Erté’s elegant drawings, which ooze with glamour and insouciance, helped define the Art Deco movement. Enjoy this fascinating article about the father of Art Deco, published today in The Economist.
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.
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 practiced 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 colors. The gift he wanted? A passport.
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 Artemis, the Greek 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.