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When I first started working at Shapero I put together a catalogue on the Ballets Russes, a subject which is as interesting as it is strikingly visual, so all in all a joyful task to undertake. However, the more I delved into our stock the more I realised that one figure’s influence pervaded throughout.  It was of course, the impresario who conceived of the troupe, Serge Diaghilev and the catalogue was therefore titled ‘The World of Diaghilev’. 

Ever since, Diaghilev and his collaborators have become a favourite theme and on this occasion I’ve picked out a few pieces which highlight his artistic breakthroughs.

Although many know Diaghilev for his revolutionary ballets, his first great stage success in Paris was in fact Rimsky-Korsakov’s version of Modest Mussorgsky’s opera, Boris Godunov. The premiere in 1908 dazzled French audiences, largely due to the impressive vocal work of the singer Fedor Chaliapin, but also due to the sumptuous set and costume designs.

Diaghilev had spent a considerable amount of time and money (thanks to his royal patrons) creating a lavish representation of 17th-century ‘Rus’.  Spectators were amazed by the rich colours, patterns, beads, and embroidery of Ivan Bilibin’s costumes, which you can see in these postcards printed in St Petersburg in the same yearSo much money was spent on production that despite high ticket sales Diaghilev made a huge loss, a sadly recurring theme for him.

Diaghilev’s success lay in his ability to attract a circle of talented artists around him, unlocking their potential to form innovative new pieces. Bakst, Benois, Roerich, Larionov and Goncharova, to name but a few, all produced stunning set and costume designs, which emphasised the Ballets Russes’ experimental style. A great example of how the productions broke away from the stuffy design traditions of theatre is Picasso’s folk inspired stage and costume designs for Le Tricorne. This deluxe edition, with a signed etching, has 31 pochoir plates of the artist’s sketches for the final designs. I like that Picasso’s Spanish heritage and distinctive style are woven into his work; this portfolio has become a significant part of his oeuvre.

It's always an exciting moment to come across something unique, and this programme inscribed by Diaghilev to Boris Kochno was no exception. The pair were introduced to each other in 1921 by Sudeikin and the day after they met, Diaghilev offered Kochno a job as his secretary. Kochno would go on to become not only his librettist, but eventually his main collaborator and lover. The inscription reads ‘To my dear little Boris in remembrance of your diligent work. Serge Diaghilev. 13 June 1923 Paris.’ What is fascinating is that Diaghilev uses the diminutive for Boris in Russian, giving a rare insight into a deeply personal relationship. Given that most manuscript material concerns the company’s dire finances it is incredibly rare to have such an intimate inscription.

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Shapero Rare Books is an internationally renowned dealer in London, specialising in antiquarian & rare books and works on paper, with particular expertise in fine illustrated books from the 15th to the 20th century, travel & voyages, natural history, modern firsts, rare children’s books, guidebooks, Hebraica & Judaica, Eastern European, and Islamica

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