Alexander Benois (1870-1960)
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WORLD'S FINEST ART
An important contributor to Russian art, the painter, art historian and stage designer Alexander Benois was one of two Russian artists - the other being Leon Bakst (1866-1924) - who created the decorative art for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, during its early seasons (1909-12). He is noted in particular for his design for Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka (1911), which combined elements of Rococo with Russian folk art. As a result, he is seen as a seminal influence on ballet design both in scenery and costume, in many cities in Europe and America. He was also a highly talented exponent of watercolour painting as well as a master of illustration. After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Benois served as curator of paintings at the prestigious Hermitage Gallery in St Petersburg. In 1926 he left Russia and settled in Paris. A keen writer and art critic, he co-founded the World of Art (Mir iskusstva) movement and journal, and later wrote several noteworthy art books, including: The Russian School of Painting (1916) and Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet (1941).
Born Alexandre Nikolayevich Benois in St Petersburg, the son of Nikolai Benois, architect to the Imperial Palaces in Peterhof and a member of the Russian Academy of Arts, he began sketching and drawing while still a child. He remained devoted to art all his life, although an artistic career was not initially possible. So although, at the age of 17 he attended a part-time course in stage design at the Russian Academy (1887), he went on to study law at the University of St Petersburg (1890-4). It was during his time as a student - a period dominated by the Naturalism of the Russian Wanderers movement (peredvizhniki), the optical aesthetics of French Impressionism, and the fin de siecle decorative art of Les Nabis - that he formed an informal study group with several of his friends - including Bakst, Diaghilev (1872-1929), and Konstantin Somov (18691939), for the purpose of studying new styles of modern art. In late 1896, Benois visited Paris for the first time and fell in love with its history and beauty. It was here that he painted his famous "Versailles series" which depicted the beautiful parks, ornamental gardens and walks of the "sun king" Louis XIV: see, for instance, The Kings Walk (1896, Russian Museum, St Petersburg) and Versailles by the Statue of Curtius (1896, Private Collection).
In 1898-9, following the success of this history painting, which was exhibited by Pavel Tretyakov the previous year, Benois was reunited with Diaghilev and Bakst. Shortly thereafter the three founded the artist group "World of Art" which - thanks in no small measure to Diaghilev's entrepreneurial talents - staged group exhibitions and published a journal of the same name (1899-1904). The "World of Art" championed Art Nouveau or Jugendstil, as well as crafts and applied art, plus graphic art, including book illustration. Benois, who was something of a workaholic - at least as far as art was concerned - shared the bulk of the writing and editing of the journal with Bakst and Igor Grabar (1871-1960).
Benois and other members of "World of Art" benefited in particular from the generosity and hospitality of the group's leading sponsor, Savva Mamontov (1841-1918), who encouraged members to stay and work at Abramtsevo, his estate near Moscow, where he established a number of crafts workshops. Another generous sponsor was Princess Maria Tenisheva, who set up artist studios and workshops at her estate near Smolensk, and assisted in financing the "World of Art" journal. As it happened, due to a disagreement between the Princess and Diaghilev, the journal closed down in 1904, after which many members of "World of Art" transferred their allegiance to the Union of Russian Artists.
During the 1900s Benois was engaged in a number of differing activities. Until 1904 he continued editing Mir iskusstva, but from 1901 he became active in the design of theatrical sets and costumes. He began designing items for the ballets Sylvia and Cupid's Revenge at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, the home of the Imperial Russian Ballet, where he rapidly gained promotion to scenic director. In addition, he was appointed editor of the periodical "Art Treasures of Russia" (Khudozhestvennye sokrovishcha Rossii) (1901-3), wrote several monographs on 19th-century Russian painting and the architecture and art of the Czar's palace at Tsarskoye Selo, and produced his beautifully illustrated children's book the "Alphabet in Pictures". In 1905, following the demise of "World of Art", Benois moved to Paris, where he focused exclusively on stage design and decor.
Once settled in Paris, Benois became very active and influential as a stage designer within the Ecole de Paris, creating costumes and sets and costumes for Le Pavillon d'Armide (1907) and other productions before being recruited by Diaghilev to design decor and costumes for his Ballets Russes. He is remembered in particular for his work on Les Sylphides (1909), Giselle (1910), Petrushka (1911) and Le Rossignol (1914). Although Benois worked mainly for the Ballets Russes, he also collaborated with the Moscow Art Theatre and other venues, and created designs for private clients.
Returning to Russia, Benois managed to survive the Bolshevik Revolution, after which he worked alongside Maxim Gorky in organising the Leningrad Bolshoi Drama Theatre, for which he designed the sets and backdrops. The authorities also recognized his scholarship and knowledge of Russian art by appointing him curator of the Old Masters gallery in the Hermitage Museum, a position he held until 1926, when he left Russia for good. Designing the scenery for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (1926) was his final project.
Benois spent the rest of his life in Paris, where he continued to paint and design for the theatre, and also worked at La Scala Opera House in Milan. His later stage commissions featured designs for La Valse (1929, Ida Rubinstein Company), The Nutcracker (1940, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo), and Graduation Ball (1957, London Festival Ballet). In 1955 Benois published two volumes of memoirs. He died on 9 February 1960, at the grand old age of 90.
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