Published: March 19, 2002
By Stephen May
NEW YORK CITY – Over the course of what is now a relatively long and productive career, Jamie Wyeth has created memorable paintings of animals and birds, views of rural Pennsylvania, and evocations of the Maine coast and its islands. At 55, the third generation painter of the famed Wyeth clan continues to seek new and challenging themes, often invoking the sense of fantasy and whimsy that runs through the work of his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth, and his father, Andrew Wyeth.
One constant in the younger Wyeth’s career has been portrait work. A precocious and successful artist from his teenage years, he has always done likenesses – of family, neighbors, celebrities and people who interested him, including American icons ranging from John F. Kennedy to Andy Warhol. They form an impressive and sometimes overlooked niche in his oeuvre.
Wyeth approaches portraiture with patience and determination. He prefers to create likenesses only after extended exposure to his subject and the execution of numerous meticulous studies. “When I work on a portrait,” he has said, “it’s really osmosis. I try to become the person I’m painting. A successful portrait isn’t about the sitter’s physical characteristics – his nose, eyeballs and whatnot – but more the mood and the overall effect. I try not to impose anything of mine on him.”
Wyeth’s most sustained portrait-painting campaign, initiated a quarter century ago, involved the famed Russian dancer, Rudolf Nureyev. They met in New York in the early 1970s, at a time when Wyeth shared a studio with Warhol. Struck by Nureyev’s intense, enigmatic personality, Wyeth asked the famously vain and charismatic dancer to pose for him, but he refused.
Nureyev relented a few years later and, in 1977, allowed Wyeth full access to his life for a year. The artist and his wife Phyllis became very close to the dancer, who visited their home and joined in family costume parties and other hijinks.
Wyeth, fascinated by Nureyev’s magnetic persona, striking Tatar face and superb physique, turned out sketch after sketch of the dancer off stage, but none in performance. Excerpts from the artist’s sketchbooks and a photograph in which he is measuring Nureyev’s physiognomy with calipers suggests the care and planning that went into the project.
Those 1977 depictions, along with others Wyeth created over the intervening years, including several large works last year, have been assembled into a fascinating exhibition, “Capturing Nureyev: .” A unique collaborative effort among the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center in Maine, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center in New York, it features more than 35 paintings and drawings, plus Nureyev costumes, set designs and photographs.
The show was co-curated by Lauren Raye Smith, assistant curator and conservator at the Farnsworth and Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, curator of exhibitions at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. A well-illustrated catalog, with informative essays, accompanies the exhibition.
After opening at the Kennedy Center in February, where it coincided with a visit by Nureyev’s old troupe, the celebrated Kirov Ballet, the exhibition will be on view at the New York Public Library space at Lincoln Center March 22 to May 25, and then travels to the Farnsworth in Rockland, Maine (June 9 to January 5, 2003), and the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Penn. (January 18 to May 18, 2003). The show is sponsored by the MBNA Foundation, generous supporter of the Farnsworth and the artwork of three generations of Wyeths.
In Nureyev (1948-1993), Wyeth (born 1946) found a particularly fascinating and challenging subject. Born of Tatar parents, he studied under Alexandr Pushkin in Moscow and, after joining the Kirov Ballet in 1958, became one of its leading dancers. During the Kirov’s first appearance in the West, in 1961, Nureyev caused a sensation by defecting in Paris.
Thereafter, he teamed up for a time with London Royal Ballet’s star dancer, Margot Fonteyn, attracting new audiences to the old art. That synergistic partnership is recorded in photographs of the pair performing Marguerite and Armand (1963) and Swan Lake (circa 1976).
Working as a dancer, producer and choreographer throughout the West, Nureyev revitalized the Twentieth Century world of ballet. Similar to the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky in “animal magnetism and intensity of artistic focus,” in the words of dance critic Clive Barnes, Nureyev inspired generations of dancers to raise their standards and expand their repertoires, and transformed Western perceptions of the male dancer.
He was the first major classical ballet dancer to work with modern-dance choreographers and companies, including Martha Graham, José Limon and Paul Taylor. Wherever he went, Nureyev’s aura, charisma, intelligence and superb dance skills made a lasting impression. Through him an indifferent public in the West became aware of and appreciative of dance.
By the time he died of AIDS in Paris in 1993, his larger-than-life persona – on and off the stage – had become the stuff of legends. “Nureyev,” writes Barnes in the exhibition catalog, “had the power of the possessed and a faculty for possession. He danced with all of himself…[H]e danced like a demon, [with everything]…projected for maximum dramatic effect.” These qualities are well conveyed in the photographs and Wyeth’s artwork in this show.
Drawn to what Wyeth calls Nureyev’s “physicality, that peasant force…his animal nature…[and] marvelous energy,” the artist created more than 30 delicately rendered, intimate portraits focusing on the dancer’s taut, Tatar features and finely tuned body. “I became so fascinated with him as a person,” Wyeth recalls, “that the fact he was dancing was almost immaterial.”
