Nureyev – a last tribute

Nureyev – a last tribute – dancer Rudolf Nureyev

Joan Bridgman

Attentive readers of last year’s April issue of this periodical may remember my account of Christie’s auction of the contents of Rudolf Nureyev’s New York apartment. There has been a further curtain call of Nureyev memorabilia in a second auction, likewise organised by Christie’s, of articles from the dancer’s flat in Paris. Again, urged on by my balletomane sister and with euphoric memories of the New York trip and my first experience of a major auction house, I paid day visits by train from Bath to Christie’s in South Kensington to attend the viewing and sale. It was by no means the same exciting experience. Although I had organised my ‘paddle’ in expectation of the buying frenzy I saw in the January sale I never felt a sufficient surge of the excitement, the auction fever, that I felt in New York, to trigger a single wave of it.

I realise that this is as riveting as ‘Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead’. How can a negative be of any interest? But the reasons for the strong contrasts between the New York and London experiences perhaps show profound differences of national characteristics that are of interest. The excitement generated in New York for the sale led to queues round the block on opening night and a strong theatrical sense of occasion. There was a first night audience of the very rich (and I mean seriously rich) in evening dress, who applauded the bidder who outgunned the rest. There was even a gallery, and an overflow packed with bidders, who watched the action on a huge television screen.

In London the bidders seemed emotionally battened down. They did not queue; they did not dress up; they did not chatter excitedly or applaud. There were even empty chairs. The atmosphere was restrained, as in a British railway carriage. A show of enthusiasm would have been bad form. My taxi driver did not even know the sale was on, merely making the routine comment: ‘I ‘ad ‘im (Nureyev) in the cab once. Nice bloke’. The latter comment created some doubt in one’s mind. Press coverage petered out. Television cameras vanished on the second day and there was no coverage on the news that I saw, whereas British television crews were well represented in New York and the film shown back home.

Significantly, the highest prices in London, which generated press coverage on the first day, were paid by an American buyer from Long Island who paid a total of [pounds]79,572 for 21 lots of shoes and boots, rocketing way over estimates. Yet, the next day, costumes from some of Nureyev’s greatest roles made only half their estimates. My sister snapped up two: a splendid Prince Florimond outfit, a fairy tale in jewelled fur and pale blue velvet from Sleeping Beauty, and a dashing costume in red and gold from Don Quixote to add to her collection. We cannot work out why they went so cheaply. Sometimes there is a sort of mysterious lull in the bidding or an impatience in the auctioneer and a quick-thinking buyer can reap an unexpected harvest.

My sister has already been asked to lend these costumes to an exhibition devoted to Nureyev this spring in Rome. She also bought three conductor’s batons with cork handles – a shrewd purchase at a price I thought comparatively cheap considering their significance. Conducting was Nureyev’s last career move. He knew that a dancer had a comparatively short shelf-life, and planned to continue a career that satisfied his theatrical sense and love of music. The batons poignantly represented his hope for the future, the possibility of continuing to perform before an audience into old age.

There may be deeper reasons for the reticence of buyers at the London auction. The New York apartment and its contents were grandly and extravagantly palatial, but it was never really a home to Nureyev, he merely ‘perched’ as he did in his many residences during his gypsy life as an international ballet star. Although there was an impressive Jacobean dining table overhung with a vast chandelier, there was only crockery for two in the kitchen. There was a grand dining table, but no dinner services or cutlery. There were no curtains or small personal items; no sense of intimacy about the grand, impressive art works. The apartment was as impersonal as a stage set. The floors were immense stretches of bare boards, like a rehearsal room. Impressive paintings were displayed in the lofty rooms as though in an art gallery.

The Paris apartment, on the other hand, was the place Nureyev finally came to call home. This was much smaller, crammed with objects, with every surface covered with ornaments and with richly decorated walls, some with Spanish leather. Here he cocooned himself with beautiful artefacts and textiles so that it resembled an exquisite casket. Here there were dinner services and cutlery, curtains, cushions, a duck’s head bottle opener, owl ice bucket, and his wallet with its credit cards. It was impossible not to visualise the man and recognise the fact of his death. We were looking at things that one only sees when the owner has gone to his grave. It was immensely saddening.

