“Dance of Colors”

The drawings of Vaslav Nijinsky were first exhibited in 1932, thanks to his wife, née Romola de Pulszky, and while they have regularly aroused the interest of those who remain fascinated by his revolutionary achievements as a dancer and choreographer or simply as an exemplary and tragic figure of modernist culture, they have hardly been seen as significant instances of modernist art. Even as knowledgeable an observer as Marsden Hartley saw them mainly as “psychopathic charts.” Recently, however, with “La danza de los colores: E torno a Nijinsky y la abstracción” (Dance of Colors: Around Nijinsky and Abstraction), curators Hubertus Gaßner and Daniel Koep (respectively director and curator at the Kunsthalle Hamburg, where a different version of the exhibition was first mounted) made a case for Nijinsky as a significant contributor to modernist abstraction, presenting his work in the context defined by four pioneers of the movement, Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné, Sonia Delaunay-Terk, Alexandra Exter, and František Kupka—three Russians and a Czech, all of them present in Paris during Nijinsky’s heyday with the Ballets Russes, though it’s unclear whether any of them ever actually saw Nijinsky perform or had any contact with him.

While the choice of these four may seem surprising in view of Nijinsky’s documented connections with many artists who either collaborated with the Ballets Russes as designers (Bakst, Picasso, Cocteau) or were simply drawn to him as an outstanding personality of the day (Rodin, Sargent, Klimt)—not to mention the mediocrity of Baranov-Rossiné’s work, with its failed synthesis of abstract and representational elements—the exhibition succeeds in suggesting that, within nascent abstraction, dance was a specific source of inspiration; moreover, it vividly demonstrates that, from around 1912 onward, this inspiration gave rise to a specific formal canon based on repeated and overlapping circular or arched forms with pulsating rhythms, which would also become the basis for Nijinsky’s art during the brief period (1917–19) when he concentrated on drawing.

Those dates are telling: They represent the hiatus between Nijinsky’s withdrawal from the stage and his institutionalization for schizophrenia. Knowing this, it is tempting to see the repetitive nature of some of the drawings—I’m speaking both of repetition within each drawing as well as from drawing to drawing—as obsessive, the staring central eyelike forms as evidence of paranoia. Hard as they would be to prove, such readings might even be accurate, but the curators and other catalogue contributors have done well to ignore them, because their view of Nijinsky as self-conscious modernist is equally valid and perhaps more interesting. Still, unlike the paintings and works on paper of Kupka, Delaunay-Terk, and the others, it must be said that what Nijinsky doesn’t do in his drawings—what he never set out to do, I’d add—is set his forms and colors to dance: He doesn’t aspire for them to leap, to move with elegance or liberty, to achieve an unprosaic lightness. Rather, their rhythms are fixed, blunt, centralized, and usually symmetrically organized—closer to Minimalism than to modernism. “I know what an eye is,” wrote Nijinsky. “An eye is a theatre. The brain is the audience.” We should take him at his word and see the intellect at work in the startling and intense linear exercises, in some ways closer in spirit to the “serial imagery” of the 1960s or Sol LeWitt’s “irrational thoughts . . . followed absolutely and logically” than to, say, the hypnotically pulsating imaginary theater of an outsider such as Martín Ramírez, let alone the dynamic chromatic extroversion of his dance-inspired modernist contemporaries. “I am the eye in the brain,” declared Nijinsky. As an artist, he remains an enigma.

Barry Schwabsky