The designer of a century

A V&A exhibition is a reminder that Leon Bakst’s graphic ideas are still a driving force in fashion and art


By Melanie Abrams, September 21, 2010
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The Royal Ballet’s 2004 production of Schéhérazade used Bakst’s costume design

The Royal Ballet’s 2004 production of Schéhérazade used Bakst’s costume design

If anyone is responsible for elevating the field of design into a respected art form, it is a Jewish boy from Lithuania called Lev Samoilovich Rosenberg - otherwise and better known as Leon Bakst. He was the stage set and costume designer whose close association with the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev revolutionised the fin de siècle art world and theatre design in a way that still has reverberations today.

Overthrowing the stagnant classical and realist traditions of the time, Bakst spearheaded the World of Art movement and designed its eponymous magazine, Mir Iskusstva alongside Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois and other artists.

Most famously, he created the visual identity of one of the most influential artistic companies of the 20th century, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, setting the tone with his spectacular sets and costumes for the ballets Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade.

Instant worldwide fame brought him top billing for his subsequent sensational productions, including L'Après-midi d'une faune - a level of renown which no other designer had ever achieved.

"Bakst more than anyone was Diaghilev's visionary, so he forged ahead with a new wave of design. All the risks were given to Bakst because he [Diaghilev] had so much faith in him," explains Lez Brotherston, the Olivier-award winning British set and costume designer.

Born in Grodno in 1866, Bakst grew up in St Petersburg and spent most of his artistic life divided between there and Paris. He settled in Paris permanently in 1919, after the Russian revolution, until his early death in 1924.

His rebellious spirit emerged early, notably at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts where he defiantly asserted his Jewish identity. His competition painting to depict The Madonna Weeping caused outrage as it unmistakably contemporised Mary and the Jesus's disciples as Jews, suffering in the ghettos. Bakst was expelled.

His Jewish background fuelled an independent streak. "His Jewishness gave him a scepticism. He didn't use any Byzantium or Christian themes [for his own paintings] and nor was he interested in icon painting, which had recently been rediscovered in Russia, because it was Christian oriented. He had a sense of separateness as he did not totally identify with Russian culture," says John Milner, professor of Russian art at the Courtauld Institute.

Yet Bakst also influenced rising artists, notably Marc Chagall, whom he taught at his art school in St Petersburg. His career advice to Chagall was prophetic. "Bakst told him to stay primitive, to keep his interest in village life and to keep recording things of Jewish life. He also told him to remain fantastic and not to get too academic or cubist. And of course he encouraged Chagall's use of colour," says Milner.

Bakst's own use of colour was what propelled him into the artistic stratosphere. As Brotherston explains: "Colour hadn't been seen on stage before. Previously it was pastels, ethereal and fairy like. Now his colour created passion, vibrancy and sexuality."

Jane Pritchard, co-curator of the Victoria & Albert museum show on the Ballets Russes which opens tomorrow, agrees. "Bakst used strong colour with a jewel-like palette which makes the costumes still come alive. The yellow, blue, purple and red used for Daphnis et Chloé, for example, are out of this world," she says.

But it was his unique combination of colours that created the biggest sensation. "He mixed colours, like magenta purplish-pink, blue and green that you think would never go together, and synergised colours to create an emotional effect. Such as, certain kinds of magenta and blue which produced a more serious, sadder response from the audience," says Lynn Garafola, professor of dance at Columbia University.

Bakst's erotic use of nudity was also ground-breaking. "In his designs, the body is liberated and flesh pours out of the costume, such as for the odalisque and sultanas in Schéhérazade," says Garafola.

Bakst bridged the gap between fine art and design. "He treated his set and costume drawings like works of art to be placed on a wall. They are not just about costume. It's about body, fabric and movement, and they became collectibles early on," says Garafola.

Indeed, Bakst's artistic success encouraged more artists, such as Picasso and Henri Matisse, to become involved in theatre design. "The opportunity to design for a ballet for Diaghilev attracted a wider audience for their work and for younger artists it boosted their profile more quickly," says Pritchard.

The jeweller Cartier and Paul Poiret, the leading fashion designer of the day, also used Bakst's designs. Poiret picked up the brilliant colour, ethnic detail and orientalism of Schéhérazade, introducing tassels, bold Ottoman embroidery, turbans, harem pants into his sell-out collections.

Interestingly, Bakst remains a fashion favourite. Hot British designer, Erdem, whose fans include Samantha Cameron and Keira Knightley, is passionate about Bakst's detailed decoration and trimmings and the way he cut fabric.

Interior design and furniture also succumbed to the Bakst effect. As Pritchard says: "Bakst was the most influential designer of the 20th century because his work extended so widely. No other designer's impact on society has been that great - going into everyday life and into the home."

Bakst's stage designs are hard to reproduce and one of the most successful attempts has been the Royal Ballet and the Kremlin Ballet's 2005 presentation of Le Dieu bleu in Moscow with reproductions of the original Bakst designs but re-worked choreography. Garafola concludes: "The idea of the stage as a sensuous place is due to Bakst. It is a place for colour, magic, movement and an expression of the erotic. It is a place for the sense to pleasure the eyes and where music pleasures the ear."

'Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929' is at the V&A, London SW7, from September 25. Details at www.vam.ac.uk

    Last updated: 11:41am, September 21 2010