America in Léon Bakst’s Life and Art
America in the eyes of the artists, actors and musicians of the Silver Age of Russian culture was an enigmatic and fabulously rich country - a country to go to on a tour or to earn money. Only a handful of such artists gradually came to view the New World as not just a source of income but also as a special cultural hub with distinct traditions and roots. One such was Léon Bakst, the Russian artist of international renown who spent the second half of his life in France.
Léon, or Lev Samoilovich, Bakst (his name at birth was Leib Haim Israilevich Rosenberg) owed his fame most of all to the association of artists the “World of Art” group, and his design work for Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes”. But he accomplished more than that: portraits, drawings, and design projects — all achieved with great success. Bakst became famous overnight after the first performances of Diaghilev’s productions ofthe ballets “Scheherazade” and “Cleopatra”, which literally took Paris by storm in 19091910. In July the artist wrote to his wife: “Commissions are raining down on me like nuts from a tree, even England and America are making noises, and I’m even getting a mention in the ‘reviews’. I’m knocked over by all this!”1
From then on, America’s appeal to Bakst began to grow. Paris had always been the trendsetter in fashion, including fashion in art. The New World’s establishment keenly followed new trends in Paris and tried hard to keep up with Europe, something which Bakst became aware of: “And the commissions are streaming in from everywhere, America ruling with its very handsome offers. My nerves are overwrought, I wish for a respite but don’t know when I can afford it... I don’t want to go to America, although I’m being lured with the prospects of awesome portrait commissions from the likes of Gould, Carnegie and Vanderbilt. I would be overwhelmed.”2 It follows from this letter of July 29 1910 that the artist first considered a visit to the New World as early as 1910.
His schedule was tightly packed with numerous stage design projects, commissioned portraits and work in fashion, and
the artist simply did not have enough time for such travel. Besides, in the summer of 1911 Bakst’s solo show opened at the Louvre (in the Marsan Pavilion), and was met with unprecedented success. After the exhibition the American millionaires, for whom public opinion was the best recommendation, literally went mad about Bakst. “The exhibition has caused a furore, almost all of the 120 pieces (I’ve added more) have been bought up. I have too many assignments on my hands — Rothschild, Pierp. Morgan, Soril, Breval, Duchesse Clermont-Tonnerre, Charles Polignac, Duc de Guiches — all of them design and portraits! There’s no way I can handle everything. Morgan invites me to America and promises portrait commissions from everyone — that’s nasty. Where does the money go — I send remittances to my sister, but I’ve accumulated quite a lot already (for one person, of course), about 80,000 francs, and there are forthcoming commissions worth 200,000 or even more — it’s a dangerous path!”3
Commissioned portraits have always been the main source of income for the majority of famous artists. In addition, unexpectedly for him, Bakst was given an opportunity to make money in a different way. His situation was unusual in that the sumptuous costumes he designed for the stage drew the attention of the trendsetters of high fashion such as Paul Poiret and Jeanne Paquin. The artist gained fame as a refined couturier, even a theoretician of fashion. He not only created designs for fashionable dresses but also wrote articles, gave interviews about the importance of a harmonious environment for an individual, and about different styles of business attire and evening clothes, and even predicted trends in fashion. The international world knew about him and his work.
The American press heaped praise on Bakst, writing about his art, and publishing interviews with him. The titles of the articles alone tell the story: “Bakst, Apostle of Colour, Has Big Influence on European Stage”4, “Poiret and Bakst Have Influenced New Styles Worn This Season by the Queens, Ballerinas and Beasts of the Big Show”5, “‘Cubist’ Costumes for the Modern Woman”6, “Startling Costumes of the Orient for Our Women”7, “Bakst — the New Russian Designer of Modern Dress”8, “Riotous Colours in Minaret Gowns”9, “Bakst May Banish the Kimono”10, “Léon Bakst and Serge de Diaghileffs Russian Ballet”11, “Léon Bakst on Modem Ballet”12, and “Léon Bakst — Supreme Artist of the Theatre”13.
At first Bakst viewed his American clients solely as a source of income. This attitude changed in 1914, when the artist was introduced, in Paris, to the family of John W. Garrett, an American diplomat, banker, collector and bibliophile. Garrett served as an American envoy to France during World War I, and Bakst’s acquaintance with John and his wife soon grew into a close friendship that would last until the artist’s death.
Bakst and the Garretts had many interests in common, in particular a love for Oriental art. Bakst owned a small collection of Oriental bronze and porcelain; his studio in Paris was graced with small Persian vases, Chinese statuettes and even Indian knick-knacks. Garrett’s collection included bronze pieces, netsuke and porcelain, including items he brought from Japan in the 1890s. Whereas Garrett inherited his interest in the Orient from his father, who started the collection, it was his wife, Alice, who was one of the reasons he began collecting modern art. A fine singer and dancer, Alice had perfect taste. When she fell under the spell of Bakst’s talent, she tried to promote his financial well-being, helped to obtain portrait commissions and organise selling exhibitions. More than once Alice Garrett helped the artist out in difficult situations. Bakst did a good deal of work for the Garretts — he painted Alice’s portraits, created designs for her dresses, decorated the Garretts’ family home in Evergreen (Baltimore, USA), where he stayed for long periods of time as a guest of the hospitable owners. But most importantly, the Garrets offered Bakst understanding and a genuine friendly sympathy which he was so badly missing. In the difficult period after the Bolshevik revolution, mourning over the death of his sister Rosa, who died in 1918 in the starvation in Russia, and having lost all hope of seeing his son and wife again, Bakst wrote to Alice Garrett: “Your kind words are a great consolation for me, I treasure your friendship and the moral support you render to me. All this is so important for me. My words will not tell you what my soul wants to say — you understand what is going on with me!”14
A loyal friend to Bakst for many years, Alice Garrett set about popularizing his art in America, arranging his shows and helping in establishing business contacts and finding clients. It was not the whim of a fashionista. A patriot of her country, Garrett wanted to use her friendship with Bakst to foster good artistic taste and education in her homeland. She invited the artist to America more than once, but it required quite an effort on her part to have the invitation accepted. Bakst’s first exhibition in the USA took place in 1914: in New York and then in Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago.15 The published catalogue contained Birnbaum’s foreword. To the great disappointment of the public a serious nervous breakdown which resulted in a long-term illness kept the artist away from participation in the organization of his solo shows. Bakst first began to seriously consider an overseas visit at the start of 1916, when his first solo show opened in America, with Alice Garrett’s support. The artist wrote to his sister: “I decided to go to New York on February 15, otherwise I am afraid that my financial situation and, consequently, yours will get worse considering the present circumstances. Telegrams and letters from New York apprise me that without my presence the pieces on display won’t sell, and there’re going to be portrait commissions as well, while now in Paris I have to tighten my belt. I expect to work there for about three months...”16 World War I hit the French economy hard, and many French residents looked to America as a provider or patron. The initial plan was to organize a joint show of Léon Bakst and Josep Maria Sert in the famous Knoedler Gallery in New York, an idea that seemed especially apt because a tour of Diaghilev’s “Ballets Russes” in America was scheduled to start in January 1916. Josep Maria Sert, who was then working for Diaghilev’s company, took no action; thus, Bakst decided to organize his solo exhibition, relying on the help from his American friends, first among them Alice Garrett, Walter Barry and an art collector and art dealer, the lawyer Martin Birnbaum. Léon Bakst’s first professional solo show overseas opened at the end of February 1916, as planned, except that it was organized by Scott & Fowles, at the address 590 15th Ave. Because of a lack of determination on the part of the Knoedler Gallery’s management, who failed to give a definitive response by the set date, the realization of the exhibition was at risk. It was only thanks to the help of Martin Birnbaum, who worked with Scott & Fowles, that the show opened on time. The published catalogue contained Birnbaum’s foreword.17 The show at the 15th Avenue gallery featured 120 pieces, including “Terror Antiquus”, sketches for “Firebird”, “Scheherazade”, “The Legend of Joseph”, “Helen of Sparta”, “Daphnis and Chloe”, “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian”, and “Blue God”; and portraits ofAlice Garrett, Lady Juliet Duff, Marchesa Luisa Casati, Jean Cocteau.18 Bakst sent his best works, including a portrait of his niece, as he wrote in a letter to his sister: “I’ll send Maroussenka a photo the size of her original portrait I made. Local artists here like it very much, and I sent it to New York for my show.”19 The photograph of this portrait is held to this day by the children of that niece, Maria Markovna Kliatchko (Constantinowitz). The exhibition in New York was enthusiastically received, with 12 pieces sold by March 120, and the newspapers published extremely enthusiastic reviews.21
Meanwhile, Bakst continued negotiations with M. Knoedler & Co. This company was Bakst’s exhibitor of choice and the
artist hoped to mount a show at the gallery in November. But in a letter of June 21 1916 M. Knoedler & Co. definitively rejected Bakst’s and Sert’s request to use the company’s premises for the exhibition22.
