VISIONARY STYLES TRANSCENDING EPOCHS
If Kalmakoff seemed fascinated by Africa in this period, his interests also extended to other exotic places. Illustrations such as The Gateway to Dreams (1922) and Mantle of Roses (1912) are not simply Beardsley-inspired pen-and-inks. The nude female figures in these works echo the more ancient style of Mycenaean art. The same is true of his paintings Chariot with Eight Horses (1911) and Household Spirits (1927), which are clearly inspired by ancient Greece.
But his exoticism does not end there. Two very early works, The Underworld Voyage (1911) and The Spring, or Egyptian Bathed in Vegetation (1911) are explorations into ancient Egypt. The former portrays the afterworld journey of the solar barque through the body of Nut, the night sky. The latter, like She Rides a Peacock (1910) presents (once again) a black woman who is intimately connected with the paradisal source of all creation.
While Three Black Women (1912, mentioned above) recalls Hindu figures and postures, his Woman and Buddha (1924) displays the influence of Buddhist art in the Japanese style. It is this fascination with the subjects and styles of ancient cultures that makes Kalmakoff's work transcend his own period and become truly Visionary. Kalmakoff begins in the Jugendstil or Art Nouveau style of his times, but - like Moreau, Delville and Fuchs - he evolves beyond it, allowing his line to echo and resonate with the different styles of more distant cultures.
The first issue of The Visionary Revue states in its Manifesto that a more ancient 'prime of styles' underlies many Visionary works. This is the invisible and unseen style 'at the source' which all cultural styles imitate but never fully replicate. And so, the Visionary artist seeks out any and all styles in the attempt, through his own personal style, to combine them into a greater whole:
"Where 'the ancient prime of styles' left its greatest traces historically in, first of all, the 'pure' or clearly-defined styles of the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Greeks, it also re-appeared later in the personal styles of certain Visionary artists - except the 'pure' cultural styles of the past now re-appear inextricably mixed with one another. It is particularly true of the greatest Visionary artists - Michelangelo, Blake, Moreau, Fuchs - that the ancient cultural styles resurface - subtly invoked, turned about, re-asserted, and then merging harmoniously with one another into a single, personal style which, though shared, remains unique." (Manifesto of Visionary Art)
And so, what Kalmakoff shares with Moreau, Delville and Fuchs is not only a fondness for the art nouveau of his times, but something much more deeply interfused. A sketch such as his Fallen Angel (1913) reveals a delicate line-work that extends into other cultures and across the centuries. The expression delineating the angel's face, I dare say, is timeless.
(A personal note: time and again when looking at Kalmakoff's images, I have been reminded of Ernst Fuchs' work. And yet, there is no question of direct influence. Rather, each of them has peered into the same dark well of visions, and rendered the resulting profusion of styles, colours and forms. Fuchs remains, for me, the greatest Visionary artist of the century. And yet, if 20th century Visionary Art has an unrecognized parent and precursor, it is surely Kalmakoff. He is, in many ways, the Van Gogh of Visionaries - recognized much too late, and only after his death.)
Another quality which Kalmakoff shares with Visionary artists is his astounding sense of colour. The contrasting yellows and violets in Three Black Women (1912), or the flaming profusion of orange, yellows and reds in The Women of Nadjis (1911) manifest the artist's genuine immersion into Visionary states, with their resulting cascade of bright shimmering hues. His line, his colour and, most of all, the subjects of his work betray his unique ability 'to see the unseen' and sucessfully render it into vision.
It is for this reason that Philippe Jullian seriously misunderstands Kalmakoff's work. In his comprehensive book Dreamers of Decadence, Jullian is one of the few chronicallers of fin de siècle Symbolism to include Kalmakoff amidst Klimt, Delville, Moreau and so many others. And yet, he sees Kalmakoff as a 'late Decadent' artist, working in a fashion that is well behind the times. Aside from one reproduction of Astarte (mislabelled Chimera), Jullian mentions Kalmakoff exactly twice: "Much later, a Russian émigré named Kalmakoff was to paint angels and Byzantine princesses, but in a style more suggestive of Casino de Paris than of Santa Sophia." (p. 161) And: "There were latecomers who followed the chimeras late into this century... These painters now strike us, in fact, as very like aged prostitutes, repulsive to everyone except those whose desires they know exactly how to satisfy. We have already met the disquieting Alastair and the Byzantine Kalmakoff." (p. 219) Not exactly flattering words.
