In 1955, a Russian émigré died alone, unknown and in poverty at the hôpital de Lagny to the north of Paris. After leading a hermit's existence in his small room at the hotel de la Rochefoucault in Paris, this former Russian aristocrat had created a fascinating body of work which, deemed eccentric and worthless, was locked away in storage and forgotten.
Throughout his solitary life, the artist had painted works that reflected his various obsessions with martyrdom, asceticism, decadence, spirituality and sexuality. Executed in a style marked by the Russian art nouveau, his imagery nevertheless transcended this movement, bearing undeniable traces of demented vision, indeed, genius.
Only in 1962 did some of his works come to light when Bertrand Collin du Bocage and Georges Martin du Nord discovered forty canvases in the Marché aux Puces, a large flea market to the north of Paris. All the works in this unusual collection were signed with a stylized 'K' monogram. The Hungarian merchant who sold the lot to them included with it a poster of an exhibition held in Galerie Le Roy, Brussels, in 1924. Here, for the first time, the full name of the mysterious 'K' was revealed - Nicolas Kalmakoff.
Martin du Nord set about researching the life story of this unknown visionary, which soon became an obsessive task for him. First, some fragments from du Nord's notebooks:
Nov. 1962 - Discovered the origins of the canvases: sold to Drouot auction house by an unknown storage keeper for a few hundred francs, along with books and clothing.
6 Nov. 1962 - Acquired four large pastels from the same lot at Drouot's. One bears the mark of Mir Isskousstva - a turn of the century Saint Petersburg movement of Secessionist painters.
Dec. 1962 - Interview in Brussels with Le Roy, the gallery owner where Kalmakoff had his exhibition. Old, lethargic, grumbling, Le Roy remembered nothing.
29 Dec. 1962 - Met Nicolai Fabergé, 83 years of age. He remembered going with his uncle to visit Kalmakoff twenty years ago at his room on rue de La Rochefoucauld. After visiting all the hotels on the street, I found no one who could remember the painter.
24 Jan. 1963 - After placing a notice in la Pensée russe, I was contacted by Madame Evreinoff, who remembered meeting Kalmakoff in the Baltic countries between 1923 and 1928. It seems he was active in the theatre in St. Petersburg before the First World War.
End Jan. 1963 - The unknown storage keeper has been identified: a Monsieur Walbaum. After being put in storage in 1927, Kalmakoff's works remained untouched for the next thirty-four years. Finally, Walbaum had them appraised. According to the art expert, 'they weren't worth a cup of cider.'
28 Jan. 1963 - A turning point. Interview with the painter Ivanov who knew Kalmakoff well, but only in Paris and then only till 1942, when they parted company. Ivanov recalled that Kalmakoff died in a hospice outside Paris.
early Feb. 1963 - The hospice has been identified: Chelles, where Kalmakoff stayed from 1951 until his death in 1955. No account of his last days.
3 April 1963 - The hole between 1942 and 1951 has been filled. Met with Madame S. Kalmakoff's last intimate. Learned many details about his life, and acquired 18 new canvases.(KALMAKOFF, L'Ange de l'Abîme, 1873 - 1955 et les peintres du Mir Iskousstva, Musée-galerie de la Seita, Paris, 1986. Henceforth, this catalogue will be refered to as KAL. All translations from the French are by the author.)
After lying in darkness and obscurity for thirty-seven years, Kalmakoff's works were finally exhibited at Galerie Motte Paris in February of 1964. This led to the discovery of twenty-four new works in Metz - including an entire series which once decorated a chapel dedicated (ironically) to the resurrected called Fortin Chapelle du Résurrectoire. Four years later, another exhibition followed at Galerie Jacques Henri Perrin.
Finally, in May of 1986, a large exhibition of his collected works was organized by Musée-galerie de la Seita, resulting in the colour monograph: KALMAKOFF, L'Ange de l'Abîme, 1873 - 1955. A documentary film by Annie Tresgot (also called L'Ange de l'Abîme) provided interviews with Kalmakoff's contemporaries. Through these various sources (all in French), a shadowy and fragmented picture of the recluse emerges.
