James Wyeth's Nureyev portraits displayed

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  April 18, 2002 at 2:01 PM
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NEW YORK, April 18 (UPI) -- One of the sleepers of the current art season is a unique exhibition of 35 major drawings and paintings of Rudolf Nureyev by his artist friend James Wyeth, who spent a whole year with the charismatic ballet superstar 16 years before his death in 1993.

The show at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center is attracting larger-than-expected crowds of viewers, many of whom remember the Russian-born Nureyev's performances as an international star after he defected to the West during the Kirov Ballet's first visit to Paris in 1961. In addition to Wyeth's large works and numerous sketchbooks, it includes scores of photographs, stage designs, and a sampling of Nureyev's costumes.

"Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer" originated at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and can be seen at Lincoln Center through May 25. The Lincoln Center library is a major depository of Nureyev material including 400 films of him dancing. Most of Wyeth's sketches of Nureyev were made at the School of American Ballet in the Lincoln Center neighborhood.

Later this year, the show will be exhibited in Rockland, Maine, and in 2003 in Chadd's Ford, Pa., two locales associated with the Wyeth dynasty of painters including James Wyeth's illustrator grandfather, N.C. Wyeth, and his father, Andrew Wyeth, one of America's most popular painters. James Wyeth, 55, is best known as a portraitist, although he also paints landscapes and animals.

Nureyev often visited the Wyeth farm in Chadd's Ford after he met the painter and his wife, Phyllis, in 1974, at Elaine's, a popular Manhattan restaurant. Nureyev was performing then in New York with London's Royal Ballet, of which he was permanent guest artist teamed with Margot Fonteyn.

It took the artist three years to persuade the incredibly vain dancer, who even hated being photographed, to pose for him. Even then, Nureyev was critical of every sketch. Wyeth described this as part of the "prickly" side of their friendship. Nureyev never tore up any of the sketches, however, although he once destroyed Andy Warhol's camera when Warhol tried to take a snapshot of him, according to Wyeth.

"He would look at a drawing I was doing and speak out sharply, saying 'My foot is more beautiful than that,' though actually he had rather ugly feet," Wyeth told UPI.

"He wanted to see everything I did and was very difficult to please. Well, that finished me with doing portrait paintings for nearly 15 years, because he was the very first person I ever painted whose visage was his world, his life. He was on stage all the time, every minute of his time."

Wyeth said he went back last year to the 1977 sketches in pencil, gouache, and watercolor as a basis for creating large-scale oil "memory portraits" of Nureyev dancing in lavish costumes, putting on make-up, and taking bows, something he didn't record while Nureyev was alive because he had been fascinated with the dancer as a person, not as a performer.

Nureyev was a "teeny" man (as proved by his costumes and ballet slippers on exhibit) with tremendous physicality, an inherent peasant force, Wyeth said. It was this physicality that attracted him to the dancer as a subject and led him to a full-length portrait of Nureyev in the nude, a sketch on cardboard with white highlights that Kennedy Center curators chose to withdraw from the show but New York Public Library curators have included.

"The fact that he was dancing was almost immaterial to me," Wyeth recalled. "I thought doing a painting of a dancer was an oxymoron because dance is motion. I wasn't going to try to catch him in midair. I left that to photographers. But now, the distance of time helps me see him in the context of the dance. I wanted to record him as the performer I remembered, not to go back and just copy the early sketches."

The oils painted in 2001 are brighter and more spirited than the 1977 sketches and include depictions of Nureyev in motion in "Swan Lake," prone and dying in "Romeo and Juliet," and in a flamenco pose in "Don Quixote." One of the best is that of a relaxed, bemused and half smiling Nureyev, nude to the waist and hand on hip, wearing his "Raymonda" costume.

Most memorable is a portrait of the dancer on the street in a fur coat after a performance of "Pierrot Lunaire," his exotic Tatar face still in white makeup framed by a Russian-style fur hat.

"He stopped pedestrians in their tracks, and he enjoyed all the attention," Wyeth said. "He didn't want me to paint it, but I liked it, the dramatic look of it. So I put the sketch away until last year and then did this oil."

The painting is the most finished, smoothly painted and Wyeth-like work in the show and might be mistaken for a portrait by Wyeth's father. It also is the only painting of Nureyev that shows the faint trace of a hair lip with which Nureyev is believed to have been born with and had corrected by plastic surgery.

"But he told me a dog had bitten him, and said 'The critics have been biting me ever since'," Wyeth recalled. "He exhausted himself dancing but he never thought he was fully appreciated. He used to say he had just so many dances in him in his lifetime, and when he came off stage he would say, 'I'm down one more dance'."

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