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Pavel Tchelitchew (American, born Russia. 1898–1957)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

American painter and stage designer of Russian birth, active also in Russia and France. He grew up in an advantaged and cultivated environment concerned with the arts. Educated by private tutors, he drew from an early age and attended art classes at the University of Moscow from 1916 to 1918. Moving south in 1918 to avoid the Revolution, he studied at the Kiev Academy until 1920 and worked with Alexandra Exter. He moved again in 1920, this time to Odessa, where he worked in the theatre, and then via Sofia in 1921 to Berlin, where he supported himself with theatre work and began to paint still-lifes, figures and portraits such as Natalie Glasko (1926; New Haven, CT, Yale U. A.G.)

From 1923 Tchelitchew lived in Paris, where his work underwent a fundamental change. He abandoned the brightly coloured Cubo-Futurist manner influenced by Exter in favour of a more realistic representation of objects treated as symbols of cosmic order: eggs, cabbages and constellations of stars. Soon he added figures in reflective, self-absorbed poses, such as Burial of the Acrobat (1930; Williamstown, MA, Williams Coll. Mus. A.). With such works he became the ideologue of a small band of artists, known in France by the term Néo-Humanisme, who specialized in dream-like landscapes and figures in sombre, usually blue, tonalities; they included Eugene Berman and his brother Leonid Berman (b 1896), Christian Bérard and André Lanskoy. Such work was usually characterized as an offshoot of Surrealism but was in fact greatly indebted to Russian Symbolist painting at the turn of the century and enriched by Tchelitchew’s very personal elaboration of the simultaneous perspectives of Cubism. The tendency was later referred to as Neo-Romanticism in the USA, where it drew considerable attention, especially after Tchelitchew’s move there in 1934.

Tchelitchew sought to define an imagery of the soul’s journey to immortality, a process that on a social plane would create a new Golden Age, in a series of works that occupied him from the 1930s until his death. Basing his model of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise on the cosmic vision of Renaissance Neo-Platonists such as Marsilio Ficino and Alberti and their circle, he elaborated a complex iconography in a lengthy sequence of pictures, left unfinished at the time of his death, conceived as an allegory of the spirit. As preparation for the first element of his allegory, that of Hell, Tchelitchew completed several series of paintings that treat sleeping figures, figures composed of found objects, freaks, bullfights and tennis matches. In Phenomena (1936–8; Moscow, Tret’yakov Gal.) Hell is portrayed as an arid landscape filled with a vast array of vignettes, in dizzying perspectives, of the alienated conditions of modern life: excesses of wealth and poverty, political cant, extremes of all kinds, monsters of vanity and self-indulgence. The artist himself appears as a trapped visitor in this desperate environment.

For his treatment of Purgatory, Tchelitchew made extensive studies of plants and children. In Hide and Seek (1940–42; New York, MOMA), his most celebrated canvas, he related the seasons to procreation and growth, showing plant and human forms to be similar in their physical structures and purposes. Combining an interest in alchemy with the anatomical illustrations of the Flemish anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–64), he showed the human body, with its veins and arteries, as transparent, in order to suggest the transcendence of the spirit over material substance. A splendid sequence of works executed from 1943 to 1949, such as Itinerary for an Aerial Journey (Anatomical Head) (gouache, 1945; New York, Met.), records this transformation. The process of reduction was completed in a series of heads, which he regarded as the spiritual centre of human beings, precisely drawn in light colours on dark grounds. Finally, the heads were surrounded by linear structures, like constellations of stars, forming a reversible geometry to be read from any angle. It is certain from the artist’s comments that Paradise would have been in this final manner. The rich body of work, particularly from Hide and Seek onward, constitutes an exceptionally individual and hauntingly beautiful contribution to mid-20th-century art.

From 1919 to 1942 Tchelitchew earned a reputation also as one of the most innovative stage designers of his period. His work was particularly admired for its novel use of new materials and dramatic lighting effects. Among the most important of his many productions were the ballets Ode (1928; with music by Nicolas Nabokov, choreographed by Léonide Massine) for the Ballets Russes in Paris, L’Errante (Paris, 1933; choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Schubert) and Nobilissima Visione (St Francis) (London, 1938; music by Paul Hindemith, choreography by Massine) and Jean Giraudoux’s play Ondine (Paris, 1939). His set designs always reflected the contemporary preoccupations of his paintings, an indication of his ability to turn the project at hand to his own creative ends. Tchelitchew became an American citizen in 1952, just before moving to Italy, where he remained because of his increasingly fragile health.

Stephen S. Prokopoff
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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