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Benois, Alexandre Nikolaevich (1870-1960)
by Scholes, Robert

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Alexandre Nikolaevich Benois (1870-1960)

He was born in St. Petersburg, where he grew up in an artistic milieu and was fascinated by the marionette shows at the Carnival in that city. He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Art and then began studies in law at the University, where he met Serge Diaghilev, a young man from the provinces, who received instruction from Benois in aesthetic matters. Travelling in Europe, he stayed in Paris and Versailles in 1896. At that time he encountered the work of Monet and began buying impressionist paintings for Princess Tenishev. In 1898 he helped with the reorganization of the Imperial Collections of Russian Art at the Mikhailovsky Palace in St. Petersburg. But his major impact on European culture was via the theatre and especially the ballet. A recent sketch of him describes him, quite correctly, as a “painter, designer, decorator, director and librettist, art historian, and writer.” He worked mainly in Russia until 1926, curating art at the Hermitage and designing sets for plays, ballets, and operas there and in Moscow.

The difference in his work before and after Monet can be seen in his “Feeding Fish at Versailles”, from 1897, and his “Peterhof”, from 1905.

Writing about him in The New Age for June 29, 1911, Huntly Carter had this to say:

With regard to the question of organising groups of co-operators they also offer a practical solution. They reveal that the first essential is a man of wide artistic sympathies like M. Serge de Diaghelew, a connoisseur in modern artists of the theatre, who has the strength and courage to gather together a unique body of great artists, composers, dancers and decorators of the Moscow and St. Petersburg schools, all working in sympathy to create that big aesthetic sensation which proceeds from the fusion of a number of individuals of different temperaments into complete unity of feeling and expression, and which transports a number of hearers beyond themselves. Another essential is a painter-director, like M. Benois, who is able to conceive a theme for representation, to construct it and to design appropriate decorations and constumes for it. In a word, to interpret the lines, colours and movements throughout. (NA 9.9:209)

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