Index: Leon Bakst

Leon Bakst’s Schéhérazade

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While reading Charles Spencer’s lavishly illustrated biography of Leon Bakst and his design work for the Ballets Russes I came across his arresting manifesto for the vivid power of color. Looking at these intoxicating renderings and drawings the mind boggles at the lushness of the spectacle this must have been. Lush and lost. More on Bakst in an earlier post, here.

I have often noticed that in each colour of the prism there exists a gradation which sometimes expresses frankness and chastity, sometimes sensuality and even bestiality, sometimes pride, sometimes despair. This can be felt and given over to the public by the effect one makes of the various shadings.

That is what I tried to do in Schéhérazade. Against a lugubrious green I put a blue full of despair, paradoxical as it may seem. There are reds which are triumphal and there are reds which assassinate.There is a blue which can be the colour of a St. Madeleine, and there is a blue of a Messalina.

The painter who knows how to make use of this, the director of the orchestra who can with one movement of his baton put all this in motion, without crossing them, who can let flow the thousand tones from the end of his stick, without making a mistake, can draw from the spectator the exact emotion which he wants them to feel.

Leon Bakst







Another recent discovery at the Isabella Gardner Museum was the work of Leon Bakst. Bakst began his career as an illustrator, but quickly gained a reputation as a formidable painter and designer. He is best known, however, for his work in the theatre. He began a collaboration with Serge Diaghilev, the Russian art critic and founder of the Ballets Russes designing costumes and sets. By the time he became the artistic director of the Ballets Russes he was internationally famous.

That I saw his work at all at the Gardner is a blogament to their graphic power. Two small costume sketches leapt out from the top row of a dense grid of perhaps 50 small sketches and engravings that spanned from floor to ceiling. A potent mix of Slavic motifs, exuberant patterns, and fluid gestural drawing, their presence belied their tiny scale. Bakst’s versatility is tremendous – vivid and impressionistic set paintings, exquisitely sensitive drawings, and moody, stylish paintings and illustrations. The most comprehensive survey of his work, Leon Bakst: Set and Costume Designs, Book Illustrations, Paintings and Graphic Works by Irina Pruzhan is out of print, but available.