Theatres of Melancholy by Patrick Mauriès book review

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For years, if you wanted to see “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth at the Museum of Modern Art, you had to track it down in a corridor near the escalators. It was Wyeth’s most famous painting, but it didn’t fit into the modernist paradigm of art history. You got the feeling that the curators would have buried it in the racks if it weren’t so popular. Sharing “Christina’s” exile was a painting from a different tradition by the Russian American artist Pavel Tchelitchew (pronounced cha-LEE-cheff), “Cache-cache (Hide and Seek),” another work of art on the wrong side of history that pleased people who didn’t know any better.

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Tchelitchew and his art have escaped from their quarantine, and both figure prominently in Patrick Mauriès’s “Theatres of Melancholy,” an alternative history of modern art that makes the case for the importance of a loosely aligned group of painters termed the Neo-Romantics. In Mauriès’s view, some are as important as the abstract artists who came of age during the period between the world wars.

In the mid-1920s, many artists were questioning the idea of “progress” in art, reflecting larger cultural shifts after World War I destroyed the view that science, psychoanalysis and rationalism would eventually solve humankind’s problems. The great modernist experiments of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse were more than a decade in the past. Abstract art was still being made, but to the Neo-Romantics it was as hidebound by critical strictures as the art of any traditional academy. They rejected abstraction in favor of an art influenced by Italian Quattrocento painters and, in Tchelitchew’s case, the art of the Northern Renaissance. The ruins of a once-proud culture featured significantly in their art.

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Three Russians are at the heart of Mauriès’s account: Tchelitchew and the brothers Eugène and Leonid Berman. All of them moved to Paris after the 1917 Revolution and became active in the circle of Central European artists there, including Jacques Lipchitz and Marc Chagall. They also met Americans such as writer and collector Gertrude Stein and composer Virgil Thomson. Stein was searching for the next big thing in art and briefly championed the three young artists, along with the other major member of the group, the Frenchman Christian Bérard.

The word “theatres” in Mauriès’s title is apt for two reasons: First, Neo-Romantics’ paintings often resemble stage sets, with moldering ruins set in front of bleak vistas stretching away to infinity. These settings are sometimes populated by characters — clowns, jugglers, harlequins and the like — familiar to theater from Italian commedia dell’arte. Second, the Neo-Romantics were noted for working with the performing arts, designing sets and costumes for theatrical events. This engendered suspicion among some critics that they were not “pure” artists, notwithstanding the fact that Picasso had worked with dance impresario Serge Diaghilev. Bérard went the furthest in this regard, designing sets for the Jean Cocteau film “La Belle et la Bête,” working with the famous interior decorator Jean-Michel Frank and doing fashion illustrations for designers Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Nina Ricci. This led Gertrude Stein to warn that “he may, after endlessly debating between beauty and fashion, opt for beauty, but he is in danger of falling into fashion, and staying there.”

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The gathering clouds of World War II impelled Tchelitchew and Eugène Berman to the United States, where they eventually became citizens and found their art championed by Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, and Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin Jr., director of the famously avant-garde Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. The artists designed sets and costumes for choreographer George Balanchine, the Metropolitan Opera and other patrons. Their work would also be collected by fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Geoffrey Beene and by writers such as Diana Vreeland. Berman’s art would be featured on the cover of Town & Country magazine. All of this, however, would lead to a critical backlash.

The 1930s were the high point of Neo-Romantic prestige. In the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism swept away everything before it, and artists such as Tchelitchew and the Bermans were dismissed as dinosaurs who didn’t have the decency to die. Their popularity in gay circles was also grounds for scorn, not surprisingly in view of Abstract Expressionism’s ferocious macho posturing. The critic Clement Greenberg, attacking a 1943 exhibition of Eugène Berman’s work, wrote, “Given that he has discovered essentially nothing about his art that Raphael didn’t know, he is very dexterous.” He went on to call the paintings, “too overpowering, too decadent, too spurious, and, really, too well done to be dealt with in measured words.”

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Decadent, spurious and yet well executed — a concise summation of the weaknesses and strengths of Neo-Romanticism. And it is the technical mastery of many of those works that has helped them survive to be reevaluated by a new generation of art historians. The current critical emphasis on gender and LGBTQ issues has led in turn to a more sympathetic climate for Neo-Romanticism. I would not go as far as Mauriès, who attempts to present the group as Postmodernists avant la lettre, but Neo-Romanticism has been getting a well-deserved second look in the past few years. As the saying goes, “The river of art has many currents.”

Reagan Upshaw is an art dealer and critic in Beacon, N.Y.

The Neo-Romantics in Paris and Beyond

Thames and Hudson. 256 pp. $65

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