Erté: The Alchemist of Artistry
I firmly believe, too, that every human being has a duty to make himself as attractive as possible. Not many of us are born beautiful; that is why I have always attached so much importance to clothes. Clothes are a kind of alchemy: they can transform human beings into things of beauty or ugliness. (My Life, 232)
ErtÉ, ne Romain de Tirtoff, the Russian-born, French-trained artist and fashion designer, was one of the great tastemakers of the 20th Century. His belief in the all-encompassing power of dress to create beauty distinguishes him as a passionate fantasist grounded in the realities of aesthetic pleasure.
In his autobiography My Life, My Art published in 1989, Erté stated the major themes of his career: love, style, opera, dance, fantasy, animals, and fashion (230-1). Erté continuously explored these subjects over a seventy-eight year career spanning the distance between Russias October Revolution, which brought the Bolsheviks to power, and the Autumn of Nations or the fall of Communism, which was notably marked by the destruction of the Berlin Wall.
Born in 1892, in Petrograd Russia, Erté traveled by himself to Paris in 1912 to pursue a career as a painter and illustrator. He took on the moniker Erté only after he arrived in Paris. Erté, pronounced Er-Tay, is the French pronunication of his initials R and T. I adopted Erté because I did not wish to offend the sensibility of my family who thought an artistic career undignified for the descendent of a long lineage devoted to naval and military affairs. (Fashions, 5).
During his first few years in Paris he found work assisting the
couturier Paul Poiret, but his big break came when he began drawing
for Harpers Bazaar magazine, where between 1915 and 1938
Ertés illustrations dominated the magazines covers.
According to the fashion writer Jacqueline Herald, during this period
of time drawing was the main means of communicating fashion
ideas (24). Erté eventually pursued work as a dress
designer, theatrical costume maker, jeweler, sculptor, and maker of
objets dart, but it is his graphic designs that endure.
His use of bold blocks of color, the creation of movement, and an Art
Deco style came to represent an aspirational beauty, one that
Erté aimed for over the entire course of his artistic
Paris in the 1920s
Erté moved to Paris, at the age of 20, during a particularly fruitful period for design and art in Europe. Emerging from the Victorian Era and entering the 20th Century, the delicate fin de siècle flower was blooming into a carefree flapper. This was the time when the House of Worth birthed haute couture, and Ertés contemporaries such as Madame Vionnet, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Coco Chanel exalted the craft of French fashion. The arts were entering the era of Modernism, which later became known as Art Deco. Art movements such as Art Nouveau, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus, Surrealism, and the Avant-Garde were emerging at a rapid pace. And artists such as Gustav Klimt, and the dancers in The Ballets Russes, were influencing fashions new, exotic Orientalist direction.
Of this tumultuous and exciting period in the history of modern art, Erté wrote, although I observed it from the sidelines . . . I was by no means indifferent to what was going on around me. He rarely missed an art exhibition, was fascinated by Cubism and Surrealism, the latter with which he felt a close kinship, and idolized Wassily Kandinsky. In My Life, My Art Erté wrote, I am hostile towards realism (227). Although he admitted to devoting his entire life to art, he rarely frequented [the] artistic milieux (103).
Erté began his career at the salon of Paul Poiret, the man who freed women from the corset, and whom the venerable tastemaker Diana Vreeland dubbed the sultan of fashion (Carter, 51). Born in 1879, Poiret first convinced his wife to abandon her rigid Victorian dress in 1905, and embrace the more comfortable girdle and bra, of which he invented both (Carter, 47-8). The new cylindrical silhouette focused attention on the bust with an empire waist, and thoroughly avoided the Victorian emphasis on the natural waist and hips. In an ironic twist on the freedom gained by abandoning the corset, Poiret proceeded to invent the hobble skirt in 1910. This skirt ballooned at the hip and upper leg, and cinched in at the ankle to restrict womens foot movement to less than a foot. Women were thus laughed at as they proceeded to hobble down the street in a manner not unlike an aristocratic Chinese woman with bound feet, or a modern-day fetishist in stiletto ballet boots.
Design and the Artistic Process
Of his artistic process, Erté stated that ideas often came to him in the bathroom during his morning toilette, and especially while bathing. He also formed ideas during long habitual walks. Solitude has always been essential for me in all stages of my work (Fashions, 7).
In the 1920s, while working in Se`vres, France, Erté discovered the artistic value of surrounding himself with neutral colors. During this period the walls of his studio were covered with curtains horizontally striped in shades of white deepening to gray. He chose his working clothes gray and white, or black and white to match the studio. These neutral colors were a great help in appreciating the real values of the colors he used in his painting (My Life, 79).
