Léon Bakst, Mir Iskusstva and the Theatre of Art

Léon Bakst (1917), by Amedeo Modigliani

Léon Bakst was a Russian painter and scene and costume designer of Belarusian origin. In the mid-1890s, Bakst became a member of the circle of writers and artists known as Mir iskusstva, or “World of Art.”

“Members of the World of Art Movement”, by Boris Kustodiev(1916-1920). From left to right: Igor GrabarNicholas RoerichEugene Lanceray, Kustodiev, Ivan BilibinAnna Ostroumova-LebedevaAlexandre BenoisHeorhiy NarbutKuzma Petrov-VodkinNikolay MiliotiKonstantin Somov and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky

The World of Art was both an art movement and art magazine active between 1898 and 1904. The art movement was founded in 1898 by a group of students from the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg. These students included: Alexandre Benois, Konstantin Somov, Dmitry Filosofov, Léon Bakst and Eugene Lansere. The aim of this art movement was twofold: First, these artists wanted to address the low artistic standards of their predecessors the Wanderers. Second, the members wanted to consolidate all Neo-Romantic Russian artists under one banner. The subjects of particular interest to these artists were carnivals, dreams and fairy tales. The idea was to create the concept of painting as a magical experience. They turned their attention to the extravagant rococo world of 17th century France and Catherine the Great’s Russia, where the endlessly theatrical worlds of masquerade existed.

The magazine, called Mir Iskusstva, was co-founded in 1899 in St. Petersburg by Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev, who served as editor in chief. Sergei Diaghilev was a very successful promoter of the arts. It was mainly due to Diaghilev’s efforts that the World of Art became so successful and he most certainly was behind the financing of the magazine. Diaghilev organized art exhibitions under the name of Mir Iskusstva. These exhibitions would travel to Paris and often throughout Europe giving Russian artists exposure that they never would have had without Diaghilev’s efforts. These exhibitions attracted not only Russian painters but many illustrious painters from abroad. Some of the most notable Russian painters were Valentin Serov, Mikhail Vrubel, Mikhail Nesterov and Isaac Levitan. The magazine gave Diaghilev a vehicle to advertise his artistic projects and it gave the members of the World of Art a place to talk about their theories on art. By expanding the thematic borders of art, these artists were able to use their magazine to revolutionize Russian art. Bakst’s graphics for this publication brought him fame. 

Diaghilev also produced concerts, operas and his famous Ballets Russes. The members of the World of Art designed book covers, stage sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Artists like Léon Bakst and Alexander Golovin became particularly famous for their work in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The theater designs these artists created also greatly influenced their paintings. – Excerpt from Cathy Locke, Editor Musings-on-art.org

Léon Bakst belonged to a young generation of European artists who rebelled against 19th-century stage realism, sparking a revolution in theatre design. His fame lay in the sets and costumes he designed for Serge Diaghilev’s (1872 – 1929) legendary dance company the Ballets Russes, and his huge pageant spectaculars for the dancer and patron of the performing arts, Ida Rubinstein (1883 – 1960).

“It is goodbye to scenery designed by a painter blindly subjected to one part of the work, to costumes made by any old dressmaker who strikes a false and foreign note in the production; it is goodbye to the kind of acting, movements, false notes and that terrible, purely literary wealth of details which make modern theatrical production a collection of tiny impressions, without that unique simplicity which emanates from a true work of art”.

Léon Bakst

Costume Design

Ladurée à-la Russe, Moscow, Russia. AntennaDaily.

Set Design

Beginning in 1909, Bakst worked mostly as a stage-designer, designing sets for Greek tragedies. In 1908, he gained attention as a scene-painter for Diaghilev with the Ballets Russes. He produced scenery for Cleopatra (1909), Scheherazade (1910), Carnaval(1910), Narcisse (1911), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), L’après-midi d’un faune (1912) and Daphnis et Chloé (1912).

Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1909 Ballets Russes production of Cléopâtre. 
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1910 Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1910 Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1910 Ballets Russes production of Scheherazade
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1910 Ballets Russes production of Carnaval
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1911 Ballets Russes production of Narcisse
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1912 Ballets Russes production of L’après-midi d’un faune
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1912 Ballets Russes production of Daphnis and Chloe, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University
Léon Bakst’s set design for the 1912 Ballets Russes production of Daphnis and Chloe, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Bakst Theatre, Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University. Photography by Norman Barker and James T. Van Rensselaer; image courtesy of Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University

In 1922, Bakst broke off his relationship with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. During this year, he visited Baltimore and, specifically Evergreen House — the residence of his American friend Alice Garrett. Garrett became Bakst’s representative in the United States upon her return home in 1920, 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 the dining room of Evergreen into a shocking acidic yellow and ‘Chinese’ red confection. The artist transformed the house’s small c. 1885 gymnasium into a colourfully Modernist private theatre. This is believed to be the only extant private theatre designed by Bakst.

Bakst Theatre Hall, Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University. Photography by Norman Barker and James T. Van Rensselaer; image courtesy of Evergreen Museum & Library, The Johns Hopkins University

Long form articles:

https://www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/2-2017-55/leon-bakst-and-writer-russian-silver-age

https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2017/leon-bakst-designs-ballets-russes

https://musings-on-art.org/mir-iskusstva-the-world-of-art

https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/léon-bakst-design-for-the-ballet

https://www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/1-2008-18/words-magic-literary-heritage-leon-bakst

Leon Bakst and The Ballets Russes

Spencer, Charles

Published by Academy Editions, London (1995)

ISBN 10: 1854903489 ISBN 13: 9781854903488

The Decorative Art of Leon Bakst

Arsene Alexandre

Published by Dover Publications, Inc. (1973)

ISBN 10: 0486228711 ISBN 13: 9780486228716

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