"Pavel Tchelitchew: Landscape of the Body," June 14-Sept. 6, 1998, at the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, N. Y. 10536.
With only days to go until it closes, the Pavel Tchelitchew retrospective at the Katonah Museum should shoot to the top of the must-see list for mobile New Yorkers. From his early Surrealist masterpieces to his later mystical abstractions, Tchelitchew's paintings have a hallucinatory intensity that is hard to match.
Organized by Los Angeles art critic Michael Duncan, this is the first museum exhibition of the Russian émigré's work since 1964. It features approximately 70 paintings and drawings arrayed in the Katonah Museum's two dramatically darkened galleries. The show includes as well an assortment of sketchbooks, archival material and photographs (by Cecil Beaton and George Platt Lynes, among others) and a fascinating videotape of footage from a 1936 masked ball that Tchelitchew helped organize at the Wadsworth Atheneum.
The son of a Russian landowner who lost everything in the 1918 Revolution, Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957) first gained artistic recognition in Berlin, where he designed sets for Rimsky-Korsakov's The Wedding Feast of the Boyar (1922) and met Sergei Diaghilev, director of Paris's Ballets Russes. He then settled in Paris, where he joined the circle of Gertrude Stein, who hailed him as the next Picasso. The show includes an intense pen-and-ink drawing of Stein, as well as portraits of the actress Ruth Ford, New York Ballet founder Lincoln Kirstein and the poet and writer Charles Henri Ford, who became Tchelitchew's life-long companion.
Tchelitchew was part of the "homosexual wing" of the international avant-garde between the wars, and much of his work is infused with "psychosexual conflict and homoerotic longing," according to Duncan. Tchelitchew and his work were despised by Surrealism's self-appointed pope and author of the Surrealist Manifesto, Andre Breton, an infamous homophobe. Breton condemned Tchelitchew's art for being too visceral. Indeed, it is an apt description of the artist's representations of the grotesque, inspired by his fascination with circus "freaks," fostered largely in part by his visits to a 14th Street freak show in Manhattan.
Exemplary of Tchelitchew's interest in the freakish is Phenomena (1936-1938), which Duncan has managed to obtain on loan from the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This is the first time the huge (over 6 x 8 ft.), intensely detailed painting has been seen outside of Russia for 35 years. Phenomena is packed with perhaps 80 figures, and is a comical index of the artist's contemporaries. Among its characters are portraits of Leonor Fini as the elephant-skinned girl, Charles Henri Ford as spider boy, Virgil Thompson as the limbless Sealo, Gertrude Stein as the "Sitting Bull" on a pile of canvases, and Alice B. Toklas as the "Knitting Maniac." The picture also demonstrates Tchelitchew's obsession with "freaks," and includes an astonishing inventory of circus performers -- Fin-Leg, Mushroom Head, Bird-Girl, Lion-Man, Two-breasted Boy, etc.
The Katonah show also includes Hide and Seek (1940-42), which seems larger (it's over six feet square) and more powerful than ever. On loan from the Museum of Modern Art, the painting of an anxiously searching mother -- Duncan reads her as a young girl "playing" with other children -- and a massive tree metamorphosing into the wailing ghosts of absent children was for decades one of MoMA's stellar attractions. In the 1980s the museum inexplicably decided to consign the painting to storage.
Following the success of Hide and Seek, Tchelitchew embarked on a series of "Interior Landscapes," electrified "x-ray" portraits of skulls and bodies penetrated by glowing veins, arteries and nerves. Disregarding the boundaries between interior and exterior, a work like Anatomical Painting (1946) dissolves the solid mass of the body into a translucent conglomeration of atoms fused with its molecular surroundings.
By the 1950s, Tchelitchew's Surrealism had been overcome in the avant-garde marketplace by Abstract Expressionism. Yet his final series of geometric abstractions, like the "Interior Landscapes" before them, have a mystical intensity that presages the psychedelic idealism of the 1960s. With any luck, these works (several on loan from the DC Moore and Michael Rosenfeld galleries in New York), will not stray too far from public view.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is Associate Editor of ArtNet Magazine.