Léon Bakst, Elysium, 1906
Léon Bakst (1866-1924) was a Russian-Jewish painter, as well as a scene and costume designer employed by the Ballets Russes. He studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and the Académie Julian in Paris. When he returned to Russia, he became close friends with renowned impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and a member of his artistic circle. Bakst worked for Diaghilev at Ballets Russes and founded a periodical, World of Art, with him. Due in large part to the fame he accrued designing sets, Bakst was elected to the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1914. In addition to his costume, scenic, and program design (including a depiction of Nijinsky), Bakst is known for his portraiture and his intense, unusual modernist landscapes. These pieces show the distortion of landscape in the modern world and the fracturing of the psyche. Elysium is exemplary of this style. The title refers to the area of the Underworld in Roman mythology reserved for certain favored heroes. Bakst's version has some elements of a traditional bucolic ideal, but the scene is warped and discomfiting. The land itself churns and twists, the paths ever winding. The status of the people we see is not entirely clear. Most mill round, seemingly lost for a purpose. The pair at the foreground may be enjoying themselves, but the kneeling figure appears to be pleading and has a somewhat desperate expression; this maybe the desperation of love or something less idyllic. Another figure lurks furtively behind a tree, watching the pair. Two more figures, one crouched in the shadowy bushes toward the left, another leaning against a large urn (who looks as though he may be a fawn) appear to be in states of great agitation or utter sadness. Therefore it seems clear that this Elysium is not the paradise of myth. Instead we have a dark and ominous view into this confusing locale. Stylistically, the piece very much resembles set pieces and it is not hard to envision these trees as a backdrop. Bakst is sometimes considered an art nouveau painter, and the large swaths of color and wavy forms, as well as the sphinx flying through the trees, fit this designation. However there are also deeper themes at work here; Bakst portrays this scene with a sad awareness that flows through many of his works. The deep greens of the trees and the bright green of the grass create a somewhat jarring contrast––they both clash and blend––that contributes to the unease of the scene. Bakst combines all these elements to create a mysterious and powerful piece that evokes profound questions about the nature of death and paradise.