10.05.1866, Grodno – 27.12.1924, Paris
Painter, graphic artist, stage designer
Bakst was born into the modest family of a Talmudic scholar. His childhood and youth were spent in St Petersburg. In 1883 he entered at the Academy of Arts as a ‘non-credit’ student, but left in 1887 because of an eye disease. From 1893 to 1897 he lived for long spells in Paris, with frequent visits to St Petersburg. In 1898, along with Alexander Benois and Serge Diaghilev, he became one of the organisers of the World of Art (Mir iskusstvo) association, which introduced new aesthetic principles to Russian art and culture. He and Konstantin Somov together created a design style for the journals World of Art, Scales, Golden Fleece and Apollo, and illustrated collections of poetry.
He first turned to stage design in 1902, designing the verse play Le Cœur de la Marquise for the Hermitage theatre. During the revolution of 1905 he worked actively with the satirical magazines Bugbear, Infernal Post and Satyricon.
In 1907 he travelled to Greece with Valentin Serov, and became interested in the Greek classics.
From 1909 he was involved with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company, becoming its artistic director in 1911. He designed over ten productions. His best-known work was for the ballets Narcissus, Daphnis et Chloé and Sleeping Beauty. After breaking with Diaghilev in 1918 because of artistic differences, he worked for the Grand Opéra, Theatre du Gymnase, Femina, and Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris and created the costumes for Ida Rubinstein and Anna Pavlova. The astonishing blend of Eastern dazzle and European refinement that he used for his costumes and sets became the talk of Europe and America. Thanks to the Saisons Russes, Bakst gained a renown that no stage designer ever had before.
From 1910 Bakst lived in Paris (after the divorce from his wife Lyubov Gritsenko, the daughter of Pavel Tretyakov, for whose sake in 1903 the artist had converted to Lutheranism. He subsequently returned to Judaism). At the end of 1912, during a visit to St Petersburg, he received orders to quit the capital because he was a Jew. In 1914 he became an academician of the Academy of Arts and was granted the right to live in the capital, but did not take up the right and remained in France until the end of his life.
In his later years he did easel painting and graphics. He carried out a commission from the Rothschild family for a decorative panel with scenes from the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. He took part in numerous Russian art exhibitions devoted to ballet. He had his own exhibitions in Paris (1911); London and New York (1917, 1922); Boston and Philadelphia (1917); Chicago (1923); Los Angeles and Baltimore (1924).
He was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur (1914). F.B.