Valentin Serov and Leon Bakst. Seeking an ideal

Yelena Terkel

Magazine issue: 
#3 2015 (48)

Valentin Serov (1865-1911) appeared reserved, earnest, and sombre; Leon Bakst (1866-1924) was vibrant, unpredictable and a little funny - a dedicated dandy. What was it that brought together these two artists, so unlike one another? Why did their fondness for one another grow in the years after they met while publishing “Mir Iskusstva” (World of Art) magazine? The answer seems simple and complicated at the same time: deep down, they were looking for something indiscernibly similar. While their public personas were so different, both used them to protect their respective creative selves from the rude intrusions of outsiders. Both artists were successful and famous, each in his own unique way; both were chasing their dreams and looking for new paths and expressions, while remaining honest and true to themselves in their artistic pursuits.

Almost exactly the same age - Bakst was a year younger then Serov - they became friendly in the second half of the 1890s, when a new art magazine was conceived and published with the ambitious aim to "identify the demands of present-day art"1, "inspire the public and bring about the desired attitude towards the arts, with the broadest interpretation in mind..."2 it is noteworthy that the artists had similar ideas for the new exhibition association, which was, like the magazine, titled "Mir Iskusstva". in his description of the society's foundation, Alexandre Benois pointed out that in 1897 Sergei Diaghilev "failed to build a real society, which was Bakst's fault, and a little bit Serov's, too"3. Both Serov and Bakst insisted that it was unwise to formalize either the charter or membership in the first year of the society's existence, and that members simply had to join forces in organizing the exhibition; if the show proved successful, the formal association would follow.

Dmitry Filosofov, another founder of "Mir Iskusstva", wrote about that time in an essay, "Bakst and Serov": "I knew both artists well and was their friend at the very time of their rebellion, when they were fighting for a place in the sun and, to the best of their ability, stood in honest opposition to the backwater that was the Academy of Fine Arts and the pious, well-intentioned 'Peredvizhniki' [Wanderers] group, which had completely forgotten about artists' painterly goals."4 The quest for new creative expression often clashed with the need to make a living by taking on commissions and teaching assignments. Both Bakst and Serov recognized the importance of good training for a professional artist: it is worth noting that for a time both taught at Yelizaveta Zvantseva's private art studio (one in Moscow, the other in St. Petersburg), where the teaching process was different from the state-run institutions and somewhat resembled the art studios of Paris. Pavel Andreev, who attended Bakst's classes there, wrote: "Bakst believed that one is born an artist or a poet. Many students would struggle for a month, two or three, and then drop out. Bakst would not give them any praise; to him, anything they did was off the mark and out of place. it wasn't for nothing that he was a friend of Serov's, who was honest and truthful, both as an artist and individual; it wasn't for nothing either that the latter called him [Bakst] 'a genius instructor'."5

Throughout their respective careers both Serov and Bakst worked a great deal in portraiture. But even when working on such commissions they made every effort to stay true to themselves, to keep looking for a new style. There was good reason for Dmitry Sarabyanov's comment: "Russian modernist art is mostly centred around 'Mir iskusstva'."6 Serov's portraits of Maria Tsetlin and Princess Orlova7, Bakst's portraits of Zinaida Gippius and Alexandre Benois ("Dinner"8) are without doubt some of the best examples of Russian Modernism. it is noteworthy that it was Serov who gave support to Bakst when in 1903 his "Dinner" received such a mixed reception, even among the artist's friends. Dismayed, Bakst wrote to his fiancee9: "But I find myself in the middle of a scandal. You cannot even imagine how the press and the public pounced on my unfortunate 'Woman' with oranges! What horror! The rants are incredible; I am called a pornographic artist; 'Mir Iskusstva' has given me the nickname 'Russian Ropes' and the public is positively raging! Why? Ilya Ostroukhov said that I ruined the entire exhibition with this one work. Serov, on the contrary, says he likes it."10 Serov was among the few who recognized not only the success of Bakst's new painting, but also the significance of the lady's unusual pose, the harmony and interplay of the flowing, elaborate lines. In fact, Serov took much time and effort to find the right pose that would emphasize the very essence of his models, and to a certain extent, his later portrait of Princess Orlova continued on the same path. Sarabyanov placed both artists among the worldwide elite "artists of style" who"all together... make up the total style and fully express Modernism"11.