However, on March 13 another Léon Bakst exhibition opened, in Pittsburgh, arranged by Joseph Horne with the help of the Metropolitan Opera Co. The owner of a supermarket chain in America, the Joseph Horne Co built the first huge multistorey superstore in Pittsburgh. On the building’s fifth floor a display of six authentic costumes made for Diaghilev’s ballet productions was mounted — the dresses in which the dancers performed in New York — with Bakst’s sketches and watercolours, as well as huge photographs of his works. The exhibition was timed to coincide with the start of the “Ballets Russes” tour at the Nixon Theatre in Pittsburgh. The advertising booklet stated that even businessmen on a tight schedule could visit the show simply for recreation: comfortable sofas predisposed viewers to relaxation and afforded a good strategic position for unhurried study of Bakst’s diverse fashion pieces. Soft lighting and soothing music would relieve viewers’ minds. It said that a large collection of original costumes designed by Bakst was on display, as well as jewellery, decorative cushions, coloured sketches, books, and so on.
It was in America, at approximately the same time, that Bakst’s designs of hair combs began to be used not only for the manufacturing of luxury items but also for the production of cheaper lookalikes. The “Providence” magazine published an article about the headpieces designed by Bakst — “Not All Is Gold That Glitters in the Hair in this Season”: “Bakst’s decorations for hair are indeed unique in form, because although mass produced, they are made strictly to designs created by the great artist’s fancy. The double-sided combs in Egyptian style were inspired by the dress of Potiphar’s wife from the ballet ‘The Legend of Joseph’. The ornament of orange, red and blue lines on one side stands in contrast to the black and silver design on the reverse. A most fine hairpin was based on the ‘Scheherazade’ motifs. Against the background of matt-greenish gold, there is a red and blue glaze with sapphire and emerald inlets.23
Due to this American success, in July 1916 Léon Bakst concluded a three-year agreement with H.B. Marinelli Ltd.1124, and this company became responsible for representing him in America and handling commissions from private customers for designing stage sets and costumes, and business negotiations. The artist planned to engage this firm in his work designing the set and costumes for the productions of “Snow White” and “Prince Silverwing”25. Bakst himself wrote: “In Europe and America my name is almost synonymous with painting” (underlined here and below by Bakst. — Ye.T.).26
Bakst’s pictures enjoyed great demand in America. However, after the show at the Scott & Fowles Gallery some of his works remained unsold: of those, nine watercolours were sent back to his Parisian address. The remaining pieces, with an estimated insurance value of 10,000 US dollars, were put in seven big boxes and sent for safekeeping to Alice Garrett’s sister, Mrs. Ellis27. Bakst did not want to insure his works and relied on his friends. There is a document in Alice Garrett’s archive in Baltimore titled “Paintings sold by Mrs. J. Garrett for Léon Bakst”. The document lists in chronological order buyers and the prices of the works. In June 1919 a receipt was made out confirming that Bakst received from Alice Garrett an advance payment of 15,000 francs. In addition, by the end of 1919 the money raised from the exhibition sales — 34,500 francs — was sent to the artist in Paris.28 In fact Bakst did not receive it: his nervous disease becoming more serious, the artist was fully dependent on his servant Linda , who was receiving the money on a power of attorney and kept Bakst in fear.
