‘I have not yet seen any pictures of Monsieur Tchelitchev’s 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.