Lives of the Artists IV

This story of Léon Bakst reminds me of my own experience in graduate school. After I wrote my thesis, my advisor decamped for sunnier parts and didn’t show up during my defence. Bakst himself was a superb teacher and his – immensely talented – students worshipped him. And yet when he organised the first major exhibition of the Zvantseva school and sent out over a thousand invitations to the movers and shakers of St Petersburg, almost nobody came: to his students’ amazement, neither did he. A few days before the exhibition opened on 20 April 1910, he legged it to Paris to join Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes with no plans of ever coming back to his homeland.

Bakst thought that he could no longer fulfil his students’ expectations of him. The avant-garde was in full flow. The likes of Matisse and Kandinsky, Larionov and Lentulov were being exhibited in Russia. Bakst believed that the Russian avant-garde was ‘blighted with the poison of negation’ but would finally pass through ‘the lower ranks of coarseness’ to allow Russian art to ‘blossom as a pure and splendid tree, laden with bright ripe fruit’ – though not his own. Paris and Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were an appealing escape. [1]

[1] Jackie Wullschlager, Chagall: Love and Exile, Penguin, 2010.

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