Self Portrait as Adonis - c. 1924
(Autoportrait en Adonis)


      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 Women’s Den (1940).



Crown of Thorns - 1922 (La Couronne d'Epines)

      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, above). 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.