VISIONARY REVUE


Self Portrait as John the Baptist - 1921
(Autoportrait en saint Jean-Baptiste)

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.

Pas de Deux - 1925

      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 his self portrait of 1922 (above right, titled Narcissus) 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.



 
 
 


PARIS - SPRING 2004


Narcissus - 1922
(Narcisse)

      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.

 
 
 


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