In 2013, I wrote a celebratory post about the relationship between ballet and fashion, and, reading it again today while preparing this article, there is not a word I would change and I am glad I can now add this new insight on a subject that is so dear to me.
I don’t know why but there is something that clearly links Christmas and New Year festivities to ballet…maybe because it is that time of the year when we decide to treat ourselves with flamboyant and outstanding night-outs. It is surely inspired by this joyful spirit that I decided to visit the exhibition set at the Bibliothèque-Musée of the Opéra Garnier and dedicated to Léon Bakst. A talented painter and illustrator, the Russian artist reveals his wonderful talent as a set and costume designer, in particular with the Ballets Russes with whom he collaborates until 1921. With his vivid tones, his exotic and sensual atmospheres, his erudite inspirations and modern spirit, Léon Bakst imposes a celebrated manner and influences the Parisian scene, from painters to fashion and interior designers alongside numerous socialites who adopted an orientalist allure – Jean Cocteau declared at the time: ‘Léon Bakst’s triumph swept our stages and replaced they grey dust with a new dust, a dust made of gold and bright colors. Elegant women endured Bakst’s yoke. The corsets, the garlands, the gigot sleeves, the diadems, the tulles, the hair extravagancies, the chignons, disappeared to give way to turbans, plumed headpieces, Persian tunics, pearl chinstraps, to a dramatic One Thousand and One Nights gear.’
As visitors enter the exhibition, they are welcomed by a flawless tutu, a costume designed by Anna Pavlova for La Mort du Cygne, in 1907. Set in a niche – needless to say that the display benefits the beautiful architecture of the Opéra Garnier – in a dark environment, the costume emerges from obscurity, an interesting hint to the ballet for which it was designed and to Anna Pavlova’s tragic death. With this dramatic introduction, the tone is set, we are invited within a captivating theatrical atmosphere.
Some personal photographs and letters complete the display and enable us to not only apprehend the professional figure but also the intimacy of a man driven by his love for beauty and arts. Although the exposition presents a little number of costumes because of its choice to privilege sole original costumes and avoid replicas, a radical yet remarkable curatorial decision, visitors are shown numerous objects and documentation that illustrate Léon Bakst’s work. The various costume drawings and stage illustrations demonstrate his precise and lavish creations that refer to diverse historical periods, from the Ancient Greece and the Medieval Ages to the 18th century.
The space dedicated to his theatrical work allows a fluid and free circulation – like dancers twirling on stage? – , liberated from chronology if one desires to, depending on which way we chose to walk around the various panels and cases, the whole close to a mysterious and tempting niche that broadcasts ballet abstracts that captivate the audience. The objects placed against bright toned panels that enhance their beauty while celebrating the profound and precious colors Léon Bakst favored, portray various iconic ballets in particular those imagined with Vaslav Nikinski.
In the following rooms, we are invited to observe how influential the artist was, his impact on decorative arts to fashion. Should it be by decorating the interiors of rich European socialites, by inspiring such designers as Paul Poiret or Jeanne Lanvin, by collaborating with Jeanne Paquin or even, by being invited to theorize on fashion in Vogue, Léon Bakst imprints the society of his era. Moreover, interestingly, we uncover how influential he was on fellow artists and illustrators such as George Barbier, André Barsacq or Marc Chagall who was one of his students and whose work as a costume designer we identify thanks to an unexpected charming costume he designed for the ballet, Daphnis et Chloé, in 1959.
Finally, we leave the exhibition, with two garments designed by Karl Lagerfeld for Chloé, in 1994 and film abstracts of the corresponding fashion show as well as John Galliano for Dior’s haute couture 1998 Spring-Summer collection. Examples that testify of an enduring influence of the Russian versatile artist. [The fashion lover in me would have loved to see more illustrations of this impact with garments by Yves Saint Laurent or Christian Lacroix]
Quite an ambitious exhibition for a limited space, Bakst-des Ballets Russes à la Haute Couture succeeds in being very complete, resourceful and yet, playful. Discovering it during holidays, I was confronted to a disparate public: children, tourists, adults, specialists, amateurs…and I was happy to observe how all seemed to enjoy themselves and take from the display what suited them best: the magnetism of the princess-like costumes, the artistic brush strokes of the aquarelles, the precise information about the ballets…Clear, didactic and exquisite, it is a must-see.
Here’s a little treat: Anna Pavlova dancing La Mort du Cygne