Léon Bakst and the Writer: of the Russian Silver Age

A prominent artist of the Silver Age of Russian culture, Léon (Lev Samoilovich) Bakst was also a notable figure in the literary community of his time. He was acquainted with, or a friend of many writers and poets whose portraits he painted and whose books he illustrated.

Lev Samoilovich was familiar not only with the classics but with the latest literary works, too. He explained his literary tastes in a 1903 letter to his fiancee Lyubov Grishchenko, daughter of the collector and patron of the arts Pavel Tretyakov: “I hate Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy; I love Gogol, Pushkin, A. [Alexei] Tolstoy, Lermontov, Goncharov, Chekhov, Verlain[e], Musset, Balzac, Baudelaire, Dickens, Bret Hart, Daudet...”[1] Bakst wrote about his first meeting with Anton Chekhov: “Once, as I dropped in on A. Kanaev, in his dimly-lit study on Troitskaya Street, I saw him talking with a fair-haired man of medium height, whom I took for a student by virtue of his costume and the unruly mop of hair over his forehead. I liked his grey, serious eyes and the childish, delicate smile on his round, ‘Russian-looking’ face. Kanaev introduced me with a grin: ‘Your staunch admirer, the future artist Bakst who, for now, has learned four of your short stories by heart.’”[2]

Bakst would retain his admiration for Chekhov throughout his life. One of his favourite writers, with whom he was personally acquainted, was Alexei Tolstoy, whose lithographic portrait Bakst created in 1909. The portrait was printed in “Apollo” magazine, which employed many prominent artists and writers of the Silver Age. Bakst’s friends frequently asked him to design covers for their collections of poems or short stories: such requests produced the book cover for Sergei Gorodetsky’s collection of poems “Perun” (St. Petersburg, 1907), the frontispiece for Konstantin Balmont’s “Ancient Calls” (St. Petersburg, 1906), the cover for Maximilian Voloshin’s “Anno mundi argentis” (Moscow, 1906), and the frontispiece for Alexander Blok’s “A Snow Mask” (St. Petersburg, 1907). As chief illustrator at “Mir iskusstva” (World of Art) magazine, Bakst created not only the periodical’s image and cover, but also headpieces, vignettes and tailpieces for the works of Vasily Rozanov, Konstantin Balmont and Nikolai Minsky.

Bakst became acquainted with a considerable number of writers from the mid-1890s onwards, when he joined Alexandre Benois’ informal community of artists and writers, the group which later produced the magazine “World of Art”. Zinaida Gippius wrote: “I called this club ‘the Diaghilev coterie’, and that title had a particular meaning. The magazine would have hardly materialized had it not been for Diaghilev. Without his energy and... authoritativeness. Diaghilev was a natural-born dictator. When we became acquainted with the members of the group (long before the magazine started), it consisted of the following individuals from Diaghilev’s circle: first, Diaghilev’s cousin Dmitry Filosofov, then Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, Walter Nouvel and Alfred Nurok... The ‘World of Art’ editorial office then was housed in Diaghilev’s apartment. Its guests were carefully selected. It seems to me that they were the then artistic and literary ‘cream of society’ - one way or another - proponents of aestheticism, neo-aestheticism.” [3]

In 1900 the magazine printed Gippius’s article “Celebration in the Name of Death”,[4] and the same issue also featured her lithographic portrait by Léon Bakst.[5] She liked the portrait and decided to enlist Bakst’s services for designing her book of poems which was then being prepared by Scorpion publishing house. Overwhelmed by numerous assignments, the artist did not fulfill his promise. Bakst himself remembered in a letter: “There has been a bit of a scandal on account of the cover for Zinochka Merezhkovskaya’s book of poems. She and her husband asked the book’s publisher Valery Bryusov to take a look at the cover before the release. Bryusov replied with an impolitely phrased letter saying that he had assigned the cover to me and he considers me the sort of artist whom he can trust, with his eyes shut, to paint all that I might fancy. Merezhkovsky felt insulted, saying he was just curious, not checking anything. And the thing was that Zinochka simply wanted to have an idle chat, scrutinize her profile, give me all sorts of nonsensical advice, etc. So I decided simply to drop her, Zinochka, out of the picture and make do, quite simply, with an (antique) naked wench, but couldn’t finish even that on time and sent him (Bryusov) a cable that I was quitting.”[6]

