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Impressionist & Modern Art / PAVEL TCHELITCHEW (1898-1957) Picnic (Study for 'Phenomena') 9 13/16 x 13 7/8 in (25 x 35.3 cm) (Executed in 1935)

Lot 34
Picnic (Study for 'Phenomena')
18 May 2022, 17:00 EDT
New York

Sold for US$7,012.50 inc. premium

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Picnic (Study for 'Phenomena')
signed and dated 'P Tchelitchew 35' (lower left)
gouache, pen, brush and colored ink on paper
9 13/16 x 13 7/8 in (25 x 35.3 cm)
Executed in 1935


The authenticity of this work has been confirmed by Erik LaPrade.

Julien Levy Gallery, New York (acquired directly from the artist by February 1942).
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York.
Sale: Swann Galleries, New York, March 6, 2002, lot 42.
Wilson H. Foote, Jr. Collection, New York (acquired from the above).
Thence by descent to the present owner in 2020.

San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Art, Sawdust and Spangles: Arts of the Circus, April 14 – May 10, 1942.

Pavel Tchelitchew, the Russian émigré painter, divided his time in the 1930s and 40s between Europe and the United States. He became well-known for his neo-Romantic, Magic-Realist style. The present lot is a study for Phenomena, one of the artist's best-known, large-scale oil paintings and also one of his most enigmatic and complex works. In 1935, while on vacation in Europe, Tchelitchew visited Verona, Italy, and saw the doors of the church of San Zero Maggiore, which are composed of forty-eight Romanesque style bronze panels; each panel depicts a scene from the Old or New Testament. Soon after his visit, the artist began working on a series of thirty-five "gouaches of figures and scenes," (J. Soby quoted in Tchelitchew, exh. cat., New York, 1942, p. 28) using them as the compositional basis for his painting Phenomena.

After returning to New York, Tchelitchew was introduced to a 14th Street show formerly known as a "Dime Museum" by his companion, the poet Charles Henri Ford. The religious pathos that initially inspired Tchelitchew was soon combined with another thematic source, these characters providing the artist with "types of physical malformation and excess" (P. Tyler quoted in The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew. A Biography, New York, 1967, p. 390). From 1935 onward, he created a large number of paintings and drawings based on these sideshow characters, striking a fine balance between the grotesqueries of the figures and the matter-of-fact refinement of his draftsmanship. Working directly on the canvas of Phenomena, Tchelitchew composed the sketches of figures and scenes to form a modern day epic reminiscent of Renaissance iconography.

A number of the artist's friends and enemies are portrayed in the painting: Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas are presented as Sitting Bull and The Knitting Maniac; Charles Henri Ford is The Lion Man; Virgil Thomson is Sealo, a head with a seal's body; Christian Bérard is portrayed as The Bearded Lady. However, the inspiration for The Man with the Third Leg in the painting is unknown. In the present sketch, Tchelitchew portrays the central figure as a muscular male in a striped bathing suit and straw hat, seated on a stool, with an extra, fully- formed leg protruding in front of him. In Phenomena, the finished figure is bald-headed with a thin build and a third leg hanging limply behind his body, giving him a centaur-like appearance. The Man with the Third Leg is clearly the focus of this sketch, even though there are at least four other figures on the page. To the left there is a corpulent sunbather under a pink sunhat, and to the right another robust figure kneeling in the sand and holding the hand of an upright male figure. Composing the left background is a fifth male figure seen from the back, and what appear to be mountainous forms.

This study was executed in 1935, three years before Phenomena would be completed. In 1942, the painting was exhibited in the artist's retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art, New York accompanied by several of the original sketches. While the present sketch was not included in the MoMA retrospective, it was exhibited in April of the same year at the exhibition Sawdust and Spangles: Arts of the Circus, held by the San Francisco Museum of Art. Acquired directly from the artist by Julien Levy Gallery, the present lot is a rare and unusual sketch to come to market.

An edited text by Erik LaPrade

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