Serov was quick to recognize his friend's achievements, and Bakst's portrait of Vasily Rozanov12 came to the Tretyakov Gallery primarily due to Serov's efforts. As Bakst wrote to Rozanov: "The portrait's story is not that simple. Serov (he is one of the three members of the Tretyakov Gallery Committee) insisted that the portrait be purchased for the Moscow [gallery], but Pavel Tretyakov's daughter, who had the controlling two votes in Ostroukhov's absence, was against the acquisition. in spite of Benois' and Diaghilev's insistence, she would not agree. in any case, I am overjoyed that all the artists, who are the strictest judges, consider this work a remarkable portrait - it encourages me greatly."13

interestingly, Bakst, who was always looking for his own path in art, proceeded by trial and error, never really sure if he was heading in the right direction; he felt that the same impulse was present in Serov's art, too. The story of Serov's portrait of Yelizaveta Karzinkina14, which the artist sent to the Russian Art Exhibition organized by Diaghilev as part of the Paris 1906 Autumn Salon, is testament to that. Diaghilev decided not to show the portrait at the show. in his letter to Serov Bakst elaborated on what had happened and gave his own opinion: "The portrait's appearance was preceded by declarations by Sergei [Diaghilev] and all the artists (most importantly, the 'young' ones, the ones whose opinions scare us so much and whom we hold in too high an esteem) that it is your best and most 'innovative' portrait. However, as soon as it was exhibited, Shura [Alexandre Benois] began to complain that your painting was tacky, unworthy of a great artist and harmful to your reputation; he constantly insisted that the portrait be taken down. That was when I first saw it, and my impression was (and remains to this day) ambivalent. A very unpleasant rendering of the lips, hands, eyes; a stiff painting style. at the same time, a certain (obvious only to me) 'turning point' in your work, one that promises perfection in this area, the beginning (not yet taken to completion) of 'enamel', a desire to get rid of unnecessary 'nothings', and finally, the exceptional blue shawl. So I see this portrait as an unsuccessful attempt to break new and fascinating ground; since I know you to be stubborn and persistent, I am sure that after two or three portraits you will get where you want to be. I would love to share my thoughts with you on this subject, as 'house-painters' do, not artists, the 'noble' people! Try wearing a light blue or a red tie for a full year on end. No matter how much you like it, you would soon want to put on another one, whether purple, grey or speckled!"15 This is an interesting idea, to share thoughts not as "artists" but as craftsmen. What was Bakst talking about and why did he really make such an unusual suggestion to his friend? Unexpectedly, we find the answer in the memoirs of Stepan Yaremich: "The most amazing thing about Serov was his undisguised hostility, even with a touch of disgust, towards the professional artistic community, so smug and closed-off in its preoccupation with its insular interests."16

Naturally, it was not only their work as artists that Serov and Bakst had in common - it was also their worldview, their lifestyle, and even some personal traits. Throughout their lives, both were concerned with making a living and providing for their families - Serov had six children, and Bakst, as well as his own seven, supported his sister and her four children. Both were remarkably scrupulous in regard to their work and always gave it their best effort, even at the height of their fame. Both had exquisite taste and a "true nobility of vision"17. Bakst was finally more easy-going and tolerant, whereas Serov was uncompromising and unforgiving in his opinions. Serov "always said, 'I am a pagan,' but his paganism was not of the joyful kind,"18 while Bakst said openly: "I love life and joy and I am always more likely to smile then to frown."19 That aside, the two artists had much in common.

"Serov arrives tomorrow - I am so happy, as if my brother were coming to visit,"20 Bakst wrote to his fiancee early in 1903. The last "Mir Iskusstva" exhibition was opening in St. Petersburg; writing again to his fiancee Lyubov Gritsenko, Bakst summed up the participants' mood: "Our common misfortune brought us closer together, so now we all, i.e. Shura [Benois], Diaghil[ev], Serov, Filosof[ov] and I are even better friends than we have ever been!"21 In summer 1903 Bakst noticed that Serov's health had taken a turn for the worse: "Poor Serov, he is quite unwell, pale, coughing; his lungs are not right. Who would have thought? I feel so sorry for him."22 October brought catastrophic developments, and the artist's life hung in the balance, until an operation in November saved him. However, in summer 1903 no one could have predicted these developments. Serov left the city for Eno23 (a region of Finland), where he had a house by the sea, to build up his strength and rest with his family. He became ill there and reported to his friends: "Bakst had Russian pneumonia, and I ended up with a Roman-Finnish fever."24 Benois and Bakst visited him in the country while he was convalescing; Bakst wrote to his fiancee: "I am delighted with the trip, with their little estate, with this life by the sea and with the sweet, kind Olga Fyodorovna! The weather was unnatural, with exceedingly high wind; Benois and I got soaking wet on the way to the Serovs and then the wind dried us - and there we were sweating again on the beach! It was wonderful! We ate like we were four, fiddled around, took walks, and wandered by the seashore in this incredible wind, so vigorous and lovely. Serov is feeling better... Serov's children are very nice; sunburnt, they spend their days barefoot, splashing in the sea. Their life is simple and unpretentious, and I really like seeing Antosha among his peaceful family. I love the seashore! Besides, the sound of the waves is so pleasing to my ear - it awakens everything good, generous and earnest in me. Serov is painting an excellent scene from the life of Peter the Great. I wonder how this will work out. We had a wonderfully good time, and even the nervous, slightly timid Olga cheered up and ran around with us like a little girl."25 A photograph that Bakst took on this trip survives. Serov remained ill throughout the winter, but returned to Eno in the summer, where Bakst took another photograph of him. it was not easy - Serov intentionally distanced himself from everyone's infatuation with photography. Bakst's letter from their trip to Greece testifies to that: "Serov would not take a photograph of me - he is so stubborn he would not let me take one of him either!"26

