This costume was designed in 1920 by the painter Henri Matisse for Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes (The Russian Ballet) version of Igor Stravinksy’s opera Le rossignol (The nightingale). In commissioning Matisse and other painters of the European avant-garde, Diaghilev established Les Ballets Russes as being in the spirit of modernism and artistic experimentation.
This production of Le chant du rossignol is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of a mechanical songbird presented by the Emperor of Japan to the Emperor of China. Matisse interpreted the orientalist theme and Léonide Massine’s streamlined choreography of the ballet in elegant and dramatically simple costumes and scenery, influenced by Chinese porcelain, paintings on silk and lacquer screens.
This white felt robe for the production’s Mourner characters has appliqué geometric spots and chevrons, representing the markings of the Chinese deer, an animal that symbolises longevity in Chinese mythology. The graphic patterns of this costume converted the mourners into a spectacle of abstract shapes.
This costume is part of the Gallery’s extensive collection of costumes designed for Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes from 1909 to 1929.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008