Lev (Leon)

Russia • 1866−1924
Feel free to send all the lovers to divide art into high and low, speak dismissively of fashion and assure that only exquisite people love theaters, and that “all kinds of rags” are stupid women, to the lifestory of Leon Bakst. Tell them to read Bakst’s biography and admire his theatrical sketches, tell them that harem pants, turbans and dresses with a high cut came to the world of fashion from the theater, and Leon Bakst brought them - a Russian artist who was expelled from St. Petersburg because of Jewishness, a legendary designer of Diaghilev’s “Russian Seasons”, a man who conquered Paris and America, the Jewish boy Leib-Haim Izrailevich.

When Bakst was not Bakst yet

Leib Haim (Leon or Lev) Izrailevich Rosenberg. That was the name of the child born in 1866 in the provincial town of Grodno in the large family of a Jewish businessman. Troubles weren’t limited to just a name. Being a very little boy, he took up a pencil, and since the Torah didn’t allow depicting people, the painted human figures found in a stack of paper did not please his father.

Bakst was short for Baxter, the surname of his maternal grandfather, who made an undeniable impact on the future artist. The grandfather was a well-known tailor, he lived in Paris for a long time, and he furnished his house in Petersburg according to Parisian style. When the parents discovered that nightmare and horror - the little boy decided to draw people, Levushka asked for protection from his grandfather, and received it. The grandfather not only allowed him to draw and admire paintings hanging on the walls at home, but managed to raise a grain of doubt with regard to his parents: maybe the child really had talent? And the boy possessed that talent, without a doubt, and therefore The Russian Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, where he enrolled (though only as a volunteer), became the logical step.

A few years later, he had to leave the Academy because his work on a religious subject “did not correspond to the canons”. But what was hidden behind the official wording? Lev Rosenberg worked on the painting “The Mourning of Christ” (the work is not preserved), and all the human subjects in that painting were distinguished by typical Jewish facial features. Obviously, he didn’t go against either historical or artistic truth; however, the Academy leadership wasn’t really fond of such liberty. Nevertheless, it was for the better. His parents parted ways, and the young man provided for his family himself. It was crucial to immediately make use of his talent in order to earn money, and he found a job of a children’s book designer.

Leon Bakst and “The World of Art”

Even during his studies, Lev Rosenberg entered the society of scuba divers under the leadership of Albert Benois. However, another thing was much more important: there he met Albert’s younger brother, Shura. Yes, the very Alexandre Benois, with whom they would become the founders of “The World of Art” movement, and later, together with Diaghilev, also a member of the Benois circle, would publish the magazine of the same name. Actually, in the house of Albert Benois, the core of the movement was formed. The “World of Art” opposed the moralizing and accusatory intonations of the Peredvizhniki art movement (often called the Wanderers) and advocated pure beauty. But when did Rosenberg become Bakst? In 1889, he was invited to participate in a joint exhibition of Russian and Finnish artists. Remembering his failure at the Academy, Lev gave that a lot of thought. He wanted to be remembered, but, as his life had already shown, it was not necessary to make an emphasis on nationality... He cut off the name of his grandfather and became Bakst. Then the artist “chose” the patronymic which was more harmonious. And later, in France, Lev was replaced by Leon.

Bakst’s first overseas tour took place in 1891. The order for the royal court brought him some money. And until the 1900s, he used every opportunity to live in Paris and visited St. Petersburg from time to time. However, during those arrivals he painted wonderful portraits, gained fame as a talented portrait painter, taught at the Zvantseva School of Drawing and Painting, where Marc Chagall became his most famous student. And at the same time, Bakst became famous for posterity as the very man who seemed to actively dissuade Chagall from moving to Paris: “Nobody needs you there; you’ll be starved to death.” There were different versions about that (to the extent that Bakst gave Chagall money for a trip to Paris), but one could not but admit that Bakst’s appeals to pay attention to the line clearly did not pass by his famous student.

The artist’s personal life

Bakst was a passionate man. Without going into too much detail, it should be noted that in bohemian society (in particular, among the “Russian Seasons”), in addition to artistic passions, there also were some sensual passions. And those passions, considering those times when there wasn’t a lot of place for tolerance, were pretty much untraditional. Bakst was not engaged in anything like that; he was exclusively interested in women. In Paris, a young artist, a novice to love affairs, was passionately carried away by a certain actress of the French troupe of the Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Benois recalled with laughter that she tried very hard to “enlighten” her inexperienced friend, leading him through “all circles of erotic hell.”

In St. Petersburg, Leon Bakst married Pavel Tretyakov’s daughter, Lyuba, for love. Before Bakst, she was married to an artist and a scuba diver, a naval officer Nikolai Gritsenko and gave birth to their daughter, Marina. In 1898, her father died, and two years later – her husband. But what about Bakst? He was literally obsessed with Lyubov Gritsenko. For the sake of marrying her, he changed his religion from Judaism to Lutheranism. In 1907, their son Andrei was born. Bakst was very fond of his family. It was impossible to say with certainty what caused their split, but after a few years the relationship went downhill and the marriage broke up. Leon Bakst maintained a warm relationship with his ex-wife and children for his whole life and supported them financially. By the way, after the divorce, he returned to Judaism.

