A month or two after starting his first job at a Parisian fashion house in 1912, Romain de Tirtoff was given some advice. “Do whatever you want in life,” his boss told him, “except try to draw. You have absolutely no talent for it.”
After a humiliating encounter with their first employer, lesser mortals might have lost confidence in their abilities. Tirtoff was made of sterner stuff. He gathered up his sketches from the fashion house’s bin, repackaged them, and sent them off to Paul Poiret, the foremost Parisian couturier of the day. Luckily for the world of decorative arts, Poiret promptly gave Tirtoff a job. It proved to be the making of him. By the time he died at the age of 97 in 1990, Tirtoff – better known by his nom de plume Erté (the French pronunciation of his initials) – had produced over 17,000 designs in a career spanning eight decades. His oeuvre, which influenced the sleek Art Deco movement that dominated visual arts in the 1920s and early 1930s, included lustrous stage sets and costumes, magazine covers, fashion designs and prints and lithographs.
He was fortunate, perhaps, that his self-taught style so suited the era. Indeed, for many, his images were among those that defined it. His drawings, some of which can be seen in an elegant new book, “Erté: Genius of Art Deco”, deployed a stylised economy of line and oozed with insouciance and glamour, much like this one (above right), made for the house of Poiret. Head tipped down, hips askew and wearing what appears to be a hunt-master’s tails and a hat topped with a starfish, this woman would still inspire sartorial envy today. Elegance, Erté knew, wasn’t about clothes so much as confidence, and his women exuded a playful sensuality as potent as musk.
Self-portrait for Arts Review, London (1969)
Staring out from an artist’s palette, with his sinuous signature prominently on display, Erté is at one with his craft in this imperious self-portrait. But his career as an artist came as a shock to his aristocratic Russian family. Every single one of his male ancestors had been employed in the Russian Navy since its creation by Peter the Great; each had ended their career as an admiral. From early on, however, there were indications that Erté, who was born in St Petersburg in 1892, might waltz to a different tune. When he was seven he took up yoga, which he practised for 20 minutes every day for the rest of his life. Later, he developed a passion for Paris and – no doubt swept up by the craze for Diaghilev and Bakst – a mania for dance, insisting on ballet lessons, much to his father’s bemusement. Soon after his 18th birthday, Admiral de Tirtoff rashly promised his son anything he desired in return for excellent exam results. Erté, of course, passed with flying colours. The gift he wanted? A passport.
Singer, “Les Ombres Heureux” (1961)
Just before he moved from Russia to Paris, Erté was momentarily torn between his love of dance and his love of art. “I came to the conclusion”, he later said, “that I could live without dancing, but could not give up my passion for painting and design.” As it turned out, Erté’s work allowed him to remain a part of the theatrical world he loved so much. While working for Poiret he dressed Sarah Bernhardt, a French actress, Anna Pavlova, a Russian prima ballerina, and an exotic dancer called Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, better known under the stage name Mata Hari. Alongside his covers for Harper’s Bazaar and fashion illustrations, Erté often designed costumes and sets. His costumes, like this one, were visually arresting flights of baroque fantasy, lavishly decorated with pearls, feathers and exotic or historical motifs that could at times appear at odds with the characters they adorned. “Castor et Pollux”, for example, an 18th-century French opera for which this rococo confection was designed, tells the tragic story of two half-brothers from classical mythology. It opens at a funeral and good deal of the action takes places in the Underworld.
“D” from the Alphabet series (1927-1967)
Envious observers were often struck by two seemingly opposed facets of Erté’s character: an iron work ethic coupled with extraordinary creative fecundity. The alphabet series, for example, was the product of idle fancy in his free time. He imagined that each letter was a character possessing the unique personality of a stage performer, a body made pliable by years of dance training and a style all their own. Some – such as “X”, with his black gimp mask, scarlet boots and thong, or “K”, bound to a Grecian column by a string of pearls and wearing only stockings – are explicitly erotic. Others, such as “T” and “C”, look like charmingly fanciful nymphs from “Fantasia”, a Disney film. “D” belongs to a third category. The bow and crescent moon evoke Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, but Erté, of course, added glamorous new ingredients: blue, star-spangled skin and sinuous curves reminiscent of the women in Persian miniatures he so admired. This is a powerful and mysterious deity drawn from a rich mythological stew, one who deserves a folklore all her own.
Coat for Henri Bendel (1915)
Erté lived the glamour of his art. His Parisian apartment, decorated in jewel tones, had a floor-to-ceiling aquarium in place of one wall, and a gigantic aviary filled with cooing grey doves covering another. A visitor to his villa in the Hollywood Hills remembered being greeted at the door by a Persian cat and a servant wearing a green-and-white striped vest. When the artist himself appeared, he was wearing “lounging pyjamas”, recalled the astonished guest, “which I suspected were made of ermine.” In the 1970s, when a revived interest in Art Deco led to a resurgence in the popularity of his work, the French government bestowed on him the title of “Officer of Arts and Letters”, which came with a badge in the form of a small blue rosette. At a party to celebrate – held at Maxim’s, a beloved Parisian bistro – he accessorised his rosette with a velvet suit, a coat fashioned from pastel-dyed mink, and gold and pearl pins studding the whole ensemble. Despite the fact that he is renowned for fashion illustrations, like this one, used to sell the latest styles, he and the women he drew were, in some ways, above and beyond fashion themselves. What mattered more than what they wore was how they wore it. As the woman here would no doubt tell you if she could: attitude is everything.
Erté: Genius of Art Deco – The Return to St Petersburg (Fontanka), out now