- Pavel Tchelitchew
- Tattooed Man, 1934
- labeled for exhibition (on the stretcher)
- oil on canvas
- 39 1/2 by 29 in.
- 100.5 by 73.5 cm
New York, Midtown Payson Galleries, Pavel Tchelitchew: A Reevaluation, September-November 1994
Gallery of Modern Art, Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1964, p. 61, no. 139
Thane Hampton, "The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew," Gay, October 11, 1971, p. 8
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While a Surrealist aesthetic was always at the core of Tchelitchew's oeuvre, this did not prevent his ideas or techniques from evolving throughout his career. In the early 1930s, he began an extensive series of circus paintings depicting acrobats, jugglers, strong-men and other performers. Such a choice of subject matter reflects his keen awareness of Picasso's Blue and Rose periods, examples of which he had viewed firsthand in Gertrude Stein's apartment. Tchelitchew's limited palette served to intensify the melancholic moods of his cast of characters, who appeared to materialize from an eerie haze of gaslight colors such as greens, blues and yellows. Such treatment also suggests the influence of the French Post-Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose later canvases depicting the denizens of Parisian nightclubs were marked by a foreboding psychological complexity. The themes of Tchelitchew's imagery were equally chilling; the grotesque scenes often referenced sideshow deformities or, darker yet, fatal trapeze accidents.
Tattooed Man epitomizes Tchelitchew's work from this period. The brooding and hulking man emerges from an abstracted pool of blues and greens, his body partly absorbed by encroaching darkness. The male figure is startling in its intensity; the viewer, as if in the circus audience, is hypnotized by this creature of superhuman capacity and fantastical possibility. His tattoos hint at his inner psyche, allowing the viewer to guess at his personal history. Though the inked patterns are employed rather sparingly, they cause the viewer's eye to linger along the man's muscular arms, all the while suggesting the artist's metamorphic technique of imposing smaller figures within the contours of larger ones. As Lincoln Kirstein observed, "Tchelitchew became absorbed with the idea of metamorphosis, a collective object or image composed of other complete images, and their interplay, balance, contrast and opposition in which there was a ceaseless dialogue of the whole with its parts. His 'laconic' compositions are a product of this development...Images melted; the sequence of shift was more kinetic. There were added visual puns, coincidences, lurking surprises; it took more time to read these paintings" (Lincoln Kirstein, Gallery of Modern Art, Pavel Tchelitchew, 19). Tchelitchew later expanded upon the tattoo motif by creating entire figures from tattoos.