In the summer of 1904, Serov stopped in St. Petersburg on the way to Eno and saw his friends, including Bakst, who was working on Diaghilev's portrait.27 Bakst wrote to his wife: "I spent all day with Serov today; he and I had breakfast at Diaghilev's; [Serov] is very sweet to me - he used to call me 'Lyova' before his illness, and now he says 'Lyovushka', which did not prevent him from drawing a caricature of me in my smock, painting Seryezha's [Diaghilev's] portrait. Serov got excited and also plans to paint Seryezha's portrait in the autumn. At four he left for Finland... Serov could not help himself and took a look at Seryezha's portrait when I was not there - he really liked it! Hurray!!!"28 Soon after that Serov painted a small, wonderful portrait of Diaghilev.29 Bakst continued his work with even more enthusiasm - Serov's positive opinion was especially valuable: an acknowledged judge of good taste, he was incapable of flattery. Filosofov wrote: "Always truthful, he never withheld his opinions. This was the reason he made many petty enemies. He was a 'proud', independent man."30 Those were exactly the qualities that Bakst was lacking. Once he confessed to his fiancee: "I fear vulgar people, Lyuba! Their touch, their cheap tastes and little ideals undeniably litter my horizon. it is dangerous and contagious, and for this reason I must always avoid vulgar people."31 That is why his friendship with Serov was crucial for the talented but weak-willed Bakst.

However, when it came to creative pursuits and his interest in art, Bakst could be surprisingly resolute. He was virtually obsessed with Ancient Greek culture and, having studied artefacts in Russian museums and all available publications, Bakst aspired to see his "promised land" with his own eyes. Surprisingly, Serov, who had the reputation of an incorrigible stay-at-home, joined him on this trip. The artist and art critic Stepan Yaremich wrote: "in this case, Bakst's influence was very important, because he was the one who stirred up Serov's dormant, deeply hidden penchant for antiquity. Long before their trip to Greece together Bakst dedicated himself almost entirely to the study of ancient art. He constantly talked and wrote about it, even gave lectures. He attached great importance to vase painting as a form of art that produced the most perfect lines, free of any superfluous details. Pursuit of such clean lines is clearly present in Serov's work, too, especially during the last years of his life. Naturally, the two artists created very different art as a result, but their aims were the same."32

Bakst began preparing for the trip to Greece in December 1906, and wrote to his wife about it: "And what about my wonderful plans to go to Greece and the Greek islands with you - where are they? I would love for them to come true!"33 However, by the spring of 1907 it became clear that Lyubov Gritsenko-Bakst was pregnant and could not accompany her husband on the trip. At the same time Serov expressed an interest in going, as we know from Alexandre Benois' letter to him: "I hear you are planning to visit Hellas with Bakst."34 Both future travellers had exciting plans to work on their art; thus, not long before the trip Vasily Polenov engaged Serov in the design of the new Museum of Fine Art, which was just being built. In particular, Serov was to design the halls dedicated to the art of ancient Greece. Bakst was literally elated about the forthcoming trip - enthusiastically, he wrote to the poet Vyacheslav ivanov: "I am going. I have no clear thoughts, [it is all] confusion and trepidation in front of the 'real' Greece; I am lost! What will Greece say?!"35

