It is one of the world’s greatest dancers depicted by one of the world’s greatest sculptors. Erotically charged, different to anything that had gone before, Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Vaslav Nijinsky has been gifted to the V&A where it has gone on display in the theatre and performing arts galleries.
Many hated it but Rodin was full of praise for the 1912 Ballets Russes performance of L’Après-midi d’un faune. He particularly enjoyed the jerky, deliberately awkward movements of its 22-year-old star, Nijinsky, an endorsement that led the dancer to sit for the artist.
More than a century later, the resulting bronze sculpture has been given to the South Kensington museum. Jane Pritchard, curator of dance at the V&A, said it was a wonderful addition to the national collection.
“It is very exciting,” she said. “What’s fantastic about it is the way it has so much energy, I think that is quite unusual for even a good sculpture of dance. You feel things are really about to happen.”
Pritchard said many sculptors would go for an obvious pose where you might recognise the dancer in a certain role. Instead Rodin encapsulates “the amazing ability of Nijinsky to transform himself from one role to another”.
L’Après-midi d’un faune, performed by the groundbreaking dance company founded by the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, was only 12 minutes long but it caused an almighty fuss after its premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.
It tells the story of a young amorous faun who flirts with and chases nymphs and concludes with him appearing to masturbate with a scarf dropped by one of the beauties. “Let’s face it, it was 1912. It was not what you expect to see on stage,” said Pritchard.
The dancing itself was so different, looking almost two-dimensional, as if it were a scene from a Greek bas-relief sculpture. Its premiere was met with both booing and applause and prompted energetic debate in newspapers where it was either denounced as filthy or praised as revolutionary.
An article in Le Figaro condemned its “vile movements of erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness”.
Rodin, aged 72 and at the height of his career, loved it and stood up to cheer. He was one of a number of people to put his name to a celebratory piece in Le Matin in which he talked about seeing a different Nijinsky, someone who was part human, part animal.
Pritchard said: “Rodin was a huge name in the Parisian art world so coming to the defence of a controversial production was significant.”
As a result, Nijinsky agreed to sit for Rodin, apparently as a thank you. The resulting sculpture was not actually cast until the late 1950s. Thirteen were made, one of which now enters the V&A collection.
The sculpture is only 25cm tall but packs a serious punch. It bursts with energy, said Pritchard. “It is the spring waiting to be released whereas usually you are looking for just a beautiful line,” she said.
When one of the sculptures was exhibited at the Courtauld in London in 2016, the Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell could not take her eyes off it. She wrote: “In the bunched up force of the curving torso and lifted leg, in the torsion of the neck and in the feral, almost goatish cast to Nijinsky’s features, Rodin captured something of the explosive impact the dancer made when he first appeared on the ballet stages of Europe.”
The sculpture was owned by Robin Howard, the founder of the Contemporary Dance Trust and The Place, a London dance space which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. In its early years the artwork was displayed at The Place and was completely unprotected.
Howard, one of the most important and generous patrons of modern dance in the UK, died in 1989. The sculpture has been given to the V&A in his memory.
“It is a wonderful memorial and reminder of Robin’s achievements and his generosity to the world of arts,” said Pritchard.
The V&A, with its unrivalled Ballets Russes collection and archive of the Contemporary Dance Trust, is the obvious location. It also joins a significant number of Rodin works donated to the museum in 1914.