In 1889, when he had his first exhibition, Léon Bakst (1866 -1924) took the surname of “Bakst,” his mother’s maiden name. His surname “Rosenberg” was considered “too Jewish”. As in much of history, Russia was not a good place to be a Jew, or queer.
Baskt lived in Paris in the 1890s, but he still visited Saint Petersburg often. At the end of the decade, Bakst became a member of the circle of writers and artists formed by impresario Sergei Diaghilev who founded the influential magazine Mir Iskusstva (World of Art). His illustrations for this publication made him famous.
Bakst painted portraits of upper-class and royal Russians, and worked as an art teacher for the children of Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich.
Beginning in 1909, Bakst worked mostly as a theatre designer, designing sets and costumes for plays and ballets. He was greatly admired as the scene painter and costumer for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He did the scenery and costumes for Cleopatra (1909), Scheherazade (1910), Carnaval (1910), Narcisse (1911), L’après-midi d’un Faune (1912) and Daphnis et Chloé (1912). During this time, Bakst lived in western Europe because, as a Jew, he did not have the right to live permanently outside of a ghetto in the Russian Empire.
In 1922, Bakst broke off his relationship with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. He visited the USA, staying at the Baltimore home of his American friend and patron, philanthropist Alice Warder Garrett. They met in Paris in 1914, when Garrett was accompanying her diplomat husband around Europe. Bakst depended on Garrett as both a confidante and an agent. Garrett was Bakst’s representative in America. In 1920, she organized two exhibitions of his work in New York City. When he was in Baltimore, Bakst re-designed the Garrett’s dining room using a shocking acidic yellow and Chinese red. He transformed the house’s small gymnasium into a colorful Modernist private theatre.
Baskst had a brief affair with Jean Cocteau. The two met in 1910 on the set of Diaghilev’s production of Le Dieu Bleu, with Cocteau writing the libretto and Bakst creating the set and costume designs. The ballet, inspired by Siamese dance, was a flop, yet Bakst’s work is still considered the finest in 20th century ballet history, and both Baskt and Cocteau continued to have brilliant and prolific careers.
Considering the notoriously, lascivious tones of Diaghilev’s productions, it probably wasn’t just creative juices flowing through the cast and crew of the various ballets. The combination of theatre and the Avant-garde was a ripe breeding ground for experimentation for anyone, and the circle of dancers, writers, musicians and artists of the era brought a lot of sexual heat and experimentation. Diaghilev hooked-up Bakst with the cool-crowd.
They shook the dance world and brought a new sense of ballet to the theatres, beginning on the uptight stages in Paris. That is where Cocteau comes in. French as fuck, and queer, Cocteau was fresh meat when he entered the scene. He approached Diaghilev to create ballets and soon became a hot commodity. Cocteau was famed for his surreal texts while Bakst’s designs were sensual and colorful, with a flair for the ”Oriental”.
Cocteau, Bakst and crew sent a shock wave through French art world with their work for Ballet Russes. Cocteau was rather open and flamboyant about his gayness, but Bakst was more discreet, and he eventually married the very wealthy Garrett. Cocteau wrote ”Paris is drunk on Russia’, but for a while the two creative geniuses were drunk off each other. Check out Cocteau’s come-hither look in Bakst’s portrait of him.
Bakst died in 1924, in Paris, from what they called ”consumption” His many admirers included the famous artists of the time, poets, musicians, dancers, and they formed a funeral procession to accompany his body to his final resting place in the Cimetière des Batignolles.
Despite Russia’s notorious lack of love for LGBTQ people, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow had a major retrospect of Baskt’s work in 2016.