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Biography of Léon Bakst

Costume design for the Premiére Bacchante in the ballet Narcisse, Leon Bakst, 1912

Costume design for the Premiére Bacchante in the ballet Narcisse, Leon Bakst, 1912

Born in Russia in 1866, Léon Bakst belonged to that young generation of European artists who rebelled against 19th century stage realism, which had become pedantic and literal, without imagination or theatricality.

There were no specialist trained theatre designers, so painters like Vuillard in France, Munch in Scandinavia and Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois in Russia turned their painting skills to theatre design.

Bakst’s fame lay in the ballets he designed for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, and huge pageant spectaculars for dancer and patron, Ida Rubinstein.

The New Ballet

Bakst came into the theatre on the wave of choreographer Michel Fokine’s revolution in Russian ballet. Fokine rejected full evening story ballets, like Swan Lake, where the story was told in formal mime interspersed with virtuoso dances and the ballerinas wore pink satin pointe shoes and tutus decorated with appropriate symbols (e.g. lotus for Egypt, key pattern for Greece, vines and leopard skin for bacchantes) whatever the subject or setting.

In Fokine’s ballets, the theme dictated the style of the choreography, music and design; the steps were imbued with meaning and emotion. As part of the creative team, Bakst produced designs suited to each particular ballet - Orientalism in Scheherazade and Cleopatra, Ancient Greece in Daphnis and Chloë and Narcisse, Biedermeier in Carnaval and Spectre de la Rose, and 18th century style in The Good-Humoured Ladies and The Sleeping Princess.

This ‘new ballet’ became the rage of Paris in 1909, when audiences went wild for the colour, exoticism and barbarism, especially in the ballets designed by Bakst.

Goodbye to all that...

Costume design for a Bacchante in 'Narcisse,' Léon Bakst, 1912. Museum no. S.205-1978

Costume design for a Bacchante in 'Narcisse,' Léon Bakst, 1912. Museum no. S.205-1978

As Bakst said:

‘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'.

His depth of knowledge and feeling about period and place allowed him to absorb the spirit of a culture and translate it into theatrical terms without destroying the essence. He used primary colours in endless harmonies. Scheherazade created a sense of rich, fevered claustrophobia and mystery. Against the background of closed doors, the dancers became the richly coloured ‘brushstrokes,’ creating a living canvas of sensuality and decadence.

Scheherazade was a sensation, and Bakst’s designs spilled over into fashion and interior design, sweeping away drab colours and introducing looser clothes.

Visual rhythm

Bakst’s brilliant control of colour, line and decoration give his stage pictures a visual rhythm. Colour and chromatic combinations were used emotionally and sensuously - one shade sometimes expressed frankness and chastity, sometimes sensuality, sometimes pride, sometimes despair.

These he mixed in subtle shadings, say, using the 'despair' shade of green with the more intense 'despair' in the blue range. There are some reds which are triumphal,’ he said, ‘and there are reds which assassinate'. The changing mood of a scene was reflected by introducing colours gradually, visually paralleling the emotion in the text. Serenity could be destroyed by suddenly introducing a violently opposing colour just in a flash of brilliant lining or underskirt.

In Daphnis and Chloe, against the cool, verdant setting the shepherds and shepherdesses wore calm yellows, browns, greens, whites and a wealth of decoration - geometric, soft waves, antique motifs such as stylised rams heads. Into this calm scene came the more violent purples, dark blues, ochres of the invading Brigands - jarring against the harmony with heavier fabrics and more unstable patterns, like checkerboards and zigzags; in the next scene the costumes were seen against hot rust red rocks, creating a harsh barbarism.

Design into costume

Costume design for a Lady in Waiting in 'The Sleeping Princess,' Léon Bakst, 1921. Museum no. S776-1980

Costume design for a Lady in Waiting in 'The Sleeping Princess,' Léon Bakst, 1921. Museum no. S776-1980

Surviving costumes are richly decorated with myriad motifs and decorative shapes. Dense surface textures mix appliqué with painting, dying, embroidery using flocking, floss, beading, sequins, metal studs, braids and decoration, pearls and jewels. Yet, after the designs, the finished costume can seem a disappointment. The bare flesh at midriff, neck, arm and leg is actually well-fitting silk for the principal dancers, cotton for the lower ranks.

This was not just prudery or convention but a practical solution: with three or four contrasting works in an evening, dancers had to change make-up in theatres without proper washing facilities, so restricting the exposed areas to face and hands helped them make fast costume changes in the short breaks between the ballets. It has to be remembered that these costumes were seen under stage lights and in movement and audiences certainly ‘saw’ bare flesh.

In 1910 Bakst settled in Paris where he found his preferred maker, Mme Muelle, with whom he worked on productions for Diaghilev and Ida Rubinstein. He died in 1924 but after nearly 100 years his magic is as potent as ever, rediscovered by every generation. His influence was such that people who have never heard his name now see the world in a different way.

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