Gertrude Stein’s notion, expressed in the 1930’s, that someone other than Picabia would prove likely to find the sought-after “vibrant line”, seems corroborated in the latest paintings of Pavel Tchelitchew. For “the russian” (as she called him, thinking of Theotocopolus) had long since begun untiring researches into the secrets of his craft. Born in Moscow in 1898, entirely self-taught, he had already painted a disturbing head of Medusa when ten years old. He left Russia in 1919 for Germany where he began to design for the theatre and immediately attracted the attention of Diaghilev, who engaged him and brought him to Paris. He gained fame here with decors, with wax-and-wire portraits (Edith Sitwell, etc.) but never relinquished his classical studies: he sought a total knowledge of the craft of painting, of the accumulated knowledge of pigments and varnishes, of method, of rendering effects of light and shadow, indicating atmosphere—all the warehouse of Western art was his study. At the same time Tchelitchew considers all art magical, and his most famous theatrical productions were just that: for example the ballet Ode on the Occasion of an Eclipse of the Sun where at the end a tremendous Klieg light was turned full-blast toward the surprised audience; or the beautiful scene in Giraudoux’s Ondine where he contrived, by means of lights concealed in translucent balustrades, an extraordinary effect of rising swirling waters.
In 1934 he went to America (becoming a citizen in 1943), had a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His two detailed canvases, Phenomena (1938, now at Ringling Museum, Sarasota) and Hide and Seek (1942, Museum of Modern Art) occupied much of his time in America, but he designed for Lincoln Kirstein’s ballet (then briefly resident at the Metropolitan Opera) a new production of Gluck's Orfeo which galvanized the critics but proved too audacious for the staid opera-house audience, what with an Elysian Fields of floating grey-white trees and for Orpheus a crystal lyre that glowed red in Hades.
For the last six years Tchelitchew has concerned himself with “interior landscapes”—paintings of transparent heads or figures, with luminous (and accurate) delineation of nerves and muscles. Now, in the paintings shown this season in Paris, London, New York, he reveals a new development: a series of forms of common objects become metamorphosed into dancing stellar shapes. Scorning abstraction and pitying the modern painter who has never bothered to investigate the materials of painting (far too many canvases dated after 1900 are flaking and melting) Tchelitchew yet eschews polemic and will only remark: “Image is sacred and magical, and cannot be destroyed”, but thereby he insinuates that the object must be comprehended before the image can be achieved; the precision and care of execution in his paintings speak for themselves.
The pages reproduced here are metamorphic studies preceding the new paintings, and come from notebooks dated 1953–56 crowded with such interplays: a woman is a jug, and a jug is a woman, a walnut in its shell is also a brain in its skullcase, a bull is almost a bee, a gooseberry becomes a turning astrolabe. The resulting paintings offer a startling perception of some frontier of the mind where knowledge of higher mathematics and an impudent play of light spin in eternal counterplay. Lines from Sir John Davies’ The Orchestra spring to mind: “Dancing (bright Lady) first began to bee, / When the first seeds whereof the World did spring, / The fire, ayre, earth and water—did agree, / By Love's perswasion,—Nature's mighty King—, / To leave their first disordred combating; / And in a daunce such measure to observe, /As all the world their motion should preserve.”