Léonide Massine may not be not the most famous name to grace socialite Elizabeth Fuller Chapman’s home movies.
In terms of 21st century name brand recognition, he definitely lags behind art world heavies Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Constantin Brâncuși, Henri Matisse, composer Igor Stravinsky, novelist Colette, playwright Thornton Wilder, the ever-formidable poet and collector Gertrude Stein, and her longtime companion Alice B. Toklas. Such were the luminaries in Mrs. Chapman’s circle.
But in terms of sheer on-camera charisma, the Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer definitely steals the collective show, above, currently on exhibit as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Private Lives Public Spaces, an exhibit exploring home movies as an art form.
Massine’s unbridled al fresco hip-twirling, prancing, and side kicks (preceded by a slow-motion run at 1:55) exist in stark contrast with Matisse’s stiff discomfort in the same setting (11:11) One need not be a skilled lipreader to guess the tone of the commentary Mrs. Chapman’s 16mm camera was not equipped to capture.
Stein (12:00), whose forceful personality was the stuff of legend, appears relaxed at the summer home she and Toklas shared in Bilignin, but also happy to position their standard poodle, Basket, as the center of attention.
The Surrealist Dali (21:50), as extroverted as Braque was retiring, takes a different approach to his palette, engaging with it as a sort of comic prop. Ditto his wife-to-be, Gala, and a painted porcelain bust he once accessorized with an inkwell, a baguette, and a zoetrope strip.
Dali serves up some serious Tik-Tok vibes, but we have a hunch Colette’s struggles with her friend, pianist Misia Sert’s semi-tame monkey (4:35), would rack up more likes.
As the curators of the MoMA exhibition note:
Chapman Films is immensely popular in the Film Study Center for the rare and intimate glimpses of their lives it provides, from a time when the famous were not readily accessible. Yes, there were gossip columns, fan magazines, and juicy exposés in the 1930s and ‘40s, but many notable figures carefully curated their public personas. We know these figures through their paintings, music, or words, not their faces, so to see them at all—let alone in real life, doing everyday things—is remarkable.
Also charming is the freshness of their interactions with Chapman’s camera—many of her subjects were celebrities, but their fame was in no way tethered to the ubiquity of smart phones. Hard to go viral in 16mm, decades before YouTube.