Léon Bakst (1866-1924)
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Léon Bakst (1866-1924)

The Yellow Sultana

Léon Bakst (1866-1924)
The Yellow Sultana
signed and dated 'Bakst/1916' (lower left)
charcoal, watercolour and gouache, heightened with gold, on two joined sheets of paper
18 3/8 x 26¾ in. (46.5 x 68 cm.)
Galleria del Levante, Munich.
The Fine Art Society, London (at the time of the 1976 exhibition).
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, 4 March 1982, lot 31.
Acquired at thr above sale by the present owner.
A. Levinson, The Story of Leon Bakst's Life, New York, 1922, illustrated p. 127.
A. Levinson, Histoire de L. Bakst, Paris, 1924, pl. XXV.
Exhibition catalogue, Il contributo russo alle avanguardie plastiche, Galleria del Levante, Milan, 1964, no. 22.
Exhibition catalogue, Leon Bakst, Galleria del Levante, Milan, 1967, listed p. [17], illustrated p. [11], no. 38.
C. Spencer, Leon Bakst, New York, 1973, illustrated p. 34, pl. II.
Exhibition catalogue, Bakst: Centenary 1876-1976, The Fine Art Society, London, 1976, pp.47-48, illustrated p. 48, no. 102.
Exhibition catalogue, Leon Bakst: Sensualismens Triumf, Stockholm, 1993, illustrated p. 109.
C. Spencer, Bakst in Greece, Athens, 2009, illustrated p. 110.
London, The Fine Art Society, Catalogue of a memorial exhibition of the work of Leon Bakst, 1927, no. 70.
Milan, Galleria del Levante, Il Contibuto Russo alle avanguardie plastiche, 1964, no. 22.
Milan, Rome, Munich, Galleria del Levante, Leon Bakst, 2 May-November, 1967, no. 38.
Spoleto, Galleria del Levante, An exhibition for the centenary of Leon Bakst, 3-20 July 1967, no. 38.
The Hague, Gemeentemuseum, Ballet in Beeld bij Bakst, 1968, no. 10. Strasbourg, L'Ancienne Douana, Les Ballets Russes de Serge Diaghilev, 1969, no. 63.
London, The Fine Art Society, Bakst: Centenary 1876-1976, 21 August-11 September 1976, no. 68.
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Lot Essay

The Yellow Sultana was executed in 1916, the year in which Diaghilev's Ballets Russes embarked on their first US tour. By this point Léon Bakst was at the pinnacle of his commercial and artistic career. His gloriously innovative approach to theatrical design, characterised by his bold use of colour and classical references ensured that Bakst's influence extended far beyond the stage, permeating the spheres of haute couture, interior design and jewellery design: according to Sir Osbert Sitwell 'Every chair cover, every lampshade, every cushion, reflected the Russian Ballet, the Grecian or Oriental visions of Bakst and Benois' (quoted in Leon Bakst: Sensualismens Triumf, Stockholm, 1993, p. 126). The central ethos of the Mir Iskussstva, from whence Diaghilev's Ballets Russes emerged, of a synthesis of the arts and the search for beauty in every aspect of life is equally discernable in Bakst's theatrical designs: the artist distinguished himself from his contemporaries and predecessors by approaching the dramatic arts in their entirety, considering every aspect of a production from sets to make-up to lighting to the costumes themselves.

Rendered distinctive by their flagrant eroticism, Bakst's designs in which his predilection for a somewhat blurrily-defined Orient is apparent prove particularly irresistable. If the role in which the artist's magnificent costumes for Cléopâtre and Schérézade (in 1909 and 1910 respectively) played in sparking a widespread passion for the Orient has been exaggerated, his work certainly embraced the obsession of the moment. Although Bakst cannot be identified as the lone creator of this trend, the roots of which extend well into the 19th century, his ability to capture and exploit this craze is reminiscent of Diaghilev's own shrewd instincts for identifying and utilising the talent around him. It was Bakst's imagination and talent that allowed him to build on this prevalent French penchant, already evident in their ballet, opera, literature and painting, particularly in the wake of Mardrus's translation of A Thousand and One Nights, published in Paris between 1900-1904.

In the search for inspiration, Bakst drew on a myriad of sources. His unique synthesis is another instance in which the spirit of the first incarnation (1898-1904) of the Mir Isskustva pertained, along with the artist's experiences as a young man in St Petersburg. In 1890 Bakst joined The Society for Self Education, which had been set up by Alexandre Benois and his friends while students so that they might keep abreast of European culture. In direct contrast to the parallel Slavophil movement, Bakst sought to explore and embrace a variety of cultural references, the rich tapestry of which combined in his designs to reveal the influence of artists such as Eugéne Delacroix, Gustave Moreau and Jean-Léon Gérôme as well as Aubrey Beardsley's line and the palette and vitality of the Fauves.

The Yellow Sultana, a work at once distinct from Bakst's theatrical commissions and yet inextricably linked, can be viewed as a realisation of Bakst's fantasies and aspirations: 'In contrast to the academic and staid studies of the nude of earlier years there now appeared ecstatic drawings, the sexual organ brazenly exposed in what can only be described as post-coital poses. These are often partly-dressed in the oriental style and might be conjectured as inspirations for theatrical costumes. On the other hand the more complete paintings of the nude, such as the Pink Sultana and the Yellow Sultana, are inspired by the original studies and the ballets, showing fully nude voluptuous females in brilliant turbans reclining suggestively on gorgeous divans and pillows' (C. Spencer quoted in Ibid p. 110).

Prone to passionate infatuations and dark depressions, the languid, fantastical, sensuous and even somewhat sinister figure in the present work is undeniably erotic, her scarves swirling enticingly around her. Contemporary recollections of Bakst's sexual obsessions, one of which was sufficient to create a star in the instance of the young, wealthy Jewish orphan, Ida Rubenstein, testify to the power of his physical desire. Indeed, while the characteristics of the figure in The Yellow Sultana differ significantly from Rubinstein's tall slim frame, there is more than a hint of her features about the face. This sense of heightened physicality allowed the artist to utterly intrigue his audiences: as Huntley Carter's introduction to the catalogue accompanying the 1912 Fine Art Society exhibition suggests 'his intense feeling for sex, combined with an equally intense sense of undulating movement, impelled him to create rhythmic form. He has an instinct for certain curves of the female body and is conscious of the joy of their working harmoniously together'. Inspection of the costumes and make-up Bakst designed for such notable figures as the gloriously androgynous Nijinsky (notably in Le Spectre de la Rose - see lot 46), Nijinsky's sister Bronislava Nijinska, the delightfully feminine Anna Pavlova and the mysterious Ida Rubenstein reveal them to be immensely compelling. We are bound to attribute their appeal in part to the artist's sensuous nature and evident awareness of his subjects' actual bodies: in her early memoirs, Bronislava Nijinksa recalls how Bakst would outline the men's muscles to exaggerate their contours (quoted in Ibid p. 98).
As the extensive exhibition history of the present work indicates, a fascination with the Ballets Russes has proved pervasive since its inception, a unique moment of creation bathed in the light of pre-war Europe. The longevity of its appeal and more specifically that of Bakst himself is inextricably linked to the tangential nature of both any specific moment in time, and more concretely, the theatrical performances themselves. Impossible to truly capture and preserve, Bakst's brilliantly executed The Yellow Sultana provides a rare opportunity to retain a fleeting moment, part of an inimitable movement that began now over a century ago.

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