And yet, the works themselves - many of them self-portraits - invite a myriad of speculations onto the artist's life and his very unique view onto the world. Did his spiritual ideals drive him towards an extreme asceticism, which then had the contrary effect of releasing onto his canvases a rich profusion of repressed eroticism, effeminism, misogyny and narcissism - culminating in delusions of Satanhood and even Godhood? The enigma of his life and works remains unsolved - a labyrinth into which the speculative writer (and curious reader) wanders at his own risk...
HIS LIFE AND WORKS
1873 - 1955
Nicolai Kalmakoff was born into a privileged existence. His father was a Russian General; his mother of Italian descent. He was born in Nervi on the Italian Riviera in 1873. Unlike most Russian aristocrats, he was baptized a Roman Catholic rather than a Russian Orthodox (due, no doubt, to his Italian mother). Meanwhile, his German governess was fond of Grimm's fairy tales, and these left a lasting impression on his childhood imagination.
As Kalmakoff later recounted: "She made me live in an imaginary world taken from the Brothers Grimm with a sprinkling of E.T.A. Hoffmann. I devoured those tales with delight. Around the age of nine I would often wander into the furthermost room of our house, where I would carefully conceal myself. Then, alone in the darkness, I would call upon the devil to appear." (KAL p. 6)
His early manhood bore all the marks of the Russian aristocracy. From Italy, the family moved back to St. Petersburg, and Kalmakoff studied at the prestigious Imperial School of Law. Here, he rubbed shoulders with princes and nobles, acquiring the arrogance for which he would later be well-remembered. At this time, he also met Nicolai Evreinoff, a fellow student who was as passionately interested in the theatre as Kalmakoff was by painting.
After graduating at the age of twenty-two, Kalmakoff launched himself into painting, while Evreinoff began directing at 'le Théâtre Ancien'. Unfortunately, nothing is known about Kalmakoff's activities during this time. One apocryphal account relates that he spent the next seven years in Italy teaching himself painting and studying anatomy at a nearby hospital, to the extent of dissecting corpses.
MARRIAGE AND THE DEVIL:
THE FIRST MISOGYNIST WORKS
By 1905 Kalmakoff was again in St. Petersburg, married and living in a small home in the quiet Petershof district. Now thirty-two years of age, many anecdotes about his eccentricities commence from this period. According to the actor Mgebrov, "In Petershof, near the park, he had a small house with tall narrow windows, decorated with antique furniture. The hallways meandered into many small corners, passages and stairways.
"One day, while I was visiting him, he whispered to me mysteriously that, for some time now, he'd been painting the devil. 'I have all the sketches upstairs' he said with a strange glint in his eye. 'I stay awake late into the night and keep watch for him. I've caught a glimpse of his eyes... his tail... even his hooves... but I haven't yet seen him entirely. Still, I've made hundreds of sketches - do you want to see them?' And, in fact, in the dusty attic of his bizarre little home he showed me a fascinating and frightening variety of sketches portraying the devil's eyes, tail and hooves. He was absolutely certain that these were things he'd seen." (KAL p. 20)
Although no paintings survive from this period, Kalmakoff later returned to the theme of the devil. In Satan, a truly astounding work from 1923, the Lord of Darkness appears amid a myriad of strange creatures, most noticeably a coiled serpent in the foreground. The Devil's face, like a goat's skull, is horned and crowned with bat's wings. Most mysteriously, he sits before a horned altar where a pyramidal flame obscures his sex.
His contemporaries recall that, while living in Petershof, Kalmakoff joined the Skoptzy movement, a Russian sect which rejected the sacraments of the Orthodox church, believing that Christ could reveal himself within the body of any faithful aspirant (Rasputin was one of the sect's earliest adherents). A rigorous denial of the flesh was called for. Indeed, the Skoptzy saw sex as the source of all evil - to be combatted through abstinence, asceticism and, if necessary, castration. (The word Skoptzy derives from 'castrated').
In this context, the light obscuring the devil's sex takes on a curious signifigance. Through the luminous fire, Kalmakoff has obscured, erased, and even 'castrated' the devil, who is indeed the source of sex and all its evils.
