilev that this rich, orphaned, exotic Jewess should play the title role in Cléopâtre. Fokine was not being inconsistent because even in St. Petersburg he had felt that it would be preferable to give Cléopâtre's role "to a dramatic actress rather than to a ballet dancer." (27) We are told that Fokine composed Rubinstein's movements so that they would reveal her beauty without making her dance. (28) The result was a triumph. Paris adored her. Count Robert de Montesquiou came to each of her performances. (29) A critic raved, "Elle a la souplesse du serpent et la plasticité de la femme; ses danses offrent la grâce voluptueuse et stéréotypée de l'Orient, grâce pleine  de mollesse et de la pudeur d'une passion impulsive." (30)

Ida Rubinstein as Cleopatra was brought on to the stage on a palanquin, swathed like a mummy in veils. Benois described the climax of her part in the ballet:

The Egyptian the person of the daring young Ida Rubinstein gradually discarded all her veils and gave herself up to the ecstasy of love before the eyes of the whole audience. Only at the most critical moment the helpful court ladies - whom we had known in St. Petersburg-surrounded the couch with curtains, and by so doing they really emphasized the point...the disrobing took place to the beautiful but terrifying music of Mlada. Slowly, in accordance with the complicated court ritual, one by one, the covers were unwound, disclosing the divine body, omnipotent in its beauty. At the end of the ceremony, when the slight figure emerged covered only by the wonderful transparent garment invented by Bakst, one experienced a feeling of awe. Here was not a pretty artiste appearing in frank déshabille, but a real, fatal enchantress, in the tradition of the cruel and grasping Astarte. (31)

Cléopâtre and its acclaim must have been almost irresistible to the thirty-two-year-old Dutch painter, Kees van Dongen, who had been living in Paris for ten years. (32) He adored dancing and even watching others dance; (33) he loved the theatrical, from the extremes of Egyptian belly dancers (34) to the heavy-weight champion of the world. (35) He was attracted by the exoticism of Africa although it would be 1910-11 before he went to Morocco for the first time and 1913 before he reached Egypt. He is quoted as saying some time later, presumably about 1925, "oui, j'aime  ce qui brille, les pierres précieuses qui étincellent, les étoffes qui chatoient, les belles femmes qui inspirent le désir la peinture me donne la possession plus complète de tout cela, car ce que je peins est souvent la réalisation obsédante d'un rêve ou d'une hantise..." (36) In addition he idolized the fashionable; and Cléopâtre, even aside from the people who attended it, was the essence of chic. Van Dongen painted it as a member of an enraptured audience; there is no indication I can discover anywhere that he was part of the Diaghilev coterie.

Although Van Dongen knew Picasso and Braque and had lived in the Bateau Lavoir at the time of the famous banquet for the Douanier Rousseau, his work was the antithesis of cubism which was born there. It was with the abandon and colour of an artist who had exhibited in the 1905 Salon d'Automne and had been christened with his friends Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, a Fauve, and who had exhibited with the Brücke in Germany in 1908, that Van Dongen approached Cléopâtre. While the Cubists were disciplining the visible world into angular planes which denied the organic and the voluptuous, Van Dongen was taking the sensual lines of the female body, intensifying their effect by stylization and pulling them together into a sweeping composition which evokes the abandon of the dance. Whereas Cubist colour was becoming increasingly stark and monochromatic Van Dongen was enjoying the excitement of dabbing a vivid green on Cleopatra's flesh, surrounding Tahor's body with lines of the henna of her hair and using a vivid vermilion to suggest the veils and movements of Tahor's dance, all against a deep blue ground. Finally Van Dongen responded to the sensuality of Cléopâtre and emphasized it, particularly in the thrust of Ida Rubinstein's reclining nude body as the dancer in the title role. The colour and the rhythm heighten the picture's  erotic effect.

Although we are told that "un coup d'oeil lui suffit pour prendre, dans un sujet, ce qu'il lui faut et pour éliminer ce qui ne lui est pas nécessaire," (37) and that.' Van Dongen travaille surtout par nostalgie," (38) it is unlikely that he waited Jong after the performance of Cléopâtre before producing his version of it. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that the date, 1909, on the back of the painting (fig. 2) is correct. This precision in dating is rare in Van Dongen's work which has not as yet been studied systematically and in detail. For example, a famous nude called Anita in his own collection was dated (presumably by him) 1905-6 when he lent it to Brussels in 1958. (39) On the other hand when it was lent to the retrospective exhibition of his work in Paris in 1967 it was dated 1910. (40) Ottawa's painting may be helpful, therefore, in dating Van Dongen's work; it makes it apparent, for example, that a Femme nue couchée, which is very close to Ida Rubinstein as Cleopatra and which was lent to the Paris reprospective exhibition from the J. B. collection in Marseilles, must be 1908 rather than about 1905 as it was listed in the catalogue. (41) In it, as in our painting, there is some evidence of a memory of Matisse's Blue Nude of 1907.

Van Dongen's approach was arbitrary rather than descriptive, probably genuinely a recollection of the dance as the title he inscribed on the reverse of the canvas, Souvenir de la Saison d'Opéra Russe, suggests. It does seem to convey, however, the essence of that sensational ballet. Pavlova is pathetic with her fragile arms stretched imploringly upward, her body stained the brown of the slave. Rubinstein on the other hand is indifferent to anything but her own sensuality, isolated on her lustrous white couch. Abbreviated, calligraphic, arbitrary, this painting still extracts the sensuality and Duncan-like freedom of movement of this historic ballet in which Pavlova and Rubinstein danced competitively for Diaghilev and the audience at the Théâtre du Châtelet.

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