Perhaps, most macabre of all, were the paintings of male nudes; to quote his friend, Leslie Caron, there were in the apartment at Quai Voltaire, ‘hundreds of paintings of nude boys – even hung three at a time, one on top of the other (the paintings, not the boys), there was not enough room for them all on the walls, so they would be stacked behind couches, under beds’. David Llewellyn, the director in charge of the Nureyev sale, maintains that the male nudes reflect the dancer’s practical interest in the male physique.

It is impossible not to see so many such nudes, and, frankly, some so amateurishly painted, (they were ‘Academies’, student’s work) and not reflect that they were bought for the erotic charge they had for Nureyev, and that this sexual orientation caused his death. Mr. Llewellyn dismisses the idea of the existence of homosexual art, yet the very number of male nudes and the emphasis in them of pierced and suffering flesh leads one inexorably to the conclusion that there is, and that representations of Saint Sebastian are the central icon of this art.

I counted three Saint Sebastians in the sale catalogue and several Academy studies with a male nude figure in the attitude of the saint, that is, leaning against a tree in some discomfort with arrows in the background. There are two wounded Adonises, a Prometheus sprawled on a rock with an eagle pecking his liver, two wounded Philoctetes with bow and arrow, a Philopoemen removing a spear from his thigh in bronze and numerous other bronze gladiators wielding swords. The common theme was of the male body undergoing some kind of torment, stretched to the limits of its musculature and pierced with a dagger or weapon to represent phallic penetration.

Nureyev’s paintings in his Paris flat bear witness to the secret obsessions of the dancer, obsessions he was careful to hide in New York. Even as society became more tolerant, Nureyev kept secret his HIV positive status from the authorities in the United States, since he could have been banned from entering the country. But Paris was his final home, the place where his condition was diagnosed, and where he knew for many years that he was doomed. It is distressing to think of him gazing at his extravagantly decorated jewel case of a flat, furnished with the trophies bought through the exercise of his art, its walls and other surfaces covered with representations of athletic naked men caught in vigorous movement in bronze or oil, as he felt his strength inexorably ebbing away. His biographer, Peter Watson, has called Nureyev’s collection a kind of ‘expensive, exclusive “ass magazines”‘. It was certainly a dangerous taste. In life, as in his art, Nureyev was a risk taker and he refused to take precautions even when the AIDS danger was recognised.

I am always interested in people’s bookcases, and I spent time looking through the many lots of Nureyev’s books, in French, English and Russian. In addition to the many volumes on theatre and dance, there were catalogues of exhibitions testifying to his taste and interest in art and architecture. There was very little light reading. He read up on the paintings and furniture he bought, and bought. shrewdly, believing that art and antiques held their value along with houses, with a peasant’s distrust of the stock market. His taste in art tended to gloomy Romanticism – with a mixture of the daring, decadent and bizarre. Hieronymous Bosch, Piranesi, Flaubert in Egypt, first editions of Byron (mad, bad and dangerous to know?), Genet, Fuseli and Caspar David Friedrich. It was an eclectic mixture, with works on Gainsborough and Turner, an explosion of styles like his furnishings, demonstrating a sensibility open to all experiences. It was a library of a man in a hurry to learn about the arts, hungry to surround himself with artefacts he found sensually and aesthetically satisfying.

The Quai Voltaire flat was Nureyev’s last great work, a testament to his taste and his passion for the collecting of art and antiques. When he danced in Paris, antique shops kept their lights on for him at night so that he could window shop. He would prowl the streets after a performance, ‘antiquing’ as he called it. He would arrange that a friend would call to negotiate a price and ask for a cherished item to be delivered to the theatre so that he could feel that he had danced that night for some particular treasure. The Paris flat bore the imprint of his unique taste and personality.

David Llewellyn said: ‘Of all the places I have ever had to do a valuation after death, this one gave me the strongest feeling that its owner would walk in at any moment.’ It is tragic that this apartment has not been preserved as a museum, a monument to his last perfect creation, something that would have outlasted even living memories of his leaps in Le Corsaire. Splitting up the contents of this flat is like tearing up the Mona Lisa and selling off the pieces.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

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