The National Gallery of Australia has stitched together the story of the Ballets Russes through painstaking restoration of costumes designed by Picasso and Matisse.

Ballets Russes: the Art of Costume was to take its final bow next weekend, on March 20, following its successful three-month season run. The National Gallery of Australia has now announced the exhibition’s extension until Sunday May 1. 

“These costumes are the most fragile works of art in the national collection”, said Ron Radford, director of the NGA. “It will be a long time before they can be displayed again in such numbers.”

One of the most revolutionary performing arts troupes of the twentieth century, the Ballets Russes premiered Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in 1913, sparking one of the most infamous, near-riotous responses to a public performance in history. The company was as innovative in design as in music, with the likes of Coco Chanel, Henri Matisse, and cubist painter Georges Braque creating its costumes and sets.

The National Gallery has been acquiring costumes, artists’ sketches and other materials since 1973 to form one of the world’s most extensive and varied Ballets Russes collections. The strikingly modern outfits, some just shy of a hundred years old and worn by the great dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, serve as a remarkable study of how the performing arts in the early twentieth century relate to the bigger picture of contemporary art. Fifty of the costumes on display have not been seen by the public since they were last worn on stage in the 1940s, and required delicate conservational measures to counter the strain of aging fabric and the wear and tear of stage use.

Australia’s love affair with the Ballets Russes began in the 1930s when off-shoot company The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo visited our shores, introducing Australian audiences and dancers to the Diaghilev repertoire. NGA’s visitor polls have revealed Costume for a squid (c1916) by Natalia Goncharova, and Costume for the Blue God (c1912), worn by Nijinsky and still bearing the marks of his blue make-up, as exhibition favourites.

Next weekend at the National Gallery, Limelight editor Francis Merson gives a free public lecture on the life and brilliant career of Serge Diaghilev, the enigmatic impresario who attracted the likes of Picasso and Stravinsky to produce some of the Ballets Russes’ most innovative works. View the event details here.

Read the full Limelight story here.

Costume for a squid