Nevertheless, the artist sometimes managed to send letters to his sister in Switzerland and Alice Garrett in America, in which he complained bitterly about the situation. While his sister Sophie Kliatchko with her four children could not come to visit him because of lack of money, a steady stream of fees was flowing from overseas into the sly maid’s hands. The artist’s niece Maria Kliatchko recalled later: “We started to receive long letters from uncle, who begged us to leave everything (schools, classes) and come to him. He was sick with isolation, complained that his malady made him completely dependent on the servant and her husband, who felt they were the kings. He would call them, ring the bell, but nobody came, and at one point the maid inquired whether he could include her in his will... Once she prevailed upon him to give her two paintings — for her and her husband. Uncle’s doctor too started to write often urging us to come to Paris. In one of his letters he stated it simply: ‘If you love your brother and uncle, you will come at once — here he is being wrecked by isolation and dependency on unworthy people!’”29
Bakst asked the Garretts for advice. The result was that he signed a paper authorising Alice Garrett to send money to Sophie Kliatchko in Lausanne. The money received made it possible for his sister and her children to come to Bakst and take care of him. Because World War I was only recently over, international travel and the procurement of necessary documents was complicated. However, neither these difficulties nor gruelling interrogations and customs searches along the route prevented the older niece Berthe Kliatchko from coming to Paris as soon as possible. Bakst’s sister with her three younger children departed later and arrived in Paris in May 1920. By that time Berthe had already learned how to take care of the invalid, for whom every sound was disturbing, any bright light irritating, and every piece of news alarming. Following her instructions, the newly-arrived relatives would “enter his room simply, not paying attention to the semi-darkness in the studio, the drawn curtains, and uncle’s unrecognizable appearance — unshaved, with a big beard, in black spectacles. You had to come in and greet him in an off-hand manner and start the most ordinary trivial conversation about the weather or Paris, to sooth whatever anxiety he may have. And I had to follow the recommendations, which was not easy: we had last seen each other so long ago, so many things had happened in the meantime, and it was heart-breaking to see him in this hospital-like environment and so much unlike his usual self.”
The sickness which progressed due to his servant’s neglect physically ruined Bakst. Expecting to die, he wrote to Alice Garrett on October 14 1919: “I am suffering from very high blood pressure, and because of this my eyes and the rest are in a very bad condition. I’m weak and walk with difficulty. May God take pity on me and my poor family in Switzerland.30 God bless you.”31 The money Alice Garrett sent to Switzerland, which made it possible for Bakst’s relatives to come and take care of him, literally saved the artist and resuscitated him for a new life. Gradually the artist returned to work, taking charge of business matters as well.
Alice Garrett did all she could to support the recovering artist from overseas. On her advice it was decided to open Bakst’s exhibition in Knoedler’s gallery — the same location that turned him down in 1916. The show opened in April 1920 and sold Bakst’s works quite successfully; by May 1920, the profit from sales was 4,350 US dollars, with the works unsold valued at 1,150 US dollars. It was decided to display Bakst’s artwork in other American cities (Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Denver); the exhibition travelled from May until November 192032. Bakst’s works sold well; the Garretts purchased his sketches for “Sadko” for 3,500 francs. However, the artist’s collaboration with M. Knoedler & Co. was to bring him much trouble in the future. The exhibition organised in December 1922 was less successful, with the company asking for a large agent’s fee and refusing to pay for works it had commissioned (because there was no written agreement). Bakst had to hire lawyers and go to litigation.
In 1921 Bakst started seriously contemplating the idea of overseas travel, as Alice Garrett sent him repeated invitations. In 1920, after the death of John Garrett’s mother, the couple inherited a family estate called Evergreen in Baltimore. It was decided to renovate the house to suit its new purpose, as Alice Garrett decided to set up a private theatre in her home and to hire Bakst to design it.
The artist first visited America from November 1922 through to April 1923. America and New York stunned Bakst, and he wrote to his sister: “Life — food — here is very expensive; or rather, expensive against francs. Here there are three times as many people as in Paris; there is transport above our heads, along streets and under them. No horse-drawn cabs. There are about 300 or 400 stores such as Printemps or Louvria — a frenzy of show of materials, and people are crowding in! Just think, there are more than seven million people settled permanently in New York! Lots of synagogues, and a splendid and very imposing one on the most elegant street — 5th Avenue. Half of all the stores are kept by Jews.”33
Social engagements and business meetings did not prevent Bakst from painting portraits of American millionaires, organizing shows, and lecturing. On January 30 1923, he delivered at the Plaza Hotel his most famous lecture on fashion and design “L’Art du costume et les lois, ces applications selon toute individualite”. On December 24 1922 the artist concluded an agreement with the organisers of the lecture, the Brooklyn Music School34, undertaking not to lecture elsewhere before engagements at the school. The school’s management was responsible for organising the event, including the production of slides to show with a “magic lantern”. On the day of his public speaking the artist wrote to his sister in Paris: “... I delivered a lecture, which was enthusiastically received and for which I was paid more than for an oil painting. I crave more lectures like this. This is like Chaliapin’s tour — pleasant and much easier than painting.”35 On February 3, Bakst was paid 2,000 US dollars for this lecture36. Its text, edited by the artist himself, was published in “Vogue” magazine37.
