The Russian painter and scene- and costume designer Léon Bakst

28 December 1924, the Russian painter and scene- and costume designer Léon Bakst died in Paris at the age of 58.

“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.“ (Leon Bakst)

"La Sultane Bleue" - Léon Bakst's costume design for
 Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" (1910)

It is not uncommon for the late times of an epoch to produce not only the yearning for exquisite beauty but to mould the necessary artists from the clay of conservative art. On the eve of the Great War, some of them devoted themselves to celebrate beauteousness instead of exploring the abysses of the soul and the edges of perception and created a total art style that encompassed everything from poster ads and cigarette cases to cathedrals, Art Nouveau, Sezession, Jugendstil, the modern style. In Imperial Russia it took one genius of an impresario to make the dance on the volcano a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, Serge Diaghilev. His “Ballets Russes” encompassed composers like Debussy, Prokofiev, Ravel and, of course, Stravinksy, on stage was, among other celebrities of the time, the “God of Dance” himself, Vaslav Nijinsky and his costumes and stage designs emerged as a new art form and his chief designer was Léon Bakst.

Nijinsky as "Dieu Bleu", costume design by Léon Bakst (1911)

Diaghilev and Bakst had worked together on several art projects until the Ballets Russes was launched in 1908 when the choreographer Michel Foukine’s approach to get rid of full evening story ballets like “Swan Lake”, enacted in front of a simple stage design and just the tutus decorated with symbols was first staged and both had taken to Foukine’s concept like fish to water. Bakst, bored of being just another painter and illustrator, went at the stage sets with a vengeance and created revolutionary decorations and costumes according to the relevant mood and setting of the staged musical piece, a literal explosion of Art Nouveau forms and colours and symbols. Diaghilev’ Ballets Russes and Bakst’s designs became all the rage all over the world, when “Cleopatra”, a one-acter, premiered in Paris in 1909 and, curiously enough, Kaiser Wilhelm, not exactly an Art Nouveau fan, who was present during the opening night, urged his Society of Egyptology to take Bakst’s mise-en-scene as an example.

Léon Bakst's set design for "Cleopatra" or "Nuit d"Egypte" (1909)

Until the war broke out, Bakst’s designs were an integral part for the very successful performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, Schuman’s “Carnaval”, Debussy’s “L'après-midi d'un faune” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé” and then everything went pear-shaped anyway. After the Revolution, Bakst chose to remain in Paris after a short stay in the United States and a thorough falling out with Diaghilev. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Coco Chanel had, among others, filled Bakst’s role and while the Ballets Russes continued to be celebrated until 1929, one of his godfathers died in a Paris hospital, not forgotten but rather outdone by others. Nonetheless, he was led to rest by a host of admirers in an allegedly very moving ceremony who still cherished his contribution to one of the most beautiful and revolutionary total works of art.

And more about Leon Bakst on:

and a monographic show including some of his paintings can be found on: