Alchemist at large: the return of Tchelitchev

Alchemist at large: the return of Tchelitchev – Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchev, Midtown Payson Galleries, New York, New York

David Bourdon

Pavel Tchelitchev persists as one of the ineradicable “undead” artists of his time – clawed, hacked and impaled by generations of critics, only to rise repeatedly from intended oblivion like a vampire phoenix. A Russian-born painter with a magician’s flair for mystification and a grab bag of flashy tricks, he attained his zenith of renown more than 50 years ago and was honored with a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1942. But detractors scoffed at his abracadabra. Their antagonism was partly sparked by his theatrical affectations and polyglot patter, as well as his high visibility in the fashionable circles of 1920s Paris and ’30s New York. Long before he died in Rome in 1957, at age 58, his artistic reputation seemed to have dissipated like a puff of smoke. But that, too, proved to be an illusion.

“Pavel Tchelitchev: A Reevaluation,” a retrospective recently organized by Manhattan’s Midtown Payson Galleries, provided a welcome opportunity to reexamine the work of this determinedly ambiguous artist. It was the largest survey of Tchelitchev’s work in 30 years, and – as skillfully assembled by the gallery’s associate director, Edward De Luca – contained some 70 paintings and works on paper. The show included many portraits of the luminaries in Tchelitchev’s circle, several male nude figure studies, a perhaps too scanty amount of his theatrical designs, and a good number of his biotic fantasias, the most notable of the latter being his chef d’oeuvre, Hide-and-Seek (1940-42). Overall, the presentation revealed an artist whose cleverness often exceeded his inventiveness. But even if Tchelitchev is ultimately judged a minor figure in the sprawling tapestry of modern art, his poetic imagination and passionate sensibility continue to tantalize.

Midtown Payson timed its show to coincide with the publication of Tchelitchev, a new and absorbing critical biography by Lincoln Kirstein, who first met the artist in 1933 and apparently has been researching him ever since.[1] Kirstein is an excellent writer with a comprehensive knowledge of modern culture, and his text is particularly illuminating on the artist’s many (mostly disastrous) ventures into theatrical design.

Tchelitchev was born in Kaluga, near Moscow, in 1898 and barely attained adulthood before getting caught up in the Russian Revolution and recruited into the White Army. Although assigned to work as a cartographer, he would have preferred to be a scenic designer. He did succeed in designing decor for a small ballet group in Odessa, presumably during a lull in the fighting, but nonetheless he decided to desert the Whites and Russia. In Sevastopol he met a charming French naval lieutenant who sneaked him aboard his cruiser, which was sailing to Constantinople. From there, Tchelitchev made his way to Berlin, where he fashioned a niche for himself in the early 1920s as a designer of costumes and decor for cabarets. Before long, he was invited to plan a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or for the Berlin State Opera. His extravagant designs were so costly, however, that they brought the company to the verge of collapse. The opera’s premiere was “a personal triumph for Tchelitchev,” writes Kirstein, “but a public catastrophe.”[2]

In 1923 Tchelitchev moved to Paris, where he joined a group of stylish young men whose talents ranged from dressmaking and costume design to portraiture and landscape painting. The circle included the Russian-born Berman brothers, Eugene and Leonid, and Christian Berard, all of whom participated, along with Tchelitchev, in a group exhibition of “Neo-Romanticism” at Galeries Druet in 1926. That same year Tchelitchev sent The Basket of Strawberries, a modest still life in vibrant reds and pinks, to the Salon d’Automne, where it caught the eye of Gertrude Stein. She sought him out, and a friendship commenced. Innately snobbish and devastating in his disapproval, Tchelitchev also displayed a genius for self-promotion that rivaled hers. He became one of the most competitive in a pack of Paris dandies who, like exquisitely clipped poodles, insistently sniffed each other’s private parts while simultaneously vying to assert group leadership.

Aside from the luscious Strawberries and some very attractive portraits (including an elegantly hatched pen-and-ink sketch of poet Rene Crevel), much of Tchelitchev’s work of the mid-’20s is an uninspired reworking of motifs and ploys introduced a decade or more earlier by artists such as Picasso, Braque and Gris. His somber images of acrobats and clowns evoke deja-vu, especially when rendered in hues that he apparently thought set him apart; he admitted a “predilection for pale blue and magenta pink.”[13] Perhaps encouraged by Cubist experiments with texture, he employed coffee grounds and sand to add relief to the curvy buttocks and shoulders of the naked brown bodies in Doubled Figure (1925-26), one of his murkiest compositions of this period.

