Diaghilev's generosity.

A guide to 20th-century culture.
Feb. 12 2007 12:12 PM

Sergei Diaghilev

On generosity, artistic slobs, and dressing to kill.

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The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

Why should I waste my imagination on myself?
—Sergei Diaghilev (attributed)

Sergei Diaghilev. Click image to expand.
Sergei Diaghilev 

Born in Novgorod and buried in Venice, Italy, Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929) became famous to the world as the impresario of the Russian opera-and-ballet export drive that turned fashionable Paris upside down before and during World War I. He was already famous in Russia as the brilliant young connoisseur whose lavishly mounted exhibitions rediscovered the country's tradition of religious icons and secular portrait painting, and as the editor of the truly wonderful magazine Mir Iskusstva (or the World of Art), in which Benois, Bakst, and other Russian names that later became bywords made their first appearances. The gift Diaghilev demonstrated in Paris of attracting all the most celebrated artists of the day (Picasso, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Satie, Poulenc, and many more) to join his enterprises had already been demonstrated at home.

But at the height of his powers, home was lost to him. After the Revolution of 1917, he stayed abroad. The Soviet authorities, once it became obvious that he could not be lured back, condemned him in perpetuity as an especially insidious example of bourgeois decadence. Soviet art historians  wrote him out of the picture for more than 60 years. When, in 1982, a two-volume collection of his ­pre-­revolutionary writings on art was published in Moscow, it was a sign that the confident rigidity of official ideology was starting to bend, because any move toward telling the truth about the past was likely to be a prelude to telling the truth about the present. But it was just a sign. Only in retrospect was the change certain. What the astonished reader could be sure of at the time, however, was that Diaghilev had been a great critic—the discriminating impulse at the heart of his uncanny ablity to bend the talented to his will. They felt that he understood them. He almost always did.

As a lifelong admirer of Diaghilev, I am easily impressed by anything he is said to have said, but when I first read the quote above I was so impressed that I neglected to make a note: I knew I would remember it always. I could have sworn that I read it in Theatre Street, Tamara Karsavina's radiant little sheaf of memoirs. (Karsavina, previously the darling of the Maryinsky company in St. Petersburg, danced in the very first production of The Firebird,an early collaboration between Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky, in Paris in 1910.) Probably the best single book ever written about dancing, it also has general application to the whole world of the arts: If I were making a list of 10 books that art-crazy young people should read to civilize their passion, Theatre Street would be on it. But when I searched through the book to find this quotation, there it wasn't. The conversation was there, but only in reported form: no inverted commas. Did I read it in that mighty balletomane Richard Buckle's book about Diaghilev? I couldn't find it there, either, nor in the fascinating interview with Karsavina contained in John Drummond's fine compendium Speaking of Diaghilev. Anyway, unsourced though it is, the remark is too resonant to leave out.

The location of its utterance was Diaghilev's small apartment in St. Petersburg—as the city was then still called, and now, happily, is called again. Karsavina, very young at the time and bowled over by Diaghilev's sophistication, noticed that his tiny bedroom had almost nothing in it except a bed. She said she was surprised, and Diaghilev replied with the rhetorical question quoted above. The remark comes straight from the center of his personality and helps to define it, as the arthritic Renoir defined his own personality when he said, "Tie the brush into my hands."

Diaghilev, an artist whose ­art ­form was to combine the art forms, gave everything to the world and kept little for himself. His hotel bills could be immense and he dressed to kill, but otherwise he did not need artistic surroundings in his personal life. Other impresarios have been less monastic. Lincoln Kirstein, whose taste made possible the whole coruscating pageant of Balanchine's career at the New York City Ballet, kept his Manhattan apartment full of beautiful things. At one extreme, some artists pour all their creativity into their art and don't care how they live. At the other, there are those who have to arrange their personal lives at a certain aesthetic level before they can function. Perhaps the most easily chosen paradigm case of the first kind would be Beethoven, whose working environment was elementary, not to say squalid. Keats exemplified the second kind, if only for one memorable moment: when he put on his best clothes before he sat down to write a poem. In order for inspiration to strike, Wagner had to be living in velvet splendor, no matter what it cost him and others. Verdi, on the other hand, could have slept in Diaghilev's Spartan bedroom and got up in the morning to compose.

The connection between highly organized work and an impulse toward a life of order is recurrent, but not necessary: a fact amply proved by the slobs. In all of literary history as we know it, perhaps the most outstanding slob was W.H. Auden. The man whose lyrics were showpieces of carpentry—try to imagine a poem more accurately built than "The Fall of Rome"—kept a kitchen that could have doubled as a research facility for biological warfare. Worse, he treated other people's houses the same way. Mary McCarthy, when a guest of others, earned a bad reputation by taking a long shower with the curtain outside the bath instead of inside: The host would receive no apology for the subsequent inundation. From Auden, a mere flood would have counted as a ­thank-­you note: He left his benefactors under the impression that they had been visited by the Golden Horde. Auden lived long enough for me to see his tie. I thought it had been presented to him by Jackson Pollock, until I realized it was a plain tie plus food. It put the relationship of writer to the written in a new light. How could his poems be so neat and clean, and he so otherwise?

Exquisite work is no sure sign of a fastidious worker. The test is not whether the surroundings seem crassly extravagant, but whether what gets created within them seems worth the expenditure. Did Stravinsky, who later collaborated with Diaghilev on The Rites of Spring, keep a needlessly grand household? Not if he needed it. And the precisely discriminating, color-coded penmanship of his manuscripts was a sure sign that his ­well-­chosen furniture enabled him to concentrate like a monk. Diaghilev paid him late, behavior which Stravinsky interpreted, correctly, as bohemian, in the sense that a bohemian's ability not to worry about money always starts with your money rather than his. Plenty of men have been big eaters on borrowed money, but we never heard of them. A better comfort, though, is that Diaghilev, when he borrowed money, was rarely thinking about how he could spend it on himself and almost always about how it would help finance his next miracle of imagination.

Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.