January 16, 2019

Bakst: The “Ballet Artist”

Male artists have historically had the tendency to impose feminine qualities upon their works, but never to the extent of Bakst, whose feminine exigencies create unique tendencies that are more than apparent in his work. Yet Bakst was not just a man, but an individual who took colours and shapes and transformed them into wondrous displays that dazzled the eye, and I dare say, intrigued the soul.

From his early sketches of the female nude to his much later intricate and perfectly coordinated paintings of ballet dancers, Leon has sadly been forgotten by contemporary art historians, most likely due to the fact that he made a living designing theater props and backgrounds. Yet, he used his hands, and his mind to create beautiful works of art, which finally did lead him to achieve some fame- not that it matters- as an artist creates for his/her own sake, and for the sake of his/her creation. His stage sets were perhaps the most colourful  and unique of his time, which was one of the things that propelled him to success.

Bakst lived his life as an individual. In fact in a funny anecdote, it is said that he once thought a young Marc Chagall at a private art school, and has said that he enjoyed teaching him the most because he would listen to him very attentively, but would then go on and do his own art, in his own way. It is obvious that Bakst valued individualism, and self-expression above all else.

If one looks at his work, especially at his ballet costumes, it becomes more than obvious that he did not want to be part of the crowd. He did not and would not compromise his ideas to take in that of the ordinary, the mediocre, and perhaps the worse of all- the classical. He did not wish to build his sets, nor his art as those around him, but took colour and modeled his world in the way he saw it, and the way that he wished.

Born in Belarus in 1866, Bakst was an uncompromising child. From a young age he knew that he only wanted to become an artist. At 12 he had won a drawing contest, which motivated him even more towards the arts, although his family did not see eye to eye with him on the matter. Bakst was so passionate that even though they did not let him attend the Academy of Arts because the admissions committee did not agree with his work, he studied as a non-credit student in order to learn the basics of artistry. He was later admitted. Yet, he never molded his style to that of his contemporaries.

In 1889, Bakst had his first real great exhibition featuring his own work, and only his work. This was the first step that would lead many to realize the potential of his art, which led to more commissions. By 1910 Bakst became a stage designer for numerous plays. His work became known across the country, as costumes and background of colour gave old plays new lights, changed the way people looked at plays as not only features with actors and people, but something where aesthetics played an important role in the function of the entire show itself. 

His art took him to global acclaim as he had exhibitions in the United States and France. At the epitome of his success however he was stricken with oedema and died in 1924.

What is the one thing can we learn from this man’s life?

In the end, regardless of what medium, either painting or stage design, Bakst stuck to his belief in the beauty of colors and their arrangements. He stayed true to his way, and the way he saw the world around him, regardless of what others said. It can be reasonably inferred that one of the reasons he enjoyed the fame that he did is because of just that: His own integrity, to his own work.

He did not yield even from a young age to the whims of what others told him. He did not listen to his parents who wished him to find another profession, and he did not compromise with the Art Academy that did not grant him admission because his work was too different. He also did not listen to his critics who said that his work had no structure or organization. It is precisely because he did not listen, that he achieved the way he did.