Certainly, Martin du Nord creates a portrait of Kalmakoff as an extreme ascetic. He claims that the artist's beliefs drove him to misogyny and even maltreatment of his wife: "To punish her mere existence" he writes "Kalmakoff shut up his wife in their home while painting all day long... he painted for himself and for his deliverance - whispering mysteriously that he was painting the devil... The foremost theme of his works appeared at this time: that woman is linked with evil as its emmisary and incarnation." (Georges Martin du Nord, Nicolas Kalmakoff in le Réalisme Fantastique, Jean-Claude Guibert, Editions Opta, Paris 1973 p. 19. Authors translation.)
But, if misogyny undoubtedly abounds in his work, so too does an intense eroticism. Once again, Mgebrov's memoire gives us a glimpse into the early works of Kalmakoff, now lost to us:
"All his works betrayed a certain eroticism - an eroticism so overwhelming that it could only be attributed to Satan himself, or worse, to a force even greater than Satan, to something infinitely more awesome and terrifying...
"A couple of years ago I saw a truly prodigious painting of his at Evreinoff's place, a painting that was pervaded entirely by his hyper-diabolic eroticism. It depicted the sexes of a man and woman in union. But, using that array of colours so particular to him, he created strange rhythmic patterns around them, evoking a sense of mystery. The two sexes were rendered in such a way that you believed you were witnessing the creation of the world." (KAL p. 20)
Mgebrov, who knew Kalmakoff well, admitted a demonic source for the artist's eroticism - but also went beyond this view, seeing the source of his sexual energy as something more ancient, primordial, even ethereal. It appears that, as a result of his intensive denial, Kalmakoff had - in the pure Freudian sense - displaced his desire onto images which sublimated his eroticism entirely. Since the source of his desire was, at once, paradisal and demonic, the women in his paintings also took on the dual aspect of ethereal and malevolent. It is this quality which makes his oeuvre so unique: populated by female figures who are equally goddess and temptress.
Certainly, this is the case with The Women of Nadjis (1911), one of the earliest works we possess. The two feminine figures undulate with undeniable eroticism. And yet, thirteen blackened faces float between them, as if manifesting the frightening source of their eroticism. A closer examination reveals that these dark faces with flaming hair may indeed be the heads of numerous serpents, whose scaled bodies form rhythmic patterns of colour throughout the background.
In a similar work from the same period, She Rides a Peacock (1910), we behold a black woman in profile kneeling in an Egyptian manner on a stylized peacock. Once again, the background is charged with rhythmic patterns of colour.
AND THE SOURCE OF LIFE
When viewing the early works that were subsequently lost, Mgebrov also commented on the mysterious organic shapes that crowded into the backgrounds:
"His works were visually stunning, corresponding to no known school or style. Time and again, he depicted vague organic shapes, as if he wanted to magnify a million times the first cellular life-form from the universe's inception. And these sinuous, wavey molecules moved in the most extraordinary patterns, sometimes falling into swirling vortex designs. The subjects in the paintings were often difficult to distinguish, but you could still sense the intense desire to understand, beyond the fantasy and caprice, the essence of something evil."(KAL 20)
In the earliest paintings we have (just mentioned above), we can still see in the background those 'extraordinary patterns' which Mgebrov described. This is even more evident in his dark work Genuflecting Monster (1910). Is it possible that Kalmakoff used a form of frottage, creating a mix of swirling forms, in which he then 'saw' certain figures, and subsequently picked them out and refined them with his brush? A fellow painter once remarked that Kalmakoff would "...look at the sun directly in the face." (KAL 15) Did this blinding vision produce the unusual work Chariot with Eight Horses (1911), which depicts Helios in his solar chariot?
The other characteristic immediately recognizable in his early works is the strong stylized line which sillhouettes figures otherwise lost in waves of intense colour. As Martin du Nord has noted, Kalmakoff's early works were marked by stylistic features stemming from the Mir Iskousstva movement. Like the Sezessionist painters of Vienna and Munich (Klimt, Von Stück) or the Art Nouveau style in Paris and London (Mucha, Beardsley), the Mir Iskousstva painters of St. Petersburg (Vroubel, Bakst, Somov) placed great emphasis on line, design, and strong colours, often enhanced with Byzantine patterns and spirals in gold.