The story had its continuation. It was at that time that Bryusov decided to publish a literary periodical, “Vesy” (Libra). He asked Bakst for help, to which Bakst replied: “Please consider me as an employee of ‘Vesy’. I will gladly do the cover, first, because the name is interesting and stirs the illustrator’s artistic imagination, and second, because I feel guilty towards you for the failure with the Gippius-Merezhk. tomes.”[7]

Bakst worked very carefully, producing not only a sketch for the magazine’s cover but also developing the idea at a further stage, going into every detail of the process of production of the magazine. In December 1903 he wrote to Bryusov: “I’ve received your sketches and the one among them I fancy most is No. 1 - greyish-purple; green could be okay if you make it richer in tone. If only you knew how much time and energy we at ‘World of Art’ expend looking for the right colour for every new issue’s cover!”[8] Ultimately, every new issue’s cover had a similar design but a different colour.

The partnership of the poet and the painter was not always so successful, however. A sorry fate awaited the cover for the almanac “Northern Flowers” which Bakst designed in the spring of 1903. The artist asked, “If possible, keep the book’s format in line with the cover, do not shrink its size - it will look more beautiful and stylish.”[9] Bryusov liked the design. However, suddenly he sent a letter with apologies: “The censors did not approve your design. Absurd, but that’s a fact! This happened shortly before the publication date. What could be done? We decided to insert an old print into your frame. Sure enough, I gave an order to remove your name from the cover. Don’t get angry with us. There was nothing we could do.”[10]

This story provoked anger in literary and artistic circles, and the artist told his fiancee about it: “The censors in Moscow disapproved of my cover for the ‘Scorpion’ almanac. Writers in Moscow are fuming over it; they had to cut a fragment and insert someone else’s (old) drawing into mine. The result: pele-mele [higgledy-piggledy]. But the back of the book carries an explanation.”[11] Fortunately, the sketch of the cover has survived, giving us the chance to rehabilitate Bakst.

But strange and sometimes funny things happened not only with book covers. His friendship with Zinaida Gippius would be tested more than once. In the summer of 1904 the artist, working on Diaghilev’s portrait, temporarily made his home in the “World of Art” editorial office. Not long before that Bakst had married and was now feeling depressed because his beloved had left him for a vacation in Finland. He was eager to go to his country home but Diaghilev would not let him, demanding that he finish the portrait. One morning the Merezhkovskys visited the editorial office, to find Bakst just out of bed. Soon Dmitry Merezhkovsky left to go about his business, and Zinaida stayed, in her own words, “just so, because out of sheer laziness I didn’t want to rise from the chair. Least of all I expected an undressed Bakst to suddenly begin telling me about his ‘undying affection’ and love! So strange! Now again...”[12]

However, the poet did not distinguish between the artist’s words about a great LOVE, of which she was herself a preacher, and her habit of having numerous suitors at her feet. In need of sympathy, Bakst wanted to get his feelings off his chest, give expression to his love and longing for his wife who was absent. But Gippius believed she was the object of the artist’s yearning and included this episode in her “Journal of Love Affairs”. Although she noted: “On that day, on my way home from the editorial office, I thought: here is a person in whose company I’m bound to experience gaffes all the time because even if he felt something for me, he. was just lying at my ‘feet’. His tenderness hasn’t risen higher than my legs. He doesn’t need my head, my heart he doesn’t understand, while he found my legs admirable. C’est tout.”[13] An intelligent and sober-minded woman, Gippius formed a clear view of the situation: it was not by chance that her portrait created by Bakst in 1906 featured her legs prominently (she approved of the work).

Gippius unintentionally contributed to the development of the painter’s literary talent. She later reminisced: “We decided once (when Bakst dropped by) to write a short story and set about the business right away. Bakst proposed the theme, and since it was very amusing, after some deliberation we decided to write it in French. The piece came out quite well: it was called ‘La cle’ [The Key].”[14] Not everybody was benignly disposed to Bakst’s literary endeavours. The poet Mikhail Kuzmin, in his diary for 1908, spoke of them quite disparagingly: “[Bakst] was nice and muddle-headed, and read his opus: a piece of crap, of course.”[15] Kuzmin and Bakst, meanwhile, were getting along just fine; it was just that the poet had more appreciation of his acquaintance’s artistic talents. In December 1906 Bakst wrote to his wife: “Today the poet Kuzmin called on me, asking to make a book cover for his poems. I’m going to spend this evening at his place, the guests - V. Ivanov, Remizov, Somov, M. Voloshin, etc. There will be a reading of new pieces.”[16] In fact, the writers and artists mentioned were part of the “in crowd” of writers and artists, to which Bakst also belonged.

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