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Dance: René Blum, the Ballets Russes and Artistic Morals

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2011

René Blum credit: G. Detaille. Archives  Monte-Carlo,SBI
René Blum
credit: G. Detaille. Archives

When approaching the subject of art and politics – especially the actions of an artist living under occupation or dictatorship – it is often difficult to separate the collaborator from the creative artist trying to stay alive. Then there is the scenario in which prominent members of the intellectual/art community do nothing when one of their members is arrested, “disappeared,” or killed.

These issues came to mind while reading a new book, René Blum and The Ballets Russes In Search of a Lost Life, about the brilliant and knowledgeable French connoisseur of the arts. Among other accomplishments, he was responsible for keeping alive and active the ballets and personnel of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes.

Judith Chazin-Bennahum, the author, who researched heretofore uninvestigated archives, has done a heroic job in bringing to a larger public the life and work of René Blum, who was perhaps the quintessential embodiment of twentieth century European culture up until World War I and a major force in dance after 1925.

Born in Paris in 1878, Blum was the youngest of five sons in an upper middle class Jewish family. Three of his brothers joined his father’s successful textile business but he and his brother Leon, who was to become a noted critic and the first Jewish Prime Minister of France, were very much a part of left bank society. 

Blum was co-founder of the magazines Le Revue blanche and Le Banquet and for many years was co-editor of Gil Blas, a prominent literary paper. He showed both his creative and intuitive sides in his long time as a critic. At the age of twenty he founded a publishing house, which brought out the works of decorative artists and wood engravers. He promoted young artists, organized exhibitions and was a major force behind the Art Deco movement. As a friend and collaborator of poets and writers he worked with Gabriele d’Annunzio and was instrumental in getting Du cote de chez Swann, the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu, published.

René Blum and Alicia Markova  credit: G. Detaille. Archives Monte-Carlo,SBI
René Blum and Alicia Markova
credit: G. Detaille. Archives Monte-Carlo,SBI


His sense of theater led to his directing several theaters and his love of music resulted in his knowing entire scores by memory, plus how to stage an opera. He headed the first Cinema Club in France. During World War I he was in charge of the safety of works of art and won a Croix de Guerre.

In 1924 when Blum was brought to Monte Carlo as manager of the Theatre of Monte Carlo and made responsible for all the entertainment (he even co-authored several productions) his involvement with and knowledge of dance increased. He and Serge Diaghilev met many times due to the permanent residency of the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo and the fact that they were responsible for all the choreography in the operas.

When Diaghilev died in 1929 Blum assumed responsibility for all the dance in his theater. It took him two years to form a new company, the purpose of which was to keep the Diaghilev repertory, with its ballets by Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine, to offer employment to the many dancers and to encourage new choreography. He did not want to repeat Diaghilev except in the sense of promoting the avant-garde.

One of the dance companies Blum brought in was the Ballet de l’Opera a Paris headed by Col. Wassily de Basil. When Blum formed the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, de Basil wanted to be part of it and, in addition to signing on Balanchine and Massine as choreographers, Blum gave him a contract as co-director of the company and added both their names to its name. Blum put a great deal of personal money into the venture and held the majority of the stock. They performed Fokine’s ballets, three new works by Balanchine and others by Romanov and Massine.

De Basil, Lithuanian born, was a clever, avaricious, dishonest and reckless man with a flair for publicity, a tendency to use people for his own ends and to make absurd promises. He fancied himself another Diaghilev, but had no talent and little taste. Blum, who once called him the “gangster Colonel,” was perhaps initially impressed with de Basil because of these characteristics that the soft-spoken Frenchman did not possess.

When Blum, who did not accompany the company on tour, discovered that de Basil eliminated his name and that of the Society of Monte Carlo from all programs and posters, posing as the sole power behind the group, and then fired Balanchine, he realized he had made a major error. The relationship ended in April 1935, and de Basil left to form a different company.

Blum too, decided to form another ballet company, international in character and including many well-known dancers. Balanchine, with whom he had an excellent rapport, turned down his invitation to join him, saying that although a collaboration with Blum was something he desired, he could not leave the United States. Fokine came to stage his old works and to create three new ones for the two successful seasons of the René Blum Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Then Fokine went to de Basil, dancers were going back and forth, there were lawsuits against de Basil and Blum, in poor health, was running out of money.