Mir Iskousstva means literally 'art world'. The movement emerged in direct opposition to the Democratic Realism so prevalent in Slavic painting of the period. Foregoing the realistic depictions of Russian peasant life, they followed Oscar Wilde's cry of 'art for art's sake', celebrating decadent visions of chimera and femmes fatales in the swirling linear style of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. Many of the artists from this fin de siècle movement - Bakst, Benois, Kalmakoff - also worked for the theatre. Through Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, the works of Mir Iskousstva became known in Paris and, in 1909, throughout the world.
According to René Guerra, a Kalmakoff collector: "Kalmakoff had in common with this group a pronounced taste for theatrical decoration, graphic art and even book illustration. He shared with them a certain aestheticism. His own style, during this time, was moved by the same spirit that animated all their works: an extremely decorative approach with violent colours, rich textures and pronounced stylization." (KAL 31)
Martin du Nord has divided Kalmakoff's oeuvre into three periods. During this, his First Period (1908 - 1913), his stylistic involvement with the Mir Iskousstva movement is in evidence. In the Second Period (1913 - 1928), du Nord remarks that his colours lose their intensity, and the decorative sinuosity in his line becomes less pronounced. Meanwhile, the figures (which previously were rather flat) gain a greater sense of volume and relief. Finally, in the Third Period, (1928 - 1955), his Secessionist style acquires new strengths. Though briefly tempted by Pre-Raphaelite subjects and colours, he fully embraces the Italian Renaissance, and creates works with increasingly academic qualities. (Georges Martin du Nord, Nicolas Kalmakoff in le Réalisme Fantastique, Jean-Claude Guibert, Editions Opta, Paris 1973 p. 18.)
KALMAKOFF AND THE THEATRE
Kalmakoff's association with the Mir Iskousstva movement came about through his love of the theatre. Although a notorious misanthrope who rarely left his home, Kalmakoff made a sole exception. As Mgebrov recalls: "I never saw him leave his house, except to go to the theatre... Kalmakoff loved the theatre with a mad passion. (KAL 21)
Through his friendship with Nicolai Evreinoff (formed at the Imperial School of Law), Kalamkoff began to work for the theatre - designing costumes and decors which many of his contemporaries could accurately recall years later, even though they'd otherwise forgotten the play. Of his many stage settings, at least two designs have come down to us: The Serpentine Crypt of c. 1910 (a pastel co-signed by the Mir Iskousstva painter Bakst) and The Bedroom of 1914 (mixed media). Both reveal a Giger-esque fascination with intertwining serpentine forms, much-inspired by Nordic and Celtic weaving patterns.
From 1908 to 1911, Kalmakoff designed the sets and costumes for numerous plays, including The Black Masque, Judith, Anathema and The Grand Duke of Moscow. Years later, in 1922 while living in Revel, he exhibited some of these. The catalogue mentions many other decors long since lost: Dances in the Night, Cliperic, the Power of Love and Magic and even a stage setting for marionnettes. Only the memory of certain spectators recalls their overwhelming effect.
As Mgebrov reminisced: "For The Black Masque, a macabre play with dancing masked figures, he created the interior of a castle in all its dark majesty. The costumes were the largest I've ever seen on a stage, evoking a dreamy vision of the Middle Ages with its great halls. The stage decor was enlarged to the greatest possible dimensions, even soaring up to the very ceiling of the theatre, Meanwhile, everything appeared in dark and sombre tones, causing long passages in the architecture to end in blackness. In their phantomesque masks, the cloaked figures danced a macabre farandole, frightening and terrifying the guests in the hall." (KAL 23)
But, of all his stage designs, the one that caused an absolute scandal - to be remembered by the intelligentsia of St. Petersburg for decades to come - was Kalmakoff's design for Oscar Wilde's play Salome. It was, in fact, his first design for the theatre. Within months, Evreinoff regretted having introduced Kalmakoff to the Théâtre Ancien and its main star, Vera Kommissarjevsky. This popular St Petersburg actress, who was also the troupe's producer, immediately fell in love with the artists designs. She also fell in love with Kalmakoff himself.
