Woman and Buddha - 1924
(Femme et Bouddha)


      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 earlier) recalls Hindu figures and postures, his Woman and Buddha(1924, above) 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)



Fallen Angel - 1913
(Ange Déchu)

      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, above) 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.