Of his working relationship with the sublimely avant-garde muse Marchesa Casati, Erté writes that she was, in fact, a very shy person. Her eccentric behavior was a cover for her shyness. I think this is true of many eccentric people. When reminiscing about the Bal du Grand Prix that closed the 1924 Paris Opera season, Erté divinely describes The Marchesa as such: La Casati . . . look[ed] like a ghost. Her face was painted white like a plaster mask, and her eyes were ringed with black, which she painted on with India ink. She was very tall and thin, and usually dressed in either white or black, with immense hats from which fell veils of black lace. For the occasion Erté had dressed her in a huge crinoline of tulle and black lace, spangled with diamonds (My Life, 82-3). Reading this description it is hard not to think of a procession of contemporary Goth girls heading out for a deliciously decadent night on the town.
Erté, much like the other couturiers of his day, promoted a seamless cohesiveness between interiors, the decorative arts, and feminine dress. Writing in the introduction to Erté Fashions he stated, I have never submitted to the despotism and capriciousness of fashion. On the contrary, it is I who have moulded it to my taste. He continues on to quite poignantly say, People should not blindly follow fashion without taking into account their personalities. Everyone should dress in accordance with their own character in order to achieve, with the help of clothes and accessories, a complete personality. Isnt it amazing how this advice, still today, remains fresh and relevant?
Ertés Artistic Output
For the bulk of Ertés career he tirelessly designed costumes for the stage. By the early 1930s he had smartly moved out of everyday fashion design and into his forte, the realm of fantasy fashion. And he continued with costume design as his primary artistic outlet almost until his death.
From the very early stages of his career, there was nothing Erté wouldnt design. From textiles to shoes, he managed every aspect of a head-to-toe look for his clients. He created accessories such as umbrellas, hats, gloves, scarves, head squares, and especially jewelry. He also designed carpets, interior decorations and whole interiors; he even designed towels. As early as 1926 Erté was moving away from dress design, as he began creating graphic illustrations for publications other than Harpers Bazaar. At Art et Industrie, for example, he worked on designs for tables, lighting fixtures, shutters, mirrors, cushions, and floral arrangements (My Life, 101). This change is easy to understand when one takes into account his derision of Chanels perennial sacklike uniform (My Life, 102) of the everywoman, and the inevitable loss of theatricality in the day-to-day dress of the modern woman.
As a dress designer, his work in the arena of costume allowed him to indulge his passion for the fanciful and the exotic. He began this fruitful period of his life with the Folies Bergère in Paris, and later for the Ziegfield Follies in New York, and continued on to work with the great opera houses and ballet troops of the world. In late 1924 Erté found work in Hollywood, where he costumed for a scant year under contract with MGM. He worked on a few films, including Ben Hur, but ultimately his costumes never quite lived up to their two-dimensional conceptions because their grandiosity overwhelmed the movie stars they were only meant to enhance the physical beauty of. Erté was a master at concealing the bodily imperfections of stage actresses, but in Hollywood the stars did not want to admit to a less-than-perfect image.
Ertés Twilight Years
By 1967 Erté was heralded as a living legend by the New York Times and a show of 179 of his drawings, at New York Citys Grosvener Gallery was purchased in its entirety by the Metropolitan Museum of Art a first for a living artist up to that time (My Life, 179). From this point onwards Erté tirelessly toured the world as retrospectives of his work were shown at a near constant pace. He interspersed the openings with leisure travel to such exotic locales as the Canary Islands and Barbados.
In 1984 The Statue of Liberty Restoration Fund asked Erté to design a bronze Liberty sculpture to raise funds for her repair. His work depicts Lady Libertys dress floating behind her like two wings in motion representative of movement and freedom, two themes that defined Ertés oeuvre.
Ertés long and diverse career came to an end in 1990, when he passed away at the age of 98. Think for a moment what he must have witnessed during his lifetime. The following are just a few relevant events: the devastation of World Wars I and II as well as the occupation of Paris, where Erté remained for the duration of the Second World War; the rise of the automobile as the chief means of transportation; the germination and eventual ubiquity of air flight; the democratization of clothing; the rise of the new woman; and a complete fundamental change in womens fashion as dress evolved from the corset to the mini-dress. Never again will a generation witness so many fundamental changes during the course of a lifetime.
Ertés fashion plates, lithographs, advertising art, magazine work, and illustrations for various authors have all come to define a vividly colorful and uniquely futuristic art deco style a style reminiscent of a magical time and place of indeterminate origin. In the epilogue to his autobiography Erté wrote, I have never lived with yesterday but am always thinking about tomorrow; one cannot change anything about the past, but one can always give the future a helping hand (My Life, 231).
Carter, Ernestine. Magic Names of Fashion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980.
Erté, Erté Fashions. New York: St. Martins Press, 1972.
Erté. Erté: My Life/ My Art: An Autobiography. New York: E P Dutton, 1989.
Herald, Jacueline. Fashions of a Decade: The 1920s. New York: Facts on File, 1991.