From today’s perspective, it’s hard to believe that pictures such as Butcher Boys Paris (ca. 1929) and Sleeping Harlequins (1930) ever helped to sustain a reputation as a modernist. In some of his late-’20s paintings of clowns, Tchelitchev played with “double-identity” forms, depicting figures whose torsos and legs consist of interlocking smaller figures (circus performers, animals, stage properties and so on); the result is an illusionistic double entendre in which neither aspect of the image (or its interpretation) significantly contradicts the other. As Jean Cocteau archly noted, Tchelitchev “confused the aim of painting with puzzle-making.”[4]

Tchelitchev was out strolling one evening with artist Michel Larionov, another Russian emigre, when they happened upon Serge Diaghilev, impresario of the famous Ballets Russes, sitting by himself at the Cafe de la Paix. Since 1909 virtually every Russian artist of any note had contributed designs to Diaghilev’s ballet company, and Tchelitchev lost no time in making known his availability. Diaghilev lifted the young artist’s prestige by inviting him to design the set and costumes for Ode (choreography by Leonide Massine), which had its premiere in Paris in June 1928. In a letter to Stein, Tchelitchev gloated that the premiere was “a great success,” which “so astonished people that despite hatred and jealousy they were amazed.” He lamented, however, that he had been prevented by the fire department from using the “luminous blue fines” (he apparently planned to incorporate neon lighting in his set design) “because they require 120,000 volts – the theater would have exploded.”[5]

By 1930, Stein was fed up with Tchelitchev’s pushiness and his tireless attempts to “hop on the bandwagon.” But before she ceased to receive him at 27, rue de Fleurus, she had already made the tactical error of introducing him to a no-less-celebrated and publicity-ravenous writer, English poet Edith Sitwell, who, according to Kirstein, “fell madly, head-over-heels in love with him, the passion of her life. He was to be Michelangelo to her Vittoria Colonna.”[6] Their self-promotional synergy was formidable, and Tchelitchev’s numerous portraits of this eccentric-looking grande dame are among the highlights of his oeuvre.

Alas for Sitwell, this modern Michelangelo, like his Renaissance prototype, held an overwhelming preference for masculine torsos. In 1933 he met and became entranced by Charles Henri Ford, a bright-eyed Mississippi lad (and future editor of View) who, according to Kirstein, possessed “provocative coltishness, kaleidoscopic curiosity, and faun-faced sharpness.”[7] Their friendship resulted in some of the artist’s most idolizing portraits. In Blue Boy with Pitcher, a 1933 gouache, Ford appears as a meditative half-length figure against a penumbral background, his face aglow as if eerily illuminated by the fluid highlights in the transparent pitcher he holds between his hands. The picture, which evokes Symbolist paintings of young heroes by Burne-Jones and Redon, has an astrological reference: Ford was born under the sign of Aquarius, the water bearer.

In an even more adulatory portrait of Ford, a 1933 oil subtitled Wheatfield with Poppies, the young writer, wearing a red short-sleeved shirt, confronts the viewer with crossed arms in a half-length frontal pose. His expression is placid but his face, throat and fingers are suffused with a glowing red, suggesting a molten interior. The head is centered against a mandalalike field of haystacks, which evokes the golden halos in Byzantine mosaics. The field itself is encircled by a group of stemmed red poppies – some rising from the ground, others flying through the air, one or two dropping their petals. The torrid undertones and narcotic overtones effectively increase the picture’s iconic intensity.

In 1934 Tchelitchev (known to his intimates as Pavlik) and Ford moved to New York, where the artist began showing almost annually at the Julien Levy Gallery. Although Levy was primarily identified with his Surrealist artists, he was equally committed to his clique of Neo-Romantics, who never attained similar notoriety. Tchelitchev’s paintings, in Levy’s opinion, “are not plastic in the accepted sense, they are really a highly original literature.” What’s more, Levy added, “I never once heard Pavlik arrive at a logical conclusion…. I am inclined to think that Pavlik heard voices. Psychopavlik!”[8]

Polyglotism, mysticism and a predilection for aracana may have obscured Tchelichev’s message, but they also enabled him to sashay through the city’s art, fashion and dance worlds. He gained numerous portrait commissions, often from the doyennes of high fashion. Some portraits were shrewdly revealing, such as those of Kirstein – shown in three aspects that indicate his intellectual and athletic interests – and of Charles Henri’s actress sister, Ruth Ford – seen encircled by hands that spell out her name in sign language; both were done in 1937. Others were as peculiar as the nude figure study of Feral Benga, Deposition (1938), which shows the black dancer lying on his back upon a cloth, his upside-down face and upraised palms close to the picture plane, his feet receding dramatically into the distance of the upper left corner. For his photographer friend George Platt Lynes, Tchelitchev created lush Neo-Romantic backdrops for fashion shots that appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Not least, Tchelitchev altered – if only inadvertently – the future of costume and set design in modern ballet.

