Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)
Edward James and his Estate in Sussex had a profound impact on the life and art of Pavel Tchelitchew. Along with a sparkling coterie of British patrons, enthusiasts and admirers, including Peter Watson (1908-1956), Sir Cecil Beaton (1908-1980) and Dame Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), Edward James – like his fellow ‘Tchelitchevians’ - was drawn to the esoteric neo-classicism of the artist’s oeuvre and, seduced by the Russian’s charisma, began to acquire his work apace in the early 1930s. The extensive archival correspondence relating to Edward James and his collection corroborates that he was a key supporter of Tchelitchew, regularly acquiring works from his dealers, including Julien Levy (1906-1981) and R. Kirk Askew (1903-1974) of Durlacher Brothers, and lending significant works for exhibition. Some of the works from this impressive selection were included in Tchelitchew’s major solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1942 and the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art in 1964. With examples from every major period and in every conceivable medium, from silverpoint to oil adorned with sequins, the magnitude of Edward James’s collection of Tchelitchew was perhaps only rivaled in importance, but not in scope, by the collection formed by Charles (see lot 50) and Ruth Ford (1911-2009). As one would expect given the close relationship between patron and artist, there are numerous fascinating linkages between the biography of Edward James and Tchelitchew’s oeuvre within the collection. One such connection is that, according to Parker Tyler, the origin of the tree in Tchelitchew’s masterwork Hide-and-Seek (1940-1942, Museum of Modern Art, New York) was a ‘…striking, not very large tree shorn of its leaves, found by the artist on Edward James’s estate in Sussex in 1934 (P. Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1967, p. 59). This visual reference is recalled by lot 38, Leaf children, executed in 1939 in preparation for this major work. Tchelitchew’s theatrical works further reflect links between the two men as it was through ballet that Edward James truly forged his relationship with the artist. In 1933, following his marriage to the dancer Ottilie (Tilly) Losch (1903-1975), Edward James sponsored Les Ballets, a new dance company founded by George Balanchine (1904-1983) with Boris Kochno (1904-1990) at the helm as artistic director. With the backing of Edward James, Tchelitchew was commissioned to create the entire concept, scenario and design for a new ballet showcase for his wife. Set to a theme from Franz Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy arranged by Franz Liszt, L’Errante (see lot 48) charts the psychological journey of its heroine through a shadow-world created by lights and back projections on to white muslin. Tchelitchew designed a glittering green sheath dress for Losch, with a train so long that movement was a challenge; a typical Tchelitchevian sacrifice of practicality for the higher purpose of aesthetic form. Five years later, Tchelitchew worked on Nobilissima visione, a ballet set to Paul Hindemith’s orchestral work and choreographed by Léonide Massine for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Depicting episodes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, the work was completed in February 1938 and premiered at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London on 21 July 1938. The opening night was a great success, as Charles Henri Ford wrote to Parker Tyler: ‘There were 21 curtain calls, screams for Tchelitchew who was dragged shyly onto the stage twice; then...Edward James and I went backstage to kiss him...and the Russian-Jewish promoter yelled at us to get off: I told him to shut up and […] Pavlik, already disgusted for many good reasons with said promoter, went into a barrage of Russian, mostly curses, beat the man’s fat face with the ballet program, said he would never again set foot in the theatre and he didn’t. We got a taxi and home to bed. Lights out: came a scratch on the hotel room door: Edward: rather bewildered to find Pavlik in bed before midnight with ‘everybody’ in London talking about his triumph […] (op. cit., p. 412-413). Lot 47, a costume design for the production, is even more revealing of the event described. According to a declaration signed in jest by Edward James and witnessed by a solicitor on the reverse, Tchelitchew, in fact, kicked the stage manager in the Adam’s apple while remonstrating “Take your banker’s nose out of my painted business” and “You should stand before me as a dead tree”. This comical scene, in which the players are all figures known to us through biography, exemplifies the remarkable provenance that highlights the group of Tchelitchews as a whole. Each work is part of the mythology of the artist and patron. Tchelitchew would have approved.
Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)

The Concert

Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957)
The Concert
signed and dated 'P Tchelitchew 33' (lower left)
oil on canvas
35 x 45¾ in. (89.5 x 116. 3 cm.)
Painted in 1933
with Arthur Tooth & Sons, London.
Exhibition catalogue, Paintings, Gouaches, Drawings by Pavel Tchelitchew, London, 1933, no. 17.
J.T. Soby, Tchelitchew: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1942, illustrated p. 61, no. 36.
Exhibition catalogue, Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1964, listed p. 60, no. 121.
P. Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1967, p. 132.
N. Coleby (ed.), A Surreal Life: Edward James 1907-1984, London, 1998, no. 55.
Exhibition catalogue, Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous, Edinburgh, 2016, p. 206.
London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Paintings, Gouaches, Drawings by Pavel Tchelitchew, 23 February-18 March 1933, no. 17 (label on the stretcher).
New York, Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, Pavel Tchelitchew, 20 March-9 April 1964, no. 121 (label on the frame).
Brighton, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, A Surreal Life: Edward James 1907-1984, 25 April-26 July 1998, no. 55 (label on the stretcher).

