Jane Pritchard, co-curator of 'Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes' explains the conservation challenge provided by the V&A's blockbusting exhibition about the great Russian ballet impresario. Around 70 per cent of the exhibits for the show came from the V&A archive and the 65 costumes that the curators chose to put on display included designs by some of the greatest artists of the early 20th century including Picasso, Bakst, De Chirico and Matisse.
Jane Pritchard: I think people will be quite surprised at the real wealth ... range of material in terms of the number of different, significant artists involved. Within the exhibition we are putting an emphasis on the different elements that come together. In a way we are deconstructing the past - the costumes, the sets, the music, the movement. Trying to look at all those elements. It's very very unusual to find so much talent that is of lasting signifcance in one place at one time.
We do go through so many different artists and the change of art. The beginning is Art Nouveau in its approach, we then Art Deco elements and then we have post-Cubism through to Surrealism.
I think one of the most exciting things about mounting this exhibition really has been the conservation and the opportunity to have conservation on our wonderful collection of Ballet Russes costumes. The V&A actually has the largest collection of Ballet Russes costumes anywhere in the world and we are showing 65 of them in the exhibition. They look a little bit sad when they're in the store, just because they don't come to life. When they've been through the conservation process and when they're mounted on the mannequins in particular, you suddenly see why they work so well as costumes. I think that's really the important thing actually. It's like seeing something re-awakened from the past and taking on a new life.
Maria Susana Farjado-Hunter: This is the costume worn by Nijinsky. The date is 1909. This costume shows the Russian roots of the Ballet Russes.
Jane Pritchard: Photographs of the costumes, I think are also very exciting because they are costumes you think you know until you start looking at them. One of things that I really love is at the beginning of the exhibition we have a sylph from Les Sylphides. I was really stunned when I first saw it and saw it had the double wings, so we know it's an early version of the costume. Then at the end of the exhibition you have the sylph from Le Bal, so you have a surrealist version of a very similar costume.
When we were selecting the costumes, it was almost like an audition as to which ones were going to be selected to go on show. I felt very strongly that Matisse needed to have a good representation because the costumes that he designed I think are fascinating. In fact, when he was working on the ballet he was researching Chinese and Tibetan cultures, so those were the sources for it. One of the places apparently that he came and got his ideas was actually at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is one of those satisfying links that come round.
Maria Susana Farjado-Hunter: This costume was conserved. It had a very extensive conservation treatment of 300 hours. Conservation treatments are there to secure the object, to make it safe, to preserve it. They should in no way interfere with the aesthetic value of the object or change the object in any way. The silk satin of the costume was very, very damaged, especially the upper area of the tunic which was beginning to lift around the edges and also obscure the paint work which it is thought was probably done by Matisse himself. The sleeves had a different problem. They had broken down and there were areas of silk lost completely. We applied an additive underlay, but from the back to secure all the splits on the silk. Once the whole area was supported in this way, we again folded the sleeve and applied a conservation net. In this way we are able to handle this costume and display it safely on the mannequin. This is the felt hat.
Jane Pritchard: One of the things we wanted was some posters. We have some very famous posters in terms of the Cocteau designs of Le Spectre de la Rose, illustrations of Nijinsky and Karsavina. We have the Anna Pavlova Serov first poster from 1909. Then we have a wonderful poster from Paris which shows the Chinese conjuror which is almost used as a logo whenever Parade was performed. It's mainly a typeface one - it's a wonderfully bold poster.
Susan Catcher: This was actually quite a difficult poster to have to do because this is actually a collage piece over the top. Obviously this is a very famous motif and there's another object in the exhibition which basically is a drawing of this. And we have the costume as well, so it all tends to link. The paper direction is going in two different ways. So we've got one paper direction in this direction [indicates left and right] then we've got a paper direction going in this direction [indicates top and bottom] so it sets up some horrible pull. It came over to us as an object that was in desperate need of conservation. Because we didn't have time, it ended up being put in a drawer for about 8 years. Whilst all the material was being collected, this was discovered and was obviously absolutely perfect for the exhibition.
Maria Susana Farjado-Hunter: This is the costume of a Chinese Conjuror designed by Picasso for the ballet Parade in 1917.
Jane Pritchard: Diaghilev had a remarkable ability for discovering talent. when I say 'discovering talent', it wasn't necessary talent that was unknown completely, but discovering people who could work together, bring them together and actually raise their profiles. Artists like Picasso and Matisse were already known, they weren't complete beginners, but they certainly didn't have the same profile as they had after working with Diaghilev.
Maria Susana Farjado-Hunter: The whole choreography of the ballet was joyous and active. They were very extrovert in what they were trying to tell as a story, and also very humourous, but very expressive. So the costumes show the damage of this very demanding choreography.
Jane Pritchard: With an exhibition about theatre, you don't always have all the material that you wish you had, so we are actually re-creating one or two things. In the workshops here they are going to do reconstructions - at least they're busy working on the reconstructions of the two Cubist managers for Parade which are very stunning in themselves. In fact it doesn't really matter that they're not actually the costumes, but just to see those sculptures or copies of those sculptures is fascinating.