NEW YORK, NY -- Leon Bakst was born in 1866 in a provincial city in western Russia. With family connections in St. Petersburg, he moved there in his mid-teens to work as a book illustrator, eventually gaining admission to the Imperial Academy of Art in 1883.
After working and exhibiting his art in St. Petersburg for ten years, Bakst traveled to Paris, where he enrolled at the Académie Julian. This remarkable private art school attracted aspiring artists from all of Europe and America, offering serious training in the arts to people of all backgrounds in an atmosphere that welcomed new ideas. Bakst’s primary teacher there was the academic Orientalist Jean-Léon Gérôme, from whose instruction he developed an intense interest in the Middle East. The years in which Bakst lived in Paris also saw the rise of the Art Nouveau movement, which made an indelible impression on his visual imagination.
When he returned to St. Petersburg four years later, Bakst was soon drawn into a group of artists and writers that included two immensely gifted younger men, Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois. Together, these three founded the magazine World of Art, which advocated Aestheticism as a principle, with a particular emphasis on the Art Nouveau style.
When Diaghilev was appointed assistant to the director of the Imperial theaters in 1899, he brought Bakst with him as a costume designer. This position offered Bakst a good showcase for his work, which led to employment in other theatrical companies as well.
Starting in 1905 Diaghilev, a natural impresario, began to organize exhibitions of Russian art, music and opera in Paris, sparking a craze for all things Russian. When in 1909 he launched his “Saison Russe,” a series of Russian ballet performances, he again hired Bakst as a designer. Saison Russe was such a success that the following year Diaghilev formed a permanent ballet company, the now-legendary Ballets Russes, which would continue in operation until his death in 1929. During the company’s first five years, Bakst was its principal designer, and in this role he became internationally famous.
One ballet presented during the 1909 Saison Russe was Cléopâtre (Une Nuit d’Egypte), for which Bakst designed a series of striking, exotic costumes. His drawings for these (Costume Design from Cléopâtre; Dancer in Harem Pants and Turban [lot 7 and lot 8]) are Middle-Eastern in inspiration rather than Ancient Egyptian. Remarkably, they show the dancers in motion, leaping and turning, swirling their capes about them in a series of whiplash curves that recall the artist’s love of Art Nouveau, and also suggest something of the production’s famously innovative choreography.
The following year Bakst designed costumes for Schéhérazade, a ballet set in Medieval Persia. The drawings for these are more richly colored than the designs for Cléopâtre, and the dancers shown (Woman in Blue and Chartreuse; Woman in Brown and Blue [lot 5 and lot 6]) are more fancifully deployed than ever, now seeming to float weightlessly in the air. In 1912 Diaghilev, always on the lookout for new talent, recruited the German composer Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal to create a ballet dramatizing the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. The result was La Légende de Joseph, which debuted at the Paris Opéra in May 1914. Like his costumes for Cléopâtre, Bakst’s designs for this ballet do not exhibit the slightest Ancient Egyptian character. Instead, they are fantastic confections that suggest opulent 18th-century court dress. His design for the costume of Potiphar’s wife (lot 9), for example, is an extravaganza of puffed sleeves, flounces and embroidery in black, white, silver and teal, crowned with a tricorn hat trailing a cascade of scarves and lappets.
The First World War nearly brought an end to the Ballets Russes. To make up for lost patronage in Europe, the ever-inventive Diaghilev embarked on a series of tours of North and South America, creating considerable interest in the ballet in the Western Hemisphere. He also embraced more Modernist styles in his sets and costumes, commissioning artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Derain to design his new productions.
Modernism had no attraction for Bakst; once Diaghilev moved in that direction Bakst was increasingly less involved in the Ballets Russes, finally leaving the company for good in 1922. Today, however, Leon Bakst remains the iconic Ballets Russes designer, his costumes and sets exemplifying the characteristic style of the company’s first sensational years in Paris.
The auction of Important Paintings on December 2, 2020 offers six works by Leon Bakst from the Property from the Collection of Dr. Abraham & Carolyn Schlossman.