On March 4 in Toronto Bakst delivered a lecture “Colour & Costume”. This coincided with the opening of his exhibition organised by the T. Eaton Co. (which also made arrangements for the lecture). Later Bakst painted portraits of the members of the Eaton family who visited him in Paris.
The artist also planned to give a lecture at the opening of his exhibition in Chicago on March 12, but suddenly fell ill with parotitis, an infection of the glands. Chicago’s Art Club was willing to cover the cost of travel and all accompanying expenses, so that the artist could come. When the artist felt better, he visited Chicago late in March, as notes in his memo book show38.
Bakst’s activities — shows, portrait assignments, and lectures — were so successful that his American friends showered him with proposals. Many simply wanted to use Bakst’s name to stir up society interest in their own life; one such example was the so-called Bakst Ball that took place in New York on April 8 1923. The organiser, Mrs. May Wright, sent out elegant invitations to a reception in her mansion on Madison Avenue, whose interior walls were decorated with Bakst’s pictures for the occasion. For the ball the artist came from Baltimore, where he was busy designing Alice Garrett’s home theatre. From Baltimore he sent orders in advance to his secretary Nikolai Grishkovsky: “Draw up an accurate list in two copies, put down prices against the titles of the works on each and give all this series to. Madame May Wright, who wants to display the pieces in her home at the Bakst Ball and promised me to try to sell some of them. Do it without delay.”39 However, not only did Mrs. Wright fail to buy the piece titled “Faun”, as she had promised to Bakst, but she also did not even try to help sell any of his works. Having decorated her mansion, she feasted her eyes on the beautiful paintings, showed them to her friends and showed no willingness to act as a sales agent. In early June, a long while after Bakst returned to Paris, his American secretary wrote to him:
“On May 11 I called on May Wright. She was not at home, instead her husband came out. When I asked if he had had any success in selling your pieces, he replied that that was not what he planned to do nor was it the purpose of loaning the pictures. Exactly at that moment his wife appeared and tried to cut short the conversation.”40
Of course other people in America behaved differently. A business partnership with Arthur Selig brought Bakst not only money and satisfaction from a marvellous job, but also acquaintance with the roots of Native American art. This American producer of silks decided to enlist Bakst’s services for designing patterns for printed textiles, but Selig’s partners were against the idea and he had to leave the company where he had worked for 32 years. In October 1923 he sent a letter to Bakst saying he was starting a new business venture in early December: “I’ve bought Bakst’s pictures, so I have to use them. I would loath to have your designs wasted and to keep the American public unaware of them.”41
The co-operation of the artist and businessman led to the tremendous success. Selig (he changed his name to Zelig, trying to escape any association to the popular Brothers Selig Company) made a commission to Robinson Silk Co, and decided that he would open a shop in New York. Bakst wrote: “‘Vogue’” published an article and my designs of fabrics. Our mutual friend told me that Zelig was delighted — my fabrics enjoy great success and are demanded all over America!”42
The artist, who had initially planned to visit the event, sent his outlines for the store’s decor at the gala opening. The store opened in New York without Bakst, but visiting it a little later, the artist was ravished and wrote about it in his May 2 1924 letter to Alice Garrett: “I visited the Zelig store (the Robinson Silk Company) to see the textiles in addition to those selected for Lord & Taylor. My eyes were dazzled (rapturous) — there are lots and lots of them, all new.. !!! Anyway, I can see that it is a singular success and I decided that it would be good for your shopping for textiles and for your friends if you shop exclusively at Robinson Silk stores and ask there for Zelig’s fabrics, which shine like a moon. There you’ll see lots of patterns against most diverse backgrounds.”43
Bakst did not think it was beneath him as an artist to design fabrics and said in an interview: “There are no things great or things small in art. Everything is art. How can you say that designing splendid silk textiles is too base a pursuit. The best masters
of every great art school went through different phases in their development — the great sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, at one time, made cups and salt cellars with his own hands.”44 On the contrary, Bakst took pride in the fact that his creations gained the recognition of the general public.