Notoriously self-absorbed and sensitive about his appearance, Nureyev was a difficult and demanding model, frequently criticizing the way he was depicted in Wyeth’s sketches. “We had a great argument,” says Wyeth, “and I had to explain, ‘Rudolf, you’re interpretive in your dance and many of these drawings are interpretive, too.'”
Wyeth’s 1977 studies provide not only penetrating physical and psychological views of his intriguing subject, but offer insights into the artist’s painstaking creative process.
“There’s no formula to it,” he observed a few years ago. “Sometimes it can be a momentary look that’s a distillation of all these different moods. But I’m never satisfied with one portrait. I think the studies probably are as important as the finished piece.” A pen-and-ink excerpt from a sketchbook, with detailed written descriptions of Nureyev’s physiognomy, documents Wyeth’s meticulous effort to get it right in his portraits.
An especially memorable result is a full face, introspective bust, with white highlights and dark washes, that seems to peer deeply into Nureyev’s enigmatic soul. Others, depicting the dancer from the waist up, are equally compelling and insightful. As co-curator Smith writes in the exhibition catalog, “The ‘studies’ do not necessarily build to a final definitive portrait; they are portraits in and of themselves.”
The dancer’s craggy profile and commanding physical presence dominate another sketchy image in which Nureyev wears the suggestion of a black fur coat. There are a number of full-length studies of Nureyev in his leotard, culminating in a finished oil painting, “Portrait of Rudolf Nureyev” (1977).
In 1993, following the dancer’s death at age 54, Wyeth reworked a series of large-scale, unfinished three-quarter length figure studies that emphasize Nureyev’s energy, power and physical grace. These highly expressive images, several measuring a sizable 48 by 36 inches, bring to mind Phyllis Wyeth’s fond recollections of the dancer.
“Nureyev exuded animal energy,” she writes in an affectionate memoir in the catalog. “His spirit was the spirit of a racehorse with all its beauty and muscle and speed. His body had that perfection.”
In 2001, Wyeth completed the striking “Portrait of Nureyev” (1977/2001), showing the dancer still wearing full stage makeup and resplendent in a fur hat and coat. Also last year the artist created several sizable, boldly hued, mixed-media works that convey the sense of drama and fantasy Nureyev projected on stage.
“That was his life – performance,” says Wyeth. “But in life he was a such a strong force, he was so captivating, it was hard to focus on what he was doing. Now, of course, the distance helps me see him in context.”
One painting, showing Nureyev portraying Don Quixote, recalls his histrionic gestures and assured dance movements. It captures the sense that, as Barnes puts it, “when he danced [he] always became the character…but equally he always elusively remained Nureyev.”
The display invites interesting comparisons between Wyeth’s images and documentary photographs. “Curtain Call” (2001) is an 80- by 60-inch view of Nureyev bowing in the spotlight, clutching a rose, at the conclusion of a performance. He looks both exhausted and pleased with the response of the audience. A similarly posed, albeit smiling, dancer is shown in a photograph of his curtain call following a performance of The Sleeping Beauty in 1974.
A highlight of the exhibition is a poignant death scene, measuring an eye-catching 42½ by 78 inches, “Mort de Noureev” (2001), in which two Degas-like ballerinas kneel in mourning next to the fallen star, their figures dramatically highlighted by a brilliant yellow background.
“These  paintings,” observes Smith, “have a fanciful, otherworldly quality to them. They possess less of the physical solidity of the 1977 pieces, but a greater sense of drama and fantasy.” Many will find these most recent Wyeth works unforgettable.
“Capturing Nureyev” also includes costumes worn by the dancer and more than 60 photographs that trace a remarkable career that changed the world of dancing forever. The photos are from the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, the world’s largest archival collection of dance materials.
Reflecting a dynamic collaboration between two outstanding artists, these paintings and drawings capture the look and spirit of a unique and legendary figure in ways that are exciting and enduring. Wyeth’s images will linger long in the memories of fans of art or ballet – or both.
The 92-page exhibition catalog is exceptionally handsome and well done. In addition to lavish illustrations of Wyeth’s artwork and vintage photographs, there are useful contributions by Barnes, dance critic of the New York Post; Lynn Seymour, a Nureyev friend and fellow dancer; Phyllis Wyeth, the artist’s wife (with Wendy Larsen); Cohen-Stratyner of the New York Public Library and Smith of the Farnsworth. Published by the Farnsworth and distributed by University Press of New England, it will be treasured by both Nureyev and Wyeth aficionados.
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center is at 40 Lincoln Center Plaza. For information, 212-870-1630. The Farnsworth Art Museum is at 16 Museum Street in Rockland, Maine. For information, 207-596-6457. The Brandywine River Museum is located on US Route 1 in Chadds Ford, Penn. For information, 610-388-2700.
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