But Kalmakoff must ultimately be viewed, not as a late Decadent artist of the 19th century, but as a proto-Visionary of the 20th century. Only a significant passage of time will grant us that perspective, and then Kalmakoff's works may finally be vindicated.
WAR, REVOLUTION AND EXILE
Though Kalmakoff preferred a cloistered existence in order to pursue his timeless visions, he could not help but respond to the ravages of war which were breaking all around him. One response was to produce a series of five lithographs. The profits gained through the sale of these postcards were donated to the Society of St. Eugénie, the Russian version of the Red Cross. These four images possess an undeniable beauty. The angel of The Sleeping City (1917) calls upon the inhabitants to awaken. But, in the Evening Light (1915), three angels look down from a flaming red sky with unease and disarm at the spectacle below. Then, in The Heavenly Wrath (1915) another angel flies across the sky with the city below in flaming ruins. Still, it points its sword towards victory in the future. In the last of the series, called Paradise (1915), a sole angel smiles as she promenades through the promised paradise.
If, in 1915, Kalmakoff's vision of the war was patriotic and hopeful, by 1917 this view had deteriorated considerably. His painting The Wrath of War (1917) manifests unquestionably his rejection of patriotism and bitter recognition of war's brutalities. Amid a wasteland of smoke and burning ruins, a canon-creature aims its deadly fire. It has the legs of an insect and two eyes atop its canon mouth, while her menacing brood of cannonballs huddle just beneath. Finally, in the foreground, an ignited bomb is about to explode. This anti-war statement is fantastic and nightmarish, a form of Surrealism before its time.
If the ravages of war were not enough, the outbreak of Revolution in 1917 finally sent Kalmakoff abroad. He did not leave immediately, lingering in St. Petersburg until the early 1920's. But, when he left, it was never to return. Though he brought his canvases and paints with him, the noted misanthrope left his wife and children behind. "He abandoned his family in Russia," recalled Ivanoff, a later acquaintance of Kalmakoff from his Parisian period. "But, to accomplish great works, musn't a true artist remain solitary?" (KAL 15)
Kalmakoff left to posterity a canvas which reflects his personal views on marriage. Bitter, sarcastic, a parody at most, The Wedding Couple (1922) is perhaps the blackest 'wedding portrait' ever executed. The couple stand at the altar with their wedding candles in hand - he, a slobbering drooling corpse with lascivious eyes; she, a heap of flesh so immense that her cheeks and mouth seem more like ass and anus. The painting was executed around the same time that he left his wife behind. "It all belonged to the past," recalled Mme S, his last intimate, "a past of which he never spoke at all." (KAL 7)
At first, Kalmakoff spent several years in the Baltic states, hovering around Russia's borders as if hopeful that the Revolution would somehow blow over and he could finally return home. April of 1922, in the Esthonian city of Reval, he staged an exhibition of his theatrical decors. One year later, he had another exhibition at Strindberg's in Helsingfors. But otherwise, he remained solitary and reclusive, painting some of the darkest works in his oeuvre.
In 1924 he left Esthonia for the Riviera. But this sojourn was cut short after Kalmakoff killed his lover's husband in duel. "Whenever we were together" recalled Ivanoff, "he never mentioned his relationships with women. And yet, I heard that he had often fought duels, and had even killed the husband of one of his conquests." (KAL 15) The blood-stained handkerchief from the duel was found among his personal belongings after his death.
The artist fled to the north of France. At first, he may have settled in Brussels, given his exhibition there at Galerie le Roy in June of 1924 (where one hundred and thirty-three works were displayed - the majority now lost). But he soon found his way to Paris, settling into the hotel de la rue la Rochefoucault on the borders of Pigalle and Montmartre, not far from the Musée Gustave Moreau. He was fifty-three years old, and would remain there for the next twenty-one years.
THE DEVIL, DARKNESS AND LA FEMME FATALE
When Kalmakoff arrived in Paris in 1926, he had among his possessions some of the darkest as well as the most revealing of his works. His fascination with the devil continued, as is attested by Satan (1923 mentioned above) and The Black Mass (1924 - no image available) in which the naked celebrant of the mass, under the protection of certain magic signs, attempts to master the forces he has conjured.