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Lot Essay

I have not yet seen any pictures of Monsieur Tchelitchevs which did not tell one something new about an object we have seen a thousand times, yet have never really seen…’
Dame Edith Sitwell, The Graphic, 28 July 1928

Sitwell’s comment is insightful, if misleading, in that perhaps the greatest quality of Tchelitchew’s work is its resistance to interpretation. It may hint or imply higher meaning, yet ultimately elude complete explanation. In general, Tchelitchew’s oeuvre has always been difficult to categorise; he received no mention in Alfred H. Barr’s Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936) and had refused participation in the exhibition by stating that his was a rational, if autonomous vision. The gallerist Pierre Loeb is rumoured to have cancelled his contract with Tchelitchew following Jean Cocteau’s damning review of his one-man show in 1929, accusing Tchelitchew of ‘confusing the aim of painting with puzzle-making’. Like Sitwell, Cocteau may have missed the point.
The Concert marks the apex of Tchelitchew’s work devoted to the circus theme. According to J. T. Soby, the author of the catalogue for Tchelitchew’s first major retrospective, the painting is ‘remarkable for its compositional balance, luminosity and tenderness of conception’ (J. T. Soby, Tchelitchew¸ New York, 1942, p. 25).
The circus held a particular fascination for Tchelitchew, who like other artists including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and Georges Rouault (1871-1958), found inspiration among the acrobats and other circus performers. He became a regular visitor to the famous Le Cirque Medrano, located at 63 Boulevard de Rochechouart in Montmartre and other one-ring circuses, often accompanied by friends such as the poet and art critic Edouard Roditi (1910-1992) and the effervescent Stephen Tennant (1906-1987), one of the brightest of the so-called “Bright Young Things”.
Mesmerized by the aerial feats of the famous Con Colleano (1899-1973), otherwise known as ‘The Wizard of the Wire’, Tchelitchew was equally transfixed by the clowns, including the Fratellinis and the legendary Grock (1880-1959), and Barbette (1898-1973) the influential female impersonator and trapeze artist. The beguiling masquerade of the circus with its fluid adoption of personas and use of costumes appealed to Tchelitchew and his preference for ‘double-images’ and ambiguity. During the period 1929-1932, Tchelitchew was preoccupied by tattooed circus figures, tracing the embellishments on their skin like a cartographer charts a coastline. The complexity of these interior landscapes increased, often involving metamorphic elements, or incorporating signs and or symbols. His depictions of prostrate acrobats, injured and cumbersome, in sharp contrast to the physical virtuosity required by their profession, demonstrates Tchelitchew’s determination to explore further what he saw as the fantastical underworld of the circus.
Painted in 1933, The Concert was the culmination of Tchelitchew’s pictorial studies; indeed he never returned to the theme after its completion. The magical world it depicts is mysterious, familiar and yet other-worldly. As Parker Tyler attempts to describe, The Concert depicts ‘…four quasi-musical instruments being played by clowns. One is a toy globe or top governed by a pull-cord, one a cat’s cradle anchored by the teeth, another a balloon being inflated by mouth and “plucked”, the fourth, one of those party favors that inflate and unroll simultaneously when blown into through a mouthpiece. Each in its way is a cosmic symbol (the balloon also has the strange connotation of the womb) while the cat’s cradle is a striking prediction of the structure of the dancing boxes that were to house the artist’s Celestial Physiognomies (P. Tyler, The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, New York, 1967, p. 132).
To return to Sitwell and Cocteau, The Concert is indecipherable, and bizarre, yet utterly beautiful. The clowns have a totemic quality which in turn lends the objects they hold a magical and ineffable symbolism, heightened by the phosphorescence of Tchelitchew’s palette. For Tchelitchew, the ‘puzzle’ is an inherent quality of his work; one may question what The Concert reveals or exposes, but in truth the composition, like Tchelitchew’s work in general, is its own universe and subject to its own mystical lore.

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