Ballets Russes



It is a time of upheaval and inner conflict. At the beginning of the 20th century, the engineering sciences are furthering advances in industrialization at a breathtaking pace. The resulting urbanization fundamentally changes social structures: some people take advantage of unimagined opportunities, others lose their footing. The rational view of the world is also being torn apart by discoveries such as the theory of relativity. In the irritating atmosphere of departure from outdated values, Europe’s monarchical systems of government are behind the times, nationalist tendencies are spreading and extreme militarization is unsettling people. Society fluctuates between euphoria and fear of the future.

And what does the cultural avant-garde make out of the feeling of awakening and helplessness? They flee into aesthetic counterworlds and celebrate – opulently, frivolously and decadently – the break with old values. More than almost any other artistic movement, Ballets Russes embodies this zeitgeist for more than two decades. Founded by the Russian impresario Sergei Djagilev, they made their first appearance in Paris in 1909. The ensemble rejects the traditions of classical dance and fascinates its audience with erotic choreographies. Composers, painters, dancers – with new rhythms, fantastic stage sets and costumes they turn the Ballets Russses performances into fireworks for the senses.

Russian director Sergei Djagilev founded the ballet ensemble in 1909 in Paris, the center of dance art, which proved to be the most important ballet ensemble of the 20th century. To this day, the Ballets Russes are regarded as the avant-garde of dance and had considerable influence upon their contemporaries. Musicians, dancers, members of the theater and artists intensively exchanged their ideas and skills. Painters not only created stage sets and costumes for the ballet, but also drew inspiration from the Ballets Russes for their own works. No matter which style they belonged to – whether primitivism, surrealism, futurism, cubism or fauvism – they were equally fascinated by the Ballets Russes.

The Ballets Russes are the hub and pivot point of the arts in the early 20th century. Painters of different origins and with varying styles gather in Paris and participate in the movement. Wolfgang Beltracchi makes use of the wealth of inspiration from five different artistic voices in his Ballets Russes series. The motifs chosen for this project utilize essential elements of this European art phenomenon. Starting with portraits of dancers that Picasso and van Dongen could have painted when the Ballets Russes were founded in 1909. Another portrait is of the musical revolutionary Stravinsky using the artistic voice of Amedeo Modigliani. Two paintings using Braque and de Chirico’s artistic voices, an homage to the highly expressive costumes and the completely new importance of stage design at the time, are set in 1923 and 1923. The cycle ends with the dissolution of the Ballets Russes after the death of Sergei Djagilev in 1929.

Beltracchi malt Ida Rubinstein

 Dancing was the heart of the Ballets Russes. So at the beginning of his Ballets Russes series Beltracchi paints two of the most dazzling and admired dancers of the movement, Vaslav Nijinsky and Ida Rubinstein. 

In “Portrait Ida Rubinstein” the Russian dancer as Cleopatra embodies the great interest of the European art scene in oriental culture. Women were Kees van Dongen’s favorite motif. Typical for his artistic voice: foregoing perspective, bold brushstrokes, intense colors. (Photo Beltracchi)

Beltracchi malt Vaslav Nijinsky

Beltracchi depicts Nijinsky in his role as the spirit of the rose from his famous performance in “Le Spectre de la Rose” using a special, realism-influenced artistic voice of Pablo Picasso. Pastel study on paper. 

The dancer Vaslav Nijinsky is adored even today because of his seemingly gravity-defying leaps and versatility. (Photo Beltracchi)

Beltracchi malt Strawinsky

Igor Stravinsky’s music for the ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps” is considered a key work of the 20th century. Its sonorous rhythm and dissonance, however, initially caused a scandal at its world premiere in Paris in 1913. 

Wolfgang Beltracchi paints the revolutionary composer using the artistic voice of Modigliani, whose work was also not well-received until later. Throughout his life, the minimalist, unembellished portraits and “scandalous” nudes received little recognition. The elongated faces and blind eyes are characteristic of Modigliani’s works, as can be seen in Beltracchi’s underdrawing. (Photo Beltracchi)

Beltracchi erschafft eine kubistische Collage

Like Picasso and de Chirico, Georges Braque also designed stage sets for the Ballets Russes. For the set design of the comedy ballet “Les Facheux”, Braque drew heavily on the tradition of the Italian theatre “Comedia dell Arte”. Beltracchi took up this aspect and created a collage, canvas on cardboard, Papiers-Peints and rust, painted over with gouache, watercolor and ink.

After his beginnings in Fauvism and the Cubist years, he resumed his Cubist period after the First World War. He devoted himself increasingly to still lifes that look like painted collages. The photo is of a preliminary study, collage. (Photo Beltracchi)

Giorgio de Chirico designed the costumes for the play “Le Bal”. They all clearly reveal his unmistakable inspiration from Neoclassicism. The ionic column with its typical spiral-shaped volutes on the capital forms a central element. 

The ancient columns appear again and again in his paintings of that time. Beltracchi uses de Chirico’s artistic voice from the 1920s and creates one of his costume designs as an oil painting for the first time. (Photo Beltracchi)

Ballets Russes

The Russian ballet ensemble Ballets Russes integrates very diverse arts as an overarching, almost social phenomenon. Founder Sergei Djagilev commissions renowned international artists such as Mikhail Larinov, Nataliya Goncharova, Henri Matisse, Léon Bakst, Igor Stavinsky, Pablo Picasso and Wassily Kandinsky for his productions. The result is a genre-spanning art scene whose protagonists inspire each other.


Starting from Russia, ballet had freed itself from the corset of the opera at the beginning of the 19th century and gained worldwide fame and recognition as classical, romantic ballets. Now, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Sergei Djagilev is pressing ahead with epochal changes. The expressive dance breaks with the traditions of classical ballet and forms an avant-garde with the Balletts Russes, which we could already observe in painting shortly before.


The cultural and art scene gathers in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. Free spirits such as Picasso, Gertrud Stein, Hemingway or Stravinsky live almost next door to each other in France. In addition to literature, the mutual inspiration takes place above all in painting, and the public clash of their different styles is reflected in the changing costumes and scenery of the Balletts Russes.


The staging of Claude Debussy’s “The Afternoon of a Faun” is a shock for Paris audiences in 1912. Nijinsky wrote the choreography himself and takes on the role of the faun. Unabashed and in love with himself, he makes clear sexual allusions and triggered a debate about the aesthetic value of dancing.


It is not only painters who create costumes for the Ballets Russes, but also other artists, including fashion designer Coco Chanel. Compared to her contemporaries, the style icon stood out for her elegant but rather restrained designs. The most beautiful and important costumes for the Ballets Russes were created by Leon Bakst.


The Balletts Russes also revolutionize music. The composer Igor Stravinsky shocked the audience of “Le Sacre du Printemps” with dissonances, changes of beat and strong rhythms, which accompany the backward and seemingly clumsy movements of the dancers. The audience reacts with angry interjections, whistles and provocative laughter. The Parisian audience, accustomed to fine tones, is so agitated that fights break out between supporters and opponents; 27 people were injured.

Eras of art in the KAIROS project

 Roman art

Byzantine icon painting

    Medieval art

    Early Netherlandish painting

    Italian Renaissance

German Renaissance


    Early Baroque

Little Ice Age

Dutch Golden Age


German Romanticism 

English Romanticism




Art Nouveau




New Objectivity


Diversity of styles