The Pushkin State Museum of Arts in Moscow is featuring an exhibition dedicated to the 150th birthday of Léon Bakst (1866–1924). Bakst was a Russian theatrical designer, painter, portraitist, book illustrator, interior designer and fashion designer in the 1910s and 20s. He published numerous articles on contemporary design and dance, was also interested in photography and the cinema, and wrote an autobiographical novel. Being fond of the art of Ancient Greece and the Orient, Bakst’s art merged classical motifs with the eccentricity of Art Nouveau.
Bakst was born in Grodno (today Belarus), to a middle-class Jewish family. His grandfather was an exceptional tailor, good enough to receive a special post from the Czar, and owned a large mansion in Saint Petersburg. After his parents had moved to Moscow, Léon would visit his grandfather’s house every Saturday, later reporting how impressed by it he had been as a youngster and how much pleasure he experienced there. At the age of twelve, Léon won a drawing contest and decided to become a painter, but his parents did not support his decision. He nevertheless studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as a noncredit student, because he had failed the entry exams, working part-time as a book illustrator. He was eventually admitted in 1883, at the tender age of 17.
At the time of his first exhibition (1889) Léon took the surname Bakst, derived from his mother’s maiden name, seeing as his father’s surname, Rosenberg, wasn’t helping his career in Russia’s art world. In 1893 he moved to Paris, studying at the Académie Julian, but still visiting his grandfather in Saint Petersburg often. In 1899, he co-founded with Sergei Diaghilev the influential periodical Mir Iskusstva, or World of Art. His graphics for this publication brought him great fame.
Bakst preferred to live in western Europe because, as a Jew, he did not have the right to live permanently outside the Pale of Settlement. During his visits to Saint Petersburg he taught in Zvantseva’s school, where one of his students was Marc Chagall.
Beginning in 1909, Bakst worked mostly as stage-designer, designing sets for Greek tragedies, and, in 1908, he made a name for himself as a scene-painter for Diaghilev with the Ballets Russes. In 1914, Bakst was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Arts. In 1922, Bakst broke off his relationship with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.
Bakst visited Baltimore in 1922, staying with his friend and patron, art philanthropist Alice Warder Garrett. Having met in Paris in 1914, when Mrs. Garrett was accompanying her diplomat husband in Europe, Bakst soon depended on his new American friend as both a confidante and an agent. Alice Garrett became Bakst’s representative in the United States, organizing two exhibitions of the artist’s work at New York’s Knoedler Gallery, as well as subsequent traveling shows. When in Baltimore, Bakst re-designed Garrett’s dining room in a shocking acidic yellow and ‘Chinese’ red confection. The artist subsequently went on to transform a small gymnasium on the grounds into a colorfully Modernist private theater.
This first retrospective exhibition of the artist to be shown in Russia includes more than 200 paintings, drawings, theatrical costumes and archive photos of Léon Bakst from Russian and Western state and private collections, gathered together by an international group of curators..
In late 2010, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London presented an exhibit of Bakst’s costumes and prints.JNi.Media