Like Alice Garrett, Arthur Selig was not simply a patriot of America but also a very cultured person eager to improve his country. He wanted to introduce into American everyday life beauty and harmony based in part on a national foundation. Bakst, who always entertained an interest in folk art, supported Selig in that. In one of his American interviews, in 1924, the artist said: “Do you know that you have in America a distinctly aboriginal (local) art? I see evidence of this in the slightly tasteless orange, red and green tug-boats which I saw when I arrived to New York. This originates in the Indians’ art, so bright are the colours. And why not? This grows from the same soil.”45
Both Bakst and Selig understood that the art of design growing from national traditions not only refined taste in general, but also helped one to learn about one’s roots. Arthur Selig, fascinated with the history of his still young homeland and eager to introduce his contemporaries to the ancient traditions of the ethnic groups who were the indigenous inhabitants of the American continent, commissioned from Bakst prints based on American Indian motifs. Bakst, on his part, suggested using Russian folk art as well. In 1923-1924 the artist designed a number of patterns, which were used for prints. Folk themes were also used by Bakst in his design of the Garretts’ private theatre in 1922-1923, about which he wrote to his family: “Now I’m designing a little private theatre in Baltimore in a Russian-Bakstian style — it comes out funny, with the gay Russian colours and ornaments.”46
Selig also suggested to Bakst using motifs from ancient Inca art. The businessman introduced the artist to a prominent scholar of the history of the ancient Americas, the historian and ethnographer M.D. Crowford. On January 1924 Bakst received a letter from the academic in which he talked about his admiration for Bakst’s designs on Selig’s fabrics and added: “Lost amidst the sands of a great empire along the Peruvian coast, one or maybe five thousand years ago, there lived a people. Their fabrics have survived in excellent condition and, in my opinion, they are much closer to your own elevated ideals of texture and colour than any sort of cloth that may exist now. I have the honour of serving as an expert on the history of textiles at two museums, and when you have some time to spare, I will be delighted to take you on a tour of the archive and laboratories of our institutions and to give you a chance to see these things and study them closely, which is very important for a creative artist.”47 Letters show that Bakst became interested in the ancient art of America’s Indians: the artist subscribed to a publication called “Art and Archaeology Press” (Washington), thus making a financial contribution to the activities of the Archaeological Institute48.
After his first journey Bakst started to feel more deeply involved in American realities. Perhaps it was thanks to the efforts of Alice Garrett and Arthur Selig that the artist now wanted not only to make money in this rich country, but also to spiritually enrich its residents. He conceived an idea to lecture to thousands of Americans on “New Forms of Classicism in Painting”49.
Bakst’s second visit to America lasted from January until April 1924. The transatlantic voyage was not without incident: “As soon as I came an awful storm developed. The steamboat came apart along the seam at the bottom — water filled the cabins — but the welding was done promptly!”50 Bakst wrote to his sister in Paris on January 10. The artist did not rest after the crossing, however — already on January 11 he left for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, not far from Detroit, where he delivered a lecture on January 12. He had a lecture scheduled for January 18 in Ottawa51, but the trip was cancelled. During that visit, many scheduled events fell through. The American speaking engagements in 1924 were organized by Charles Reid, who wrote to Bakst as early as February 1923: “I organized the successful lecture tours of Ilya Tolstoy in America and Canada. Next season I plan to organize similar tours for several people of renown. I have contacts with many American and Canadian women’s clubs, who, I am certain, will be happy to attend your lecture ‘The Art of Dress’ if you are able to deliver it in English.”52 Reid expected that the artist would
tell the ladies about fashion news and trends, but Bakst at this point in his life earnestly wanted to educate the American public, to instruct it.
