Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Design for The Red Sultana by Léon Bakst (1920)

This sensuous harem girl is probably none other than Scheherazade herself in this "costume" design by Russian artist Léon Samoilovitch Bakst.  Bakst was born Lev Samoilovich Rosenberg in Grodno in what is now Belarus in May 1866.  He studied art in St Petersburg and Paris adopting the non-Jewish sounding name Bakst (from his mother's family) at the time of his first exhibition in 1889.

Self portrait

In 1898 he began an association with Sergei Diaghilev which eventually led to Bakst becoming the artistic director of the Ballets Russes where he concentrated on stage and costume design.  Incidentally, Rimsky-Korsakov's widow, the formidable, Nadezhda Rimskaya-Korsakova, wrote to Diaghilev protesting about him using her late husband's music for his ballet in 1910.

Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev by Bakst

Although Bakst continued to paint conventional portraits and other paintings gradually he evolved a distinctive illustrative style that had an effect on the Fauvists and, indeed, the whole Art Deco movement. Bakst also travelled to North Africa and studied with the French orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.  In turn, one of Bakst students was Marc Chagall.

Model (1905)

He worked on productions of, amongst others, Scheherazade (1910), The Firebird (1910) Carnaval (1910), Narcisse (1911), Le Spectre de la Rose (1911), and Daphnis and Chloé (1912) for Diaghilev.  In 1922 he broke off his relationship with the Ballets Russes and Diaghilev, his final collaboration being La Princesse Endormie in 1921.  He died in Paris, where he had spent most of his active life, in 1924.

Costume design for Russian ballerina Ida Rubenstein as Cléopatre (1909)

The featured painting could never have been meant to be a serious costume design, even in somewhere as liberal as Paris in 1920, but it is a splendid confection that exudes a sleepy sensuality.

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