The Many Illustrious Circles of Pavel Tchelitchew

Multi-talented artists can appear in multiple departments at Swann. Our June 14 auction of American Art will feature highlights by Pavel Tchelitchew, whose work also appears in our auctions of Illustration Art.

Russian-born Pavel Tchelitchew developed an interest in art at an early age. One of his instructors in Kiev was Alexandra Exter, a pupil of Fernand Léger and an important theater designer. Tchelitchew left the country in 1920, stopping briefly in Berlin, where he executed several theater designs, including the Constructivist-inspired set for Savonarola, 1923. James Thrall Soby said in his 1942 book Tchelitchew: Paintings, Drawings, “Tchelitchew’s work in Berlin appears to have been enthusiastically received and is said to have widely influenced German stage designers during the mid-1920s. Unfortunately, documentation on his productions is extremely limited. . . . The influence of Fernand Léger and the Russian Constructivists was still strongly felt in both costumes and sets. Savonarola was the most Constructivist of all his productions.”


Lot 226: Pavel Tchelitchew, Savonarola, preliminary sketch for set design, graphite, gouache and watercolor, 1923. Sold December 14, 2017 for $8,125.


He then moved to Paris, where he rubbed elbows with Gertrude Stein and her coterie. He began to experiment with a more surrealist style, influenced by his devout belief in clairvoyance and the occult. The Sorceress embodies these themes: in inks and wash, Tchelitchew painted his own fortune teller, accompanied by her cat, in a mystical haze of flowers and smoke. His Constructivist roots are visible in the angles of the old woman’s face and coat, but the work otherwise evinces a blend of Postimpressionism and Surrealism.


Lot 275: Pavel Tchelitchew, The Sorceress, ink and wash, 1932. Estimate $1,500 to $2,500.


Also from this period is a moody portrait of the Communist dissident Robert Cluzan, a militant and mole in the police department in Lyon during World War II, some ten years after this painting was made. Tchelitchew eschews Constructivism again, though the style’s sculptural qualities are evident in Cluzan’s musculature.


Lot 278: Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Robert Cluzan, pastels, 1930.
Estimate $3,000 to $5,000.


After a decade or so in Paris, Tchelitchew left for New York with his partner, the writer Charles Henri Ford. There he became close friends with Paul Cadmus‘s brother-in-law Lincoln Kirstein (who, along with George Balanchine, formed the New York City Ballet). Tchelitchew designed costumes and sets for several important ballet productions, including Balanchine’s Errante and Orpheus. Through his connection to Kirstein, Tchelitchew became part of the artistic circle that included Cadmus, Jared French and George Tooker.


Lot 273: Pavel Tchelitchew, Interiors (Skull), ink and wash, 1944.
Estimate $7,000 to $10,000.


Interiors (Skull) is an excellent example of Tchelitchew’s recognizable mature style. Internal and external views overlap to create an unsettling view of a human head. He returned to this subject frequently until his death in 1957.

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