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Tchelitchew and his art have escaped their quarantine, and both feature prominently in Patrick Mauriè’s Theaters of Melancholy, an alternative history of modern art that argues for the importance of a loosely aligned group of painters dubbed the Neo-Romantic . Some, according to Mauriès, are as important as the abstract artists who came of age in the interwar period.
By the mid-1920s, many artists were challenging the idea of ”progress” in art, reflecting major cultural changes after World War I and shattering the view that science, psychoanalysis, and rationalism would ultimately solve humanity’s problems. It has been more than a decade since the great modernist experiments of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Abstract art was still being produced, but for the neo-romantics it was bound by critical constraints as severely as the art of any traditional academy. They rejected abstraction in favor of an art influenced by Italian Quattrocento painters and, in Tchelitchew’s case, Northern Renaissance art. The ruins of a once proud culture played an important role in their art.
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Mauriès’ report focuses on three Russians: Tchelitchew and the brothers Eugène and Leonid Berman. They all moved to Paris after the 1917 revolution and became involved with central European artists, including Jacques Lipchitz and Marc Chagall. They also met Americans like writer and collector Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thomson. Looking for the next big thing in art, Stein briefly championed the three young artists, along with the other big member of the group, Frenchman Christian Bérard.
The word ‘theater’ in Mauriès’ title is appropriate for two reasons: first, the paintings of the Neo-Romanticists often resemble stage sets, with decaying ruins set against bleak vistas stretching out into infinity. These settings are sometimes populated by characters – clowns, jugglers, harlequins and the like – familiar to the theater from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Second, the Neo-Romanticists were known for working with the performing arts, designing sets and costumes for theatrical events. This raised the suspicion among some critics that they were not “pure” artists, despite the fact that Picasso had collaborated with dance impresario Serge Diaghilev. Bérard went furthest in this regard, designing sets for the Jean Cocteau film La Belle et la Bête, collaborating with famed interior designer Jean-Michel Frank, and doing fashion illustrations for designers Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Nina Ricci. This prompted Gertrude Stein to warn that “after endless discussions between beauty and fashion, he may choose beauty, but he runs the risk of falling into fashion and staying there.”
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The gathering clouds of World War II drove Tchelitchew and Eugène Berman to the United States, where they eventually became citizens and found their art championed by Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin Jr. , director of the famous avant-garde Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. The artists designed sets and costumes for choreographer George Balanchine, the Metropolitan Opera and other patrons. Her work would also be collected by fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Geoffrey Beene and by writers such as Diana Vreeland. Berman’s art would appear on the cover of Town & Country magazine. However, all of this would result in a critical setback.
The 1930s were the height of neo-romantic prestige. In the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism swept it all away, and artists like Tchelitchew and the Bermans were dismissed as dinosaurs who didn’t have the decency to die. Her popularity in gay circles was also a reason for contempt, which is not surprising given the wild macho demeanor of Abstract Expressionism. Critic Clement Greenberg, attacking a 1943 exhibition of Eugène Berman’s work, wrote: “Given that he has found out essentially nothing about his art that Raphael did not know, he is very skilled.” He described the paintings as ” too overwhelming, too decadent, too fake and really too well done to be treated in measured words”.
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Decadent, fake and yet well executed – a concise summary of the weaknesses and strengths of neo-romanticism. And it is the technical mastery of many of these works that has helped them survive to be re-evaluated by a new generation of art historians. The current critical emphasis on gender and LGBTQ issues has, in turn, created a more sympathetic climate for neo-romanticism. I wouldn’t go as far as Mauriès, who tries to portray the group as postmodernists avant la lettre, but neo-romanticism has gotten a well-deserved second look in recent years. As the saying goes, “The flow of art has many currents.”
Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic based in Beacon, NY
Neo-Romanticism in Paris and Beyond
Thames and Hudson. 256 pages. $65
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