The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hosting a retrospective of the works of Baron Adolf de Meyer (1868-1946). De Meyer was a socialite and photographer in Paris at the fin-de-siècle and early twentieth century. His portraits of European high society have an air of otherworldly fantasy. Cecil Beaton called him “the Debussy of photography.” De Meyer’s subjects ranged from socialites like Rita Lydig (“the most picturesque woman in America”) and Count Etienne de Beaumont; to royalty, including King George V and Queen Mary; the Hollywood actors John Barrymore and Mary Pickford; dancers Vaslav Nijinsky, Irene Castle, and Ruth St Denis. Many of his prints are now lost but enough survive to give a broad impression of his talent and style.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the Met’s own copy of de Meyer’s book, Le Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, published in 1914 by Éditions Paul Iribe. It is one of only seven copies in existence. The book contains a photographic record of the ballet L’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun), which was choreographed by Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes, and performed, with Nijinsky dancing, at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 1912.
The inspiration for the ballet was an 1865 poem, L’après-midi d’un faune, by Stéphane Mallarmé. This was a major work of Symbolist poetry and the work by which Mallarmé is still best remembered. It took its theme from Ancient Greek pastoral poetry and mythology. As the French literary scholar Mary Lewis Shaw describes it,
The poem is a narrative of the rêveries of a faun who has just awakened from an afternoon nap. The Faun tells of a sexual encounter: his attempted rape of two nymphs. But he is unsure whether this event actually occurred or whether he is remembering a dream. Throughout the poem his attention vacillates between the real (or natural) world and the dream world of his fantasies.
As early as 1910, Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, the founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes, had begun to plan a production with a Greek theme. It would be the first ballet designed and choreographed by Nijinsky himself. He had joined the company only a year earlier in 1909 but was already a virtuosic star. Nijinsky and Diaghilev immersed themselves in the aesthetics of the subject. They visited the Louvre. There, Peter Ostwald writes, in his biography of Nijinsky,
They looked at Greek vases and Egyptian and Assyrian frescoes. They listened to music together, and read poetry. Nijinsky did not know enough French to understand Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetic L’après-midi d’un faune, which was popular in France at the time and had been a source of inspiration to Éduard Manet and other painters. So Jean Cocteau explained the poem to Nijinsky and helped him to develop the scenario for a ballet.
Claude Debussy’s 1894 tone-poem, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which was also based on the poem, would be used for the score. It took Nijinsky more than a year to choreograph the dance and rehearse the role of the Faun. The result was a ballet unlike anything that had been staged before by the Ballets Russes, to say the least.
From Nijinsky’s choreography to the scenery and costumes by Léon Bakst, the entire production evoked an Attic vase painting or bas-relief. The dancers were presented to the audience in profile. The dancing itself consisted of angular, highly stylized poses. Nijinsky had been inspired by Isadora Duncan’s fanciful reconstructions of Ancient Greek dance. Ostwald credits Jean-Michel Nectoux for demonstrating that, “a photograph of Nijinsky dancing the Faun, with head erect, arms extended, hands in profile, thumbs up, and fingers held together, resembles almost exactly the figure of a satyr on a 430 B.C. Greek Vase in a collection from the Louvre.” That photograph, taken by de Meyer, is one of the images in the book on display at the Met.
The length of the ballet is twelve minutes, slightly longer than Debussy’s ten-minute score. Before the curtain rises, there is the sound of a flute. Then the young Faun is revealed on stage. Ostwald writes that the creature “is aroused by seven nubile women, Nymphs, taking a bath. One of them shows an interest in him, and they dance together briefly. She drops her scarf and runs away. The Faun picks up the scarf, fondles it, takes it to his lair, and uses it as a fetish for autoerotic excitement.” The curtain falls.
Audience reaction at the premiere was hotly divided. Richard Buckle in his biography of Nijinsky writes, “at the end there was a tremendous clamour made up of a mixture of cat-calls and applause. It was impossible to tell whether shouts of praise or abuse predominated.” Debussy did not like it. The press generally approved, with the formidable exception of Le Figaro, which published a scathing review. The controversy turned political. Supporters accused Le Figaro of attacking the Ballets Russes as a proxy to malign Russia. Le Figaro‘s editorial line was against a Franco-Russian alliance. The Tsar’s minister to France formally protested the hostile review. For his own part, Nijinsky believed that the ballet was a failure.
L’après-midi d’un faune was performed several more times—in Berlin in 1912 and in Vienna and London in 1913. Soon after it was dropped from the repertoire. Nijinsky never performed it again and after his death in 1950 it was presumed to be lost.
In the 1980s, Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschke collaborated on a reconstruction of the ballet. Guest had been instrumental in developing the Labanotation method of dance notation. They deciphered Nijinsky’s detailed choreographic score, which had been written in his own idiosyncratic notation system. They consulted Dame Marie Rambert, a former member of the Ballet Russes, who had staged a revival of L’après-midi d’un faune in the 1930s, with her company Ballet Rambert, based on a visual memory of the Nijinsky production. Finally, they studied Baron de Meyer’s photographs. De Meyer had captured all of the essential poses that Nijinsky choreographed. Guest and Jeschke translated this material into a notated restoration of the ballet. As a result L’après-midi d’un faune is again performed by ballet companies today.
The exhibition Quicksilver Brilliance: Adolf de Meyer Photographs runs from December 4, 2017 until March 18, 2018 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Buckle, Richard. (1971) Nijinsky. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Guest, Ann Hutchinson. (1991) Nijinsky’s Faune Restored. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Publishers.
Ostwald, Peter. (1991) Vaslav Nijinsky: A Leap Into Madness. New York: Lyle Stuart / Carol Publishing Group.
Shaw, Mary Lewis. (1993) Performance in the Texts of Mallarmé: The Passage from Art to Ritual. University Park [PA]: The Pennsylvania State University Press.