Russian Art

Pavel Tchelitchew: 7 Things You Need to Know

By Christian House

Of all the 20th-century Surrealists, few were as idiosyncratic and wilful as Pavel Tchelitchew, the Russian-born painter, stage designer and costume designer. The Chagall of noir, he was celebrated for his eerie geometric studies of heads and sexualized anamorphic landscapes.

A group of 17 works by Tchelitchew from the collection of Seymour Stein, co-founder of the pioneering label Sire Records which signed Madonna, features in our Russian Pictures sale in London on 5 June, works that provide links to figures close to the artist: his longtime partner, the poet Charles Henri Ford; Tchelitchew’s biographer Parker Tyler; and friend and fellow Surrealist, Edward James. Below are seven facts to help illuminate this most mercurial of artists.

1. He had a nomadic sensibility

Born in Kaluga Province – into an aristocratic family of landowners – Tchelitchew left Russia following the 1917 revolution, moving first to Berlin then Paris, later taking American citizenship while living in New York. He also spent periods in Kiev, Sofia, Istanbul and London. He died, however, in Rome and his ashes were interred in Paris. His oeuvre was equally restless, shifting between abstraction, eroticism, Futurism, Neo-Romanticism and outrageous Surrealist fantasies.  


2. Cecil Beaton fell “under his spell”

Tchelitchew and Beaton met in 1931 and for several decades enjoyed/endured an on-again, off-again, friendship. “Tchelitchew at first intimidated me (he could be devastating in his disapproval) but soon cast an almost hypnotic influence over me,” recalled Beaton. As a pot calls a kettle black, Beaton said that Pavel was “apt to be touchy and fractious”.   

3. He made muses out of literate ladies

His formative period in Paris during the 1920s was spent in the salons of the poet Dame Edith Sitwell and the American playwright and art collector Gertrude Stein – he produced unflattering portraits of both. And towards the end of his life he befriended Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa.

4. His greatest masterpiece almost perished

His most famous painting, Hide and Seek (1942), is a nightmarish fantasy of figures entwined in branches inspired by a tree he saw while walking in Edward James’ Sussex estate. It has had an unlucky history: a hole was accidentally punched in the canvas during an exhibition tour and in 1958 a fire at New York’s Museum of Modern Art left its surface baked and covered in soot. The work was later restored.

5. He was a frustrated dancer

His career as a ballet designer, from 1919 to the mid-1940s, found him working for theatres as far afield as Istanbul and Buenos Aires and with talents such as the Ballet Russes, Orson Welles, Sergei Diaghilev and George Balanchine. “Re-create a forgotten world,” he declared, “a world you have never seen, so that the audience will gasp with surprise.” He liked to imitate the illustrious ballerinas featured on the stage, performances that one friend described as looking like a bluebottle in flight.

6. He thought people misbehaved in museums

Tchelitchew was convinced that most visitors to museums will fondle the private parts of statues if they are left alone in the galleries. As a result, he claimed, curators have to regularly wash the fiddled bits.

7. His final commission was a wine label

Tchelitchew’s swansong was a colour drawing for the label of the 1956 Mouton Rothschild La Tache de Vin. His design featured a golden ram – a reference to the Rothschild’s coat-of-arms – caught in a geometric spider’s web splashed with crimson wine. The artist died from a heart attack the following year; Baron Philippe de Rothschild was one of the many august and eminent mourners at Père Lachaise Cemetery.

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