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Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer


One of Americaís best-known painters pays tribute to his friend Rudolf Nureyev in an exhibition to open at the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center. Over 35 paintings and drawings of dancer Rudolf Nureyev by American artist James Browning Wyeth will be featured in Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer, which will open at the Wyeth Center of the Farnsworth Art Museum on Sunday, June 9, 2002, and continue through January 5, 2003 in the Cowan Gallery.

Wyeth's portraits of Nureyev were inspired by the close friendship that developed between the two artists during the year that Wyeth spent observing and painting the dancer backstage, in rehearsals and in performances.  Although Wyeth began working on the portraits in 1977, some of the works were only completed eight years after Nureyev's death in 1993.  Larger in scale and brighter in color than the 1977 works, these later paintings depict the consummate performer as he will be remembered  onstage in lavish costumes against dramatic backdrops. 

The exhibition also includes costumes worn by the great dancer from private collections, as well as over 60 photographs from the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the world's largest archival collection of dance materials. The black and white images document Nureyev's roots in the standard ballet repertory and his expansion into works by contemporary European choreographers Roland Petit, John Neumeier and Flemming Flindt, and American modern dance creators Martha Graham, Murray Louis, and Glen Tetley.  Also featured are designs by Rouben Ter-Arutunian for Tetley's Pierrot Lunaire, the work that Nureyev was rehearsing when Wyeth began the series of paintings. 

According to Wyeth, Nureyev was one of his most difficult and demanding models, taking an active role in determining how his body, the instrument of the dancer, was to be presented.  Over time, the painter and the dancer began to understand each other's art and the process became more of a collaborative effort.  Wyeth was granted rare permission to observe and sketch Nureyev in his most revealing and intense moments  as he was preparing to take the stage.  Wyeth recalled how the dancer, in the role of the moonstruck clown in Pierrot Lunaire, with his face covered in white paint and his eyes glowing, would immerse himself in the character to the exclusion of all else.  "He would get into this frenzy -- here was this silent figure in his white makeup with his hair flying.  He was completely in his own world."

James Browning Wyeth left school in 1958 at the age of twelve to begin his artistic career.  By 18, he had already achieved a measure of prominence, with his paintings hanging in the permanent collections of several notable museums and libraries.  By 20, he had his first one-man show in New York and before the age of 35, he enjoyed a retrospective of his work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia.  Wyeth is perhaps best known for his sensitive and illuminating portraits with subjects ranging from a hermit in rural Pennsylvania (Portrait of Shorty), to Pop Art icon Andy Warhol (Portrait of Andy Warhol).   Like a method actor, Wyeth spends as much time as possible with the subject of a portrait, "trying to get under his skin, trying to absorb his character by osmosis."

Dancer and a choreographer Rudolf Nureyev began his career in the celebrated men's class of Alexander Pushkin and later went on to dance leading roles with the Kirov Ballet.  During the 1961 Kirov tour of Western Europe, Nureyev defected in Paris.  On the international stage, Nureyev's partnership with the Royal Ballet's Margot Fonteyn became one of ballet's legendary pairings, attracting new audiences to the theater.  He went on to revolutionize and revitalize the twentieth century world of ballet, cutting through the traditions and prejudices that bisected the art of dance by insisting on the widest possible choices of repertory and technique.  He was the first major classical dancer to work with modern dance choreographers.  Nureyev continued dancing well past the age when many dancers would have considered retirement, spending his time programming seasons called "Nureyev and Friends," featuring a mix of European contemporary ballets and American modern dance works.  From 1983 to 1989, he served as artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet.  Nureyev died of AIDS on January 6, 1993, in Paris.

Capturing Nureyev: James Wyeth Paints the Dancer is organized by the Farnsworth Art Museum and Wyeth Center, Rockland, Maine, in partnership with The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D. C. and The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, New York. The exhibition debuted at the Kennedy Center before traveling to New York. The exhibition is sponsored by the MBNA Foundation. 

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Capturing Nureyev, James Wyeth Paints The Dancer is a 24 minute video featuring interviews with James Wyeth, and Clive Barnes. Directed and edited by Stephen Labovsky and produced by the Farnsworth Art Museum.

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