Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun

Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun

  • Afternoon for a faun.

    BAKST Lev Samoïlevitch Rosenberg, known as Leon (1866 - 1924)

  • Nijinsky in the role of the Faun.

    GAYNE DE MEYER Adolf de (1868 - 1946)

  • Lydia Nelidova and Vaslav Nijinsky in "The Afternoon of a Faun".

    GAYNE DE MEYER Adolf de (1868 - 1946)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

To close

Title: Nijinsky in the role of the Faun.

Author : GAYNE DE MEYER Adolf de (1868 - 1946)

Creation date : 1912

Date shown: 1912

Dimensions: Height 18.2 - Width 14.1

Technique and other indications: Album "The afternoon of a faun", edited by Iribe, 1914.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Picture reference: 94-018324 / PHO1988-13-13

Nijinsky in the role of the Faun.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

To close

Title: Lydia Nelidova and Vaslav Nijinsky in "The Afternoon of a Faun".

Author : GAYNE DE MEYER Adolf de (1868 - 1946)

Creation date : 1912

Date shown: 1912

Dimensions: Height 14.8 - Width 14

Technique and other indications: Album "The afternoon of a faun", edited by Iribe, 1914.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Picture reference: 94-018319 / PHO1988-13-8

Lydia Nelidova and Vaslav Nijinsky in "The Afternoon of a Faun".

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: October 2010

CNRS Researcher Center for Research on Arts and Language

Historical context

Nijinsky and the Russian Ballets

In the early years of the XXe century, Serge de Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, bringing together major artists (Bakst, Fokine, Nijinsky, Benois, Stravinsky, etc.), deeply renovate the art of dance. On May 29, 1912, he therefore presented his first choreography to the audience of the Théâtre du Châtelet, Afternoon for a faun, inspired by the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Claude Debussy (1894), himself composed from Stéphane Mallarmé's poem "The Afternoon of a Faun" (1876).

The 1912 season of the Ballets Russes was marked by resounding failures and scandals: Thamar, The blue god and Daphnis and Chloe were received coldly, but it was especially Nijinsky's choreography that aroused hostility from some of the spectators. The plot, very simple, was suggestive: "A Faun slumbers. / Nymphs trick him. / A forgotten scarf satisfies his dream. "Nijinsky then mimics an orgasm, hence the indignant reactions of the director of Figaro, which are counterbalanced by Rodin’s enthusiasm.

Image Analysis

Sets, costumes and choreography of the Wildlife

The first image represents the backdrop designed by Léon Bakst (1866-1924), principal painter associated with the Ballets Russes. The two photographs were taken in June-July 1912 by Baron de Meyer (1868-1949), a pictorialist photographer who produced numerous portraits of famous personalities at the beginning of the century.

Léon Bakst’s painting reveals Nijinsky's biases: it is a bucolic landscape, with springs, trees and rocks. At the bottom right, near the waterfall, the nymphs appear, while the fauna is lying in the center on a carpet of moss and seems to be one with nature. Bakst, as usual, offers a canvas in rich and shimmering colors, predominantly yellow and blue. The large flat colors evoke Gauguin and Matisse. This decor is particularly striking for the lack of perspective, an impression reinforced by the narrowness of the space (barely two meters) left between the canvas and the stage setting: the characters move on the same plane.

The first photograph of Baron de Meyer shows Nijinsky as a faun, curled up on himself. His costume, invented by Bakst, caused a sensation at the time: the black spots scattered on the tight undershirt and on the dancer's bare arms evoke the animal nature of the fauna, as do his horns, tail and pointed ears. Bakst also designed the costumes, wigs and make-up for the nymphs. As shown in the second photograph, they wear large antique peplos, adorned with geometric figures or stylized flowers and leaves. This shot identifies the second headliner of the show: Lydia Nelidova, who plays the main nymph.

These two photographs also indicate the movements invented by Nijinsky. The public had been surprised by the absence of any virtuosity in his choreography and by its "cubist" aspect: the characters moved in profile in a space without depth, and their jerky evolutions followed straight and broken lines instead of the traditional arabesques of ballet. Nijinsky sought to evoke the Greek dances depicted on archaic vases, where the perspective is sketchy. Finally, the importance given to the arms, the hands and the bust in relation to the legs constituted a revolution: as we see in the second photograph, Nijinsky wants to express the psychology of the fauna and that of the nymph in the position of their hands and of their fingers.

Interpretation

Success of Nijinsky's choreography

In 1914, Debussy spoke of "dissonance" between his music and the dances imagined by Nijinsky. This statement by the musician reflected a fairly widely shared misunderstanding of a choreography which, marking a clear break with academic conventions, upset the art of ballet. This misunderstanding will also arise during the creation of Games, another very novel work for which Debussy composed the music despite his skepticism about Nijinsky's dance. The scandal of 1912 above all heralds the even greater scandal of Rite of Spring in 1913, for which Nijinsky also signed the choreography. But, unlike these two ballets, the choreography of Afternoon for a faun has enjoyed a remarkable longevity since its creation in 1912, as evidenced by the revivals in the following decades on stages all over the world, from Vienna to New York to Berlin and Buenos Aires.

  • dance
  • scandal
  • Nijinsky (Vaslav)
  • ballet

Bibliography

Serge DIATCHENKO, Leon Bakst, Leningrad, Aurora Art Ed., 1986. Jean-Michel NECTOUX (ed.), Nijinsky, "Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun", Paris, Adam Biro, 1989.Roland HUESCA, Triumphs and scandals. The Belle Epoque of the Ballets Russes, Paris, Hermann, 2001. Pascal CARON, Fauns. Poetry, body, dance from Mallarmé to Nijinsky, Paris, Champion, 2006.

To cite this article

Christophe CORBIER, "The Afternoon of a Fauna by Nijinsky"


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