“Paris was drunk on Bakst” (A.Levinson)

The first “Russian Seasons” project by Sergei Diaghilev was coming near to being completed in Paris in 1909. The ballet “Cleopatra” was on at the Théâtre du Châtelet. That time around, the spoiled public did not expect anything special, although there was no doubt that it was going to be amazing. Surely, there were going to be pyramids and a sphinx, ballet skirts decorated with lotuses and the artists would present a rather banal plot. “But the technique of these Russians is magnificent, do you agree, Monsieur?” - “Seasons” were being discussed quietly in the hall.

The curtain soared up, and the hall froze. Nile spread the waters in front of the audience, black slaves, burned by the scorching sun, carried out a precious palanquin. A mummy was extracted from it; the slaves unwounded their bright robes: red fire, emerald wave, desert heat, and dark night, and more, and more, and more. They dropped the eleventh outfit and ... here it was, Cleopatra! She was rather naked than dressed up in that transparent blue dress, like a magnet, which caught the attention of the entire hall. It seemed that the audience forgot that people were supposed to breathe? Sergei Diaghilev said the following about the performance: “Success? Triumph? These words do not say anything and do not convey that enthusiasm, that sacred fire and sacred delirium that enthralled the entire auditorium.”

The theater era of Leon Bakst had begun. Paris was drunk on him. Contemporaries said that to be Bakst meant to be a Parisian. He was adored. Each performance to which he put his hand became a huge event. Marcel Proust wrote: “... Tell Bakst that I feel a magical surprise, not knowing anything more beautiful than Scheherazade.” Ida Rubinstein, who was rich and madly in love with the theater, wanted to see only him as her stage-designer (1, 2, 3). However, everyone wanted him to be one for them.

In fact, Bakst revolutionized neither the Russian nor the Parisian theater, but rather the theatre art of the world. The scenery, costumes, plot, movement – all that ceased to be separate parts of the whole; those things made a connection and formed something that had never existed before.

In a sense, “Russian Seasons” made Bakst. Their relationship with Diaghilev was not cloudless, but they gave a lot to each other as professionals. In 1910, Bakst settled in Paris. Known as the author of magnificent scenery, in the fashion capital of the world, he had also become a coveted and very sought-after creator of fabric ornaments. Kings of fashion collaborated with him; his name didn’t leave the magazine covers. America was going crazy overseas, wanting to get Bakst, and Paris was drunk on him. But what about Bakst? He worked without rest. He helped his siblings and his ex-wife with two children. Despite his recognition and well-being, he did not have the opportunity to exhale and have a rest.

Something about the feature of settled way of life

And what about the homeland? When Leon Bakst, already widely known in Europe, whose name was booming, who people wanted to see, who they wanted to work with… So when Leon Bakst arrived in Petersburg in 1912 on business, what did he encounter? Or rather, with whom: with an overseer ordering a genius, caressed by the West, to leave the Russian capital. “Why?” - the artist was surprised. And that was because St. Petersburg, according to the new law, was not included in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. That story had stirred up the society. The most famous people in the world of art stood up for his defense, but that did not change anything. “... It was a shame for the country, which I tried hard to glorify in the whole world,” the artist said bitterly. Having applied to the emperor for the right to reside in the northern capital, he went to Paris again. In France, he was appreciated more. A man who was not allowed to “stain” St. Petersburg soil with his presence was awarded the highest French insignia in 1914 - the Order of the Legion of Honor. Inspired, he again came to Petersburg and ... He was denied a petition. In the same year, the Academy of Arts elected him as its full member, that saved Bakst from the need to put up with shameful law, he had the right to live in Petersburg. But it was too late. The artist was exhausted, tired, had too much work to do, too much anxiety, he had a nervous breakdown, depression and, in addition, hypertension. Divorce from his wife, as well as world cataclysms, in particular, the First World War, also did not add optimism to his life. After that, the revolution broke out, and Bakst had nothing to do in The Soviet Union anymore. However, after the revolution, using the patronage of Grabar and Lunacharsky, he was able to take his ex-wife with their children from Russia.

Success, success one more time, nerves, and then nerves again. And a lot of work.

Long-term treatment followed in Switzerland. Then Bakst’s life went along that track: success - a nervous breakdown, success again and then exhaustion again. Thanks to John and Alice Garrett, the New World had firmly entered his life. He was a diplomat and a banker, she was a smart girl, a philanthropist. For many years, they became faithful friends of Leon Bakst. Thanks to them, the artist repeatedly flew to America (for the first time - at the end of 1922), he usually could find a peace of mind and some repose being around them, which was so inaccessible to him. They helped him bring his ideas to life, and also helped people to get to know Leon Bakst a little bit more in their country. He painted their mansion, designed a home theater, thanks to the active help of the Garrets, he gave lectures at American universities, and his exhibitions were constantly held in America.

He was filled with new ideas at the beginning of 1924. He dreamed of opening a House of fashion and universal design. Bakst had been creating theatrical clothing for a long time and he had contracts with fashion houses. But in that project, he dreamed of combining everything that he possibly could, and even something that he did not do before: to develop the building architecture, interior, furniture, dishes, clothes, jewelry and cars for the customers in a single concept. Surely, that would have turned out as brilliant as everything that Leon Bakst undertook. He just did not have enough time.

Written by Alena Esaulova
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