The engagements planned by Reid in Los Angeles and San Francisco raised the artist’s doubts: “This business with lectures is taking a bleak turn. I remain of the opinion that there is something fishy about the California engagement, otherwise he would not be so evasive... And he also shies away from the question of the lecture’s theme, for in my letter, which he boasts about, I always talked about the topic of ‘Contemporary Classic Painting’ without ever mentioning clothes! So, he simply forces on me the topic I’ve had no intention to address — that’s the trouble.”53 Whether the agent’s conduct was a surprise for Bakst is a matter of argument. However, the artist himself did not make a secret of the topic of his lectures, which the French newspapers wrote about: “Last year my lectures, written in French and published by Tomas, were mostly focused on the beauty of women and the evolution of theatre costumes. This year my discourses are titled ‘Pathways of Classicism and Modern Art’.”54
Precisely this theme became the focus of the lecture in Los Angeles, and yet, in spite of the public’s warm response to the speaker, Bakst gained nothing but trouble. He wrote: “At 11 in the morning (again!) the lecture started — I delivered it brilliantly, although at 8 in the morning I personally was running after the lecturer around the city; although nothing was prepared, not even a reading table, and when the lights went out before the show of pictures, the entire auditorium, including myself of course, was plunged into darkness!! The public spent twenty minutes in silence and darkness before a lamp was brought in, and so forth. And yet I had a huge success, the auditorium was overcrowded and wonderful. But after the lecture Mrs. Colber disappeared and left for San Francisco without saying a word and without paying me a single kopeck, and hoping that a fool like me would give another, important lecture at
the University of Los Angeles!!!... The lawyer says that she took all the money and scuttled to San Francisco hoping that I would give the second lecture for free as well, but seeing that I refused, she made up her mind to rip me off in San Francisco as well!!”55 Instead of receiving his fee, Bakst had to start a law suit. During his lecture in Los Angeles a display of his works, which he managed to reclaim with difficulty later, was mounted in the lobby.
1924, the last year in the artist’s life, was difficult in every respect. Bakst wrote to his sister in Paris: “My work in Washington is difficult — this year everyone has shrunken because of the exchange and the taxes — it isn’t easy to make money!”56 In Washington Bakst painted portraits of members of the Meyer family, and in March, his solo show opened at the Corcoran Gallery.
The artist continued to work vigorously. Keen on “winning America over”, he needed to succeed financially, and wrote about it often in his letters. “Alas, here I am tied up with bread-winning jobs (my family is 14 people who are completely dependent on me!), and I have to keep my nose to the grindstone!” Bakst wrote in February 1924 to Igor Grabar and Konstantin Somov, who were at that time organising an exhibition of Russian art in America. Bakst found the time to help his friends with business advice, while he himself was kept busy by commissioned portraits, designs for prints, the organisation of future shows, like one for Cleveland the following winter57, and exploring new projects. No one could have known that the artist had but a few months to live. Bakst spent most of his time in the Garretts’ home, and although this seemed to be justified by business obligations, there was also something else that kept him in Evergreen. “I am staying here — and for a long time — because, although the franc is on the rise, here I am earning more than in Paris, and at the Garretts’ place I have full board and also a paying job; this means that there are fewer expenses — winning your bread now is much more difficult...”58 the artist wrote to his niece in April 1924. However, it was not only financial considerations that kept him in the Garretts’ home. In the house of his American friends, who loved and coddled the artist, he met with understanding and warmth. “Here I’ve become spoiled with divinely smelling flowers — the Garretts have huge greenhouses full of all possible varieties of plants and flowers!”59 wrote Bakst.
However, Bakst had business to attend to in Paris and also hoped to find time for a vacation with his family. Shortly before this he had managed to rescue his wife and son from Soviet Russia, and in the summer of 1924 his stepdaughter came for a visit. Back in France, the artist set about numerous portrait assignments and preparation on the production of a ballet to his own libretto called “Folle jeunesse”60 at the Grand Opera, and also began designing a production of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” for the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, in which Ida Rubinstein was to play Nastasya Filippovna. Nervous and physical exhaustion sapped Bakst’s health, and in the summer of 1924 he was hospitalised. He made a last entry in his journal on June 28 1924, which read: “Shipment of pictures to America”. Alice Garrett, who happened to be in France at that time, tried her best to support Bakst. Her letters to him are full of warmth and care. However, doctors strongly advised Bakst even against reading correspondence. By the autumn things seemed to be taking a turn for the better, and Bakst was able to rise to his feet and go out for a walk. A chill set in outdoors and doctors recommended recuperation on the Mediterranean, but this was not to be: the artist had caught a cold and his doctors failed to save him. Bakst died of pulmonary oedema on December 27 at 10:30 in the morning.
