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Oswald Birley, Portrait Of Kyra Nijinsky – A Dancer Who Understands

Painting of the Week

Oswald Birley, Portrait Of Kyra Nijinsky – A Dancer Who Understands

Regarding celebration of Women’s History Month, we try to post more articles about women in art and history, often neglected and forgotten. Today in our Painting Of The Week edition we would like to present you a portrait of Kyra Nijinsky by Oswald Birley and tell the story of this portrayed artist.

Oswald Birley Portrait of Kyra Nijinska,1935, oil on canvas

Oswald Birley, Portrait of Kyra Nijinsky, 1935, oil on canvas, Private collection

Kyra Nijinsky was a Russian ballet dancer and a daughter of famous Vaslav Nijinsky – also a ballet dancer and choreographer. He was considered one of the best in his profession in the 20th century, making choreographies for example for the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) with music by Igor Stravinsky. Her mother Romola de Pulszky was a Hungarian socialite and celebrated actress. The couple met in South America, when the artist’s company Ballet Russes was on tour. The story was simple – he was a dancer, she loved the ballet – they fell in love at first sight and quickly got married in 1913. Romola became pregnant right away and her newly wedded husband started to have symptoms of couvade syndrome (a psychosomatic condition, also called “sympathetic pregnancy”, in which a partner experiences symptoms of pregnancy) which caused him to skip performances and unfortunately get fired in the end!

Before the birth of their first child, they arrived to Australia. Kyra was born in Vienna on June 18, 1914, just 10 days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and at the beginning of outbreak of the Great War. The family began to live the lives of “nomads” travelling to North and South America with dance tournees and after some years finally settled in St. Moritz in Switzerland. However, they didn’t find peace they had been longing for. Vaslav started to exhibit signs of schizophrenia, which meant a long way down for him and unfortunately, the end of the career…

Mr.Nijinsky and his little daughter at his apartments in the Biltmore Oswald Birley Portrait Of Kyra Nijinsky

Vaslav Nijinsky and his little daughter Kyra at his apartments in the Biltmore, c. 1916

Kyra, who was obsessed with her father decided to be a dancer just like him. It was said that she looked totally like him, especially because of high cheekbones and muscular physique. She even wore practice clothes exactly like a man! The relationship between the father and a daughter also had a special emotional strength. As Romola once wrote:
It seemed almost as though they had been one person split apart, and constantly wishing to be reunited.

Kyra was trained firstly by her father and aunt Bronislava Nijinsky (another choreographer) and later was attending at the Paris Opera Ballet School. She was a good ballet dancer, but because of her father’s fame, she was destined to be known chiefly for “being the daughter of Mr. Nijnksy”. Even favorable and enthusiastic opinions like this by critic Arnold Haskell, have not changed anything: “She is a dancer who understands, whether instinctively or otherwise, how to use dancing in order to express her emotions.

Kyra Nijinsky in Le Spectre De La Rose, photograph by Cecil Beaton Oswald Birley Portrait Of Kyra Nijinsky

Kyra Nijinsky in Le Spectre De La Rose, photograph by Cecil Beaton

The artist was always independent, intelligent, strong and for many considered strange and crazy. She was living alone in Berlin already as a 17-years old girl. In London, she impersonated her father in one of her most important plays: Spectre de la rose or in Streamline. Next, Kyra danced for Ballet Rambert, and created the central role in Frederick Ashton’s Mephisto Valse.

In 1936 in Budapest, the woman married Ukrainian conductor Igor Markevitch (who was previously living in homosexual relationship with choreographer Sergei Diaghilev). The couple had one son, called Vaslav Nijinsky-Markevitch. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t stand the test of time. After the divorce, Igor raised their son alone and Kyra moved to Rome where she was earning a living as a saleslady on the Via Condotti. Since 1958 she lived in San Francisco and devoted herself to poetry, painting and a solitary life. In 1981 there was made a movie about the artist, called She Dances Alone and directed by Robert Dornhelmin.

Kyra Nijinsky One of the principals of Mr Cochran's 'Streamline' at the Palace Theatre, Getty Images, Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Kyra Nijinsky One of the principals of Mr Cochran’s ‘Streamline’ at the Palace Theatre, Getty Images, Image by ©Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Sir Oswald Birley (1880–1952) portrayed 21 year old Kyra in 1935, when her career has already started. The painter was considered one of the greatest portraitist in these days and a lot of important members of society commissioned a painting from him (including for example Winston Churchill). He not only showed the outside appearance of the models, but also their emotions, characters and professions. In the portrait Kyra is depicted in one of her colorful performance’s costume (for “Streamline Revue”’ at the Palace Theatre). From the first look we can see the strong woman, challenging life with a bold glance. Eccentric, cut like a man, brave, she was ready to conquer the dance world… Unfortunately, she never freed herself from the fame of her father and till this day her memory remains lost in the shadow of her father’s glory…

There are some clips from a rare film about the dancer:

Find out more:


Art historian; she wishes she could go to the exhibition of modern art with Marcel Duchamp, take part in Tadeusz Kantor’s happening or …drink a damn good coffee with Agent Cooper.


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