Leon Bakst stayed in Paris on several occasions before 1909, but the West discovered him through the first shows of Diaghilev’s company, the Ballets Russes. The stage designs and costumes for Cleopatra (1909) and, especially, Sheherazade (1910), immediately made Bakst’s reputation as an avant-garde stage designer and “magician of colours” (Gabriele D’Annunzio); that reputation remained solid until the First World War. All the stages and companies that were most in the public eye asked to benefit from his talent. A discerning and passionate reader of classical texts, Bakst worked for all types of stage designs (ballet, opera, theatre, revue, etc.) and for theatres around the world, drawing stage designs and costumes for over seventy shows, and, from 1910, sometimes also writing ballet plots.
In addition to his work for the Ballets Russes,
Bakst entered into an ongoing collaboration with the dancer Anna Pavlova, as
well as with the dancer, choreographer, and patron Ida Rubinstein. Bakst was on
bad terms with Diaghilev, who baulked at paying him, took him to task for his
outside commitments, and blamed him for the failure of Sleeping Beauty. In 1921 Bakst broke away from the Ballets Russes and found a new protector in the
director of the Paris Opera, Jacques Rouché. His colossal work drew on various sources
(the East, Antiquity, and the Great Masters), whilst offering a very personal
and original æsthetic synthesis that gave such a singular identity to the Bakst
For the initial seasons of the Ballets Russes, Bakst was entrusted with stage and costume designs for ballets, and to a far lesser degree for operas, with a heavy load of exoticism and eroticism. By staging such works in Paris, Diaghilev put himself in tune with the Orientalism of the time and flattered the tastes of the Western public, which had been accustomed to such spectacles since the 19th century. The shows had the expected success. Bakst also found fertile ground there for his theories on symbolism and the emotional power of colours: “I have often noticed that in each colour of the prism, there is a gradation that sometimes expresses frankness and chastity, sometimes sensuality and even bestiality, sometimes pride, sometimes despair. It can be suggested by the use one makes of the various nuances. That is what I tried in Sheherazade. Against a lugubrious green, I placed a blue full of despair, much as it may seem paradoxical. […] There is the blue of a Mary Magdalene, and there is the blue of a Messalina!”The failure of the The Blue God (1912), with its the stage design reminiscent of the temples of Angkor and Fokine’s choreography conjuring up Indian statuary, put an end to the exotic large-scale productions that Bakst designed for the Ballets Russes. It is for others that, from time to time, he returned to such an inspiration: Aladdin and the Magic Lamp (1919) for Georges Thenon, who was nicknamed Rip, and The Bewitching Night (1923) for the Paris Opera.
When he turned away from the East, Bakst explored the ancient sources that inspired the productions in which he had collaborated in Russia many years previously. He also took advantage of a trip he made to Greece and Crete in 1907. The trip would have a strong influence on the theoretical designs he would express in “Les formes nouvelles du classicisme en art” (“The New Forms of Classicism in Art”), published in French in 1910: “Such new impressions! They are unexpected, they take all our previous ideas about Hellas of the Heroic Era, ideas which are still in the Saint Petersburg era, and turn them upside down, set them at six sevens – we are forced to modify everything, to bring order, to classify.”Narcissus (1911) and Daphnis and Chloe (1912), which he designed with the choreographer Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes, are homages to a picturesque Ancient Greece, carefully rendered with its temples, its spectacular sites, its Mediterranean vegetation, and its Bacchantes and Bœotian women playing with swirling, multicoloured veils. In The Afternoon of a Faun (1912), staged in close collaboration with Vaslav Nijinsky, Bakst prioritised colour over accuracy of drawing, and he set up on stage something that Sergei Grigoriev, stage manager for the Ballets Russes, called “an archaic Greek bas relief in movement”. The æsthetic of “Faun” continued in two shows born of Bakst’s collaboration with Ida Rubinstein: Helen of Sparta (1912) and Phædra (1923), based on very explicit Mycenæan and Minoan models.
At the same time as he was suffering the shock of the First World War, Bakst had to deal with new competitors within the Ballets Russes: from 1914, the set designers Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who came from Moscow; and from 1917, painters from the Parisian avant-garde (Picasso, Derain, Matisse, etc.). Bakst’s correspondence with Diaghilev shows the deterioration in their relationship and the growing lack of understanding between the impresario and his stage designer, whose work seemed marked by a sort of return to order. That work would henceforth be based on the Grand Masters of classical art. The costumes for The Good-Humoured Ladies (1917) made reference to 18th century Venetian painting, especially the work of Pietro Longhi; the stage designs for Sleeping Beauty for Anna Pavlova (1916) and for the Ballets Russes (1921) were impregnated with the art of the Baroque stage designers of the Bibiena family, whilst the costumes called to mind 17th century France.
The commercial failure of the London production
of Sleeping Beauty signalled the end
of Bakst’s collaboration with the Ballets Russes. Henceforth, the stage
designer would not seem to be attuned to public taste or to the developments in
the plastic arts of the time. Until his premature death at the age of 58, Bakst
would strive to show that his talent was intact, in particular with the work
that he carried out with Jacques Rouché, Director of the Paris Opera.
Bakst’s genius lay not only in his art as a colourist, but also in his ability to merge various sources of influence to create a universe that was all his own. Les Orientales (1910) and Thamar (1912) are examples drawn from many others, but the most complete was doubtless The Firebird (1910), which offers subtle blend of Russian tales with the legends and iconography of the fabled birds from Indian mythology.Bakst collaborated regularly with the choreographer Michel Fokine, and he also worked with a high degree of accord with Vaslav Nijinsky, who, in 1912, replaced Fokine as choreographer of the Ballets Russes. The two artists worked so closely together that it is difficult to tell which of them is the source of genius in The Afternoon of a Faun (1912). Bakst was responsible for the stage design, but Nijinsky appears to have given very precise instructions for its implantation, very close to the edge of the stage, in order to reinforce the frieze effect. Both of them also wanted to portray a plausible Antiquity by turning to archæological sources: the character of the Faun is inspired by a marble group, Aphrodite, Pan, and Eros, which was discovered in Delos a few years before the stage designer’s trip to Greece; to draw up the choreography, Nijinsky and Bakst scoured the galleries of the Louvre to look for ancient models, whether Greek, Egyptian, or Assyrian.
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