Good Morning, Mr. Bakst

…is probably what the French writer and poet Jean Cocteau said as he awoke and rolled off of Belarusian artist Leon Bakst in a probably not one-off, ‘I’ll try anything once’ tryst behind the set of Le Dieu bleu.

The two met on the set of Sergey Diaghilev’s 1910 play, Le Dieu bleu, with Cocteau writing the libretto and Bakst creating the highly applauded set and costume design. While the play (inspired by Siamese court dancers) was a major flop, Bakst’s work is still considered some of the finest in 20th century ballet history, and both men subsequently continued on with brilliant and prolific careers.

Leon Bakst. Costume design for Le Dieu bleu. 1912
Leon Bakst. Costume design for Le Dieu bleu. 1912

Considering the atmosphere and notoriously, lascivious tones of Diaghilev’s plays, (Parade, Schéhèrazade, and Jeux to name a few) it is safe to say that there weren’t only creative juices flowing for the cast and crew of the various ballets. The combination of theatre and the Avant-garde is a ripe breeding ground for experimentation for anyone, but the tight circle of ballerinas, writers, musicians and artists of the time were more-or-less the dapper prelude to the whole David Bowie-Mick Jagger era.

Bakst was part of the original group of Russian artists known as the The Nevsky Pickwickians, which was comprised of Moscow-residing artists and intellectuals. Diaghilev hooked up with the ‘cool-crowd’ after their formation and was greatly influenced by them, which eventually led to his formation of the Ballet Russes. Diaghilev planned to shake the dance world and bring a new sense of ballet to the theatres, beginning on the uptight stages of Paris. That’s where Cocteau comes in. French as f***, and a dandy to boot, Cocteau was fresh meat when he entered the scene. After he approached Diaghilev to create ballets, he found his niche and soon became a hot commodity. Cocteau was famed for his surreal texts while Bakst’s oeuvre was bursting with highly sensual and colourful pieces with a grand flair for the ‘Orient’.

Leon Bakst. Le Dieu Bleu. Set design sketch. 1912
Leon Bakst. Le Dieu Bleu. Set design sketch. 1912

With great respect for the other’s style, Cocteau and Bakst, among the rest of the crew, made grand waves in the French art world through the fresh and shocking Ballet Russes, but while Cocteau was rather open and flamboyant about his sexuality, Bakst seemed to be more subdued about his, and he eventually married Alice Garrett. Cocteau may have written, ‘Paris is drunk on Russia’, but perhaps the creative geniuses of the time were drunk off each other, at least for a hot minute, as can be seen in Cocteau’s ‘come hither’ bedroom eyes of Bakst’s portrait of him.

Leon Bakst

Despite Russia’s notorious contemporary lack of love for homosexuality, the Pushkin Museum is overlooking Bakst’s saucy history and is holding the first retrospective exhibit to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birthday from June 8th to July 4th.

By Alice Bauer

MS Bakst

TT Bakst

MC Gay Art

TB Russian Ballet

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