Charmer, charlatan, patron, genius

Diaghilev was the century's most flamboyant fixer and artistic visionary. A major new exhibition tries to get the measure of the man. By Paul Taylor
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Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872-1929) had a badger-stripe of white in his dark hair, giving him a look of Susan Sontag and Bride of Frankenstein. In the portraits of the great Russian impresario that you find dotted around "Diaghilev: Creator of the Ballets Russes" at the Barbican, this feature (which earnt him the nickname "Chinchilla") is somewhat easier to spot than evidence of the formidable charm to which his contemporaries made ritual reference.

"He could charm a dead man to life," wrote the English showman, CB Cochran, and that can't be much of an exaggeration, given the range of Diaghilev's magnetism and persuasive powers. By the time he founded the Ballets Russes in 1911, he had already organised the 1906 exhibition of Russian art at the Paris Salon d'Automne, the 1907 concerts of Russian music (which introduced Chaliapin, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov to Paris audiences), and treated the west to the glories of Boris Godunov. In the two seasons of 1909 and 1910 he had gone on - despite the curious fact that he was initially no enthusiast of the form - to make ballet the vehicle for his vision of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of music, painting and movement in the totally integrated work of art. In Petrushka (1910), the dance drama about the puppet with human feelings, he had supervised the supreme example of what he was aiming for. The circle of talent with which he had surrounded himself was already such a roll-call of the rarefied that any future film version of his life would be bound to run into acute dialogue difficulties: "Could you just hold on a sec, Benois, old chap, I've got Stravinsky on the other line. Apparently, Nijinsky's throwing a wobbly. No, I said Nij-insky, not Strav. Well, bang goes brunch with Proust."

There's a caricature by Pavel Shcherbov which shows Diaghilev on a stool in homely skirt and blouse literally milking Princess Tenisheva, his World of Art sponsor, who is represented as a cow. To finance his projects, the impresario was continually forced to make overtures to wealthy, titled types. Diaghilev's seasons tended to be critical smashes but financial failures. The Firebird was no Starlight Express, a gleaming example of that process in reverse.

The point about the cartoon, though, is that it's a rare instance of Diaghilev, the consummate operator, depicted in activity. The vast bulk of the images here - including the famous Leon Bakst portrait of him with his old nanny in the background - give you scant inkling of the man's drive and dynamism. They recall, rather, Osbert Sitwell's marvellous description of him in Great Morning: "When he was preoccupied, his massive head, with a nose of the flat, not aquiline, Russian type, had something of a Velasquez dwarf's air of solemn pathos and listless fatality."

But what of the theatre he masterminded? Does the energy of that come across? It would indeed be an ironic fate for productions that strove to bring the arts into a vital synthesis, if, in separating out their elements, an exhibition were to let the life leak away. The current show has tried to guard against this by employing the designer, Paul Dart, to throw a theatrical atmosphere round the exhibits. This works best in the extraordinary installation on the lower level where - in an effect that is like looking down a long, magical tunnel of fairy-tale grottoes - a succession of Bakst and Benois stage designs (to Cleopatre, Petrushka, Scheherezade etc) open out on to each other, pulling you in to examine the relevant objects (costumes, posters, props, statuary) housed in the spaces between. With their "oriental" subject matter, exotic decor and revolutionary palette of overwhelmingly rich, sensual shades, these designs would make a stage buzz with vibrancy before a dancer stepped anywhere near it.

Compared to the drama of the designs - notably Bakst's costume-design paintings which demonstrate his phenomenal knack of presenting dress as the intoxicated extension of emotion rather than as just so much coloured fabric - the actual costumes in their glass cases seem a little faded and inert. Not that there is any music for them to come alive to, since, although these ballets boast scores by Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Rimsky- Korsakov et al, a decision has been taken that the exhibition is best perambulated in silence.

There's a puzzling omission among the costumes. "Nijinsky appeared at the Imperial Theatre in the tightest tights anyone had ever seen [in fact, an athletic support padded with handkerchiefs and little else]," remarked Stravinsky of the dancer's 1911 performance as Albrecht in Giselle, where he refused to appear before the audience in the discreet, Renaissance- style outfit Benois had designed. You could argue that the bandage-like substitute he insisted on sporting is one of the more pivotal undergarments in cultural history, since it led to Nijinsky's dismissal from the Imperial Theatre and to the creation of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev, who had hitherto merely borrowed Russian artists for his Paris seasons, now exploited the situation to found his own independent company and to bind his lover Nijinsky ever closer to him. More than a storm in a truss, then, and I think that, assuming it hasn't been pawed to bits, we could have been granted a gawp at this historic object.

The cut-off point for the exhibition is the outbreak of the First World War, with Diaghilev and his troupe stranded away from their homeland and scattered in Europe and the US. Ahead of the impresario lay a further 15 years of achievement and the decision to look to the European avant- garde (notably the Cubism of Picasso) rather than back to Russia for design inspiration. But renewed interest in Diaghilev in his post-Communist homeland has meant that pre-Revolutionary items can now be brought over for the first time, and the exhibition is keen to emphasise the enduring Russian influences on his art up to that date.

The value of the early sections is that they establish a sense of the culture from which Diaghilev sprang, introducing you to such notable forerunners of the impresario as Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), a wealthy industrialist and patron who founded an arts colony on the Abramtsevo estate, a successful ceramics workshop and a loss-making but highly esteemed private opera company in Moscow. While the scenic department of the Imperial Theatre churned out standard-issue glades, lakes and palaces, Mamontov's company saw design as a painterly challenge and an opportunity to revitalise national culture. His was an example, you feel, not wasted on Diaghilev.

It's to be hoped that when the promised exhibition of the remaining years is mounted, it will be as accommodating to the complicated legacy of Diaghilev, whose company promptly folded on his death in 1929, as this show has been to what shaped him and to the St Petersburg intellectual circles in which he made his first impact. "I am, first, a great charlatan, though with dash," he had written to his stepmother in 1895, "second, a great charmer, third, cheeky, fourth, a person with a lot of logic and few principles, and fifth, someone afflicted, it seems, with a complete absence of talent. I think I've found my true vocation: to be a patron of the arts. For that I have everything I need except the money. Mais ca viendra..." He could have added that, sixth, he was clairvoyant.

'Diaghilev: Creator of the Ballets Russes' is at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) to 14 April