The two friends left at the beginning of May. Their route took them through Kiev, Odessa and Constantinople to Athens, Delphi, Patras, Kandia, Olympia, Mycenae, and to the islands of Crete and Corfu. The trip was very eventful; the artists' letters (both wrote regularly to their wives) provide us with details. Serov, usually reserved, wrote upon arrival in Athens: "The Acropolis (the Kremlin of Athens) is something incredible to behold. There is no painting or photograph that [can] impart this amazing feeling of light and breeze, the close proximity of marble [sculptures] with the bay and winding hills in the background. A wondrous combination of high decorativeness, almost bordering on pathos, with cosiness - I am talking about something that was built by an ancient people (the Athenians.)"36 Bakst seconded that: "The sea was wonderful, like a mirror. I drew the outline of approaching Greece. Today [we saw] the Acropolis - utter delight. Serov says he feels like 'weeping and praying'. We made it there just before the evening; I cannot even describe it."37 The impression that the beauty of the place and unique museum artefacts made on Bakst and Serov differed according to their respective personalities. Serov's admiration was reserved, disguised by scepticism: "As a whole, as well as particular parts of it, I am satisfied with the trip. All places turned out quite unique and much more interesting then I had anticipated (this, however, may be due to my lack of imagination.)"38 Bakst, more emotional by nature, paints the picture with big brushstrokes: "The city of Kandia is perfectly 'oriental', with its bazaars, Turks, Greeks from Crete, negroes, olives, oranges, nuts, hides, mules, cafes, and mosques - just like Cairo, but smaller, of course. It is crowded and loud, and the sea breeze cools off the sun-drenched faces... By the evening the air is enchantingly warm and dry, the sky is black, full of stars, people are strolling everywhere; oriental singing, mournful and feisty, and quite florid, too; the sounds of zurnas [conical oboes] and guitars, dancing in front of the coffee drinkers. The Orient! Serov was dazed, all he wanted to do was sit there and look and listen!.."39 Bakst insisted on always carrying around a sophisticated camera, while Serov refused to be photographed and refused to photograph Bakst, to his friend's dismay. Both artists bought photographs of local attractions and rare objects from museums. Most importantly, both kept drawing: several albums with their sketches survive.40

Fifteen years after that trip Bakst had detailed and fresh memories of those times, and he wrote his first book, "Serov and I in Greece". Bakst was a good storyteller, but never wrote fiction. When his book was published in 1923 by the Berlin publishing house "Slovo" (Word), with its cover designed by the author, it surprised his friends. Zinaida Gippius sent him an enthusiastic letter: "I read your little book, so joyful, so sparkling and young, right away; it felt as if as 'old' I spent half an hour with you, the way you were back then. A big part of it is about Serov and Greece, but both Serov and Greece are seen through you, so there is more of you there."41 Ivan Bunin sent his thanks, "for a wonderful book - one can see, smell and touch everything in it."42 Filosofov did not believe that a book like that could be written from memory and assumed that Bakst had used his travelling diaries: "He and Serov made that trip almost 20 years ago; naturally, it would have been impossible to recreate from memory all these fleeting impressions that permeate the book. I must say that it is well written; crisp, vivid, and not without humour. But let me say it again: it is [written] for a small group of readers. it is not a coherent narrative built around some artistic or archaeological framework. There is no grandeur, no 'terror antiques' [Filosofov's phrase in English - Ed]. Everything is very prosaic. These are the impressions of a sensualist, a highly sensitive individual. There are also some very astute observations of Serov."43

The book is really rather unusual: it is neither a memoir, with events described strictly chronologically, nor a description of Greece as seen by two artists. Rather, it is a book of impressions, of vivid moments etched in the memory forever. A conversation at night on board a steamboat leads, according to Bakst, to unintended accord: "We both fall asleep, lulled by the creaking of the ropes and rhythmical splashing of water under the boat. Time flows slowly. Morpheus, Death's brother, leads us firmly by the hand to ancient, once familiar lands. It is nice to fall asleep like that at sea..."44

It is also interesting to read the descriptions of their daily lives - the artists "were constantly making fun of each other, but lived in harmony"45. Bakst recalled a funny moment during their visit to a museum at Olympia, when he felt an irresistible desire to climb up the Zeus temple's high pediment: "'Valentin, we are alone here; the guard is knitting a sock; he knows we are artists and is paying us no attention. Let us climb the platform of the pediment - I am dying to touch the marble [sculptures]. Look at Niobe's shoulders and breasts. Everyone does it - Rodin checks his own work like that against "nature",' I pleaded, defending myself. At first Serov seemed baffled and looked at me intently; then he thought about it, turned around, saw some stools and ... agreed! We quickly devised a plan and, like two merry schoolboys, began to work on it: we brought the stools to the pediment, which was installed two meters above the floor. Serov helped me climb onto the platform, and tiptoed, as was the plan, to the exit to watch the guard."46 Caught red-handed, the two 40-year-old troublemakers escaped with a bribe to the museum attendant.