One of the most moving of his images, The Victim (undated) depicts a naked figure before a blinding source of light. His arms are outstretched in a manner akin to Christ. But this veiled figure is crucified against the black shadow of a woman who obstructs the source of blinding luminescence. Only in her silhouette can we discern two slender upheld hands and a cascade of long flowing hair. It is Kalmakoff's most honest and direct expression of suffering. Woman dwells at the source of the creative light but also obscures it with her darkness.
A whole series of misogynist works follow. In The Wife of Satan (1919), woman is clearly identified as evil. Defiant, she stands upon the hell-mouth, her arms crossed, while Hades' horns and hooked wings flank her naked form on either side. The black widow's veil conceals her expression, though fierce piercing eyes gaze out with rancour and resentment. Most mysteriously, a black stripe, be it from the veil or her hair, descends the length of her body, concealing her sex, and reaching as far as her feet. In the background blaze the blood red flames of Hell. Who, one wonders, was the mysterious woman that gave rise to this allegorical portrait? Or is this only a vision, once more, of woman as janua diaboli - the devil's doorway..?
In The Apparition (undated) lush brocaded curtains are swept aside to reveal the stunning nude form of a mysterious mistress. Her face is shadowed by darkness, and only two glowing eyes reveal that this statuesque figure is indeed alive. The whole consitutes a nightmarish vision of woman as, simultaneously, desirous and repulsive.
Finally, in Medusa (1924), an image of the feminine appears in which all erotic qualities are utterly eliminated. The white phantomesque face, like a mask, seems more dead than alive. Only the undulating serpents in her hair betray signs of vitality. More disturbing still are the two blackened eyes like vertical slits in the mask. Given the artist's obsession with a womans sex, it is not too much to imagine that he has rendered her lids vertically to evoke the idea of vaginal eyes - that this woman sees the world through her sex - a demented and tormented idea, without doubt.
A different and particularly revealing portrait of the feminine is offered by The Amazons (undated). Though nude, the two women are helmeted and armoured - muscular warriors marching assuredly with power in their stride. On the shield of one, the face of the Medusa again appears. Woman as virago? Was Kalmakoff rendering here a threatening image of woman?
A SERIES OF DISQUIETING SELF-PORTRAITS
Like turns in a labyrinth, this image leads us into further speculations about Kalmakoff's character. Was he threatened by women? And, considering his aesthète dandyism and fascination for Oscar Wilde - was he threatened to the point of becoming homosexual? Given the series of self-portraits he painted during these years, the question must certainly be addressed.
Already in Self Portrait as Louis XIV (1923) and Self Portrait with a Black Woman (c. 1923), his foppish appearance leads us to wonder. By the time we come to Self Portrait as John the Baptist, we are left with little doubt: this image offers a mirror reflection of his own effeminate qualities - his hip gently rounded, his right hand bent at the wrist, and a most coyish look in his eyes. Strangest of all, his sex is concealed by a black veil, but the background is loaded with roses and an arch - Freudian symbols par excellence of the feminine sex.
Stranger still is his Pas de Deux (1925), in which two figures dance in wigs, heels and campy ballet outfits. The figure on the left is clearly feminine, while the one on the right - upon closer observation - is Kalmakoff himself. The feminine has overtaken his personality so completely that we are hardpressed to distinguish the difference between himself and his female partner. They both dance in the same manner, with their hands in the same positions (holding staffs topped, once more, with roses). They glance at one another as if glancing into a mirror.
It is this that makes the Self-Portrait of 1922 so disturbing. In a style clearly inspired by Rossetti, the artist has depicted himself once more with rounded breasts, arched hips, and the curly red locks of a Pre-Raphaelite maiden. The subject of the painting reminds us immediately of Hermaphroditus.
As told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite once wandered far from his home and became entranced by his own reflection in a pool. The naiad of that pool, a comely young maiden, also became entranced by his beautiful image in the water. This, it appears, is the moment Kalmakoff has captured in his work.
But the story continues. When the young man removed his clothes and dived into the pool, the lovestruck naiad seized him and clutched him to her in a loving embrace. The youth tried to escape, but the more he struggled against her, the more she clung to him. In fear of losing him forever, the naiad called aloud 'May the Gods so ordain that we never be separated in future time, neither you from me nor me from you.' And, as Ovid tells, "the Gods accepted her prayer. For their two bodies were joined together as they entwined, and in appearance they were made one." Henceforth, he was called Hermaphroditus, for he bore the features both man and woman. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk IV, trans. by Mary M. Innes, Penguin 1955, p 102 - 104.)
This painting symbolizes Kalmakoff's final attempt to render an image of himself as masculine and feminine - desiring for them both to be one and united within his own person. Was this utter madness on his part? Pride, vanity, narcisism? The labyrinth takes another strange turn.
For the cataloguers of this painting saw it fit to title the work, not Hermaphroditus, but Narcissus. And certainly they cannot be blamed. The two tales of Ovid are so close, that one could be mistaken for the other. According, once more, to Metamorphoses, Narcissus (his name is related to narkh, meaning the numbness associated with narcotics) was born a most beautiful young man. Tiresias prophecied he would live a long life, provided "he does not come to know himself." While Narcissus rejected the love proffered by others (particularly the nymph Echo, who echoed all that he said), he was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. He lamented: "I am you! I realize it; my reflection does not deceive me; I burn with love for myself." Once more, we come to the image which Kalmkoff has depicted in his work.
But this story ends in a different manner. Narcissus, alas, could not embrace his watery image. Withstanding the separation no longer, he finally proclaimed "As it is, we two who are one in life shall die together!" And so he disappeared from the banks of the pond, drowned in his own reflection. All that remained was a yellow flower with a circle of white petals in its centre the narcissus flower. (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk III, trans. by Mary M. Innes, Penguin 1955, p 83)
When these two tales are taken together, a most frightening image of the artist appears. Was he homosexual? It is unlikely. Not one of his contemporaries remarked upon it (though, it must be admitted, homosexuality was still an unspoken taboo at that time). Transvestite? Not even. Rather, he was bi-sexual. Not in his outward behaviour, but through the inner image of himself that arises in the self-portraits. To combine the two sexes within one's self is - psychologically - one of the most dangerous of undertakings. For the hermaphrodite risks falling in love with himself. He is fated, like Narcissus, to a self-love so intense that it can only end in death.
In Kalmakoff's Self Portrait as Narcissus (or Hermaphroditus), the decadent artist is forever frozen in this pose - gazing at himself longingly, male and female, apart and yet desiring to be one, knowing that their union would only bring tragic self-destruction.
THE EVER DYING AND RISING GOD
How was Kalmakoff to emerge from this hopeless abyss? His next painting indicates that he didn't. Self Portrait as Adonis (c. 1924) shows the artist once more, but now dead and mourned by a long line of women. The aesthète had indeed fallen into the pool of narcisstic self-destruction. Adonis lies supine on the tomb, his body slender and white with curly red hair. The women, who we can imagine are his past lovers, mourn him with eyes closed and faces downcast. Though veiled in black from head to toe, their slender nude figures parade by the tomb, carrying perfume oil to annoint the body and bands of cloth to swathe it.
For the myth of Adonis, we must turn once more to Ovid. And here we learn that this young lover of Venus died while hunting a wild boar. Indeed, the savage beast "sank its teeth deep in his groin, bringing him down mortally wounded." Hearing his final death cry, Venus flew to the gorged body of her lover and mourned him aloud, crying "There will be an everlasting token of my grief, Adonis. Every year the scene of your death will be staged anew, and lamented with wailing cries..." (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk X, trans. by Mary M. Innes, Penguin 1955, p 244)
Ovid's account is the late Roman version of a more ancient tale. For the god Adonis had been worshipped in Syria for thousands of years, where he was also known as Baal in Phoenicia (both Baal and Adonis mean 'Lord'). As Lucian tells us in The Syrian Goddess, Adonis was the lover of Astarte (the Phoenician Venus). In her temple, the worshippers of Adonis castrated themselves - as a sacrifice to the god, recalling his death by the boar which had buried its tusks in his groin. Each year, the priestesses and people ritually mourned Adonis' death.
