Lincoln Kirstein

Kirstein, photographed by Walker Evans in 1930

Kirstein, photographed by Walker Evans in 1930

Tate Publishing has recently launched its 75th anniversary re-issue of ‘Walker Evans – American Photographs‘, a chronicle of ordinary people’s lives in the Eastern United States during the 1930s. At the back of the book is a fond critical essay written by Evans’ friend and patron Lincoln Kirstein, who was a major cultural player in New York at the time.

Kirstein was the founder of what would become the New York City Ballet and he devoted much of his life to dance; he launched an avant-garde literary magazine; his Harvard Society for Contemporary Art (founded in 1929, while Kirstein was an undergraduate) was the forerunner to New York’s Museum of Modern Art; he wrote books; he championed artists and nurtured talent; he had bipolar disorder.

Looking at the facts of his life, a diagnosis is hardly a surprise. He had a huge appetite for life and was always involved in about a million different projects at once. He spent periods of his 20s exploring casual, sometimes dangerous sex with sailors, fellow undergrads and guys in the showers at a YMCA. He married his wife Fidelma in 1941, loved her and stayed married to her until she died in 1991, but some of his boyfriends stayed in their house and Fidelma was apparently fond of most of them. Anecdotes and recollections from friends and colleagues refer to him as by turns terrifying, loving and kind, cruel, and prone to sweeping bouts of both driven mania and heavy depressions.

Kirstein and New York City Ballet co-founder George Balanchine

Kirstein and New York City Ballet co-founder George Balanchine

His 2007 biographer Martin Duberman wrote of Kirstein’s changeable temper: “One could be embraced on Monday, cut dead on Tuesday”. His moods got worse as he aged, becoming more confusing to people close to him – sometimes he was violent, and on one occasion he smashed up artist Dan Maloney’s apartment (Maloney and Kirstein were having an affair). He suffered mental breakdowns and underwent electroshock therapy in psychiatric units.

He died in January 1996, after a couple of years of various illnesses that destroyed his ability to keep busy. Kirstein was nothing if he couldn’t keep busy. In a way, Kirstein was one of those people who inspire others to romanticise mental illness – would he have achieved so much without his manic side? But then, anyone who hankers after chronic depression and therapy because they think it will make them productive and creative (see Beth Murphy’s comment in this article) is an idiot.


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