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Part III. The decorative arts

Leon Bakst’s stage success brought about a fashion that was applied even in apartments, hangings, and cushions. Marcel Proust echoed it in his description of Count Charles de Polignac’s interiors in A Remembrance of Things Past. Sensitive to the decorative arts from his youth, Bakst incorporated their logic into all his creations, whether pictorial or applied, and he did not hesitate to collaborate with the perfumer François Coty and the master glassmaker and great jeweller René Lalique.

The chromatic richness of his palette and his taste for ornamental detail created an unusual style that underwent constant renewal, a style that brought together the advances of his era and the research he carried out for the shows with which his name is associated. Haunted by his meeting with Pyotr Tchaikovsky when putting on Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Bakst ceaselessly revisited Charles Perrault’s tale. He brought it to the stage in New York, London, and Paris, and illustrated on the decorative panels of the London house of James de Rothschild. In 1921, the scarf with which the dancer Caryathis - the future Elise Jouhandeau – plays on the poster that he designed for a show by Erik Satie summed up the æsthetic of his drawings representing the Bacchantes of Narcissus and Nijinsky in The Afternoon of a Faun.

Mundanity and fashion

In 1889, Bakst, who was then aged 23, was introduced into the aristocratic society of Imperial Russia. One of his first students and patrons, Count Dmitry Benkendorff, presented him to Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, President of the Imperial Academy of Arts and brother of Tsar Alexander III. Later, Bakst put on shows in Saint Petersburg for Tsar Nicolas II and his wife.

In France, from 1909 onwards, Bakst socialised with Robert de Montesquiou, the arbiter of Parisian elegance, who wrote poems about him. He became a familiar figure at the salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, frequented by Countess Greffulhe, Misia Sert, and the Marchioness Casati. He decorated the interiors of those who became his main sponsors; on occasion, he would also draw and paint them. His portrait art, which was sometimes food art, always mixed realism and stylisation.

At the same time, Bakst’s work for the stage influenced couturiers like Paul Poiret, whilst other fashion designers drew directly from him; thus it was that he gave Jeanne Paquin a collection entitled “Fantasises on Modern Costume”. Bakst returned to being a “theoretician” when publications like Vogue asked him for his opinion on trends in women’s fashion. Finally, for the Marchioness Casati, he designed eccentric and spectacular outfits for themed balls, and for Misia Sert, he designed hat models for ordinary life.

Influence and posterity

From the 1910s onwards, the Bakst style set an example in Paris, London, Monte Carlo, and New York. As Jean Cocteau wrote: “Leon Bakst’s triumph swept across our stages and replaced grey dust with new dust, gold dust with bright colours.”

Bakst was imitated, sometimes to the point of parody, by George Barbier, Joseph Pinchon, Maxime Dethomas, and Jean-Gabriel Domergue, who followed him in working at the Odéon, the Apollo, and Opéra. The artist complained bitterly about the matter in his correspondence.

Furthermore, Bakst had a studio and students whom he taught, as reported by his disciple Marc Chagall, the need not to copy and, first and foremost, to be themselves. Among them were André Barsacq, director and stage designer, and André Bakst, his son, who worked for the theatre and the cinema.

Bakst’s influence is still felt in the world of haute couture; in our time, it continues to influence the most varied artists: Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix, John Galliano for Dior, and Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé have paid him homage through their designs.

Bakst’s genius drew most closely upon archaic sources that he was able to make his own. Through ephemeral works, Bakst’s genius seized, not upon fashion, but upon that which can never be out of fashion.


Partie III
Partie III 5 images
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