According to Lucian, "As a memorial to his suffering, each year they beat their breasts, mourn, and celebrate the rites. Throughout the land they perform solemn lamentations. When they cease their breast-beating and weaping, they first sacrifice to Adonis as if to a dead person. But then, on the next day, they proclaim that he lives and raise him up again." (Lucian, De Dea Syria - The Syrian Goddess, Bk I, par 6., by H. Attridge and R. Oden, Scholars Press, p 13.) Adonis was, in fact, an 'ever dying and rising god', like Osiris in Egypt, Damuzi in Sumeria and Baal in Phoenicia. His death was timed with the turning of the seasons, and his resurrection occured with the growth of new crops in the rainy season.
Was Kalmakoff familiar with Near Eastern mythology? His Astarte of 1926 indicates that he had certainly read Lucian. And his Atlas and the Hesperides (1911) includes the figure of a woman (on the right) who is 'upholding her breasts' - the iconographical feature unique to statuary of Astarte. This iconographical motif is even repeated in his later work, The Womens Den (1940).
But, the source of much of Kalmakoff's imagery may also be found in Oscar Wilde. We know that Kalmakoff quoted Wilde in the 1928 catalogue to his show in Galerie Charpentier, Paris ("It is the spectator, and not life, that art truly mirrors"). And that his designs for Wilde's Salome may also have led to his Self Portrait as John the Baptist since Salome conceives a tragic love for the Baptist in this piece.
But more so, in Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil the artist says to Lord Henry that his portrait of Dorian is more of a self portrait. To which Lord Henry replies: "Too much of yourself in it. Upon my word Basil, I didn't know you were so vain; and I really can't see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he were made out of ivory and rose leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you, - well of course you have an intellectual expression." (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings, Bantam 1982, p. 6.). Within one passage, Wilde mentions two of his obsessions, which also seemed to inspire Kalmakoff's works: the tragic Narcissus and the ever dying and rising Adonis.
In the innermost turnings of Kalmakoff's labyrinth, we come to an image of his own death and resurrection, painted at a turning point in his life, when he had left Russia behind and resettled in France. And it is within this context that we are to understand one of his most powerful works, The Crown of Thorns (1922). Once more we are presented with a self-portrait of the artist, but now as 'the dying and rising god' of Christianity. His brow drips with blood and his cheeks are wet with tears. But what is this expression of utter wonderment and fear?
Like all the other self-portraits, this painting serves as a mirror - but a mirror into which Kalmakoff may gaze directly, to behold his own death and hopeful resurrection with wide-eyed horror and fascination. What is more, given his involvement with the Skoptzy movement, this painting may even reflect his belief that Christ had revealed himself within Kalmakoff's own flesh. If so, then his spiritual ideals had driven him from extreme asceticism to eroticism, from radical misogyny to effeminate narcissism, and from Satanism to delusions of Godhood.
The theme of resurrection and re-emergence continues with his Mysterious Trumpet Blast (1924). A winged centaur leaps across a mighty chasm, sounding a trumpet-call to awaken the sleeping figures below. And, from the midsts of the cloudy spiralling abyss, the sun of a new day rises. The revival of Kalmakoff is heralded triumphantly.
From his room in the rue de la Rochefoucault, the chimerical artist had begun a new life. He shunned association with the circle of Russian émigrés living in Paris, refusing all invitations to their soirées. In one of his few remaining letters, he writes to offer his excuses: "My dear friend, it will be impossible for me to see you tomorrow evening, because of my terrible aversion towards all things Russian..." For years, the concierge of the hotel thought he was Italian.
The Self-Portrait of 1924 offers a direct gaze into the eyes of the man, aged fifty-one. "After seeing Kalmakoff's paintings," Mgebrov wrote, "you would think he was highly unusual. Nothing like it. In life, Kalmakoff was always a decent man, calm and elegant, a master over himself. He was rather small. His high forehead was framed by sparse curly hair. His placid features and small moustache 'in the Spanish style' reminded you of Renaissance painters." (KAL 21) By contrast, Anna Evreinoff recalled "He was gloomy, distant and taciturn - a tragic character, as if one possessed. He always lived in his own thoughts and visions. These, he put into his canvases, but the outside world was something he never accepted." (KAL 13)
Despite his distance from the Russian community, Kalmakoff did renew his association with the Evreinoffs when they arrived in Paris one year later. Evreinoff put him in contact with Natacha Troukhanova, a Franco-Russian dancer who wanted to re-stage in Paris the original St. Petersburg production of Salome, complete with Kalmakoff's scandal-provoking designs.