Before Tchelitchev left Paris for New York, he received a cable from choreographer George Balanchine, a Russian colleague from the Diaghilev era, saying that he looked forward to working with him in America. Balanchine, like Diaghilev before him, operated on the assumption that visual artists were of crucial importance in the creation of new ballets. Consequently, Balanchine invited Tchelitchev to design a new ballet to be set to Stravinsky’s Concerto in D, and he stuck by his decision even after realizing that the artist planned to attire the dancers as fanciful insectlike or plantlike apparitions who would be only partly visible in a nighttime gloom. The result was Balustrade, which opened in January 1941, with the composer conducting. “To judge from old and rather bad photographs,” observes Balanchine biographer Richard Buckle, “the lovely designs of the genius Tchelitchev, not for the first time, ruined a ballet.”[9]

Balanchine also engaged Tchelitchev to design costumes and decor for a new suite composed by Paul Hindemith, and the artist became excited by the idea of costuming the dancers as the “cardinal humors” or “temperaments” which, according to medieval lore, determine an individual’s character. He wanted to create outfits that suggested cutaway views of bone structures, nervous systems and other anatomical patterns, but his schemes were so extravagant that the ballet had to be postponed. When Balanchine later choreographed the work, Tchelitchev was unavailable, able, but he recommended his painter friend Kurt Seligmann, whose designs, to quote Buckle, again, “proved as disastrous as Tchelitchev’s earlier ones.”[10] About four years later, Balanchine eliminated the bizarre costumes and had the dancers perfom in their practice clothes. In time The four Temperaments became one of Balanchine’s most popular ballets, persuading the choreographer that his work could actually be enhanced by pared-down productions.

Nature fantasias involving human bodies continued to fascinate Tchelitchev. In 1939 he portrayed Sitwell’s head in profile in the form of an autumn leaf, a minor but memorable work that perhaps symbolized her season in life. In 1940 he painted Fata Morgana (Derby Hill Theme, Summer), a rolling green landscape of cleared fields and forested slopes that, upon closer inspection, turn into a pair of reposing colossi, a nude man and woman lying on their backs as if exhausted by an orgiastic rite of spring. That same year he embarked on his most extraordinary vision of biological metamorphosis, Hide-and-Seek.

A massive tree trunk commands the center of this picture, which swarms with plant forms but is not really a landscape. Recalling the artist’s earlier “double-identity” images, the tree’s gnarled main branches mimic the outstretched fingers and thumb of a hand, while the base of the trunk appears to take root via giant toes with nails. It is perhaps worth noting that anthropomorphic trees with grabby branches had recently figured in two extremely popular movies, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) and The Wizard of Oz (1939).

In intimate physical contact with the tree are many children, ranging in age up to about 10. The more corporeal among them appear to be engaged in a game. These include a trio at the base of the tree and an older girl in a red dress who clutches the bark with outstretched hands; she is flanked by younger naked children, also clinging to the trunk. Several of their companions have clambered into the branches above.

In contrast to these “real” children, who exist as positive forms in the same three-dimensional space as the tree, many “apparitional” youngsters exist in negative spaces. These latter ghostlike figures lack any conventional epidermis, their volumetric presence being implied by vines, leaves and flowers that suggest the blood vessels and nervous systems of the human body. Nearly all of them have their heads wedged into the crotches of the tree. Many viewers equate the phantasmic children with the seasons, the figures on the left representing spring. At the top of the tree and continuing into the upper right corner, the heads metamorphose into apples (or vice versa). Autumn is clearly in evidence to the right of the tree, where small children are wrapped head-to-foot in red leaves. Unlike the other spectral figures, the pale wintry child in the lower right corner has a skeletal structure, the spinal column and arm bones being visible as in an X-ray.

“Perhaps I was trying, in Hide-and-Seek,” Tchelitchev acknowledged many years later, “to achieve a kind of magic that relies on too much abracadabra, too much trickery.”[11] In this instance, however, his sorcery really worked, creating the illusion of a boundless continuum between human growth and plant life, all subject to a mysteriously convoluted and ever-evolving metamorphosis. Having worked on the image in near-secrecy for, almost two years, Tchelitchev completed the picture (painted in oils and layered with elaborate glazes) just in time for it to become the keystone of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in October 1942. The museum purchased Hide-and-Seek immediately, and the work hung on the walls for decades as one of the most popular paintings in the entire collection. In a recent rehanging of the permanent collection galleries, however, a more pedantic generation of curators with new axes to grind felled Tchelitchev’s tree of life and consigned it to storage.

