Vaslav Nijinsky was born in Kiev, the son of Polish parents who were both dancers. He entered the Imperial Ballet School at St Petersburg at the age of ten, and had achieved success as a soloist at the Marynski Theatre even before his graduation. World fame came when he joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
During 1918, while living in Switzerland to await the end of the war with his wife Romola and small daughter, he began to suffer a mental breakdown which was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. From 1919 onwards he was sometimes cared for by his wife with the help of nurses, and sometimes in asylums and clinics. After a period of great hardship during the second world war, when they wandered about Europe as stateless persons, Nijinsky and Romola settled in England, where he died in 1950.
It was in Switzerland during the early part of his breakdown that he seems to have made most of his drawings. They are all based on the circle which, not surprisingly for a dancer, he regarded as the perfect line. He is described as drawing and writing ceaselessly and feverishly at this time, and also produced a diary, often tortured, often mystical, which was published in 1937.
Many of Nijinsky’s drawings are more representational than the one in the Bethlem collection, and include human figures and portraits, though all in stylised form. The one in this collection seems to be related to a group of less figurative drawings, which he was making as his mental state approached a crisis, described by Romola in her biography of her husband: ‘His study and rooms were literally covered with designs; no longer portraits or scenic or decorative subjects, but strange faces, eyes peering from every corner, red and black, like a bloodstained mortuary cover. They made me shudder. “What are those masks?” “Soldiers’ faces. It is the war.” ’ This picture was included in an exhibition held at the Storran Gallery in London in 1937, to raise money in aid of Nijinsky and his wife. It is probable that Dr Maclay bought it from this exhibition.