Their travels were both interesting and enjoyable. Serov wrote in a letter: "Bakst is a pleasant companion, but he is also terribly delicate, afraid of all sorts of ailments; he barely moves around because he does not want to overexert himself; but he eats quite well."47 it is amusing that Bakst also thought that it was his friend who was being lazy: "We work hard, meaning that Serov does it half-heartedly, while I never put down my pencil and brush."48 Serov's unbending truthfulness was the reason for their only real quarrel. In order to get rid of a young lady of the night who was harassing him, Bakst promised to come to see her later, with no intention of doing so. When Serov realized that his friend was not even thinking about keeping his promise, he accused Bakst of deceit and practically stopped talking to him. Bakst was in real anguish: "Oh, unbearable lowliness! The image of Valentin, the snug 'elephant,' languid and truthful, floating over my soft heart; a tear drips on my moustache, on the album, on the dusty road. What a stupid, stupid quarrel."49 The quarrel came to an abrupt end when the artists, looking out of the museum window, saw an old Turkish man enter the girl's house in response to her perfectly obvious summons from an open window. Upon their return to Russia, the two friends grew even closer: now, when Serov came to St. Petersburg, he would stay with Bakst.50

Greece made an impact on the work of both artists. According to Mstislav Dobuzhinsky: "Not long before I met him, Bakst and Serov had travelled to Greece and fallen in love with Crete and Knossos (it was soon after new discoveries added to our knowledge of Mycenaean culture). This trip brought him to a turning-point in his work, and he began to move away from his somewhat affected, 'perfumed' 18th century. (Hellas had a strong influence on Serov, too; hence 'The Rape of Europa'.)"51 As Bakst stated quite appropriately in his book, both of them "were looking for a modern way to portray Greek mythology"52. In 1908 Bakst created the wall panel "Terror Antique", his attempt to portray the tragic end of Atlantis. Serov turned to different themes. Sarabyanov points out that both artists' perception and interpretation of ancient culture changed: "Their new understanding of antiquity acquired more reserved forms of expression; instead of Dionysian frenzy (which was, by the way, widely discussed by Russian critics as an issue in its own right), we see Bakst's rather detached take on a theme quite safe for his contemporaries, the ruin of a great culture ('Terror Antique', 1908, Russian Museum) and Serov's attempts to bring together (again!) a vivid impression of today's Greece with historical retrospection ('Odysseus and Nausicaa' and 'The Rape of Europa')."53

The next time Serov and Bakst's artistic paths crossed again was at the beginning of Diaghilev's Russian Seasons in Paris. The spectacular success of the "Ballets Russes" became possible due to the new approach to the performing arts as a synthesis of arts, with the choreographer, composer and set designer equal contributors. Bakst designed sets and costumes for "Cleopatra" (1909) and "Scheherazade" (1910), two ballets that literally drove the public insane. Dobuzhinsky recalled: "The extraordinary 'Orient' in 'Scheherazade' brought Paris to its knees due to Bakst's inspired interpretation. He felt and understood the magic, and the ornament and enchantment of colour arrangements better than most set designers and created his own unique style from that 'half-Persian, half-Turkish' combination that so inspired him. This spicy, fairytale 'Orient' captivated minds with its extraordinary, sweeping originality. The exquisite, vibrant colours, the luxurious turbans embroidered with golden thread and decorated with feathers, the lavish extravagance of ornament and jewellery - all this fascinated the public and fulfilled its desire for everything new and fresh that it actually found a place in real life."54 it is noteworthy that Serov, who was not a fan of either loud colours or any kind of ostentation, praised the harmonious "Orientalism" of Bakst's set designs. While in Paris in early 1910, he wrote to his wife: "I went to see the Russian ballet here; it was good, very good... Bakst did wonderfully well - these are excellent productions. French artists congratulate him on them."55

