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Sunday, August 14, 2016

Leon Bakst

The orientalist fantasy design for Scheherazade, Leon Bakst.
When we think of the fine arts in Russia, the first image that comes to mind is usually one from some Russian ballet, perhaps Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies from a Bolshoi production of The Nutcracker. If we're especially astute we might mention his Sleeping Beauty, or perhaps Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, from 1910. Having written on so many outstanding Russian painters, I might argue (and probably lose) that painters the likes of Ilya Repin, Boris Vladimirski, Konstantin Sumov, or Igor Grabar should be the names to instantly tumble off the tongue when contemplating the fine arts of Russia. Instead, others would probably insist on Russian writers or ballet dancers to lead such a train of thought. However, if we accept that the Russian ballet is the most iconic form of Russian fine art, we should also mention the name, Leon Bakst. As the preeminent Russian stage set and costume designer of the early 20th-century, he should be accorded a high place in any listing of artists contributing to the international renown of the Russian ballet.
Born in 1866 into a middle-class Jewish family, Bakst  studied at
the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and in Paris at the Academie
Julian while working as a book and magazine illustrator.
Leon Bakst came into the theatre on the wave of choreographer Michel Fokine’s revolution in Russian ballet. Fokine rejected full evening story ballets, like Swan Lake, where the story was told through mime with ballerinas wearing pink satin pointe shoes and similar tutus in a formal manner interspersed with virtuoso dances. In Fokine’s ballets, the theme dictated the style of the choreography, music and design. The dances were imbued with meaning and emotion. Bakst was a part of the creative team which produced designs suited to each particular ballet--Orientalism in Scheherazade, for example. Cleopatra demanded Egyptian scenery and costumes; while ancient Greece ruled the stage in Daphnis and ChloĆ« and Narcisse. German Biedermeier was the style and theme in Carnaval and Spectre de la Rose. The styling of the 18th-century highlighted The Good-Humoured Ladies and (below) The Sleeping Princess (Sleeping Beauty).
Sleeping Beauty set design for the awakening, Leon Bakst.
This ‘new ballet’ was an instant hit in the Paris of 1909, where audiences went wild for the color, exoticism and barbarism, of ballets designed by Bakst. By combining the skills of the set designer and the costume designer, Leon Bakst allowed Michel Fokine to bring new life to a very old, stagnating, entertainment art form, which was on the verge of no longer being very entertaining. In fact some might claim they literally saved ballet from obsolescence. Bakst's depth of knowledge and feeling for time and place allowed him to absorb the spirit of a culture and translate it into theatrical terms without destroying its essence. He used primary colors and harmonies. In the case of Scheherazade (below, 1910), Bakst created a sense of rich, fevered claustrophobia and mystery. As a painter, working with a background of closed doors, the dancers became the richly colored ‘brushstrokes,’ creating a living canvas of sensuality and decadence.
Leon Bakst's best sets--a breath of fresh air as to coordinated
set and costume design for Michel Fokine's "new ballet."
Having designed sets and costumes for Cleopatra in 1909, Bakst's work the following year in designing Scheherazade was a sensational hit with his designs spilling over into fashion and interior design. Swept away were the drab colors from the past. Bakst’s brilliant control of color, as well as line and decoration, gave his stage settings a visual rhythm never seen before. Color was used emotionally and sensuously sometimes expressed frankness and chastity, sensuality, pride, or despair. To this he mixed in subtle shadings, a "despairing" shade of green with the more intense bluish "despair." Some of his reds are triumphal, while others "assassinate" the senses. The changing mood of a scene was often accomplished by introducing colors gradually to visually parallel the emotions of the text. Serenity could be destroyed by suddenly introducing a violently opposing color as in a flash of a costume's lining or underskirt.

Bakst's themed designs for Cleopatra (1909), the Wolf from Sleeping Beauty, Firebird (1910), the Green Monster in Sadko (1917), a Chinese dancer, and (lower-left) a lady in waiting also from Sleeping Beauty.
Leon Bakst was also a consummate portrait artist (below), painting wealthy patrons of the Ballet Russes, the company for which he worked. And, as is often the case with portrait painters, there are a few chaste nudes among his canvas paintings (bottom). Though born Leyb-Khaim Izrailevich (later Samoylovich) Rosenberg, the young artist came of age at a time when Russian Jews were being persecuted. He thought it best to change his surname to something sounding less Jewish, that of his mother--Bakst. Being Jewish, he was also forced to live only in certain cites in eastern Europe, though he visited St. Petersburg frequently where he also taught at a prestigious art school. One of his students happened to be Marc Chagall. Though Bakst was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1914, he broke off his relationship with Soviet Russia and the Ballets Russes in 1922, visiting the United States where is work was being displayed. He later settling in Paris where he died in 1924.

Supper, 1902, Leon Bakst

The Slave Girl, 1872, Leon Bakst,
one of his earliest paintings.


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