Thus at Massine’s urging (he had left de Basil), Blum sold the company name and repertoire to Serge Denham and Julius Fleischmann of World Art, Inc., in America. He was listed as the founder and shared the artistic direction of the new Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo with Massine. He was in New York with the company (it was to remain there until it disbanded in 1963) after war had broken out in Europe.

Adam Riding, a former New York Times correspondent, has written a book, And The Show Went On. Cultural Life in Nazi-occupied Paris. He divides members of the cultural circles – literary, fine art, theater, music, dance – into those in the underground resistance, those who held every day jobs but were part of or sympathetic to the resistance, those who collaborated and those who seemed neutral and just tried to make a living. There was a large, often virulently anti-Semitic collaborationist press and a clandestine resistance one. There were also many performances in the busy theaters. Some allowed themselves to be taken to Germany to perform or to contribute to German cultural life.

In his chapter “Vengeance and Amnesia” Riding points out that, although after the war many were arrested and paraded through the streets as collaborators, they were later let go and eventually forgiven, often because of their exceptional “talents.” Maurice Chevalier claimed he went to Germany to perform for the French prisoners of war. Edith Piaf, who entertained the Germans, claimed she had helped the resistance. Riding feels that all the cultural resisters really accomplished was to “achieve a core of decency.”

Blum, the most decent of men, returned to Paris under the Nazi occupation after being with his new company in New York, where many pleaded with him to remain. Here he reportedly kept a low profile, although he did attend performances. He was arrested in December 1941, in a roundup of over seven hundred Jewish intellectuals and imprisoned at Compiegne. He was eventually sent to Drancy and then to Auschwitz where he died in September 1942, either shot or thrown alive into an oven, depending upon the account.

Neither Chazin-Bennahum nor anyone else can answer the question why René Blum returned to Paris. He claimed it was because his son Claude René (a result of his love affair with the actress Josette France) was there and also because his brother Leon was in prison and he could not desert him. Ironically, Claude died on the battlefield in April 1945, and Leon survived both Buchenwald and Dachau. To this day no one has found the manuscripts of René’s memoir, one of which was with a publisher in London and the other in Paris.

A fellow prisoner at Compiegne, Jean Jacques Bernard, son of the writer Tristan Bernard, survived and wrote a book, as did another prisoner, Georges Weller. Blum was frail, starving and ill, but found time to give lectures on literature, poetry and ballet to up to one hundred other prisoners without notes. He convinced the doctors to put the ill Bernard in the hospital ward instead of himself, feeling that the young man might recover due to the better treatment and be released, which he was.

But why was there no immediate outcry from outside the prison on the part of those who knew René Blum and were in a position to help him? Jean Cocteau, the artist, playwright and poet, who was part of Diaghilev’s circle and a frequent contributor to the Ballets Russes, was seen constantly at German cultural affairs. Serge Lifar, head of the ballet at the Paris Opera, had been Diaghilev’s last leading man and had danced for Blum. He was an out and out friend of the Germans, socialized with them and even tried to Aryanize the company at the Opera. He was exiled for three years after the war but allowed to return. His published memoirs lied about everything, including Blum.

And then there was Picasso. During the occupation of Paris he kept an astute silence and seemed to make no commitment, neither supporting the Germans nor joining the resistance nor expressing any affinity with the cultural resistors. He just kept painting and selling his work. In 1944 he joined the Communist Party, which was active in identifying and denouncing collaborators. Many of his fellow artists felt this decision was dictated by his fear of losing his fortune. Coco Chanel was seen at all the German parties with her Nazi lover and after the war discreetly took herself to Switzerland to escape the repercussions. She had designed for the ballet and knew Blum.

These four and others, who were not Jews, were not in hiding, were in safe positions and knew René Blum and his myriad contributions to French culture and life, could have spoken up early and saved him. But they did not and history, especially dance history, has let this sensitive man, with his keen intelligence and impeccable taste, to whom so much of twentieth century dance owes its existence, be partially hidden. His biographer feels this may be due to his own quiet modesty and charm.

Judith Chazin-Bennahum, in searching for his lost life has done a service – not just culturally, but morally.