Erté – born Roman Petrovich Tyrtov in St. Petersburg in 1892 – was an artist and designer who applied himself across a range of disciplines from Parisian fashions to stage and film set designs and magazine illustration. He is now being celebrated in a selling exhibition at London’s Grosvenor Gallery, marking the 125th anniversary of his birth and exactly 50 years since a previous exhibition of his work there reawakened interest in him in Britain.
Erté perfected a style of his own which was immediately recognisable. Barbra Streisand, a collector and admirer, said, “you look at his art and you know that it’s his.” He epitomised Art Deco and became a stylistic reference point for that idiom. Brian Sewell wrote of him that “in his fantasies of elegant women and androgynous slaves, veiled and withdrawn, revealed and provocative, flaunting and arrogant, he was the heir of Beardsley and Botticelli, of the Persian miniaturist and the Byzantine painter of saints…”
He could trace his ancestry to 16th century Tartar stock and his immediate family were steeped in military tradition, both his father and uncle being naval officers and it was natural for them to assume he too would enlist. However, his artistic temperament was evident from his very early years and when his aunt bought him a set of wooden toy soldiers he threw them out of the window in a fit of tears preferring to take some lace and make ballerina figures from his mother’s perfume bottles. Aged five he even designed an evening dress for her and persuaded the family to have it made up.
Home-schooled until the age of twelve, Erté was surrounded by elegant women, raised by a series of nannies and an English governess and spoke several languages from an early age. His outlook was international and he was determined to make a career abroad, leaving for Paris in 1912 having convinced his very reluctant father to sign the visa granting his departure as he himself was under age. He lived a typical artist’s life in Paris, eating one solid meal a week and sending drawings of the latest designs to a Russian women’s fashion magazine to help him survive as his father had cut off all financial assistance. In order to avoid family embarrassment, he took the name Erté, being the French pronunciation of his initials.
His first break came in 1913 when he started work for one of the French capital’s top fashion houses, Paul Poiret. His 18 months there taught him a great deal about clothing style and line and in 1915 America’s top fashion magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, offered him an illustrator’s contract and his first cover followed soon after, one of 240 cover designs and 2,500 drawings he created in total for the publication over the next 20 years. He set the flowing, florid style of Art Deco with this work – the magazine’s publisher William Randolph Hearst said “what would Harper’s Bazaar have been if it wasn’t for Erté?” – which was reinforced in other areas such as his work for the cinema, already becoming a worldwide medium and thus spreading his ideas farther afield.
He designed the sets and costumes for some of the most famous silent movies of the day: Ben-Hur (1925) directed by Fred Niblo; La Bohème (1926) by King Vidor; Dance Madness (1926) by Robert Z. Leonard and The Mystic (1925) by Tod Browning, famous for his later cult film Freaks. “It was largely thanks to Erté’s work in films and Broadway shows that the ‘Hollywood style’ developed in America, which was to define the image of the Dream Factory for at least the next decade” writes Mikhail Dedinkin of the Hermitage in his excellent catalogue essay.
Erté was now successful on both sides of the Atlantic with set designs for the Folies Bergère and Alhambra cabarets and the Paris Opéra. He had moved back to France in 1923 in order to facilitate his work in Europe, living with his long-term partner Prince Nicolas Ourousoff in a large house in Sèvres, south-west Paris. When a French journalist visited him there that year he noted the elegant interior décor and sheer theatricality of the environment, unsurprising perhaps for such a famous theatre designer. He wrote: “He has an oriental feeling for colour and an imagination that leaves his imitators far behind. Erté showed me his immortal drawings like a man assembling a bouquet. The technique and flawless perfection of his gouaches made me think of the labours of the small white monks, working away in the radiance of their cells…”
But after a few more years of popularity, Erté found it more difficult to find a market for his work. The Depression had descended and aesthetic delights and extravagances such as his struggled in the harsh economic climate of the time. However, he continued to work on cabarets and set designs and spent the Second World War in Paris, commenting only on the emptiness of the streets under German occupation and the shortage of food. As Dedinkin points out, Erté’s problem was not only that he was growing older but so was his natural audience. Younger generations found his work old-fashioned and irrelevant and “after the last showing of his drawings in 1939, he had no more exhibitions for 25 years.”
Ever the obsessive, however, Erté retained as much of his original artwork as he could, estimating that he had created more than 17,000 drawings during his lifetime and it was his energy in reclaiming his own work which enabled gallerists to display so much of it in later years, as witnessed currently at the Grosvenor.
It was not until the mid-1960s that Erté found himself back in vogue again. After the 1950s and the constant tension of the Cold War, it was as if the Americans in particular needed to break out of their conformist present and many found in Erté’s works an optimism and sheer joie de vivre lacking in the consumer-driven/Mad Men -manipulated present.
The turning point came in 1965 when he met the art dealers Eric and Salome Estorick, the founders of Seven Arts Ltd. They actively promoted him and when they organised an exhibition of 170 of his works in New York in 1967, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the entire collection, an act which Erté himself described as without precedent for a living artist.
That same year “two exhibitions on either side of the Atlantic…put Erté back at the centre of public attention,” as Dedinkin explains. “The Year 1925 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris focused on the famous exhibition of 1925 (also in Paris) that had effectively announced the arrival of Art Deco, while in New York there was a celebration of the centenary of Harper’s Bazaar. Art Deco, having been drowned out by modernism and abstract art, was once more in demand.”
Erté was then taken up by celebrities and wealthy collectors. His androgynous work was mirrored in his own personal look, very similar to that of Quentin Crisp with blow-dried hair and flamboyant attire. In photos from this time, surrounded by the likes of Andy Warhol, Brooke Shields and Diana Ross, he looks like everyone’s favourite, very well groomed, babushka.
Erté died in April 1990 aged 97. He had lived through numerous conflicts and seen his work go in and out of fashion but had never waivered in his approach. His style was entirely his own and created when the term Art Deco did not even exist, only bestowed upon it later by the critics. He would sit in his studio, his two cats Caramelle and Talia by his side, classical music playing in the background, carried away to his own private, creative dimension.
“I’m in a different world,” he wrote in 1988, “a dream world that invites oblivion. People take drugs to achieve such freedom from their daily cares. I’ve never taken drugs. I’ve never needed them.”
Barbra Streisand could be talking of herself when she said: “Erté’s beautiful work captures his essence, his character, his individuality – which is unique. That is what becomes a legend.”
All reproductions of Erté designs © 2017 Sevenarts Ltd.