Sketch by León Bakst for the costume of the wolf for Tchaikovsky's ballet La Belle au Bois Dormant (The Sleeping Beauty), performed in Paris, 1921; watercolor, gouache, and gold on paper. Private Collection. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource NY)

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Bakst, Léon

(1866–1924), Russian artist. Of the many artists of the Russian Silver Age, Léon Bakst (Lev Samoilovich Rozenberg) deserves the highest acclaim for his achievements in studio painting and the applied arts. He was especially successful in portraiture, interior decoration, book illustration, haute couture, and, above all, stage design.

Born in Grodno, Bakst (who in 1899 replaced the family name with a modification of his maternal grandmother’s name of Baxter) grew up in a lower middle-class Jewish family. In 1883, when his father’s business caused the family to move to Saint Petersburg, Bakst started to audit classes at the Academy of Arts. Three years later, however, he was advised to leave after producing what was described as an “unconventional” interpretation of the Pietà for a silver medal competition. This and other analogous episodes betrayed the uncertainty of Bakst’s place in the social hierarchy and cultural establishment of Imperial Russia. Convinced of his own creative genius, Bakst never ceased to study or to grapple with ethnic bias, becoming a true citizen of the world and an artist of international reputation, thanks especially to his radical sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

As was the case with other artists and writers of his epoch such as Marc Chagall and Boris Pasternak, Bakst can also be regarded as a product of the Jewish Renaissance in Russia, when an increasing number of Jews moved from the shtetl to the metropolis, giving up Orthodox religious traditions for liberal secular behavior. Even so, only occasionally did Bakst express an immediate interest in Jewish culture and then only in theatrical contexts. For example, he designed costumes for a “Jewish Dancer” in Cléopatre (1909) and for the 1922 production of Judith at the Théâtre du Gymnase in Paris.

Although he did not graduate from the Saint Petersburg Academy, Bakst nevertheless trained in Paris in the 1890s, moved closely with the symbolist artists and writers of the World of Art group, traveled extensively in Europe, studied the art of West and East, taught at a private art school, and worked as a professional illustrator of books and magazines before joining Diaghilev’s dance company in 1909. Between that year and 1914 he designed 12 stage productions for the Ballets Russes, astonishing audiences with his richness of color and tactility of form. Bakst’s bold exposure of the dynamic force of the human body was a simple and radical development that contrasted sharply with the traditional notion of theatrical costume as disguise and ornament. If his costumes and sets were criticized at all, it was because they dominated the music and the dancing, an incongruity that Bakst himself acknowledged, as he indicated in his 1914 article, published in the Peterburgskaia gazeta, “O sovremennom teatre. Nikto v teatre bol’she ne khochet slushat’, a khochet videt’” (In the Theater No-One Wants to Listen Anymore. People Just Want to Look). Certainly Bakst was aware of the swiftness with which fashion and style changed, and sometimes he adjusted his designs to the dictates of mode and money, a compromise identifiable with his later creations such as Tchaikovsky’s 1921 ballet The Sleeping Beauty (see image at right, top).

Bakst’s success was meteoric. As early as 1903 his costume designs for Die Puppenfee (The Fairy Doll) were published widely in postcard form; 10 years later he was designing gowns for wealthy patrons and working for the most prestigious stages of Europe. Yet his talent burned itself out quickly: at the height of his fame, he remarked: “But it’s strange to feel horribly indifferent and almost despondent.” Indeed, there was something overripe and fateful about Bakst’s art, as if it mirrored not only his own morbid hypochondria, but also the crepuscular shadows of the Silver Age itself.

Suggested Reading

John E. Bowlt, Theater of Reason, Theater of Desire: The Art of Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst (Milan, 1998); Irina Pruzhan, Léon Bakst: Set and Costume Designs, Book Illustrations, Paintings and Graphic Works (New York, 1987); Alexander Schouvaloff, Léon Bakst: The Theatre Art (London, 1991); Charles Spencer, Léon Bakst and the Ballets Russes (London, 1995).