Ida Rubinstein's colourful career was established by her starring role in Cléopâtre which opened the first Paris season of the Ballet Russe on 2 June 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Her performance is said to have been marked by her arresting, statuesque appearance and her understated mime technique, suggesting depths of eroticism never before seen on the Paris stage.
The power of her performance and the immense presence of her persona are recorded in many contemporary accounts, but none is more expressive, nor was more abiding, than that of the Comte Robert de Montesquiou. Following the premiere of Cléopâtre he wrote: 'Madame Rubinstein's costume... might be described as 'suggestive' by a provincial newspaper. The lady is nude, under bejewelled veils, just like the scarfs by Fortuny with which our Parisian women have fallen in love... I know no person of taste who has not been deeply impressed by this extraordinary spectacle; and some have come up to me to say: 'This is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen'!'
Montesquiou further expressed his admiration in his poem La Dame bleue. Alexandre Benois and Jean Cocteau also wrote evocatively, not to say passionately, about Rubinstein's performance. For Benois the combination of Rimsky-Korsakov's music, the sensational costumes by Leon Bakst and Rubinstein's androgeonous beauty was irresistable. 'The disrobing took place to the beautiful but terrifying music of Mlada... one by one, the covers were unwound, disclosing the divine body omnipotent in its beauty... when the slight figure emerged covered only by the wonderful transparent garment invented by Bakst, one experienced a feeling of awe. Here was not a pretty artiste appearing in frank déshabillé, but a real fatal enchantress...'. For Cocteau, Rubinstein was 'penetratingly beautiful, like the pungent perfume of some exotic essence'.
Lami, who is today best remembered for his seminal dictionary of French sculptors, has only a small known oeuvre and this wax statuette is arguably his most original masterpiece. The circumstances of its creation are not known but it has all the delicacy, opulence of detail in the jewellery and a tangible iconic reverence of the Russian dancer that an association with Robert de Montesquiou, the famous French aesthete and Symbolist poet, cannot be ruled out. It is known that de Montesquiou's obsession with Rubinstein resulted in the commission of a painting of the dancer from Antonio de La Gandara. His infatuation continued with his involvement with the staging of Rubinstein in the title role of Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien. The famous scene from Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel A Rebours, which is based on de Montesquiou, in which a jewel encrusted tortoise meanders through the lavish house of the Duke des Esseintes, evokes the wonderful jewel-like quality of Lami's Ida Rubinstein as Cleopatra. The choice of wax is appropriately impractical and lends a Madame Tussaud-like realism to the sculpture, which one might associate with the goût de Montesquiou.
P. Jullian, Robert de Montesquiou, a fin-de-siècle prince, London, 1967, pp. 222-228; E. J. Pyke, Biographical dictionary of wax modellers. 2nd supplement, Dorking, 1983, p. 5; M. de Cossart, Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960). A theatrical life, Liverpool, 1987, pp. 15-26; A. Schouvaloff, Leon Bakst. The theatre art, London, 1991; L. Garafola, ‘Diaghilev’s unruly dance family’, Diaghilev. Creator of the Ballets Russes, exh.cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1996, p. 102
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