Alexander Nikolaevich Benois
Alexandre Benois was born on Apr. 21 (May 3), 1870, in St. Petersburg. He was one of the greatest Russian artists of the golden age of Russian art, an art historian, and an art critic.
Son of the architect N. L. Benois.
A. Benois studied art independently. He lived in St. Petersburg. During the years 1896–98 and 1905–07 he worked in France. Benois was one of the organizers and the ideological leader of the “World of Art” group and the journal of the same name. In his book The History of Russian Painting in the 19th Century (parts 1–2, St. Petersburg, 1901–02) and in his articles of the early 1900’s, Benois was critical of academic art. He also attacked the aesthetics of N. G. Chernyshevskii and the civic-mindedness of the pere-dvizhniki from an idealistic viewpoint. Benois saw “artistic quality” as the principal criterion for evaluating a work of art. He subsequently retreated from certain polemical evaluations that had been stressed. An ardent propagandist for the classical heritage, including Russian art of the 18th and first quarter of the 19th centuries, Benois initiated the establishment of a number of scholarly art publications and museums (for example—the collections Artisric Treasures of Russia, edited 1901–03; the journal Olden Times; and the Museum of Old Petersburg). During the prerevolutionary years he came out against extreme formalistic trends. In 1917 he began to take an active part in organizing the preservation of artistic monuments and restructuring museum work (especially in reorganizing the Hermitage, where he served as director of the picture gallery from 1918 to 1926).
A sense of the crisis in bourgeois society and the inevitability of revolutionary shocks led Benois to search for “eternal,” “lasting” spiritual and aesthetic ideals as antitheses of the contradictions of contemporary life. Combined with a penchant for the art of France of the 17th and 18th centuries and that of Russia of the 18th and first quarter of the 19th centuries, this gave his creative work a retrospective tendency. Benois was the originator of a special kind of historical painting typical of the “World of Art” group, reliable in its depiction of essential details but one-sided in its poetic reflection of the sphere of history that in each period is characteristic of its everyday life and art. Benois was attracted by the fragile beauty and grotesque fancifulness of the declining aristocratic culture (the series The Last Promenades of Louis XIV, 1897–98, and the Versailles Series, 1905–06). A melancholy irony pervades his pictures, wherein the figures of people ceremoniously promenading or bustling to and fro are counterposed to the permanent and stately beauty of perfect works of art. In the volutes of old-fashioned ornamentation and in the gestures and deportment of these people from the past, Benois saw the material expression of the spirit and poetry of an epoch that had come to an end. But his creative work did not lead to an artificial stylization; it was also connected with the general development of painting of his own time.
Benois was one of a number of reformers in the field of Russian stage-scenery painting at the turn of the 20th century (R. Wagner’s opera Die Götterdämmerung, 1903, and N. N. Cherepnin’s ballet Armida’s Pavilion, 1907, at the Mariinskii Theater in St. Petersburg). In 1908 he began designing sets for S. P. Diaghilev’s theater company in Paris (for the ballet Petrushka by I. F. Stravinsky, produced in 1911 at the Théâtre du Châtelet), and he was its art director until 1911. From 1913 to 1915 he was head of the art section and a director at the Moscow Art Theater (A Moliere Presentation, 1913, codirectors K. S. Stanislavsky and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko). In 1919 he became a director and artist at the Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet (P. I. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, 1921) and the Bol’shoi Drama Theater (C. Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, 1921) in Petrograd. Benois’s works for the theater are distinguished by their artistic integrity, refined sense of style, and meticulously conceived scenery, costumes, and stage properties. Also marked by graphic refinement are his illustrations, including the ones he did for A. S. Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman (one variation of which was published in 1923), harmonious with both the lyricism and the dramatic pathos of Pushkin’s verse.
From 1926, Benois lived in Paris until 1960, where he worked primarily on sketches of scenery and costumes for theater productions in France, Italy, and other countries.