Thus, he was to never return to America again. His plans for arranging new exhibitions, painting portraits, designing prints, working in Hollywood, and lecturing remained unrealised. Unfortunately, only at the end of his life did Bakst discover a country where his dreams about the harmonious incorporation of an aesthetic component into everyday life could become reality — a society unburdened by prejudice but incipiently aware of the roots of ancient cultures laid out for the artist new opportunities for his creative work. He saw in this combination the benefit of contemporary American art. Not accidentally, in one of his interviews Bakst wrote: “Look at the architects’ creations in America. They are beautiful. The entire world admires the accomplishments of American architects, who have created skyscrapers, which are the prime manifestation of their talent marvellously combining practicality and beauty.”61 In this combination the artist sensed a taste of things to come.
- Department of Manuscripts of the Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 111, item 358. Hereinafter - Department.
- Ibid. Item 359.
- Department. Item 399.
- The New York Review. 1913, December 20.
- The New York Press. 1914, April 5.
- The New York Herald. 1913, June 19.
- The World magazine. 1913, June 15.
- The World magazine. 1914, January 11.
- The World magazine. 1913, September 28.
- The Washington Post. 1916, March 5.
- The Evening Post Saturday magazine. New York. 1915, November 20.
- New York Tribune. 1915, September 15.
- The American Hebrew. 1922. December 8.
- Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, Evergreen Museum & Library.
- The exhibition was help by Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Albright Art Gallery.
- Department. Fund 111. Item 659.
- Birnbaum, Martin. Léon Bakst. New York, Berlin: Photographic Co. 1913.
- Department. Fund 111. Item 2570.
- Department. Item 658.
- Ibid. Item 799.
- For instance, “120 Works by Bakst Are Shown" // The New York Herald. 1916, February 26.
- Department. Fund 111. Item, 2208.
- Providence. 1916, March 9.
- Department. Fund 111. Item, 2212.
- The productions were not realized; See: Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery, fund 111, items 2215-2216.
- Russian State Library. Fund 1, catalogue 1, item 1.
- Department. Fund 111. Items 2160-2161.
- Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, Evergreen Museum & Library.
- Department. Fund 111. Item 2865.
- Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University, Evergreen Museum & Library.
- Department. Fund 111. Item 2865.
- Department. Item 2703.
- The agreement is held at the Tretyakov Gallery's Department of Manuscripts, fund 111, item 607.
- Department. Fund 111, item 1042.
- Ibid. Item 1042.
- “Vogue". New York, 1923, December 1. Pp. 60, 61,154, 156.
- Department. Fund 111, item 580.
- The library of Russian Culture Fund, Nikolai Grishkovsky's fund.
- Department. Fund 111. Item 1046.
- Ibid. Item 1936.
- The library of Russian Culture Fund, Nikolai Grishkovsky’s fund.
- Baltimore, the Johns Hopkins University, Evergreen Museum & Library.
- “The Washington Herald, 1924, March 23.
- “For Art’s Sake". Los Angeles, 1924, March 15.
- Department. Fund 111, item 2641.
- Department. Item 1274.
- Ibid. Item 1292.
- The text of the lecture is held at the Tretyakov Gallery's Department of Manuscripts, fund 111, items 549-551.
- Department. Fund 111, item 676.
- Ibid. Item 581.
- Ibid. Item 1785.
- The library of Russian Culture Fund, Nikolai Grishkovsky's fund.
- Comoedia, Paris, 1924, Janvier 5.
- The library of Russian Culture Fund, Nikolai Grishkovsky's fund.
- Department. Fund 111. Item 2317.
- Department. Fund 111. Item 940.
- Ibid. Item 2644.
- Ibid. Item 2707.
- The libretto is held at the Tretyakov Gallery’s Department of Manuscripts, fund 111, item 546
- The Washington Herald. 1924, March 23.