Erik La Prade has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1898, Pavel Tchelitchew exhibited a keen interest in theater, ballet and fine art from a young age. To the initial disappointment of his father, a mathematician who also ran the family's numerous grand ancestral estates, earning him the nickname "king of the forests," Tchelitchew secretly studied ballet and painting, his skills soon earning him jobs as a costume and set designer at theaters in his native Russia and then Berlin. While working in Berlin in the early 1920s, Tchelitchew's unique and fantastical vision caught the eye of Serge de Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes in Paris, who encouraged the artist to move to Paris in 1923. There he surrounded himself with the Parisian avant-garde and in the early 1930s he met the American Surrealist poet, Charles Henri Ford, who would become his lifelong partner. In 1934, Tchelitchew and Ford settled in New York City where the artist's work was met with critical acclaim and warm reception from critics and collectors alike. Tchelitchew's first solo gallery show was held at the Julien Levy Gallery, his first solo museum show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1942, and his works were ardently collected by museums and prominent collectors such as Gertrude Stein, Sir Kenneth Clark and Lincoln Kirstein. The legendary art critic Henry McBride lauded the artist soon after his arrival on the New York scene writing, "No words will give you the richness of the decoration achieved by this Russian artist" (in New York Sun, 22 February 1936).
Painted at the height of Tchelitchew's career, Bathers is a masterwork in perspectival rendering and depiction of the human form. Soon after moving to New York, Tchelitchew and Ford traveled to Italy for the first time, a visually and emotionally jolting experience that would deeply influence the artist's work thereafter. The present work was inspired by a visit the couple made to Lago di Garda, where they basked in the resplendent Mediterranean sunshine and swam in the reflective aquamarine waters. While at the lake, the strapping Ford, who was 15 years the artist's junior, posed both nude and clothed by the water's edge, feet firmly planted apart and often a towel pulled tautly across his back or his hands commandingly stacked on his hips to accentuate his muscular physique and the monumentality of his form. Years later, the artist reflected fondly on his time with Ford at Lake Garda as being like "diamonds, strung all on one string" (Kierstein, op. cit., p. 69). This work was executed shortly after Tchelitchew's return to New York--the model for the central male figure was the celebrated New York City Ballet dancer, Nicholas Magallanes.
Bathers truly encapsulates the carefree time the artist and Ford spent together in Italy--here he creates a timeless Arcadia where man's only responsibilities include guarding a pristine swimming hole while fellow bathers lazily doze by the water's edge. The figure at left wears an imposing pink hat, incongruent with his unabashedly nude posture. In the coming years, as World War II ensued, landscapes and lives changed irrevocably, and the only decorous types of hats a young man might wear would be militaristic. A master of dramatic foreshortening, meticulous detail and haunting distortions of form, Tchelitchew often focused on the large and disproportionate feet of his figures, perhaps symbolic of man's grasp for a connection to the earth and order. The homoerotic, slightly menacing nature of the scene, coupled with the artist's fascination with this new and idyllic landscape, is recalled in the English artist David Hockney's obsessive paintings of the suburban poolside lifestyle that so intrigued him upon his arrival in Los Angeles (fig. 1).
The central figure in Bathers reappears as a focal and commanding figure in one of the artist's most controversial and monumental paintings, Phenomena, 1939 (fig. 2), an ominously prophetic, apocalyptic landscape replete with grotesque human-animals, gas-masked soldiers and complex metaphorical references. Lincoln Kirstein explains the transition from Tchelitchew's idyllic bathers series to the more serious and darker works that followed when the artist returned to New York from his European sojourn: "In the winter of 1935, on Manhattan's then grim and wretched 14th Street, Ford had been astonished by a cheap freak museum. Labeled malformed human specimens were on display, earning their living by unashamed exhibition...Tchelitchew studied these damned souls clinically and without irony, in awe of their contrast to the gracious wholeness of the sunstruck bathers he had enjoyed so recently in Italy" (ibid., p. 69). Bathers exudes monumentality and gravity, not only in the scale of the figures but in the symbolic nature of this peaceful and romantic time that would live in the artist's memories forever.
(fig. 1) David Hockney, Peter Getting out of Nick's Pool, 1966.
(fig. 2) Pavel Tchelitchew, Phenomena, 1939. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.