My favourite painting: Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with His Nanny, 1906
Léon Bakst (Russian, 1866-1924)
In the Middle Ages Russia- even then a vast land- had been ruled by barons or boyars: a feudal land with a nominal Tsar at the head of the state and the church. Any literature or art came exclusively from the Church. There was no Renaissance in Russia. No Dante, no Shakespeare. Backward, kind of sums it all up; also lots of mud and incense, and big hats. And Ivan the Terrible.
Then in 1682 Peter the Great accedes to the throne. Velikii, the Great, because of his stature (over 2m) and because of his achievements. He rightly perceives that Russia will never progress as a Mid Asian country isolated from the dynamic of the West. There was no Eastern dynamic at that time, with both China and Japan locked hopelessly in strait jackets of convention and lack of modernity.
So Tsar Peter decides to build a new capital for himself on a piece of swampy marshland- on the Baltic so that the place can be defended by the Russian navy (once he had built it), and with a port to ferry the exchange of intellectuals, businessmen and commerce to and from the heartlands of Europe.
Of course there is plenty of spare labour to do the heavy lifting and within twenty years there is a city; and the national government is transferred from the ancient capital in Moscow to the new city named after its founder:- Sankt Peterburg. Presumably the sainthood applying to Christ’s disciple and not to the Tsar.
And Tsar Peter dies in 1725, the throne passing eventually to Peter the Third, whose German wife Catherine acquires the title of Tsarina when he dies in 1762 probably murdered at her hand. She becomes Velikaya- the Great- but unlike Peter’s title this one was acquired not because of her stature; though she does become quite chubby later on in life.
Obviously the capital must remain in Petersburg with its easy access to folks back home in Prussia, and she sets about making the place suitable for a lady of substance. The wonderful Winter (Hermitage) and Summer ( Catherine) palaces are built, Court nobles construct fine houses around the canals and agents are sent to art houses in Europe to corner the market in Dutch and Spanish masters ( and two glorious Leonardos). There was no Russian secular painting of note at that time so the Hermitage is hung with the classics of Western civilization. Western is the key word.
She dies, the capital reverts to Moscow and Russia becomes necessarily occupied with the imperial ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte. There is some opening up to Western values when triumphant Russian troops occupy Paris, and Western literature does influence the first great Russian poets Pushkin and Lermontov. But do not read Pushkin for insights into class struggles. His is the world of aristos and elegant cavalry officers.
The seismic shift is 1861 with the Emancipation of the Serfs, four years before the American government does the same for its own oppressed slave peoples. In reality, like in the US, the lot of the previously tenured Russian servants did not change much after their freedom; but their continuing grim plight did awaken some interest in some quarters: Lev Tolstoy in particular made it his life’s work to spotlight the dignity of the bucolic idyll of peasant lands.
The lives of the Volga ferrymen were not idyllic however. They were hired to haul the barges upstream and their wages were so low that their manual labour was preferred to horses. Ilya Repin painted this in 1873 and can be considered as the first Russian artist to be concerned with the lives of the masses; his painting in the Russian Museum in Petersburg is breath-taking in its scale and emotional impact. Dostoyevsky, that other urban activist for social justice living nearby, in a dark street close to the main station in St Petersburg, praised Repin’s choice of subject matter.
Despite this agitation from these activists, social reform moves glacially slowly in Russia until the wake-up call of the loss of the Baltic fleet to the Japanese navy in 1905.
Saint Petersburg is where a mini- revolution takes place in the same year and Repin paints this delightful image of it. These well-dressed folks will not be cheering so loudly at Lenin’s revolution twelve years later: bourgeois lackies.
Anyway for now the people’s voice should be heard; but selectively and ideally from right-thinking middle-class politicians. Not from the proletariat.
And certainly the Tsar will not hear any voice from the Jews: they must live inside the Pale, preferably in Poland.
One of those of Jewish faith Lev Rosenberg is an artist of distinction but social pressure makes him change his name to something less Semitic: León Bakst. Like Repin he studied at the St Petersburg Academy. The Pale laws make travel in Russia difficult so in the 1890s he makes his way instead to Paris where he meets the great impresario Diaghilev and his partner Benois, an association which will dominate his life for the next twenty years.
Diaghilev is not Jewish but he is gay; and I have no doubt that Paris would have felt more comfortable in those years than the authoritarian Petersburg or Moscow. Like Repin and Bakst, he had studied in St Petersburg and the city’s long history of artistic endeavour will have no doubt influenced him. His brainchild the Ballets Russes is a huge success in Europe and he gathers an entourage of talented friends like Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova…and Bakst who designs sets and costumes for the ballet and is its artistic director.
What a whirl of excitement and gaiety it would all have been.
The artistic era is called the Silver Age. This leading-edge movement is breaking cultural barriers but it is not concerned with the problems of the great unwashed; Repin and Dostoyevsky are now forgotten.
The focus is the World of Art, the name of their house magazine.
This Age of Fun is nicely captured in a delightful image (1902) by Bakst of Anna Benois, she blissfully unaware that her world would implode in the tumult of the 1917 Communist revolution. The painting is startling in its insouciance. Chekhov was writing Cherry Orchard at this time and his characters also –like Anna Benois- fail to see that the Tsar, the government and the peasant poor are all kindling to the bonfire, the Spark to be lit by Lenin (The Spark was the name of his magazine published in Europe). Mme Benois was very much a part of Chekhov’s fading world of the affluent and well-born.
The managers of the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev, Benois and Bakst, ply back and forth from Paris to St Petersburg. Here
Bakst met Picasso. They sketched each other: I think Bakst took more trouble with his sitter’s personality than Picasso did.
And then in a quiet moment in 1906 in St Petersburg Leon paints his friend Diaghilev.
Like the Miliband brothers the great impresario has a grey quiff and he leaves it undyed as a style affection: perhaps simulating the gravitas of age.
Like Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead, Diaghilev too has a beloved nanny and Bakst paints her in high contrast to the opulence of Diaghilev’s attire- he sort of grounds his friend Sergei, brings him down from the flights of fancy which he normally inhabits; perhaps a reminder to him that the majority of Russians struggle to buy meat, let alone purchase a ticket to the Ballets Russes. The nanny is Moscow to Diagilev’s Petersburg.
I will let you study as you may the superciliousness, perhaps arrogance of Diaghilev’s demeanour and pose. He was notoriously difficult to work with, thumping his cane in disapproval at poor performance by his dancers. Despite his success he struggled with money but nevertheless dressed himself in fine suits from Savile Row. Bakst had known him well for ten years when this portrait was painted and it conveys the ambivalence of Bakst’s view of his friend. It is haunting and evocative.
After the Russian revolution in 1917, Diaghilev left Russia for ever. Petersburg becomes Petrograd becomes Leningrad; decadent (the word borrowed from the French into Russian) artists had no place in Lenin’s new socialist world.
Lenin’s capital would be in Moscow- never any doubt- he wanted to occupy the Kremlin; but the Revolution fittingly had started in Petersburg on the battleship Aurora. The war and the military disasters had been the Spark and not Lenin’s magazine.
Today in Putin’s world Sankt Peterburg is making a come-back, with powerful politicians leading the charge.
Tourists flock to the Hermitage Museum and its dazzling art collection- which was augmented during the 1917 Revolution by sequestration of assets from the nobles- but these stolen paintings like the existing works from Catherine’s time were all of Western Art.
To see the Repins and the two Bakst paintings you must instead go to the State Russian Museum in Sankt Peterburg.
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Two Artists in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg
My favourite painting: Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with His Nanny, 1906