For Laura Knight, Le Carnival marks a significant change of direction. The paean to health and sun worship had drawn to a close. The bathers and beaches have gone and the plein air painter working with models at Lamorna Cove radically redefines herself. Le Carnival conceals the recent past, just as much as for almost a century it covered over an important earlier work by her husband, Harold Knight (see the previous lot).
It is a significant rediscovery in its own right. Having surfaced briefly at Agnew's in the late 1930s the work has been privately owned for seventy years. Its extraordinary tonalities and dry palette indicate that it is the original Le Carnival Tempera, shown at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers (ISSPG) in May 1916. That it has survived at all is the more noteworthy, in view of the fact that Knight destroyed a companion painting, Le Pavillon d'Armide, painted from notes she had taken of Nijinsky and Darsavina during a performance.1
Even while she was embroiled in the tangled web of relationships that characterised the Lamorna colony, Knight was reacting to a new stimulus. This was the 'furore' occasioned by the arrival of the Russian Ballet in London in 1911. 'I feel sorry for anyone who did not see Diaghileff's [sic] first seasons', she recalled,
'... I can only say that it gave me the feeling of being born again to a new and glamorous world, with complete satisfaction for every aesthetic sense ... during the period when Pavlova and Karsavina were appearing in turn I saw every performance.'2
Although two of her earliest ballet drawings of Pavlova in La Mort du Cygne (unlocated) were illustrated in The Studio in December 1912, a gestation period had commenced which only truly concluded with the Knights removal to London in 1919 and her privileged access to the backstage preparations at the Coliseum when she was invited to use Lydia Lopokova's dressing room as a studio.3 Having danced with the Ballet Russes, Pavlova was now an independent star and her second London season, which featured The Dying Swan, opened at the Palace Theatre on 22 April 1911. Knight's excitement was of course shared by many others. John Lavery had persuaded Pavlova into his studio in 1910 during her first London visit, painting her as a bacchante for the ISSPG of the following year, before recording her in La Morte du Cygne, a year later for the Royal Academy.4
Jacques-Emile Blanche, an equally early enthusiast painted Nijinsky and Darsavina during their Paris and London seasons while the young Glyn Philpot sketched Nijinsky in l'Apres Midi d'une Faune for the ISSPG's 1913 exhibition.5 As Wilcox points out, Knight's passion was shared by other London avant-garde figures such as David Bomberg and Wyndham Lewis.6 During these seasons, Diaghilev and Nijinsky set up camp at the Savoy Hotel and according to Blanche 'Picasso, Derain and Matisse were constantly going in and out'.7 The dancers were billeted in the artist community and on one notable occasion staged a private performance for an artists and academicians soirée in the Young Hunters' London studio.8
After its premiére at the Theatre des Westens in Berlin in May 1910, Le Carnival was taken to Paris and later, to London.9 It was less popular with French audiences who, following the success of Prince Igor, were expecting ballets with Slav subjects, and its commedia dell'arte characters were all too familiar.10 The critic and librettist, Jean-Louis Vaudoyer made this point, declaring 'that divine simplicity, which is the essence of the great Watteau, ... is a Latin treasure, which, with Mozart, we alone know how to utilise ...'11 However, Ellen Terry, writing in February 1913, replied in favour of the staging of Les Sylphides, Spectre de la Rose and Le Carnival, arguing that,
'Many stories of widely different character have been drawn on for the new ballets, but all have been treated with an imagination which is neither the property of a nation nor the result of patriotism.'12
It is precisely for its echoes of the fête galante that Le Carnival would have appealed to Knight. Although the commedia, and indeed the Venice Carnival, go back centuries, their interplay of tragedy and farce, were revived by the Romantic generation of George Sand and Frederic Chopin when in 1835, the original score was written by Robert Schumann as a collection of 21 piano pieces portraying masked revellers.13
If London responded more willingly to Le Carnival than Paris, its simple blue-green backdrop, grey Regency male costumes by Leon Bakst, and marionette choreography by Fokine must have seemed quintessentially modern. Nijinksy was extolled for his mime and comic timing as much as for his dancing, Karsavina for her remarkable ability to 'feed and be fed' by the company as a whole, while 'the entire corps vibrated with life'.14 The Times, reflecting upon the 1911 season was positively ecstatic. It was,
'... an aesthetic revolution ... a positively new art, it has extended the realm of beauty for us, discovered a new continent, revealed new faculties and means of salvation in ourselves.'15
In her later reminiscences, Knight confessed that Diaghilev had '... not only by perfection of the dance, but with brilliantly designed décor and good music ... combined all the theatrical arts as had never been done before.'16 Le Carnival was among the earliest performances Knight witnessed. It was set in the wings of the theatre - hence there were no elaborate stage flats to distract the audiences from the cavorting Harlequine and Columbine. Drawings for the present picture were shown in Pittsburg in 1914, and two watercolours were included in Knight's exhbition at The Fine Art Society, London in 1915.17 However, the present oil was reserved for the ISSPG exhibition of the following year. The time delay may well have been as a result of the outside forces. In 1915 restrictions on artists painting scenes of the British coastline were imposed and soon after this PG Donody wrote asking her to paint a large work for the Canadian War Records.18 Close visual examination of the present work also reveals that the artist has repositioned the feet of Columbine, bringing greater dramatic contrast to her encounter with Harlequin. The subtle colour scheme from Bakst's designs is replicated. The only true comparison for Le Carnival, in its restricted palette, lies in the 'behind the scenes' paintings of William Orpen.19
Such was her fascination for the subject that Knight returned to it around 1919-1920 in the second version of Carnaval (Manchester City Art Galleries), a work which arguably lacks the dramatic tension of the present earlier version.20 By this point, her direction was clear and a long sequence of ballet and theatre pictures followed.21 Like Degas, whose studio sales had recently been held in Paris, she was fascinated by moments of preparation - prior to the entry on stage.22 Like Degas also, she sought out unusual viewpoints in works such as the dazzling Taking a Call, 1922 (Manchester City Art Galleries).
