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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Alexandre Benois

Fountains of Peterhof, 1901, Alexamdre Benois
It's kind of startling to discover that some artist from the past has painted something quite similar to your own work. It would be in terms of style, or content, or location but it's nonetheless an a fascinating surprise. It happened to me today as I was perusing the work of the Russian painter, Alexandre Benois. The painting was his Fountains of the Peterhof (above), which Benois painted more than a century ago in 1901. From all I can tell, the Peterhof, despite two world wars, the second of which left the Czarist Romanov family estate in ruins, the place hasn't changed much. Benois even chose much the same location except the opposite angle as I did. Although I admire his handling of the water, In some ways I prefer my own version to his.
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Peterhof Cascade, 2013, Jim Lane
As his title suggests, Benois emphasized the water while I, being an architectural enthusiast, placed more, or at least equal, emphasis on the palace (though the Baroque, especially Russian Baroque, is far from my favorite style of architecture). Also, being a Postmodernist, I took the opportunity to let my cascade...uhh, cascade right out over the edge of the frame (I keep a mop handy next to the painting). Benois' point of view was about a hundred feet from mine and so close to the fountain as to seem as if he may have gotten a little wet while painting it. From all appearances the 1901 czarist government put considerably more water over the cascade than does that of the present day Russian Federation. Or, perhaps Benois simply took some liberties in rendering the volume of water.
Benois' various portrait depictions (his own, and others) seems
almost to suggest he was one man, inhabiting several different bodies.
Though Alexandre Benois was an outstanding painter in the Impressionist mode of his day, he was not, in fact, primarily a painter of pretty pictures, but an art critic, historian, preservationist, and founding member of Mir iskusstva (World of Art), an art movement and magazine. Perhaps more importantly, Benois was a designer for the of sets and costumes for the Ballet Russes under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev. Alexandre was born in 1870. He grew up in St. Petersburg a member of a family in which virtually everyone was deeply immersed in the fine arts, all notable painters, architects, composers, and intellectuals as often as not.

A sampling Benois' later work designing for the ballet.
Venice, Bridge of Sighs,
Alexandre Benois
As so often happens with extremely intelligent and talented individuals, Benois did not plan a career in the arts. Instead he graduated from Saint Petersburg Imperial University, in 1894 with a law degree. On a visit to Versailles some three years later, Benois took with him a set of watercolors. Visually, Versailles is one of the most inspiring places on earth. Benois painted a series of watercolors depicting the last days of Louis XIV. Upon his return to Russia, they were immediately co-opted for display by the leg-endary art dealer and collector, Pavel Tretyakov, in 1897. Although Benois continued to edit, write, and publish (most notably an self-illustrated children's alphabet book), he also found time to begin working with the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, home of the Imperial Russian Ballet, as scenic director.

Benois Costume Designs for the ballet Le Rossignol, from 1914.
There's nothing subtle about Russian ballet least
not back then.
Alexandre Benois moved to Paris in 1905 and thereafter devoted most of his time to stage design and decoration. During the next few years, his work with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was revolutionary. His sets and costumes for the productions of Les Sylphides in 1909, Giselle in1910, and Petrushka in 1911, were among his greatest creative triumphs. Although Benois worked primarily with the Ballet Russes, he also collaborated with the Moscow Art Theatre and several other notable theaters in Europe. As a member of the Russian intelligentsia, Benois easily survived the tumultuous Russian Revolution of 1917, as he went on to achieved recognition for his fine arts scholarship, eventually assuming the position as curator of the gallery of Old Masters in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad (St. Petersburg before and after the Soviet era), where he served from 1918 to 1926. The highlight of his career was in managing to obtain for the museum his brother's Leonardo da Vinci painting of the Madonna. It has since become known as the Madonna Benois.

Water ballet?
In 1927 Benois left Russia, settling permanently in Paris where he worked primarily as a set designer until his death in 1960 at the age of ninety.

At the German Quarter, 1911, Alexandre Benois

Promenade of the Empress Elizabeth
through the Noble Streets of St.
Petersburg 1903, Alexandre Benois.


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