With funding from the Rothchilds, and Troukhanova in the lead role, rehearsals commenced at the Théâtre d'Oeuvre. Immediately, history repeated itself. Troukhanova and Kalmakoff began an affair which upset the entire production. The show was postponed to the next season, and then, entirely abandoned. The scandalous decor that rocked St. Petersburg in 1909 would not see the light in Paris of 1925.
But, the affair did inspire in Kalmakoff a renewed vision of woman, resulting in some of his finest erotic works. His Astarte (1926) is charged with sexual energy: the nude goddess's outstretched arms emanate her eros across the heavens. The two griffons seated at her feet inspire majesty. The Syrian Goddess by Lucian reminds us that the original statuary of Astarte portrayed her standing on two lions (hence the gryphons) with a star or crescent moon (seen lower right) as her symbol.
In 1928, Kalmakoff had an exhbition in Galerie Charpentier in Paris. One hundred and sixty-two works were on offer. Despite a bevy of good critiques, it would be the last exhibition during Kalmakoff's life. Around this same time, forty of his works were put in storage - and then forgotten for the next thirty-five years. As we have seen, they emerged when the storage keeper finally sold them 'for a couple hundred francs' to the Drouot auction house. And eventually they made their way to the Marché de St. Ouen flea market in Paris where Bertrand Collin du Bocage and Georges Martin du Nord bought them up. Thus began the revival of interest in Kalmakoff's works, and the resurrection of the artist himself.
In December of 2001, the magazine Art Cult reported that "a gouache representing a galant scene by the Russian artist Nicolai Kalmakoff soared well beyond its offering price of 50,000 Francs (7,000 dollars) and was finally sold for 280,000 Francs (40,000 dollars) at an auction organized by Boisgirard." At the time of writing, ArtistSearch.com has listed the recent sale of a Kalmakoff painting Gateway to Dreams for 26,000 dollars. Meanwhile, the watercolour The Winged Goddess of Wine has just sold for 55,000 dollars. Speculation is driving the prices of Kalmakoff's works to ever-greater heights.
THE CHAPEL OF THE RESURRECTED
In 1928, Kalmakoff undertook one of his crowning achievements. The author Héliodore Fortin commissioned him to create a series of twenty-four paintings that, together, would comprise the interior of a chapel. Thus, Fortin's Chapel of the Resurrected was conceived. One of Fortin's books, The Bible of Spirits, would partly inspire the esoteric vision manifest in these paintings.
Around the chapel a series of demons appear: some black-skinned, one with serpentine legs (Abraxas?), another with tree branches for legs. These mysterious beings are enhaloed and crowned (like human candles) with a flame over their heads. And above each of them also appears a most enigmatic letter or cypher. (Chapelle Fortin: Monster with Sword - 1927, Monster with Tail - 1927, Primate - 1927). Other images are nightmarish in conception, such as the Rat with a Mouthful of Gold (1927). Meanwhile, the face of Pharaoh (1927) adds a more ancient spiritual dimension.
The central figure of the chapel is mesmerizing and majestic (The Triumph of Man - 1927). He sits enthroned upon a rainbow, holding the world in one hand and pointing outward with the other. His blue flaming eyes and red wavy hair are framed by a trianglular aureole crowned with twelve flames. More of the mysterious cyphers appear: one in each of the flames, and twelve more in sparkling lights around him. These, stranger still, correspond to the cyphers above the heads of each demon.
This incredible ensemble of paintings was only rediscovered in Metz (France) in 1964. Their strange iconography has yet to be interpreted.
Three years later, Kalmakoff undertook a new commission: to paint a chapel dedicated to Jeanne d'Arc. As the patron saint of France, Joan of Arc was canonized in 1920 in recognition of the spiritual aid and courage she brought to the French during the First World War. It was a subject to which Kalmakoff was eminently suited. The artist executed one large painting (The Triumph of Joan of Arc - 1930), then began another (Joan Before her Judges - c 1931) and also drew the cartoon for a detailed diptych (Joan at the Stake - 1931). But, for reasons unknown, the project was abandoned.
