[Viewpoint]Real geniusAny time we talk about the history of art in the 20th century, there must be a mention of Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), the founder of the Ballet Russes, which produced many famous dancers and choreographers. Diaghilev led the Ballet Russes, which he began in Paris in 1909 and led for 20 years until he died.
Because he promoted his job with dogmatic concentration, he got the notorious reputation of being a “dictator.”
The extraordinary way in which Diaghilev chose his talent earned him this reputation. He scouted newly emerging avant-garde artists whose names were not yet known to the public, and entrusted them with important roles.
His adventurous ways of choosing talent brought on an angry reaction from the people around him, but his choices ultimately proved to be successful. The most extraordinary thing he did was to commission the first ballet music from composer Igor Stravinsky.
Stravinsky, who studied law at his university, later turned to music and studied under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose son was a friend of Diaghilev. Diaghilev heard Stravinsky’s early orchestral work “Fireworks,” and was impressed enough to commission him to write the music for “The Firebird.” The members of ballet troupe reacted violently against the decision because the music had already been commissioned to the established composer Anatoly Liadov. But Diaghilev believed in Stravinsky’s talent.
“You’d better remember him, because he will soon become famous,” Diaghilev said about the composer, but the members of his orchestra just laughed.
However, Diaghilev was right. “The Firebird” became a great success and Stravinsky became acclaimed throughout Europe. Following the success of “The Firebird,” Stravinsky composed “Petrushka” in 1911 and “The Rite of Spring” in 1913 on renewed contracts with Diaghilev. The latter two scores made Stravinsky a master of music at the age of 31.
Diaghilev also scouted Vaslav Nijinsky, and made him the best ballet dancer and choreographer of the 20th century. Nijinsky, who had homosexual relations with Diaghilev, showed an innovative range in the choreography of “The Rite of Spring.”
Naturally, Diaghilev was always surrounded by talented artists. Even Jan Cocteau, known as the representative intellectual of France during the last century, wrote a script for the Ballet Russes. And at the insistence of Cocteau, his friends, Pablo Picasso and Jean Miro worked on costumes and the stage settings. Such well-known composers as Maurice J. Ravel, Claude Debussy and Sergei S. Prokofiev helped compose music for the Ballet Russes. Thus, the Ballet Russes became the savior of traditional European ballet, which had been on the brink of extinction.
Diaghilev died suddenly in 1929 and the Ballet Russes dissolved afterward. But Stravinsky survived as the greatest master of modern classical music, creating an array of beautiful music he died of old age. He died in 1971 at the age of 89 and was buried in Venetia at Diaghilev’s side.
Although the members of the Ballet Russes dispersed in all directions, they ultimately brought up the Western ballet tradition in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Following the fuss over Shin Jeong-ah’s fake doctoral degree of Yale University, the forged educational backgrounds of people in all different walks of life are turning up here and there, creating shockwaves in society.
The most serious damage, of course, happened to the victims themselves, including Shin Jeong-ah. The efforts and the achievements she accomplished during the past 10 years were foiled the moment her fabricated educational background was divulged.
Her act of betrayal cannot be justified for any reason. But the world of fine arts and the Korean society should also be held responsible for the commotion that has now been created.
The educational background forgery by Shin Jeong-ah and the like happened despite repeated calls for the adoption of a merit-first policy, and that was a distorted reaction toward the social trend of honoring academic titles and clinging to school cronyism.
Diaghilev, who had the art world of Europe under his thumb during his lifetime, devoted his whole life to the success of Ballet Russes.
He chose the theme of the ballet and selected the directors of each division, then did his best to maintain the consistency of the work.
He guarded against those who committed the fallacy of enjoying their high status too much, and neglecting their jobs. When he died in Venetia, there was not a penny left in his bank account and he only owned two coats.
In Korean society and the art world, the passion of Diaghilev, who preferred to keep the artist’s pride rather than going after money and trying to show off, should be revived.
When it does, the shock of the Shin Jeong-ah scandal will fade away.
The art world desperately needs another Diaghilev, who was called “a genius with the insight to recognize a genius.”
*The writer is the senior editor of the sports and culture desk of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung