Pavel Tchelitchew's Mercure

Theresa Kim
Aug 29, 2013 8:09PM

Closely examine this image.  It looks like what would result if a light saber refracted into the fifth dimension of a bizarre Donnie Darko scene.  Would you ever have imagined that this image is actually an oil painting created in the year 1956?  Yeah, me neither…..who is the genius artist that possesses the ability to manipulate a classical medium such as oil paint into a complex array of intertwining luminescent beauty that is comparable to a sci-fi fantasy?  The answer is Russian surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchew (pronounced chit-a-chef). 

Born on September 21, 1898 to an aristocratic family of landowners in Soviet Russia, Pavel Tchelitchew made his first appearance as an artist in the United States in 1930 at the newly-opened Museum of Modern Art.  If you’re familiar with the art of Pavel Tchelitchew, you will agree that this artist’s entire body of work is so vast that many art historians have had difficulty categorizing it.  From his homoerotic portraits to his gloomy still lives to his more trippy LSD induced body of work such as his famous Hide-and-Seek and Phenomena, Tchelitchew’s latest oeuvre perhaps best embodies his philosophical and metaphysical inclinations.

Before dying a slow and painful death with his actor lover Charles Henri Ford by his side, Tchelitchew spent his final months of life creating fifteen intricate “x-ray” oil paintings (art historians refer to these as the “dancing box” series) that have reinforced his legacy as one of the most perplexing, yet genius artistic minds of the 20th century.  The phenomenal painting featured above titled Mercure is a paradigm of Tchelitchew’s late oeuvre....and yes, it is reminiscent of Alexander Gray paintings.  

Mercure is referenced in The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew, a biography written by Parker Tyler and published in 1967.  Tyler’s biography is probably one of the densest and difficult to digest pieces of literature I’ve ever attempted to read, after Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation.

Chapter 6, Spasm: “Che cosa terrible!” of The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew chronicles the last days of Tchelitchew’s life as well as his mental state of mind.   The poems written in the artist’s last sketchbook (labeled “Jan. 1954-April 1957”) suggest that his mind lay restless, yet focused on the images of his “Little Beautiful Dancing box fantasy” during his final moments.  The following passage is a description of Mercure on page 105 of The Divine Comedy:


 NOT they do not understand

Why Mercury sitting

Is like king-like foetus

Or swaddled baby royal

Kinglike facing space-all space---

Roi! Roi!

A pleins poumons!!

I cough blood, blood---

Charles Henry, phone---


FISH: fantasy of Mercure’s joined hands

Clutching his knees

Not clutching his knees

(Everything hurts

Does it hurt more?

I do-ant know)

Hand folded over my body

Over my body


If the first thought in your mind after reading that was, “……….huh?” we’re on the same boat.  And if you read the entire poem, which spans ten pages in The Divine Comedy, you’d be left scratching your head (especially if you’re not familiar with his “dancing box” series).  With capitalized emphasis on seemingly random phrases and words, remnants of the artist’s personal memories and momentary flashbacks, and strange imagery alluding to animals and fetus-like men, Tchelitchew’s poem can justifiably labeled as a limerick on hallucinogens.

Interestingly enough, much of the imagery described in this poem alludes to the “characters” featured in his dancing box paintings, which inarguably were painstakingly time-consuming to render.  From what I gather about Mercure in the poetic excerpt, Tchelitchew reflected on this character as a king-like personage in the clutching fetal position, suffering from ailment, trying to hold himself together in a time of vulnerability.  Perhaps, this is evidence that suggests how the artist himself felt when he was dying—how interesting would it be if this character, Mercure were somehow the embodiment of the dying artist?  That wouldn't be surprising considering that Mercure was painted a year before the artist's death.

We know one thing for sure; Mercure is lauded by the artist’s contemporaries as unrivaled, as evidenced in Lincoln Kirstein’s book, Tchelitchev.  Monroe Wheeler, the former director of the MoMA and a key figure in the institution’s work mentions this painting in a letter.  On page 101 of Tchelitchev:

 “…Monroe Wheeler wrote from Rome:

Pavlik lives in a four-room penthouse, with terraces and a view towards Rome, on the top of a new apartment building in the center of Frascati, which was bombed in the war and has been hideously rebuilt.  He sees no one except Charlie and an occasional visitor, and just paints and paints.  He showed me six new pictures: one abstract; the other featureless figures in marvelous variation of lines and circles.  The most beautiful is a seated figure with arms clasped around a raised knee, which he calls “Mercury”…..”

I suppose it’s a matter of opinion, but if Monroe Wheeler considers this painting the most beautiful out of all the others in the series, that’s makes Mercure pretty darn special.  Mercure was last exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York City from March to April of 1964; meaning this piece hasn’t been seen by the public eye for almost half a century, further validating its rarity.  

A similar, but smaller and less historically significant painting by Tcheltichew from the same “dancing box” series titled Le Chat Volant was sold at Sotheby’s New York on April 22, 2010 from the Ruth Ford and Charles Henri Ford Collection.  Even though the offering estimate was $35,000-45,000, Le Chat Volant sold for $266,500! I bet the bidding war for this painting was quite a sight.

That same Sotheby’s sale produced the highest auction sale result for a Tchelitchew painting ever.  Offered at an estimate of $150,000-$200,000, Portrait of Ruth Ford sold for a staggering $986,500, almost five time over the high estimate.

Portrait of Ruth Ford was sold previously at Christie’s London on June 26, 1990.  At an estimate of 30,000-40,000 pounds, the painting was sold for 30,800 pounds (equivalent to $53,453).  In a span of twenty years, this piece increased in value by 20 fold!  I can only surmise that the reason for such a market value increase in Tchelitchew paintings is due to a rise in Russian entrepreneurs becoming wealthier as well as a growth in interest for museum quality Russian artworks. 

Needless to say, Pavel Tchelitchew is one of the leading figures of 20th century Russian surrealist art- whose artistic range knew no bounds as he explored the depths of his subconsciousness. 

Theresa Kim