Leon Bakst was known for his decorative paintings and designs for theaters. He was one of the first Russian artists to have specialized in creating decorative art for stage producers like Sergei Diaghilev and for a Russian ballet company. However, during his lifetime, he was considered to be an underrated artist trying to rebel against the ordinariness of realism movement.
Bakst was an expert in decorative and extravagant art. His designs were always elaborate and one of its kind, which constitutes the Slavonic Orientalism in Russia. He mixed contemporary and traditional Russian art so as to inspire nationalism among his audience and dancers. In no time, he would become Diaghilev’s artistic director, putting him on the pedestal of his career although at the time he would still not be as popular as many of his contemporaries such as Vrubel and Borisov-Musatov. He became popular for stage designs and productions throughout his mature years, especially when he did the design for Sleeping Beauty ballet of 1921 in London.
As he was a designer, he also developed a penchant for graphic art. He became one of the founders of the renowned World of Art with the financial assistance of Savva Mamontov. Bakst was no less than deserving of all the accolades he received from his contemporaries, especially when it comes to his talent in sketching and drawing. In fact, he was the man behind the visual success of Ballet Russes by pioneering some designs of theatrical costumes and scenes.
Leon Bakst undoubtedly made a huge impact into the 20th century Russian art. Some of his important portrait paintings include Zinaida Gippius (1906) and Andrei Bely (1905). He was particularly famous for his costume designs such as The Firebird (1910), Costume of Cleopatre for Ida Rubinstein (1909), Costume for Sleeping Beauty (1921), and Costume for Nijinsky in his Role in La Peri.
Born on May 10, 1866, Leon Samoylovich Rosenberg grew up in Grodno to a middle class family of Jewish origin. The name Bakst was derived from his mother’s maiden name, in his effort to hide his Jewish-ness by surname. And so beginning 1889, he had been using the said pseudo-surname.
Bakst may have acquired his taste and talent for costume design from his grandfather who was a well-known tailor for the Tsar. The young Bakst would pay a visit to his grandfather’s estate In St. Petersburg every Saturday. He admitted to being amazed by the grandeur and beauty of that house which explains why he would often return to that place.
During his younger years, he won a drawing competition. This was a pivotal moment for him because it made him decide to become a painter. After completing his primary education he entered the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts to advance his arts education, although he was just a non-credit student. Unfortunately he did not make it to the official entry at the time so he decided to find employment as an illustrator of books. In 1883, Bakst had finally made it to the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts and finished the course by 1886.
Leon Bakst began his career as a professional illustrator. He then moved on to painting portraits for different clients and teach at some point. During his private teaching career, he taught Marc Chagall, a reputable Jewish painter. In 1890 he was invited to exhibit his water color painting in Paris. There, he took the opportunity to study at the Academie Julian and was mentored by Jean-Leon Gerome and landscapist Albert Edelfelt.
During the early 20th century, he would come back and forth to St. Petersburg because he wanted to expand his circle of local artists. He joined a group called the Mir Iskusstva founded by Alexandre Benois and Sergei Diaghilev. He’d become great friends with the two but established a solid career with Diaghilev later on. Additionally, he was a member of the Society of Watercolorists with whom he’d exhibited some of his works for during the 1890’s.
His association with Diaghilev provided him much reputation and success. The co-founder organized an exhibition called the First Exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists in 1898, where Bakst had also showcased his early works. Although he was an active member of these groups he joined in, he still found time to travel extensively to the Iberian Peninsula, Tunisia, Greece, Algeria and Germany.
In 1898, Bakst went full time with doing illustrations and graphic designs for the World of Art magazine. He worked closely with Diaghilev designing costumes and props for the director’s theater plays such as Leo Delibes’s Sylvia, a ballet production. This helped Bakst to debut his career in theater successfully that he quickly grew in demand in the local art scene.
Around 1902, he worked for Alexandrinsky and Hermitage theaters as a designer. A couple of years after he completed a series of theatrical sets for Maryinsky Theater. During this period, he produced Carnival in Paris, a major commission he received from Tsar Nicholas II. The painting would be one of his most significant works because it was made to honor Admiral Avellan and the Navy. Also within that decade he painted a series of portraits for Russian scholars such as the poet Andrei Bely, philosopher Vasily Rozanov, and Zinaida Gippius.
Leon Bakst was introduced to theater during the revolutionary period of Russian ballet, in which choreographer Michel Fokine was extremely popular. Fokine turned away from doing evening story ballets such as the Swan Lake. His ballet changed the Russian theater landscape by creating themes that must dictate the dance style, design and music instead of the other way around.
This groundbreaking approach required lots of room for creativity and Bakst had been part of the creative team responsible for designing costumes suitable for a certain dancer. He produced such works for plays like Ancient Greece in Daphnis, Chloe and Narcisse, Sleeping Beauty, The Good-Humored Ladies, Orientalism in Scheherazade and Cleopatra, and Biedermeier in Carnival and Spectre de la Rose.
Arguably, Leon Bakst and Michel Fokine introduced this new ballet not only to Russia but to France and other countries. In fact, this ballet was a box office hit in Paris in 1909 as the audience was visually compelled by the sight of vivid color, barbarism and totally strange theatrical designs necessary to tell a dramatic story.
Toward the latter part of the early 20th century, Bakst’s focus was on theatrical art. He worked with Benois and Diaghilev from 1909 onwards. Together, they have founded the Ballets Russes but it was Bakst who assumed the artistic director role manning the overall designing task for Diaghilev’s productions. But it was with Fokine when he became really famous, particularly when he designed the costumes and props for Scheherazade of 1910. As an independent artist, it is possible that Bakst had had other jobs on the side line.
In 1912, Leon Bakst was sent to exile in Paris for his Jewish origin. At the time Jews were not allowed to obtain a permanent residence permit in St. Petersburg. A couple of years later, while making the Parisian audience go wild with his appealing costumes and set designs, he was appointed as a member of the prestigious Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg.
By 1919, Bakst would have been too old to continue being on tour with his theater company. One of his last major work was the designs he did for Sleeping Beauty in 1921 in London. In 1922, he decided to leave the Ballets Russes for good and went to the United States to re-connect with Alice Warder Garrett, an art patron.
As he went to the US, he stayed in Baltimore to do some interior designing job for Garrett. He helped in the design of Modernist private theater and then as soon as he finished it he returned to France. At this point of his career, his creative passion was fading already which might be an effect of having been suffering from lung cancer at the time. He died of the said disease on December 27, 1924. His body was buried in Batignoles, Paris.
Leon Bakst was a man of great coloring and art décor. With his designs, a theater stage would transform into an exotic place of emotion and sensibility. His visual rhythm as how experts would call it express a mix of emotion such as despair, chastity, pride and sensuality. He did it by combining soft shadings of green and blue for despair, reds for pride and victory, while the other varying moods are expressed with other shades gradually.
As for the costumes, Bakst designed them elaborately with a variety of shapes and motifs. The texture looks dense and embroidered with materials such as sequins, raffles, pearls, studs, and other jewels. The fitting and tailor of the finished costume would seem unconventional but this was Bakst’s attempt to help the wearer change make-up in the most practical way possible. Exposing the arms with the ¾ sleeve length can make such things possible.
In 1910, Bakst fomented collaboration with the French tailor Mme Muelle. He would run to Muelle whenever there was a need for costume and set preparation for the productions of Ida Rubinstein and Diaghilev in Paris.