The artist who is best known for his extraordinary, exotic, and lavish costume and revolutionary stage designs for the Ballet Russes, Leon Bakst, originally Leyb son of Shmule Rosenberg, was born on 9 May in Grodno (what is now Belarus) into a bourgeois Jewish family. He was brought to St. Petersburg by his family at the very young age, although he was often claiming that he was born there. Bakst was undergoing his artistic training during 1883-1886 in the Academy of Arts in St.Petersburg, however, not officially because of his Jewish name. The artist was forced to adopt his slightly modified grandfather's surname later in life to conceal his Jewish origins. He was expelled with a tremendous scandal after displeasing the Academy's deeply conventional and apparently racially-biased authorities with his painting of Lamentation of Christ which was outrageously realistic for a representation of the religious scene and, moreover, showed all the figures as Jewish.
Following the recent death of his father, Bakst found himself as the only financial supporter of his mother, brother and sisters. This situation led him to start his professional life in 1886 as an illustrator for magazines, educational and children's books and later progress to portrait art and teaching. In 1889 Bakst had a momentous meeting, which was crucial for his subsequent development as an artist, with a Russian artist and art critic Alexandre Benois. Together, they travelled regularly within Europe, where Bakst was communicating with local artists and absorbing all the different influences and trends. Between 1891 and 1898 Bakst lived mostly in Paris and studied with a number of notable artists including Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Académie Julian. In one of his letters to Benois dated October 29, 1983, Bakst wrote quite unequivocally his views on contemporary French art: 'Manet and Olympia are very, very mediocre' and a painting by Bastien-Lepage 'very conscientious and very accurate, but it lacks the great inspiration of Millet'. However, in contrast to Bakst's opinion on French art, he was quite sure about his own abilities and usually expressed his thoughts about himself in a rather extravagant manner: 'I am certainly the greatest artist in the world. I am the Russian Veronese'.
Bakst returned to St. Petersburg in 1898 and started to get a wide recognition for his book designs and his great portraits. Benois acknowledged Bakst's exceptional, distinctive style of drawing and his brilliant imagination as a theatrical designer. Initially oriented towards the realist style and motifs used abundantly by Vladimir Makovskii, Bakst's taste was refined and influenced by the quasi-aristocratic feel of Benois-Filosofov-Diaghilev circle. Benois even argued that it was him who sparked this passion to the ballet in Bakst. Bakst was part of the circle of artists who formed the influential Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art) movement since 1889 and in 1898 the artist co-founded the Mir Iskusstva journal with Alexandre Benois and Serge Diaghilev. This new phase in Bakst's career as a graphic editor allowed him to concentrate mostly on the graphic arts and illustrations for the journal until 1904. Together with Benois and K.A. Somov Bakst revolutionised the design of books and journals in Russia and this particular style dominated the scene of the graphic arts in Russia for next twenty years. Rich, sensuous Classicism was Bakst's trademark. Apparently, Bakst was familiar with Viennese Ver Sacrum magazine and its linear, fluid, organic drawings with classical columns, motifs and decorative draped figures reminiscent of Ancient Greece, were of great influence on Bakst's graphic arts.
Although Bakst was interested in theatre from the early childhood, a great patron of the arts and powerful industrialist, Savva Mamontov spurred the enthusiastic interest towards theatrical production among the Mir Iskusstva artists and Bakst was not an exception. In the early 1900s, Bakst worked for the Hermitage and made his debut with the stage design for Alexandrinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Later, he also had commissions from the Mariinsky Theatre in 1903-1904. In 1906, while being engaged with theatrical productions, Bakst participated in a grand travelling exhibition of Russian art organised by Diaghilev and was preparing the Russian section of the annual art exhibition, the Salon d'Automne in Paris. Also, in 1906 he started to teach drawing at the renowned and progressive Elizaveta Zvantseva's School of Art and Marc Chagall was later one of Bakst's students.
Leon Bakst is best known for his stage designs for the Ballets Russes, the pioneering company founded by impresario Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. Bakst began his collaboration with Diaghilev as the artistic director of the company and Bakst's brilliant and exotic creations for the Ballets Russes brought him international fame and influenced fashions in dress and interior decoration for many years to come. His original, sumptuous and colourful costume designs for Michel Fokine's ballet Cléopâtre (1909) and Diaghilev's Sheherazade (1910) introduced violent and at the same time sensuous Orientalism into fashion. Bakst's work in his other most notable productions such as Le Carnaval (1910), Daphnis et Chloé (1912) and L'après-midi d'un faune (1912) is full of theatricality, magnificence and imagination. There seems little doubt that the Ballet Russes fame and success has benefited greatly from the powerful support of Bakst's stage décor and costumes. It can be said with confidence that Bakst is the most distinguished theatrical artist and designer of the 20th century.
Bakst settled in Paris in 1912, after being exiled from Russia because of his Jewish ancestry and died on 27 December 1924 at the age of fifty-eight.
Benois, A. (1947). Reminiscences of the Russian ballet, by Alexandre Benois. Translated by Mary Britnieva. London, Putnam.
Ingles, E., Manzo, J. and Bakst, L. (2000). Bakst. London: Parkstone Press.
Kennedy, J. (1977). The "Mir iskusstva" group and Russian art, 1898-1912. New York: Garland Pub.
Lieven, P. (2010). The birth of the Ballets-Russes. [Hampshire, England]: Noverre Press.
Spencer, C. (1973). Bakst. London: Fine Art Society.