I am unsure of the ranking of a singular artist such as Pavel Tchelitchew in the contemporary art world, where the idea of art as commodity is becoming the standard of value. As artists are examined more and more like crude balance sheets, one is hard put to separate the experience of a work of art from the brand value of its maker. In 1942, the New York museum of Modern Art exhibited a full retrospective of Tchelitchew work. In 1987, most of his work disappeared from the museum’s walls.
Moving in and out of styles may be the key to understanding part of his fluctuating reputation. Born in Russia in 1898, he and his family were soon on the move following the Bolshevik Revolution, first to Kiev and then on to Berlin where he did not abandon his initial abstract and constructivist techniques. Two years after his Berlin experience, he arrived in Paris. His regular migratory habits were reflected in his restless quest, his ceaseless experimentation. Luckily, Gertrude Stein, always on the look out for new talent, liked his work. The story goes that after a visit paid to his studio and not finding anyone there, she forced the entry, made a selection of some canvasses that she took to her rue de Fleurus apartment and hung them on the spot where some of her Picassos were till then displayed.
There were ruptures not only of style but of mood. He seemed to harbor more than one disposition and although suave and gentle of appearance, he was often perceived as dark and malicious. Harold Acton, whom he met and frequented in Paris wrote, “Strindberg was said to have been possessed by a dark demon but [Tchelitchew] must have been possessed by several”. This did not keep him from building lasting ties with another exceptional woman, the English poetess Edith Sitwell, yet another complex individual but one who seemed to channel her own art in a less tormented way in spite of her unrequited love for Pavel.
His youthful dabbling with constructivism and later cubism gave way to a more figurative work, inspired partly by classical art and symbolism. Together with Christian Bérard and his compatriots, Eugene and Leonid Berman, he founded the groups of the “neo-romantics. More than a new painting movement, it was a reunion of friends having worked on stage and costume design.
It was through his move to New York in 1934 when his inspiration took a different turn. Gone was that touch of decorative art that suffused his portraits and landscapes. He plunged into a surrealist universe where the size of the canvasses matches its disquieting content: freaks, nightmarish landscapes and children morphing into vegetables. Oddly his popularity in America was due to this series of paintings. In 1942, during his retrospective at the MOMA, the Americans had just entered the war. Pavel may have touched a raw nerve of forthcoming trouble.