However none of these later examples would be possible without that extraordinary departure which occurred with the showing of Laura Knight's Le Carnival in 1916.
We are grateful to John Croft, F.C.A., the artist's great nephew, for his help in researching this picture, which will appear in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of Dame Laura Knight.
1 Le Pavillon d'Armide is now known only from an illustration in Colour, vol 6, no 2, March 1917, p. 55 (as 'Pavillion d'Armade') and from surviving studies. Knight came to feel that this was a 'mere illustration' of the ballet and 'during one of my destructive rages' destroyed it - an action she later regretted; see Laura Knight, Oil Paint and Grease paint, 1936 (Penguin ed, 1941, vol 2), p. 196; also Timothy Wilcox, Laura Knight at the Theatre, Paintings and Drawings of the Ballet and the Stage, 2008, (exhibition catalogue, The Lowry, Manchester/Unicorn Press) p. 22.
2 Knight, 1941 ed, p. 196.
3 Norman Garstin, 'The Art of Harold and Laura Knight', The Studio, vol LVII, pp. 199-200; Wilcox, 2008, p. 31.
4 Kenneth McConkey, Sir John Lavery, 1993 (Canongate), pp. 118-9.
5 Claude Pétry et al, Jacques-Emile Blanche, Peintre, 1861-1942, 1998 (exhibition catalogue, Musée des Beaux Arts, Rouen), pp. 155-9; Robin Gibson, Glyn Philpot 1884-1937, Edwardian Aesthete to Thirties Modernist, 1985 (exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery), p. 16.
6 Wilcox 2008, p. 37.
7 Jacques-Emile Blanche, Portraits of a Lifetime, 1937 (JM Dent and Sons), p. 257.
8 Kenneth McConkey, Edwardian Pre-Raphaelites, The Art of John and Mary Young Hunter, 2000, (exhibition catalogue, Pyms Gallery, London), pp. 32-3.
9 The ballet had been originally performed in March, but new sets and costumes and performers - principally Lopokova as Columbine and Nijinsky as Harlequin - were introduced for the European opening.
10 Serge Lifar, Diaghilev, His Life, His Work, His Legend, 1940, (Putnam), p.227.
11 Lifar, 1940, p. 242.
12 Ellen Terry, The Russian Ballet, 1913 (Sidgwick and Jackson), p. 15.
13 Such was its complexity that it required the virtuoso, Franz Liszt to perform it. The work was revived and orchestrated for ballet by Rimsky-Korsakov and others, and choreographed by Fokine.
14 Terry, 1913, p. 34; Arnold L Haskell, Tamara Karsavina, 1931 (British-Continental Press), pp. 22-3.
15 'The Russian Ballet: A Retrospect', The Times, 5 August 1911, p. 9; the writer goes on to cite Le Carnival as part of the programme. It returned to London in the summer of 1912 - see The Times, 2 August 1912, p. 7.
16 Laura Knight DBE, The Magic of a Line, 1965, p. 154.
17 This was a joint exhibition with Lamorna Birch held in June 1915.
18 Knight 1941 ed., pp.211, 217.
19 See for instance Orpen's Behind the Scenes, c. 1910, Oldham Art Gallery.
20 In this later production, Stanislas Idzikowski (Harlequin) stands in the centre, Karsavina tying her shoe and Tchernicheva (blue skirt) and Diaghilev and Massine are stood talking together on the left.
21 See for instance Les Sylphides from the Wings, 1920 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), Behind the Scenes, c. 1920 (Falmouth Art Gallery), The End of the Dance - Pavlova 1920, (Tatham Art Gallery, Pietermaritzburg), Ballet Girl and Dressmaker 1930 (acquired by Earl Hoover USA), Ballet 1936 (The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool).
22 The Degas sales, containing numerous ballet pictures, were held, May and December 1918 and April and July 1919 in Paris.