Bohème and beyond

Selbstinszenierung is a great German term for which, like the loanwords sehnsucht or schadenfreude, there is no direct English equivalent. It is related to self-promotion and self-presentation, but really carries the idea of directing oneself in the manner of a stage production or work of art, and thus expresses a concept close to Strange Flowers’ heart.

And it’s a particularly apt word to describe what’s going on in many of the images in a new exhibition at Cologne’s Museum Ludwig. Called simply La Bohème, it records the meeting of photography and the Bohemian sensibility, both of which came to prominence around the middle of the 19th century. With varying degrees of complicity and confidence, garret-dwelling idealists reach through the years to remind us of a time before the garret-dwelling idealist had become a leaden cliché.

Many of the pictures were taken in Paris, where author Henri Murger first celebrated the impoverished avant-garde experience in his 1851 book Scènes de la vie de Bohème. The city remained a magnet for disaffected writers, artists and scenesters for decades, even as glamorised squalor became a feature of urban life all across the Western world.

Another new exhibition examines the Ballets Russes, whose impact on early 20th century Bohemians cannot be overestimated. The company was formed in 1909 by Serge Diaghilev (subject of a new biography) and was made up largely of Russian émigrés, including star dancer Nijinsky. They performed throughout Europe and North America for 20 years but nowhere was their influence greater than in Britain, where they first performed in 1911. The nation’s Bohemians were electrified by the riotous colour, primeval energy and frank eroticism of the company’s dazzlingly innovative productions. “In some sense all British artistic life seems to have capitulated to the Ballets Russes immediately,” observes Martin Green in his book Children of the Sun; in Among the Bohemians, Virginia Nicholson claims “the Ballets Russes changed everything they touched.”

It’s fitting, then, that London’s V&A Museum should host this major overview of Diaghilev and his extraordinary troupe. As the show illustrates, the Ballets Russes didn’t just create modern dance as we know it today, it was also a magnet for some of the finest creative minds of the day, who worked on music, text, sets and costumes for the company at Diaghilev’s urging. Stravinsky, Picasso, Matisse, Bakst, Cocteau and Rimsky-Korsakov were among those who contributed to this great 20th century gesamtkunstwerk.

…which is another fine German loan word and one deployed by a recently-launched exhibition in Darmstadt, a comprehensive study of Expressionism. This largely German movement was contemporaneous with the Ballets Russes, but there was no place for Diaghilev’s perfumed exoticism and liberating sensuality in the Expressionists’ lurid, rancid world view. The dread and violence of their vision is captured in canvasses by Kokoschka, Schiele, Kirchner, Dix and in films by Lang and Murnau. As the exhibition shows, Expressionism also sprang from the stage in more perishable forms including the provocative dance of our old buddy Anita Berber. Now there was a woman who understood selbstinszenierung.

There are comprehensive books accompanying each of these exhibitions; click through to gallery sites for details.


  1. babylonbaroque

    Quite excellent, particularly love the fly conceit.
    Have just discovered your blog, will add it to my roll.
    LG @

  2. Pingback: Peer to peer « Strange Flowers

  3. Pingback: Bruno’s century | Strange Flowers

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: