For Tchelitchew, West Dean represented a return to the carefree summers of his childhood which had been spent at the family estate of Dubrovka. In Excelsior the game of blind-man’s buff with a butterfly blindfold captures the atmosphere of the happy time spent here. The butterfly as symbol of metamorphosis first appears in Tchelitchew’s work at this time, a motif borrowed from Dalí and the Surrealists championed by James and whose work filled the house and grounds of his estate. The time spent at West Dean marks a pivotal moment in Tchelitchew’s artistic development, it was the most fruitful of his English period but would also go on to inspire some of the best work of his career. He produced paintings inspired by the tennis courts featuring matrices of tennis nets and rackets, of children playing and ‘portraits’ of anthropomorphic trees in the arboretum. This imagery was to feed into his masterpiece Hide and Seek which also features a butterfly following a girl into a tree. All these works are executed in the phosphorescent palette that his biographer James Thrall Soby refers to as his ‘gaslight’ colours.
The unwelcome presence of Tchelitchew’s new lover Ford cast a shadow over the time at West Dean. Ford had been introduced to Tchelitchew soon after his arrival in Paris in 1933 to publish The Young and Evil, a scandalous account of the lives of a group of homosexuals in New York, written with another young American poet and iconoclast Parker Tyler. The book, which Gertrude Stein pithily described as ‘beat[ing] the Beat Generation by a generation’ was unpublishable in America and the source of much antagonism even in the relatively liberal circles of James and Sitwell who apparently ritualistically burned a copy. James eventually asked Ford to leave the house, citing the ‘unwholesome and deplored’ nature of his book. It was partly due to James’s influence that Surrealism in England in the early 1930s had departed from its origins, moving ‘from the street to the salon’ and although only loosely affiliated with the movement it was precisely this liminal space, between the street and the salon, that Tchelitchew inhabited. An inveterate snob, both intellectually and socially, he was equally enthralled by the underworld of tattooed sailors and gigolos in Paris and of the circus and ‘freak’ shows of New York, where he and Ford sailed at the end of that summer, stifled by the conservative atmosphere of the British art scene.
Excelsior is a reworking of a study from the year before – a portrait in triplicate of Charles Henri Ford (fig.1). In the present painting, the first and most likely the second figure are modelled on Ford, while the third, swarthier one is thought to represent Parker Tyler. Ford’s boyish beauty captivated Tchelitchew and triggered a change of direction in his art. Apart from the commissioned society portraits, in the years before their meeting most of the artist’s figures had been faceless, as in the sand constellation paintings and the dancers of Ode, or decapitated as in the classical busts of his portraits-nature-mortes. The once spiritual and cerebral becomes earthy and grounded, for as Tyler was to later explain ‘when Ford appears, the face as a plastic riches, a fulcrum of the sensibility, is restored dramatically to Tchelitchew’s consciousness. He is about to begin a portrait painter’s career but till now has lacked the one vital inspiration that will bring the contact with human earth … Charles’s head seems to evoke a pure reality he has reached hitherto only by way of the body. Why else has been willing to blur the faces of his nudes?’ That the portrait is in triplicate (discounting the fourth, obscured figure) is significant because it relates to Tchelitchew’s work in triple perspective. There are three distinct vanishing points in one pictorial space as each of the three heads is viewed head-on, from above and from below ‘self-designated as Body, Soul and Spirit’ (P.Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1967, p.406).
The work’s title most likely relates to the literary nicknames Tchelitchew and Stein’s little coterie had in Paris for each other. In reference to their shared Southern origins, Tchelitchew affectionately called Ford my ‘Huckleberries Finn’. In the chapter about the circus in Twain’s book, the character Dan Rice rides a white horse called Excelsior and Tchelitchew referred to himself as Ford’s ‘faithful knight’. The other possible source is the eponymous poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow about an idealistic youth with bright blue eyes whose motto is Excelsior!
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