At Midtown Payson, the resurrected Hide-and-Seek demonstrated anew its extraordinary power to command the close and prolonged scrutiny of viewers. Its amazingly concentrated imagery and Surrealistic vigor remain as potent as ever. If the picture seems more scary and poignant today, it is perhaps due to a heightened impression that Tchelitchev’s children are not immersed in mere game-playing but, instead, may be engaged in a deadly earnest attempt at concealment. He painted the picture, after all, during a period when Anne Frank was secluded in an Amsterdam attic, while in Polish ghettos countless children, like those portrayed in Schindler’s List, withdrew to secret hiding places. Because Tchelitchev’s own childhood had been brutally terminated by a civil war in which he attempted to elude both Reds and Whites, it seems unlikely that he did not somehow take into account the ghastly plight of children in wartime Europe when he painted Hide-and-Seek.

He next embarked on a series of fanciful anatomical studies known as “Interior Landscapes.” Among the most compelling of these is The Golden Leaf, a 1943 gouache of a broad-shouldered male nude, viewed from the rear, whose transparent epidermis reveals an internal structure of skeleton, blood vessels and nervous system, an glowing with an enigmatic white luminosity. The emphasis upon inner body parts has antecedents, obviously, in the spectral “winter child” with exposed skeleton from Hide-and-Seek, as well as the costume studies for The Four Temperaments. Another outstanding example in this series is Cabeza Anatomica, a bizarre 1946 drawing in colored pencil showing a bald human head in three-quarter profile with an intricate network of blue veins proliferating like crabgrass over the face. Even creepier, perhaps, is Labyrinth, a 1949 tempera of a human head that consists primarily of bluish bones and a fiendishly complex infrastructure of meandering gold and white lilies.

Several writers refer to the “Interior Landscapes” series as ecorche drawings, which is logical insofar as the images depict internal anatomies. Strictly speaking, however, Tchelitchev’s fantasies have little in common with Vesalius’s painstakingly detailed studies of flayed human bodies. Far from being an analytic dissector attempting to advance science, Tchelitchev was brandishing his mystical intuition to establish an allegorical parallel between the internal systems of the human body (the “microcosm”) and the energy and matter of the universe (the “macrocosm”).

In 1950 Tchelitchev and Ford returned to Europe, first revisiting their old haunts in Paris, then moving on to Italy, where they settled in Frascati, south of Rome. Tchelitchev now determined that “a single spiral line” – without beginning or end and symbolic of eternity and infinity – was “the most adequate tool” in his new studies. Abandoning what he called his “transcendental biology,” he concentrated on the structure of forms, which he rendered in astonishingly precise line drawings. Remembering the bird cages and salad baskets whose frameworks had caught his eye in an earlier era, he began to design human heads as if they were composed of filigrees of colored wire. The premise may sound silly, and the results may appear too facile, but some of these works exert an undeniable charm. Among the most appealing are Vaso d’Oro, a 1955 oil in which a linear articulation of gold lines spins out the “double-identity” image of a pitcher/torso with a handle/arm, and Le Chat Volant, a 1956 oil in which myriad curling and intersecting lines constitute a sitting cat. Tchelitchev wanted to believe that these pictures suggest “the infinite revolving movement of the universe.”[12]

Although he ultimately claimed to find the universe a fairly lucid and luminous place, Tchelitchev’s own position in it – at least in the art-world portion – remains mysterious and opaque. His artistic achievement was wildly uneven and too often mired in determinedly weird imagery. But when he was in top form, as in Hide-and-Seek and the “Interior Landscapes,” his magic was truly dazzling.

[1.] Lincoln Kirstein, Tchelitchev, Santa Fe, Twelvetrees Press, 1994. Unfortunately, three of the book’s color plates, including Hide-and-Seek, are reversed. [2.] Kirstein, p. 31. [3.] James Thrall Soby, Tchelitchew: Paintings, Drawings, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1942. [4.] Kirstein, p. 40. [5.] Kirstein, pp. 50-51. [6.] Kirstein, p. 56. [7.] Kirstein, p. 59. [8.] Julien Levy, Memoir of an Art Gallery, New York, Putnam’s, 1977, p. 242. [9.] Richard Buckle, in collaboration with John Taras, George Balanchine, Ballet Master, New York, Random House, 1988, p. 125. [10.] Buckle, p. 162. [11.] Edouard Roditi, Dialogues an Art, New York, Horizon Press, 1961, p. 124. [12.] Roditi, pp. 126-27.

Author: David Bourdon has written monographs on Warhol and Christo. His book Designing the Earth will be published by Abrams in fall 1995.

COPYRIGHT 1995 Brant Publications, Inc.

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