The unfinished Joan Before her Judges remains valuable because it preserves signs of Kalmakoff's oil technique. A methodical worker, he painted each figure a la prima and directly from the underdrawing (leaving the most important figures until last). Mgebrov remembers that "like the old masters, he never bought his colours but prepared them himself from plants and herbs, researching their permanence to bring a certain perenniality to his works - so that he could survive the ages. Like the painters of old, he had his original and very solitary way of doing things." (KAL 20) This may explain why much of the fleshtone in his works has taken on a greenish tinge, exactly as one sees in Byzantine icons, particularly of the Early Italian School.
THE THIRD PERIOD (1928 - 1955)
After the completion of the Fortin Chapel, the third period of Kalmakoff's works began (1928 - 1955). Beginning with the central figure of the Fortin Chapel, a more monumental style now pervaded Kalmakoff's oeuvre. The figures were broader, heavier, more voluminous, and eminently more present. Misogynist themes resurfaced. Salome re-appeared as a six-winged sphinx, caressing the Baptist's severed head with one of her mighty paws (Salome Sphinx - 1928). After a life-long fascination with naiades, water-nymphs (Amphitrite - 1927) and aquatic life (Two Seahorses - 1947), he rendered the Lord of the Seven Seas (Neptune - 1936) in this same epic style - the powerful muscles well-pronounced, the angular face in strong profile.
Ironically, at the same time that Kalmakoff was producing these heroic works, his own life was undergoing a steady decline. As his funds ran out, he was forced to move down to smaller and cheaper rooms. The registry records this gradual descent, floor by floor, until he finally ended up in the hotel's small attic.
He was also running out of friends. Kalmakoff had a falling-out with the Evreinoffs in 1931. "He was as disagreeable as possible, and we never saw him again after that. He left us with some very bad memories." Anna Evreinoff recalled. (KAL 13) Another time, he chased some compatriots out of the hotel, screaming "Dirty Russians! How can you speak such an abominable language?" (KAL 7)
Worse still, his health was declining. Throughout his life, the artist had maintained a rigorous routine of athletics: regularly taking breaks from painting to perform bouts of gymnastics. More than once, his contemporaries had commented upon his vitality: "Kalmakoff surprised people with his strange appearance," said one. "He had a balding head with tufts of white hair. And he kept a meticulous appearance, very polished. He was also athletic and did a lot of gymnastics, even looking at the sun directly in the face." (KAL 15) "He was extremely healthy," remarked another, remembering that she had seen him doing headstands and walking on his hands at an advanced age. (KAL 8)
But, Kalmakoff's arrogance and misanthropy, his cloistered existence, and his refusal to exhibit his works led to increasing poverty. As Mme S. his last intimate recalled, "Everyone in the building knew that the old painter in the attic was dying of hunger. It had come to the point where he was living off one cube of soup mix per day. But his arrogance discouraged all compassion..." (KAL 9)
Mgebrov reminds us that Kalmakoff shunned pity and remain proud to the end: "His misery was confronted heroically - in a dandy's coat, straight and narrow, which he designed himself." (KAL 7)
To survive, Kalmakoff took on a number of odd commissions. At least two small prayer cards of the type sold in churches have been found in Kalmakoff's style and signed with his trademark 'K' monogram. It was thus that the painter of Satan, Astarte and various erotic works found himself illustrating The Blessed Gemma and her Angel (c 1934) and Christ Child in the Sheeps Fold (1934). In the latter work, the infant Jesus bears a strange resemblance to Kalmakoff himself. Portrait of the Artist as the Christ Child?
During the Second World War, Kalmakoff also did illustrations for the Nazi occupation forces in Paris - from whence we have the touching image of The Soldier and his Girl of 1941. After slaughtering Resistance fighters in Paris, the tired Nazi soldier finally finds love in the arms of a French woman...
