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In the Frame for December 2013: Vaslav Nijinsky’s ‘The Mask’

Ldbth215 Mask C 1919 B
LDBTH215-Mask (c.1919) b

With our upcoming talk from Lucy Moore this weekend, I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at Vaslav Nijinsky's famous paining, 'The Mask'.

Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev to Polish parents who were also dancers. At the age of ten he entered the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, and was already being acclaimed as a prodigy before he graduated in 1907. He achieved world fame with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the company which introduced Russian ballet to the West. It was this powerful relationship with Diaghilev that not only led to Nijinsky's rise to fame, but also to him becoming a gay icon before such a term was even recognised.

After eloping with Romola, a young female follower of the ballet, and falling out with Diaghilev, Nijinsky was shattered by the realisation he would never be able to work again. Following this realisation, the decline in his mental health was sudden and meant he had to be cared for at home by Romola, with the help of nurses, and sometimes in asylums and clinics. After a period of great hardship during the second world war he was brought by Romola to England, where they settled and where he died in 1950.

During the early part of his breakdown Nijinsky would shut himself away all night, feverishly drawing and writing. Many of his drawings include stylised human figures and portraits, all based on the circle. The one shown here seems to belong to a group of less figurative drawings which he produced as his mental state approached a crisis, described by Romola in her biography of him: His study and rooms were literally covered with designs; no longer portraits or scenic or decorative subjects, but strange faces, eyes peering from every corner, red and black, like a bloodstained mortuary cover. They made me shudder. “What are those masks?” “Soldiers’ faces. It is the war.”