Leon Bakst (1866-1924)
Femme Nue au Turban

Leon Bakst (1866-1924)
Femme Nue au Turban

signed and dated (lower right)
sanguine on paper
30 x 40 cm


Russian Twentieth Century and Avant Garde Art, Sotheby’s London, 6 April 1989, lot 505

Piasa, Paris, Importants tableaux anciens-dessins anciens et du XIX siecle, 14 December 1998, lot 317

The Collection of Eleanor Post Close and Antal Post de Bekessy

LEON BAKST is known for his sophisticated, imaginative, and dreamy costume designs for the Diaghilev Ballet Russes productions. Despite this, Femme Nue au Turban does not have an obvious connection to any of Bakst’s theatrical undertakings. Instead, it exposes the fascination that Bakst had for the female form, beauty and uncompromising eroticism of the naked body.

This relation to the female body, especially using nudity as a source of inspiration since the beginning of time, has been central to many artists through the history of art and Bakst is not an exception. The drawing combines several main components of Bakst’s characteristic features. The first one, even though Bakst’s art is progressive in many ways, is Bakst’s preference for old masters and his endless respect and admiration of such virtuosos as Titian and Veronese, whose works Bakst studied in Venice in 1909, as well as Velazquez and Rubens. Also, he considered as a continuation of the classical tradition the nineteenth-century French artists such as painters of the Barbizon School and especially admired Camille Corot, Theodore Rousseau and Jean-Francois Millet. Femme Nue au Turban demonstrates graceful elegance, chiaroscuro modelling which results in an expressive play of shadow and light, linear subtlety, and the fluidity of form which is emblematic of the classic, academic art which was so important to Bakst. The artist polished his drawing skills at the studio run by the famous Academician, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and also painted from models at the private academy in Paris, founded by Rodolphe Julian, whose teachers were the leading artists of Academic art. Femme Nue au Turban is clearly resembling another drawing by Bakst, made in the same year, Reclining Nude, see Figure 1, where Bakst’s classical predisposition is evident. Another significant aspect is Bakst’s deep-rooted engagement with the ballet productions and his continuing connections with the dancers. Despite the fact that the drawing is not referring to any of the Bakst’s theatrical productions, it is impossible to disregard the main direction of Bakst’s art, his earnest interests and his affections. The plasticity of the figure and her gesture, as well as delicate sensuality expressed in movement, indicates that the woman depicted on the drawing might be related to the world of dance or at least the drawing is beneficial to Bakst in that sense. During that period, around 1916, Bakst was involved in a unique kind of relationship with beautiful and graceful Flore Revalles, see Figure 2, who started as an unknown Swiss singer and later danced with the Ballet Russes in Europe and America. Bakst took the risk of presenting Revalles to Diaghilev for leading roles in his most famous productions, including Scheherazade and Cleopatra in the upcoming tour to America.

The extensive correspondence between Bakst and Revalles shows that they were discussing new costumes that Bakst was designing specifically for Revalles. Perhaps, F emme Nue au Turban was in some way a preliminary, supportive drawing for a complex designing process. Finally, and most importantly, the drawing corresponds to Bakst’s enchantment by the Orient: its culture, visual manifestations and exotic atmosphere. The artist travelled to Northern Africa as well as absorbed valuable ideas from his remarkable Orientalist mentor Jean-Léon Gérôme. Bakst’s numerous theatre productions contain design and costume elements borrowed from the Orient or inspired by it. Orientalism was a curious trend that became popular during the nineteenth century developing organically from the Romantic Movement. Though some artists, like Bakst himself or Gérôme, visited the lands that are generally included in the notion of the Orient, their works of art are, in fact, referring to the artists’ personal visions of the East rather than being an objective and authentic representation.¹ Bakst’s works skilfully evoke an alluring Orient; a mythical East with its opulent, erotic and magical aura.

One of the most archetypal subject matters concerning Orientalism was seductive, nude women, or exotic odalisques, expressing unbridled sexuality of a fabulous myth. It is not accidental that the figure on the drawing is wearing a turban. Even in the early years of his artistic career, Bakst used this motif in his portraits, as, for instance, in the Young Dahomeyan, where a woman is wearing a very similarly patterned turban. This indirect hint of exoticism, a slight scent of the distant Orient, adds special, intricate atmosphere to Femme Nue au Turban. A traditional view of the female nude in Orientalism is usually expressed in the languid, submissive pose of the odalisque as in another drawing by Bakst, The Yellow Sultana, see Figure 3, also dated 1916. The Yellow Sultana represents a sexual challenge, and not only a generic one of a distant and enticing Orient, but also an intriguing personal obsession. Though the famous Jewish femme fatale and brilliant dancer, Ida Rubenstein had the considerably different physique, the facial features of a woman depicted here are distinctly reminiscent of Rubenstein’s. This association is enhanced dramatically when the vision of Rubenstein as the Sultana Zobeide from Scheherazade is juxtaposed to the drawing. Bakst has maintained a very close, affectionate relationship with Rubenstein and elevated her position to the pinnacle of his Orientalist productions. The drawing, as well as Femme Nue au Turban, is part of the Bakst's tireless exploration of female sexuality, intense desire, exotic 'otherness', and sensuous harmony: 'In contrast to the academic and staid studies of the nude of earlier years there now appeared ecstatic drawings, the sexual organ brazenly exposed in what can only be described as post-coital poses. These are often partly-dressed in the oriental style and might be conjectured as inspirations for theatrical costumes. On the other hand, the more complete paintings of the nude, such as The Pink Sultana and The Yellow Sultana, are inspired by the original studies and the ballets, showing fully nude voluptuous females in brilliant turbans reclining suggestively on gorgeous divans and pillows'.

In order to pursue this classical and favoured theme, Bakst has chosen a more active, energised, even tense pose for the Femme Nue au Turban. Bakst is expressing his excitement and admiration of a woman’s body through a contorted, almost theatrical movement revealing her grace, physical perfection, and subtlety of gesture. The viewer cannot observe the woman’s face, and it adds to the sense of mystery and anticipation whereas The Yellow Sultana is a provocation, direct invitation and unabashed spectacle. Femme Nue au Turban feels like a more intimate experience as if being a glimpse to the artist’s studio behind the closed doors, tender praise to the female beauty with a lurking trace of Bakst’s passionate attitude towards the Orient. By all means, the drawing presents an exquisite example of beauty and harmony with Bakst’s perfect command of line and a sense of fresh immediacy of movement.