The two friends spent much time together, something that made Bakst very happy: "Serov spends every day with us and we are never apart; this is my consolation, and especially his gracious, sincere pleasure and interest."56 in his correspondence Bakst often describes the way they passed time together and notes how accurate Serov's observations are: "The Paris that is little known to you and me, its local, genuine French life is beginning to draw me in. Even though, in Serov's most fitting words, what is considered calm here feels like an automobile that puffs and hammers constantly even when at a standstill; notwithstanding the fast pace of life, everything here is conducive to work, and hard work."57 The artists lived and worked close by: they rented space from the former monastery at Sacre-Coeur58, where many artists had their studios. In July Bakst wrote to his wife: "Serov is [working] at the same monastery-studio as I am."59 Serov, his cousin Nina Simonovich-Yefimova and her husband Ivan Yefimov worked in a former prayer hall. The monastery building was a pleasant place to work: quiet, beautiful and calm. A man of few words, Serov stated: "The garden, the singing birds - it is very nice here."60 it was in this very studio that he would work on the curtain for the ballet "Scheherazade". Actually, the artist had hoped that Diaghilev would rent a separate space for him, but it turned out that the main work would indeed be done in La Chapelle. The success of the 1910 production was so remarkable that Diaghilev decided to commission a new curtain from Serov for the forthcoming season. By January 1911 Serov had the design ready, something he mentioned in a letter to his wife: "I had been running around museums in search of [ideas for] the curtain for 'Scheherazade', and yesterday I submitted the design drawings to the committee, i.e. Diaghilev, Benois, Bakst, Valichka [Nouvel], Argutinsky, etc. Nobody expected to see what I had prepared. The work is not showy, completely unlike what I painted in Moscow; it is, however, quite powerful and refined, and together with other colourful curtains and elements of set design it will be pleasing to the eye; it is rather like a Persian fresco."61

In March 1911 Serov wrote to Yefimov in Paris: "I am not sure if you are planning to be helping Bakst... But I decided to have you work with me on the Persian curtain for 'Scheherazade'. The first scene is performed against the closed curtain, and it is this curtain that we are to paint."62 Serov made the design drawings, and the Yefimovs started preparing the large cloth and applying the designs to it. By the time Serov arrived in Paris much of the work had been finished, and he joined in. Diaghilev never did rent a separate space for Serov.63 On the whole, the great impresario's approach to work left Serov bewildered, to say the least. Artists worked "at their own risk", not really sure if their work would be paid or the production they were preparing would take place. Serov wrote to Benois, who was in charge of all the work done by the artists: "Tell me, are 'Blue God', 'La Peri', and Reynaldo Hahn really cancelled? Bakst is distraught and quite sad, the more so because it seems he has already done quite a bit for them. It is altogether a strange way to go about business."64 Serov understood Bakst only too well, given that he had financed the initial work on the curtain for "Scheherazade" himself.

The task facing the artist was complicated: he was to add something to an existing successful production, enhance it with something new, something of his own creation, different from Bakst's understanding of the subject. The story was a simple one: a Shah comes home from hunting and finds his numerous concubines, including his beloved wife Zobeida, in the arms of his slaves. The orgy ends badly - no matter how much they plead for mercy, nothing can save the lives of the guilty parties. All action in the one-act production (Bakst designed the set and costumes) takes place inside the Shah's harem. Serov decided to expand the space by depicting the scene of the Shah's hunt, which was not part of the ballet. The artist turned to the style of Persian miniatures to achieve a strong effect of exquisite refinement and subtlety of colour, in somewhat of a contrast to the fiery extravaganza of Bakst's set and costumes.

Work on the production of "Scheherazade" brought the artists even closer together. Serov thought that Bakst's contribution was at the core of the ballet's success, but Benois claimed his rights to the production: while he was not involved in designing the sets, he had been present when the plot itself was conceived. According to Michel Fokine, the ballet's choreographer and production director, who was also an eyewitness to the actual events, using the introduction to "One Thousand and One Nights" and the main storyline were Bakst's ideas. As for Benois, he put the plot to music by making notes on the musical scores as to what happened when. Fokine wrote: "it was much later that I learned that there was a disagreement between Benois and Bakst as to who came up with the original idea for this ballet. I knew that Valentin Serov was chosen as the arbiter in this matter. This wonderful artist enjoyed a spotless reputation of impeccable fairness. This good friend-judge ruled for Bakst."65 From then on Benois' attitude towards Bakst gradually worsened.

In summer 1911, during a rehearsal of "Petrushka", Benois saw that the portrait of the Magician appeared redone by Bakst (it had been damaged during transportation), which led to a bad incident. Bakst often helped his friends out in similar situations: in 1901 he had cleaned up Serov's portrait of the Emperor66. In a letter to Nouvel, Serov inquired about what had happened to that portrait: "Do you know if the portrait of Nicholas II was sent to the Ministry, and if Bakst had touched up the eyes (not just the eyes, but everything that had faded)?"67 Most of the time, fellow artists simply thanked Bakst for his help - very seldom was anyone left dissatisfied. There was good reason why Benois pointed out: "Bakst has 'the magic touch', amazing technical ability, and a lot of taste..."68

However, this time Benois lost his temper outright, and spoke many harsh words not only to Bakst but also to Serov, who stood up for his friend; after that, in a fit of hysterics, he ran out of the theatre and left for Lugano before he could make peace with his friends. Serov sent him a harsh letter, in which he hinted that Benois' behaviour was unfair and dishonest. At about the same time Serov wrote to his wife: "Poor Benois has clearly turned into a hysterical woman - I do not like it. He cannot stand Bakst. I do not know what it means - could it be envy for Bakst's Parisian (well-deserved) fame?"69 It was hard for Serov to confront an old friend and express his indignation; however, he must have felt unable to act otherwise. Nicholas Roerich wrote: "Serov's true self was well known to all his friends: his candour and honesty were legendary. Indeed, he always followed his conscience."70 In that instance, his conscience pointed to the only way out: to remain fair, as he always was, whatever the consequences or the pain. Serov had less than six months to live; he would not have a chance to make up with Benois.

