Lincoln Kirstein - Tchelitchev

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A Metaphysical Painter of Human Landscapes

Mar 2, 2003 (Updated Mar 2, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:A beautifully made Art Book accompanied by well-written text.


The Bottom Line: This is a long one so feel free to browse and skip around.

This outstanding Art Book is a first edition with numerous fold out plates and a scholarly, biographical text by Lincoln Kirstein. In 1933, the year he met Pavel Tchelitchev, he also persuaded George Balanchine, the choreographer for the Diaghilev Ballet, to co-found the School of American Ballet. Kirstein, who wrote frequently about dance, also established the New York City Ballet Company and served as its as general director.

Kirstein was a wealthy bisexual as far as I can figure out. He was certainly part of the Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott crowd and married Fidelma Cadmus, sister of gay artist Paul Cadmus. Kirstein posed for Pavel Tchelitchev and Gaston Lachaise.

The text is sprinkled with anecdotes from Tchelitchev, his sister Alexandra Zaoussailoff’s as yet unpublished memoir, letters to Kirstein, and comments by various friends and enemies of the artist. I have included descriptions of his paintings and other works at the end of the review.

The first thing one sees upon opening Tchelichev by Lincoln Kirstein is a full-sized reproduction of a 12 x 7 7/8” self-portrait titled My Face from Left. The drawing was done in brown wash in Paris in 1932 and the artist would have been in his mid-thirties. What we see is an image of a tall thin man who is beginning to bald. He is wearing circular horn-rimmed glasses and he seems to be looking directly at us over a pair of very foreshortened and very large feet. He is obviously sketching himself from a view in a mirror.

I first became aware of Pavel Tchelitchev (also spelled Tchilitchew) when I was studying art at the University of Wisconsin during 1949 and 1950. Two of my instructors were more than impressed with is work and I must say that the images of the magically transparent human bodies he painted stayed with me.

Tchelitchev was a superb draftsman who worked in many mediums and styles including Russian Constructivism, German Expressionism, French Cubism and French Surrealism, all of which influenced his later experiments in form. He never hid his homosexuality and explored gender issues with an elaborate honesty that was amazing for his time. His male nudes live in a fantasy world filled with satisfaction, free of guilt. In that world the body exists for beauty and has its purpose.

I was unaware of his homosexuality and his relationship with Charles Henri Ford until I started seeing his name in many of the biographies of American expatriates who lived and loved in Europe prior to World War II. I reviewed a series of memoirs about Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott, George Platt Lynes and their circle of gay friends. Lincoln Kirstein, the author of this monograph met Pavel in Paris 1933.

I read about him again in biographies of European eccentrics like Lord Berners and Osbert Sitwell. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas collected and promoted him as “their new artistic find” when Picasso’s works became too expensive for their pocketbooks. The friendship lasted for over three years until a silly argument with musician Virgil Thompson got Pavel excluded from Gertrude’s salon forever. Virgil Thompson was to compose the music for Four Saints in Three Acts and Gertrude had to draw a line somewhere among the bickering homosexual men that surrounded her.

It seems that Tchelitchev had a well-known melodramatic and flamboyantly gay personality. His campy antics and prima donna attitude got him thoroughly disliked in some European and New York circles. Lord Gerald Berners gave him a part in The Girls of Radcliff Hall a spoof of his queer friends. Here, he played the part of one Madame Yoshiwara. The next book I read was Water From a Bucket: The Diaries of Charles Henri Ford, and that made me decide to see what I could find about this man.

Pavel Feodorovitch Tchelichev was born in a small town outside of Moscow in 1898, his family traced their ancestry to non-Slavic Norse Rurik princes who crossed over the Baltic in the tenth century to bring a second Byzantium to Kiev. His line was descended from a blood brother of Augustus Caesar. His father was an amateur mathematician, a philosopher who was well read in Pythagorian and Gnostic lore. He owned three very large, well-tended estates, and refused hereditary service as a courtier to the throne by saying, “I serve no Tzar but the Lord Almighty.

According to his mother and his nurse, Pavlik (little Paul) showed artistic promise as a child. In their schoolroom he and his sister saw wonderful images in the frosted windowpanes before the sun melted them away. Pavlik would save them by making watercolor sketches before they vanished. Foreign tutors taught him German, French and English; from them he learned practical politics, from the servants he learned about sex.

Later at Moscow’s Academy he was forced to draw from plaster casts and disliked the rigid disciplines. When he studied anatomy, he was overcome by the reek of carbolic acid while watching his first dissection and changed his major immediately. However, he would depend upon the illustrated books of Italian, Dutch and English anatomists to get the information he needed on the human organism; geometry, gross anatomy and astrology became major preoccupations.

In 1919, during the Russian civil war, he escaped from Kiev to Constantinople, Sophia and then on to Berlin where he found Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes among the Russian émigrés. At 23 he considered himself a ripe artistic collaborator and began to design sets and costumes for small theaters and eventually the ballet. He was asked by the Berlin State opera to design its new production of Le Coq d'Or. By June of 1923 he was on his way to Paris where he hoped to find his sister, lost to him since the troubles in Kiev. Here he met his first long-term lover, Allan Tanner a young pianist from Chicago.

He emerged as an artist during the years that coincided with Impressionism and the first signs of Surrealism. Having the term surrealism applied to him baffled him because his metamorphic imagery was bound to a super-charged reality, from the smallest to the largest objects of nature’s organic structure. He dealt in visual puns and his slight of hand reveals objects within objects within the landscape of Mother Nature . . . or Mrs. Nature as he so aptly referred to the subject. Salvador Dali’s specialties derived from personal dream-play, which was the free association of his unconscious.

By the mid-1930s Tchelitchev met and fell in love Charlie Ford, sometimes described as America's forever-boyish Surrealist poet. They moved to the United States where the artist found comfort in his relationship for the remainder of his life.

Tchelitchev was plagued by gastro-intestinal problems that he thought he contracted in Constantinople. I’ve seen other reports that say he had what I have: Ulcerative Colitis (mine's in remission). He suffered a heart attack followed by double pneumonia in Italy in 1957. He recovered with heavy doses of antibiotics and returned to his apartment in Rome. He was told not to travel and died on the 31st of June of that year. He was cremated and “his urn is at Père Lachaise along with a columbrium of exiled artists and poets who had found in France their spiritual home.”

The paintings and other works:

The three earliest works (1918-1919) reproduced here were Cubist and done in charcoal, pencil and watercolor. Two were heads and the other was a group of laborers. There's a whole chapter on his theater and ballet designs. His complex visual designs for Diaghilev’s Ode (1928) had a combination of dance, a light show and music. Five giant lamps with reflectors produced the only lighting. There were no backdrops, only pale blue cinema screens to diffuse the light and the dancers would be virtually nude. They were eventually covered in leotards and had mesh-like masks that left them featureless as they manipulated ropes into different configurations. This whole concept in scenic design was way ahead of its time.

Pavel went to England from 1929-33where he was virtually adopted by Edith Sitwell. It seems Edith Sitwell was madly in love with him but that was a love that was never to be consummated. Pavel would never be left alone with her for fear of being raped; it was better that Edith suffer her exasperation alone. He painted a portrait of her that now hangs in the Tate Gallery in London and there’s a wax sculpture of her face that was mounted on a wire armature in the United States.. The skeletal support isn’t concealed and the pinkish ochre wax gives the whole thing an eerie cast, she looks something like the head of the mummy of the Pharo Rameses.

He had a fixation on clowns and circuses, but not like Picasso’s. His painting Green Clown has the whole of the figure made up of the bodies of acrobats and smaller clowns. The face was modeled on that of Glenway Wescott who he ended up disliking and called him a “pink wax undertaker.”

There are two portraits of a Madame Bonjean, who seems to have been a trapeze artist. One is of her head and shoulders. She looks straight at you but over your right shoulder. The other is the same pose, but a full figure slouched in a chair and there are two smaller portraits of her superimposed over it; one balanced on the high wire and one on those hanging rings. Both paintings are oil on canvas and are a symphony of burgundies, rose and peach.

My favorite painting in the whole book is Tatooed Man, an oil on canvas done in 1934. It shows a pensive male with tattooed arms folded across his chest. He wears a dark tank top and this very dark painting with only the skin of the man showing under what seem to be multiple glazes just glows.

Tchelitchev did many portraits of his friends and lovers. The impressionist portrait of his first American lover, Allan Tanner (1925-26) is done in gouache, an opaque watercolor. It is most impressive in color tone and feeling. Tanner is painted against what looks like brown, tan and rosy ochre wallpaper. He wears a tan tweed jacket, a pale blue shirt and a rose tie that is only a shade or two darker than his skin tone. His dark hair is brushed straight back and the whole look is that of a handsome young man of the 1920s.

The Surrealistic portrait of Charles Henri Ford (1933) on the other hand, shows him all in a reddish glow against a field of wheat with red poppies, the drug of love. The poppies are floating around the top and side borders There is also a lovely brown ink on paper profile of Ford and a gouache portrait on paper of him done mostly in blues. He is holding a transparent pitcher of water and reflections are wonderful. Ford was born under the sign of Aquarius, the Water Carrier. Horoscopes were important to both of them.

The portrait of Lincoln Kirstein (1937) shows him as a contemporary Renaissance man. He appears in three strikingly different modes. First, he is portrayed in the foreground as an attractive modern male with his arms folded across a red baseball jacket. In the left background we see him as an intellectual who is reclining on the ground reading newspaper. Lastly, on the right, there is what seems to be a drawing on paper of a naked boxer who is symbolically fighting for his various causes.

In such paintings as Cache-cache (Hide and Seek) and Fata Morgana (both 1940) the artist’s ability to intermingle the human figure with the natural landscape is at its best. His dreamscapes were an evocation of complex metaphysical perspectives and were powerful statements about sexuality.

Hide and Seek depicts a tree of life outlined with delicately drawn faces of children and emerging fetus-like forms of the four seasons. The painting was bought by MOMA in 1942 and was one of its chief attractions for years. It was eased out of the permanent display in the 1980s and has seldom been seen since. Fata Morgana shows an anthropomorphic landscape with mountains disguising a pair of exhausted lovers at rest in the folds of its hills. The painting transforms the earth into a sexual body.

There are numerous sketches and preliminary paintings leading up to Phenomena (1936-38) an oil on canvas that the artist willed to the State Gallery in Moscow. It is now in storage. The large (79 x 106”) painting has a tricky perspective and pyramidal structure that draws the viewer into this strange world of real characters from the Freak Show and members of his immediate social circle depicted as freaks, too. He is said to have commented, “My dear friends are freaks and freaks are beautiful people.”

It seems that one day Ford introduced him to the 14th Street Freak Show and Tchelitchev became fascinated with the idea that these physically impaired performers reflected the social and cultural quirks of his time. He used them all in the painting plus images of his friends and enemies. It caused a scandal in its day and the text that accompanies this huge fold out reproduction says, “[the painting] seems prescient of not only the apocalyptic horrors of World War II, but the ecological, economic, and political crisis of the late century as well.”

Tchelitchev considered it “a thunderbolt in a frame.” He said, “it is the mildest lamb compared to the epoch we have to witness . . . We are living in the midst of the most appalling and impossible not to be seen horrors and madness—everyone covers them with pretty rugs and wallpaper and chintz.” When I stopped to think that we hadn’t even gotten to the A-bomb yet, it was quite prophetic.

In the middle to late 1940s through 1952, the artist radically changed his style and outlook to test his balance and the limits of his sanity. He applied his attention to the human organism and produced a series of translucent bodies showing veins and skeletal construction. Kirstein says, “These are quite literally landscapes, portraits of places. Sometimes the place is the antrum, the vaults of the sinus or the semicircular canal, the tree of the nervous system, or the rivers of lymph; or pools of gland or vessel.”

In Flowers of Sight the eye is seen as “a chrysanthemum-sun, which it reflects. The lashes resemble flames and the eye is a net through which light braids its beams, outward through timeless, interstellar space.” I had to quote, I never could have thought all that up. The Golden Leaf (1943) is the most successful of these paintings for me. Again, it’s a gouache and the painting shows a skeletal torso from the rear The whole thing has a transparent luminosity and the light flickers around muscle and bone. Kirstein calls this painting “the most humane and touching of an amazingly rich and varied sequence.”

The artist felt held back by the shell of the human body and sought a way to show the motions of human energy. There is a remarkable series of geometric heads (1950-51) that use luminous spiraling lines in chalk or colored pencil on dark paper. The artist is reported to have said, “The drawings look like [they were] painted by ray of moon, or neon tubes. They glow and shine . . . and create space before and after the limits of the paper’s surface.” If you look closely you will see eyes, a nose and a mouth, all charged with a kind of spiritual energy that the artist thought represented the human essence. To me they could be patterns for a fascinating modern laser light show.

His last paintings (1953-57) are called Celestial Physiognomies, and the forms are simple shapes such as a chestnut, and orange, an egg, a cat and a vase. These forms are then encased in geometric lines and curves like those of the heads. There are pulsating points of light in red, green, white, gold and blue. If the viewer searches inside each of the forms they will find other forms such as a human one in the vase.

His last painting called Inaveché (1957) supposedly shows the head of a woman and within that the image a phoenix, the bird that rises from its ashes after death. Sorry, but I didn’t see anything except an intricate maze of brilliantly colored intersecting lines. I really preferred his middle and early works much more than these strange patterns of lines.

This is a beautiful art book to have and to look at, but I feel safer having it in a library where I can call it up to look at whenever I feel the urge. The edition was limited to 3,000 casebound copies covered in dark green linen, the title printed in a black Roman typeface. It is printed on coated and uncoated paperstocks using duotone and four-color offset printing processes. It was printed and bound in Japan for Twelvetrees Press in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (ISBN: 0-942-64240-6).

I also found a wonderful bound catalogue, published for the 1998 exhibit at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katohah, New York, called Pavel Tchelitchew: The Landscape of the Body. This was another interlibrary loan from Washburn University in Topka, Kansas and included photographs of the artist by George Platt Lynes that I had never seen. While it contained many of the same works as the Kirstein book, it also contained other drawings and paintings that were new to me. There was an excellent and informative text by guest curator, Michael Duncan, and an essay by Barbara J. Bloemink, Director of the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia.

Pavel Tchelitchev’s life has been written about by Parker Tyler in The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchev Tyler was a friend and collaborator of Charles Henri Ford on his magazines Blues and View. Tchelitchev contributed covers and interior illustrations for the later magazine.

A new book by David Leddick is titled The Homoerotic Art of Pavel Tchelitchev. The images were painted during a period from 1929 to 1939 and reflect his passion for the male form. It’s limited to 1,000 numbered, casebound copies ($75) and 100 specially numbered, slipcased copies ($150). It contains 58 duotone images and 5 full-color illustrations. It’s listed in the Epinions database but I have yet to see a copy of it.

© Ed Grover – 2003

The following is a list of biographies and memoirs I’ve reviewed that all are related to Pavel Tchelitchev, his life, his time and his art:

Charles Henri Ford – Water from a Bucket:

Getrude Stein – Charmed Circle:

Lord Berners – The Last Eccentric:

Girls of Radcilff Hall:

Osbert Sitwell – A Life:

Books on Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott, George Platt-Lynes, Lincoln Kirstein et all.

Glenway Wescott, Personally:
Naked Men:
When We were Three:
Intimate Companions:

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