VISIONARY REVUE

KALMAKOFF'S LABYRINTH:
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...





 
 
 


PARIS - SPRING 2004


Satan - 1923

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:



 
 
 


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