Serov died on November 22 1911, after his weak heart failed. Few people knew how unwell he was, and his tragic end was a shock to many. In a letter from London, Bakst wrote to his wife that he wanted his son to grow up like his late friend: "I am devastated by Serov's death. Of all our artists, I loved only him and Somov. God forbid that Andryusha [little Andrei] grows up with a desire for wealth; I would like to see him a humble, straightforward, sincere man like Serov. The loss of such a man makes everything look rotten and vain, and all our ambitions and minutiae take a step back in comparison with the brilliant and purposeful career of this true master. May he rest in peace! He will be my guiding light and my reproach should I lose my way!"71 Bakst would live for 13 more years.

Dobuzhinsky was right when he said that neither of the two artists lived long enough to fully express their potential: "People often talk about an 'untimely' death. Indeed, it is the death of an artist, a musician or a poet that comes with the painful thought about all those potential works that died with them, lost forever. I remember feeling that when Serov died in his prime. Neither did Bakst have a chance to fully realize what his extraordinary artistic talent had to offer. His 'fame' was his misfortune. I recall my last meeting with him, when he said that he did not have the time to do what he wanted. Indeed, his fame came with obligations: Bakst had to remain Bakst, even though there was much (it may have been only his friends who knew that) that revealed unexpected promise."72

Neither Bakst nor Serov had the chance to fulfill their potential. it seems that their artistic quest took them to the very threshold of new triumphs. Serov, who was extremely hard on himself as an artist, thought that his portrait of Ida Rubinstein was one of his best works, while many critics were quite negative. The artist offered the portrait to the Russian Museum, since he considered it to be a milestone in his career. In the words of Yaremich: "Not long before he died he felt the need for new forms of expression. Simplified, schematic, unexpected combinations of shape and colour, far removed from the accepted norms, opened up new horizons."73 Bakst was also seeking simplicity and a return to the very beginnings. Perhaps it was not a coincidence that both artists paid close attention to Matisse, trying to understand the impression his art had on the viewer. Bakst pointed out: "I felt that I was slowly becoming more and more stupid, along with Matisse and his followers... Still, in some of his works the colour, clear and fresh, brings vitality and joy."74 Their focus on the future brought the artists together: their entire lives were dedicated to their creative quest, the quest for beauty and truth. Both were seeking an unattainable ideal - and pursued it until the end.