Why didn't Kalmakoff exhibit his own Visionary works and try to sell them? Though his last exhibition at Galerie Charpentier (Paris) in 1928 garnered the artist many positive reviews, he felt himself misunderstood by his contemporaries. He feared he was surrounded by idiots and inferiors who failed to grasp the magnitude of his vision. The painter Ivanoff recalled: "Kalmakoff had formidible pride and, at the same time, a severe honesty. Despite his poverty, he never wanted to sell any of his works. And so, to survive, he had to find those odd jobs that he could do easily - pious images, engravings for the Germans..." (KAL 15)
The pocketful of francs earned from these commissions barely kept him alive. Despite his strong will, asceticism and athleticism, Kalmakoff could not stave off the cold, ill health and slow starvation. Like Basil Hallward, the artist in Wilde's Picture of Dorian Grey, he craved for bodily immortality, hoping to find it through his art. If only the self-portraits would age, and he remain young! But it was not to be so: "The man was terribly poor and, what is worse, he felt himself getting older - something that, for him, was certainly a terrible catastrophe" - Anna Evreinoff (KAL 13)
It was in this state that he painted works such as The Darkness (undated) and Angel of the Abyss (wrongly dated as 1916?). The first is one of his darkest Visionary works. In the epic style of his final period, a mighty serpent uncoils it huge body and raises its great head to survey the wasteland which it rules. Hard scales cover its body, and its serpentine head terminates in a deathly grinning skull. Meanwhile, the sun has sunk beneath the blood-red horizon. This is a bleak but breath-taking view of death and desolation. Yet, the skull-bearing serpent reminds us that, just as the snake sloughs off its old skin, so may new life emerge from the ruins.
Angel of the Abyss is Kalmakoff's beacon of hope. His armour, cape and sword, his rippling strength and firm determination express the artist's resolve to escape from the abyss. He will fight it or, like an angel, rise above it. Ironically, this canvas was probably executed when the artist was struggling, underfed and enfeebled, through his final days. Its image of youth and strength compensates for the weakness and old age that had finally overcome the artist.
In 1941, a Guatemalian woman who lived in the same building as Kalmakoff dared to enter his guarded domain. As she recalls: "One day, I took the courage to address a few words in his direction - to which he didn't respond at all. Still, I slipped into his room and left a cup of tea for him with a few biscuits. An hour later, Kalmakoff came to my rooms and ceremoniously presented me with a bouquet of roses." (KAL 9)
Thus began a liason which was fated to be Kalmakoff's last. Mme S. (whose name remains guarded) was twenty-five years younger than the artist. Over the next six years, she cared for Kalmakoff, but his relationship with her - as with all the women in his life - was tumultuous as well as tranquil.
In 1947, at the end of those six years, they worked out an arrangement. She entered him into a Home for the Elderly, in exchange for a large collection of his works. Thus it was that Kalmakoff, at the age of sixty-eight, went into la Maison des Veillards in Chelles to the north of Paris. This was no luxury retreat. He was in a 'home for indigents', and was surrounded on all sides by the poor and needy. They slept several to a room, were clothed and fed, and given a paltry 300 francs 'spending money' per month.
Realizing that money was his only means of escape, he called upon the Russian Red Cross and then the curé of Chelles. In desperation, he offered to sell them the entire collection of his works, presently in the hands of Mme. S. But, when the curé sent his servent to Mme S. she turned him away indignantly. Kalmakoff was trapped in a cage with a species of humanity he considered brutish and inferior.
This comes out explicitly in a rare letter preserved from 1950:
"Here, life continues, as always, very slowly, an almost vegetable existence. I bore myself nicely, surrounded by a horde of orangutangs, banal to the extreme, who offer a most disgusting spectacle. Psychologically, they remain vacuous, stupid, superstitious, uneducated and illiterate - earth to earth, dust to dust.
Aside from eating, nothing really interests them. I myself must make an effort to withhold my disgust and aversion towards them. I master the despair that seizes me whenever I fathom the true depths of the mental abyss manifest in these brutes and goujats. May the gods grant me my share of Stoic fortitude." (KAL 11)
The nurses at the Home recalled that "Monsieur Kalmakoff spent the whole day long sharpening his knife. It was, in fact, a kind of razor which he always kept in hand. All of us feared that he would have an accident..." (KAL 9) In total, he spent eight years at Chelles.
When one of his last remaining friends came to visit the artist, he found him in a miserable state. The artist's hands were now bent and distorted from rheumatism. The large white curls of hair which once crowned his bald head had been shorn away. He sat quietly, his blue eyes boring into his guest - and didn't utter a word.
Kalmakoff died at the hôpital de Lagny, near Chelles, in 1955 and was buried in the village cemetary. The artist's last remains now repose beneath a crooked and nameless cross rusted by time. Meanwhile, each decade brings increasing recognition and speculation into the life and works of this enigmatic and undoubtedly ingenius man.
The cross still stands, nameless and crooked, at the entrance to Kalmakoff's labyrinth.