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Minor Symbolists 2 (Nicholas Kalmakoff)

More from  this article Unisex, 1910-Style found in a forgotten antiques bulletin The Four in Hand Letter from May 1970.

It was in 1962 that the work of a rather more bizarre artist, Nicholas Kalmakoff, was newly discovered in the Paris Flea Market. Kalmakoff was born in Russia in 1873 and the earliest influence on his life was a German governess who taught him to believe in the Devil -- a recurring theme in his paintings. He studied painting in Italy and returned to St. Petersburg in about 1903. He became immersed in all sorts of strange mystical and sexual cults and probably even attended the satanic meetings that Rasputin was holding at the time.

In 1908 he was commissioned to do the costumes and decor for Wilde's Salome and his interpretation was so shockingly extravagant (the interior of the theatre was designed to closely resemble the most unmentionable part of a woman!) that the production was taken off on the first night.

Unfortunately Kalmakoff's unhealthy reputation had reached such a peak that he eventually had to leave Russia and after exhibitions at Latvia and Belgium he settled in Paris. His last and rather unsuccessful exhibition was held there in 1928. In 1955 he died in an old people's home.

Kalmakoff's work is curiously compelling -- painted in the brilliant and rich colours of Russian church paintings. Philippe Julian in his introduction to Hartnoll & Eyre's current exhibition describes how these extraordinary paintings were discovered: 'When they wiped the dust off, monkeys were revealed, dressed in Louis XIV costume but with expressions of austere, icon-like ecstasy, Christ dripping with pearls; angels dripping with blood; heavy, pallid women, squatting in entwined embrace, gazing at each other with the glaucous eyes of toads; ancient forgotten gods, adorned with Christian ornaments, parading Faberge flowers and beaded with gilt perspiration. Angkor or Memphis or Byzantium provided the background for extravagant sacrilegious rites'.

Sensuality and eroticism in the form of bold hermaphrodite figures and phallic symbolism are all interwoven with the weaving, twisting patterns of paint. His canvases, when not signed with his name, even have a phallic hieroglyph as his mark.

One of the main influences on Kalmakoff's work was Burne-Jones who together with Gustave Moreau and Boecklin also influenced Von Stuck, Delville, Levy-Dhurmer, Knoppf and most of the other Symbolists painters.

Another field during the early years of this century which was liberally sprinkled with exceptionally good artists was that of book illustrations. Again, the styles are a mixture of PRE-RAPHAELITE, Art Nouveau and Symbolist usualy expertly drawn and coloured.

Walter Crane, Maxwell Armfiled, Keith Henderson, Thomas McKenzie, Cayley Robinson, H. A. Owen, Maud Wear, Jessie M. King, Harold Nelson and Donia Nachsen are all names to look for, and the large originals for their book illustrations can usually still be bought for under £500.

One gallery* that specialises in paintings from this period is Hartnoll & Erye Ltd., 39 Duke Street, St. James's, London, S.W.1 and their Kalmakoff exhibition can be seen throughout this month (prices, incidentally, range from £300-£1,200)

*This is now a very scarce exhibition catalogue. This entry of a sold item from a  dealer's catalogue is all that can presently be found:

A booklet about an exhibition of Nicolas Kalmakoff's work held in May 1970 at the Hartnoll & Eyre gallery in London. Lists the titles of 25 works of art, 9 are illustrated in black and white. Also includes photos of the artist. With an introduction by Philippe Jullian. 

"One winter morning in 1962, two young Parisian art collectors were strolling along the stalls of the Flea Market when they noticed a group of murky canvases on which, through layers of dust, strange figures shone with the phosphorescent gold of dubious haloes or of outrageous jewels... 

...They organised an exhibition. A younger generation, tired of abstract art, had found in this forgotten Fin de Siecle school a cache of images which they could equate with their own. They have found in Kalmakoff an artist who can interpret for them, in a parallel period of decadence, the demon delights of their own iconoclasm."

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