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The 1911 ballet Petrushka was undoubtedly Alexandre Benois' crowning achievement in the field of stage design. The theatre was in Benois' blood - his maternal grandfather, Alberto Cavos, was the architect of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres - and Benois himself was the guiding spirit of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
In 1910, Benois and Diaghilev argued over Diaghilev's failure to give Benois credit for the libretto of the ballet Scheherazade. However, when Diaghilev asked Benois to collaborate with Igor Stravinsky on a ballet on the subject of Petrushka, their argument was forgotten. Benois had fond memories of the puppet-shows that were staged at the Shrovetide fair in St Petersburg during his childhood, and eagerly seized the opportunity to re-create them on stage.
For Benois, part of the appeal of the Shrovetide fair was that it provided an opportunity for people from different social classes to mingle freely. Benois reflected this diversity in his costume designs, carefully defining each individual member of the holiday crowd. For instance, in lot 82, Benois depicts a well-dressed lady of the bourgeoisie, whose son (much like the young Benois) tugs at her hand in his eagerness to see the sights of the fair. In lot 80, an imposing drum major of the Pavlovsky regiment confronts a group of 'proletarian' children. Benois' characteristic attention to detail is reflected in the officer's snub nose - a feature shared by all the soldiers recruited for this regiment, in tribute to the retroussé nose of their namesake, Emperor Paul I.
Benois not only designed the sets and costumes for Petrushka but wrote the libretto as well. The story is simple, and concerns three puppets: Petrushka (lot 74), the Ballerina (lot 79), and the Moor (lot 81). The puppets belong to the Magician (lot 78), who plays his magic flute and brings them to life. Both Petrushka and the Moor love the Ballerina, but the Moor wins her favour and kills his rival.
Lot 83 shows Petrushka in his room. The jagged peaks and cold night sky symbolize his loneliness and isolation. A portrait of his master, the Magician, watches sternly from the wall, and a devil painted on the door blocks his escape.
The Moor's room (lot 77) is a complete contrast. Janet Kennedy suggests that the exaggeratedly 'exotic' décor (with its brightly coloured palm trees, cacti, and tiger skin) may be an ironic reference to the opulent designs of Léon Bakst. (J. Kennedy, 'Shrovetide Revelry: Alexandre Benois' Contribution to Petrushka' in Petrushka: Sources and Contexts, Illinois, 1998, p. 63.) It was Benois' idea for the Moor to juggle a coconut, attempt to slice it open with his scimitar (the moment depicted in this lot) and, finally, worship it in a wild religious frenzy.
The original production premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris on 13 June 1911 and was an enormous success. Nijinsky gave his greatest performance in the title role, and Benois continued to design productions of Petrushka throughout his career. Almost all the costume sketches offered here are inscribed 'Album de Petrik Lieven', presumably a reference to Prince Peter Lieven, a close friend of Benois and noted balletomane, who in a 1936 book described Petrushka as 'the greatest achievement of the Ballets-Russes, their admitted masterpiece' (P. Lieven, The Birth of the Ballets-Russes, New York, 1973, p. 131).
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