Aleksandr Benois

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Benois, Aleksandr Nikolaevich

 

Born Apr. 21 (May 3), 1870, in St. Petersburg; died Feb. 9, 1960, in Paris. Russian artist, art historian, and art critic. Son of the architect N. L. Benois.

A. Benois studied art independently. He lived in St. Petersburg. During the years 1896–98 and 1905–07 he worked in France. Benois was one of the organizers and the ideological leader of the “World of Art” group and the journal of the same name. In his book The History of Russian Painting in the 19th Century (parts 1–2, St. Petersburg, 1901–02) and in his articles of the early 1900’s, Benois was critical of academic art. He also attacked the aesthetics of N. G. Chernyshevskii and the civic-mindedness of the pere-dvizhniki from an idealistic viewpoint. Benois saw “artistic quality” as the principal criterion for evaluating a work of art. He subsequently retreated from certain polemical evaluations that had been stressed. An ardent propagandist for the classical heritage, including Russian art of the 18th and first quarter of the 19th centuries, Benois initiated the establishment of a number of scholarly art publications and museums (for example—the collections Artisric Treasures of Russia, edited 1901–03; the journal Olden Times; and the Museum of Old Petersburg). During the prerevolutionary years he came out against extreme formalistic trends. In 1917 he began to take an active part in organizing the preservation of artistic monuments and restructuring museum work (especially in reorganizing the Hermitage, where he served as director of the picture gallery from 1918 to 1926).

A sense of the crisis in bourgeois society and the inevitability of revolutionary shocks led Benois to search for “eternal,” “lasting” spiritual and aesthetic ideals as antitheses of the contradictions of contemporary life. Combined with a penchant for the art of France of the 17th and 18th centuries and that of Russia of the 18th and first quarter of the 19th centuries, this gave his creative work a retrospective tendency. Benois was the originator of a special kind of historical painting typical of the “World of Art” group, reliable in its depiction of essential details but one-sided in its poetic reflection of the sphere of history that in each period is characteristic of its everyday life and art. Benois was attracted by the fragile beauty and grotesque fancifulness of the declining aristocratic culture (the series The Last Promenades of Louis XIV, 1897–98, and the Versailles Series, 1905–06). A melancholy irony pervades his pictures, wherein the figures of people ceremoniously promenading or bustling to and fro are counterposed to the permanent and stately beauty of perfect works of art. In the volutes of old-fashioned ornamentation and in the gestures and deportment of these people from the past, Benois saw the material expression of the spirit and poetry of an epoch that had come to an end. But his creative work did not lead to an artificial stylization; it was also connected with the general development of painting of his own time.

Benois was one of a number of reformers in the field of Russian stage-scenery painting at the turn of the 20th century (R. Wagner’s opera Die Götterdämmerung, 1903, and N. N. Cherepnin’s ballet Armida’s Pavilion, 1907, at the Mariinskii Theater in St. Petersburg). In 1908 he began designing sets for S. P. Diaghilev’s theater company in Paris (for the ballet Petrushka by I. F. Stravinsky, produced in 1911 at the Théâtre du Châtelet), and he was its art director until 1911. From 1913 to 1915 he was head of the art section and a director at the Moscow Art Theater (A Moliere Presentation, 1913, codirectors K. S. Stanislavsky and V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko). In 1919 he became a director and artist at the Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet (P. I. Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, 1921) and the Bol’shoi Drama Theater (C. Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, 1921) in Petrograd. Benois’s works for the theater are distinguished by their artistic integrity, refined sense of style, and meticulously conceived scenery, costumes, and stage properties. Also marked by graphic refinement are his illustrations, including the ones he did for A. S. Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman (one variation of which was published in 1923), harmonious with both the lyricism and the dramatic pathos of Pushkin’s verse.

From 1926, Benois lived in Paris, where he worked primarily on sketches of scenery and costumes for theater productions in France, Italy, and other countries.

WORKS

Russkaia shkola zhivopisi. St. Petersburg, 1904.
“Khudozhestvennye pis’ma.” In the magazine Rech’, November 1908-February 1917.
Tsarskoe selo v tsarstvovanie imperatritsy Elizavety Petrovny. St. Petersburg, 1910.
Istoriia zhivopisi vsekh vremen i narodov, vols. 1–4. St. Petersburg, 1912–17. (Unfinished.)
Vozniknovenie “Mira iskusstva.” Leningrad, 1928.
Zhizn’ khudozhnika: Vospominaniia, vols. 1–2. New York, 1955.
Aleksandr Benua razmyshliaet . . . Moscow, 1968. (Articles and letters 1917–1960.)
Memoirs, vols. 1–2. London, 1960–64.

REFERENCES

Ernst, S. A. Benua. Petrograd, 1921.
Etkind, M. A. N. Benua. Leningrad-Moscow, 1965.

V. M. PETIUSHENKO

References in periodicals archive ?
Furthermore, thanks to friends and subsequent associates in the Ballets Russes who had already spent ample time in Paris, such as Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, Diaghilev came to know of the latest movements in the French art world.
If choreographer Michel Fokine and designer Alexandre Benois had wanted a Blueamoor in Petrouchka, they would have indicated their desires.
The glorious costumes and sets designed by Leonid Bakst (very sexy) and Alexandre Benois (very charming) are here in one superb colour plate after another.
The riotously colorful sets and costumes by Alexandre Benois looked resplendent, and the Stravinsky score sounded exuberant.
It really comes down to the reason why Diaghilev, in 1909, along with Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, Michel Fokine, and a few others, when invited to stage a season of Russian opera and ballet at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, delivered dance in a mixed bill.
Yet as artistic director of his own expatriate Ballets Russes, Diaghilev and his initial artistic team, consisting most importantly of the designers Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst and choreographer Michel Fokine, created a new brand of ballet, one that suggested that music, visual design, and dance should be an "alliance .
It was Serge Diaghilev and his circle, including, of course, the designers Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, and perhaps most significantly the choreographer Michel Fokine, who really revolutionized the whole idea of dance costuming in the course of revolutionizing the whole idea of dance.
Petersburg's influential art magazine, Mir Iskusstva ("World of Art"), particularly Alexandre Benois and Leon Bakst, were almost obsessed with costume and its possibilities when allied with dance.
Despite its exquisite period settings by Igor Ivanov, all very Alexandre Benois in their period feel, the current Kirov staging appears over-formalized and oddly undramatic.
The one unfortunate aspect of the design is that it looks like a child's picture book--it lacks that painterly quality of style that some artists, as various as Alexandre Benois and James Bailey, have brought to their designs.
Unfortunately, the extraordinary original designs by Leon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and Alexander Golovin were not reproduced.
The effect, wrote Alexandre Benois in a review, was of "truly unexpected magnificence.