  1. Diaghilev, Sergei. Art Critics, in "Sergei Diaghilev and Russian Art". V. 1. Moscow, 1982. P. 105.
  2. Benois, Alexandre. "The Birth of 'Mir Iskusstva"'. Moscow, 1998. P. 6.
  3. Ibid. P. 25.
  4. Filosofov, Dmitry. 'Bakst and Serov', in "Our Heritage". 2002. №№ 63-64. P. 86. Hereinafter - Filosofov.
  5. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 2619. P. 6.
  6. Sarabyanov, Dmitry. "Russian Painting of the 19th Century amid European Schools of Painting". Moscow, 1980. P 188. Hereinafter - Sarabyanov.
  7. Valentin Serov. Portrait of Maria Tsetlin. 1910. Tempera, cardboard. 105 x 72 cm. Private collection (before in the Maria and Michael Tsetlin (Zetlin) Museum of Russian Art, Ramat-Gan); Valentin Serov. Portrait of Princess Olga Orlova. 1911. Oil on canvas. 237.5 x 160 cm. Russian Museum.
  8. Leon Bakst. Portrait of Zinaida Gippius. 1906. Pastel on paper. 54.6 x 49 cm. Tretyakov Gallery; Leon Bakst. Supper. 1902. Oil on canvas. 150 x 100 cm. Russian Museum.
  9. Lyubov Gritsenko-Bakst (1870 - 1928), nee Tretyakova.
  10. Bakst, Leon. "My Heart is Open". Moscow, 2012. V. 2. P. 48. Hereinafter - Bakst, Leon.
  11. Sarabyanov. Pp. 185-186.
  12. Leon Bakst. Portrait of Vasily Rozanov. 1901. Pastel on grey paper on canvas. 106.5 x 70.9 cm. Tretyakov gallery.
  13. Department of Manuscripts, Russian State Library. F. 249. Cardindex M3871. Item 14. P 11.
  14. Valentin Serov. Portrait of Yelizaveta Karzinkina. 1906. Oil on canvas. 104 x 73.7 cm (oval). Taganrog Art Museum.
  15. "Valentin Serov: Correspondence, Documents, interviews". V. 2. Leningrad. 1989. P. 79. Hereinafter - Correspondence.
  16. "Valentin Serov. Memoirs, Journals, Letters of His Contemporaries". V 1. Leningrad. 1971. P. 693. Hereinafter - Memoirs.
  17. Filosofov. P. 88.
  18. Ibid. P. 89.
  19. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 53. P. 2.
  20. Bakst, Leon. Op. cit. V. 2. P. 39.
  21. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 33. P. 2.
  22. Bakst, Leon. Op.cit. V 2. P. 71.
  23. In 1901 Serov bought a country house in a Finnish village Eno, not far from Terijoki (now Zelenogorsk).
  24. Correspondence. V.1. 1985. P. 421.
  25. Bakst, Leon. Op.cit. V 2. P. 75.
  26. Ibid. P. 118.
  27. Leon Bakst. "Sergei Diaghilev with His Nanny." 1906. Oil on canvas. 161 x 116 cm. Russian Museum.
  28. Bakst, Leon. Op. cit. V. 2. Pp. 86-87.
  29. Valentin Serov. "Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev". 1904 (unfinished). Oil on canvas. 97 x 83 cm. Russian Museum.
  30. Filosofov. P. 88.
  31. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 102. P. 2.
  32. Yaremich, Stepan. Serov, in "Stepan Petrovich Yaremich". V 1. St. Petersburg, 2005. P. 191.
  33. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 226. P. 2.
  34. Correspondence. V. 2. P. 96.
  35. Bakst, Leon. Op. cit. V. 2. P. 116.
  36. Correspondence. V. 2. P. 101.
  37. Bakst, Leon. Op. cit. V 2. P. 117.
  38. Correspondence. V 2. P. 105.
  39. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 247. P. 1, reverse.
  40. Valentin Serov's albums are housed at the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; Leon's Bakst's albums are at the Russian Museum, St. Petersburg and the Dance Library of Lincoln Center, New York.
  41. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 1006. P. 1.
  42. Ibid. item 880. P 1.
  43. Filosofov. P 87.
  44. Bakst, Leon. "Serov and I in Greece. Travel Diary." Berlin, 1923. P 21. Hereinafter - Travel Diary.
  45. Ibid. P. 41.
  46. Ibid. P. 26.
  47. Correspondence. V. 2. P. 103.
  48. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 247. P. 1.
  49. Travel Diary. P. 46.
  50. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Items 297, 299.
  51. Dobuzhinsky, Mstislav. "Memoirs". Moscow, 1987. Pp. 201-202. Hereinafter - Dobuzhinsky.
  52. Travel Diary. P. 41.
  53. Sarabyanov. P. 215.
  54. Dobuzhinsky. P. 295.
  55. Correspondence. V. 2. P. 215.
  56. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. F. 111. Item 350. P. 2.
  57. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art. F. 781. Item 2. P. 26.
  58. 33 Boulevard des Invalides, Paris.
  59. Bakst, Leon. Op.cit. V. 2. P. 163.
  60. Correspondence. V. 2. P. 216.
  61. Ibid. P. 268.
  62. Ibid. P. 276.
  63. Diaghilev paid for the curtain and supplies on June 18 1911, after the production opened at Theatre du Chatelet on May 31 1911.
  64. Correspondence. V 2. P. 290.
  65. Fokine, Michel. "Against the Current. A Choreographer Remembers. Articles. Correspondence." Leningrad-Moscow, 1962. P. 237.
  66. Valentin Serov. Portrait of The Emperor Nicholas II. 1900. (lost). Eponymous portrait now in the Tretyakov Gallery.
  67. Memoirs. V 1. P. 322.
  68. Benois, Alexandre. "History of Russian Painting of the 19th Century". Moscow, 1995. P. 410.
  69. Correspondence. V. 2. P. 296.
  70. Roerich, Nicholas. "Literary Heritage". Moscow, 1974. P. 378.
  71. Bakst, Leon. Op. cit. V. 2. Pp. 184-185.
  72. Dobuzhinsky. P. 297.
  73. Memoirs. V. 1. P. 706.
  74. Bakst, Leon. Op. cit. V. 1. P. 69.





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