John E. Bowlt
Trained as a specialist in Russian language and literature, I have developed a particular interest in the relationship between the literary and the visual arts of the early 20th century, a major stimulus being my extended periods of research in Russian archives and museums from the late 1960s onwards. Much of my scholarly enquiry, therefore, whether writing essays or curating exhibitions, has been concerned with this subject in the context both of individual writers who manifested a particular capacity for painting (e.g. Andrei Bely and Vladimir Maiakovsky) and of painters who explored poetry and prose as vital means of expression (Lev Bakst, Vasilii Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich). Naturally, I am also drawn to the theoretical and critical statements made by writers and artists about the interaction of the disciplines, esthetic synthesis and synaesthesia, and some of my lengthier publications such as Russian Art of the Avant-Garde and The Life of Kandinsky in Russian Art have explored such topics. In this respect, I have found the writings of Pavel Filonov, Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko and Bakst, in particular, to be of special significance.
The interaction of the arts was a theme of particular resonance during the Silver Age of Russian culture (ca. 1900-ca. 1916) when individuals (e.g. Kandinsky, Aleksandr Skriabin) and enterprises (e.g. the World of Art group, the Ballets Russes) gave unprecedented attention to the engagement and marriage of the various media of expression. The intellectual and philosophical arguments which were posed at that time, for example, as to whether a firm bridge could be built between the seven notes of the diatonic scale and the seven colors of the spectrum or whether line in a work of painting could equate melody in a musical composition or whether a dance sequence could, indeed, be choreographed visually, have continued to fascinate me and to inform my approach to the rich consistency of Russian Modernism as a whole.
My current project (the literary and artistic legacy of Léon Bakst) both continues and modifies my preceding concerns. Active as a critic, reviewer, theorist, novelist and ardent letter-writer and diarist, the artist Bakst regarded literature not only as a primary means of esthetic and philosophical communication, but also as a laboratory for formal experiment, to which end his long existential, autobiographical novel (unpublished), bears strong witness. His many critical texts of the 1910s, in particular, also demonstrate intense powers of observation and high intellectual acumen. My hope, therefore, is – in collaboration with Russian colleagues -- to publish Bakst’s critical and creative prose and thus to focus attention on the accomplished literary skill of a celebrated painter and designer. In turn, this endeavor will provide a new perspective on the artistic mosaic of the Russian Silver Age in general.
As painter, stage and fashion designer, creative writer, film scenarist, professor and critic, Bakst serves as an ideal case study for teaching the history of modern Russian culture. Undoubtedly, my current research project will influence my courses at the University of Southern California, enriching my undergraduate surveys of Russian Modernism and leading to the organization of a graduate seminar on Bakst as artist and writer and of an international conference on Bakst and the Silver Age of Russian culture.