- Kenneth Archer
Russian painter and stage designer of Belorussian birth. Born into a middle-class Jewish family, Bakst was educated in St Petersburg, attending a gymnasium and then the Academy of Arts (1883–6). He began professional life as a copyist and illustrator of teaching materials but quickly moved on to illustration for popular magazines. His tastes were influenced and horizons enlarged when he met Alexandre Benois and his circle in 1890. Bakst travelled regularly to various countries in Europe and North Africa and studied in Paris with a number of notable artists including the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Académie Julian and, from 1893 to 1896, the Finnish landscape painter Albert Edelfelt. Returning to St Petersburg, he became active as a book designer and fashionable portrait painter. With Benois and Serge Diaghilev he was a founder and leading member of the World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) group in 1898 and was largely responsible for the technical excellence of its influential magazine. Later he contributed graphics to such publications as Apollon and Zolotoye Runo (‘The golden fleece’). In 1906 he became a drawing teacher at Yelizaveta Zvantseva’s private art school in St Petersburg, where his pupils included Marc Chagall. The portrait of the dancer Isadora Duncan (Oxford, Ashmolean) in brush and ink, dating from her Russian tour in 1908, is typical of his draughtsmanship in its sensual and flowing movement.
Bakst realized his greatest artistic success in the theatre. Making his début with designs for stage productions at the Hermitage and Alexandrinsky theatres in St Petersburg (1902–3), he was then commissioned for several works at the Maryinsky Theatre (1903–4). In 1909 he collaborated with Diaghilev in the founding of the Ballets Russes where he acted as artistic director, and his stage designs rapidly brought him international fame. His colourful exotic costumes and décors for Diaghilev’s Schéhérazade (Paris, 1910) caused a sensation wherever the ballet was performed and prompted new fashions in dress and interior decoration. Between 1909 and 1921 he designed more Diaghilev productions than any other artist (for illustration of his design for L’Après-midi d’un faune see World of Art), and his name became inseparable from that of the Ballets Russes. He also designed for other celebrities, including the artist–producers Vera Komissarzhevskaya in 1906, Ida Rubinstein (c. 1885–1960) between 1911 and 1924 and Anna Pavlova (1881–1931) from c. 1916 to 1924. Rubinstein’s ballet Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (Paris, 1911) provided him with another spectacular triumph. He settled in Paris in 1912, having been exiled from St Petersburg where, as a Jew, he was unable to obtain a residence permit.
A dedicated professional who was able even in mid-career to make stylistic developments, Bakst was arguably the most accomplished painter, as well as designer, in the World of Art group. His early preferences were for Realist painters and Old Masters, such as Rembrandt and Velázquez. The animated line and relaxed postures in his portraiture also suggest the influence of his close friend Valentin Serov. Through Benois and his circle Bakst was attracted to ‘retrospectivism’ and Orientalism, and motifs from ancient Greece and Egypt became signatures in his easel painting and theatrical work. The Benois circle also introduced him to Symbolism and Art Nouveau. From 1900 these tendencies, and a sensuousness similar to that of Konstantin Somov, characterized his graphic ornamentation and designs for the stage. Bakst did not experiment with Cubism, abstraction or other innovations of the early 20th century, yet he modernized stage design and had many imitators. Through his kinetic forms and bold colour schemes, he integrated vertical space with the movement on stage. His costumes, though lavish, did not restrict dancers: in the manner of Isadora Duncan’s tunics, they freed the torso. However, his costumes for Diaghilev’s revival of the Imperial ballet, The Sleeping Princess (London, 1921), were appropriately traditional as may be seen from his Design for Columbine from that ballet (London, Theat. Mus.). Other examples of his designs for Diaghilev are to be found in the Australian National Gallery in Canberra.
- C. Spencer: Léon Bakst (London, 1973/R 1978) [excellent pls]
- I. N. Pruzhan: Bakst (Leningrad, 1975) [good pls]
- N. Borisovskaya: Lev Bakst (Moscow, 1979)
- J. E. Bowlt: The Silver Age: Russian Art of the Early 20th Century and the ‘World of Art’ Group (Newtonville, 1979, rev. 2/1982), pp. 216–32
- R. C. Hansen: Scenic and Costume Design for the Ballets Russes (Ann Arbor, 1985), pp. 22–30