Inspired by this liason, he created a setting for the first act which even Evreinoff found to be too daring and advanced for Russian audiences. The director wanted it struck from the play, but Kommissarjevsky defended her new lover. During open rehearsals, the sensation spread across all of St. Petersburg, who came out in droves to greet the work-in-progress with a mixture of cat-calls and applause. Finally, on the opening night, the Holy Synod of the Church closed it down.
What was so provactive about Kalmakoff's design? In the first act, Wilde sets the scene in, what he calls, the 'temple of love'. For this, Kalmakoff designed a temple of huge proportions, based on a woman's sex. "It was stunningly beautiful," Evreinoff's wife reminisced fifty years later, "He took as his starting point a woman's sex, but you felt as if you really were in a temple." (KAL 13)
Writing about the event in 1913, Evreinoff struggled to capture the effect which Kalmakoff's setting had provoked: "In Kalmakoff's Salome, as in Wilde's, everything was exaggerated artistically, as if inflated by the genius of the creator... how can I convey the impression of his Salome? Have you ever had a terrifying dream where the most ordinary objects suddenly take on a strangely charged signifigance? You feel tormented by those extraordinary images, which frighten and bewitch you with their beauty hitherto unseen." (KAL 23)
Unfortunately, all designs for Salome have been lost, and the only drawing that has come down to us is one of his costume designs for Salome herself: Salome, costume design (1908). Yet even here, in the earliest surviving work from the artist's hand, an intense eroticism emanates from Salome's semi-nude figure.
In an interview, Anna Evreinoff remarked "As for Sex... he was haunted by it, obsessed by it. It was the driving force of the entire world, and he was its priest. He never accepted the external world, and distanced himself from it in order to immerse himself in his own world of sexuality - a world which exceeded all human limitations." (KAL 13)
After the Synod closed down the production, the effect on Vera Kommissarjevsky was catastrophic. Kalmakoff's lover lost all her money, and was forced to go on tour in the provinces to recuperate some of her losses. She died, one year later, far from St. Petersburg. "She died in a very tragic way," Anna Evreinoff recalled, "the production of Salome put her in her grave." (KAL 13)
LA FEMME NOIRE
Throughout the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Kalmakoff remained in St. Petersburg. Aside from his painting and designs for the stage, he also drew 'ex-libris' plates and book covers. A few of these have been recovered, revealing an exotic as well as erotic dimension to his work. Here, wild flora and fauna abound - leopards, serpents, peacocks and palm trees (Ex-Libris for N. Teffi - c 1910). But more so, he is obsessed by la femme noire - black woman as primitive and primordial - which is most evident in the illustration for The Tent (1921) and his early painting Three Black Women (1912).
As if to emphasize this contrast between 'civilized man' and 'primordial woman', Kalmakoff rendered himself as a foppish French aristocrat with a naked negresse slave. She appears both amused and aroused by the touch of his all-too-white finger on her dark skin (Self Portrait with a Black Woman c. 1923).
At the same time that Kalmakoff painted this self-portrait, Parisiens were hailing Jospehine Baker for her all-nude show at La Revue Nègre. But, given his Baroque manner of dress, Kalmakoff may also be trying to evoke Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Discourse on Inequality. Here, the 'noble savage' is praised and preferred to the decadence of civilized man. (Indeed, passages from this book, particularly on sex and savages, read like a manifesto for Kalmakoff's work: "In instinct alone, man had all that he required for living in the state of nature; in cultivated reason, he has only what he requires for living in society... Among the passions that stir the human heart, there is an ardent impetuous one that makes one sex necessary to the other, a terrible passion that... in its fury, seems calculated to destroy the human race that it is fated to preserve." - Rousseau).
Related to this painting is another self-portrait, dated the same year, which reveals Kalmakoff once again as a wigged aristocrat (Self Portrait as Louis XIV - 1923). However, this time he holds in his hand a strangely exotic plant, seemingly poisonous, whose triangular flower undoubtedly resembles a womans sex. Kalmakoff's misogyny, pronouced as ever, even extends to the plant world. (It is doubtful that Rousseau, an avid botanist, ever came across a flower such as this...)
The unusual rendering of the eyes in this portrait - serpent's eyes - is a recurring feature to be found in many of Kalmakoff's works. The serpent itself, as a sexual symbol of death and rebirth, is an obsessive motif - undulating its way through most of Kalmakoff's labyrinth.