Erté and the enduring appeal of Art Deco

A new exhibition features over 100 works by the Art Deco artist Erté, whose designs were used across magazine covers, on stage and in films – and saw popularity right across the 20th-century

Image shown, above: detail from La Bergère de France and her Page, 1923. Design for the revue La Femme et le Diable, originally for L’Apollo Théâtre, Paris, and later at the Winter Gardens, New York. Gouache; 27 x 45 cm. Private Collection

Erté was the pseudonym of Russian-born Frenchman, Romain de Tirtoff (1892-1990), an artist, illustrator and designer whose lavish Art Deco creations enjoyed a wide range of applications – from fashion and magazine design, to sets and costumes for theatre, opera and film.

Costume for Mata Hari, 1913. Design for Le Minaret – the first theatrical production by Paul Poiret, Théâtre de la Renaissance, Paris. Pen and ink, watercolour; 27 x 20 cm. Private Collection

The 125th anniversary of Erté’s birth was marked by an exhibition of his work at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg last year which featured gouache works from the private collection of Eric and Salome Estorick.

These pieces are currently being exhibited at London’s Grosvenor Gallery, the art space that the Estorick’s founded in 1960, and brought together in an accompanying paperback catalogue, published by Fontanka (based on the original book for the Russian show).

Costume, 1951. Design for the revue Fancy Free, Prince of Wales Theatre, London. Gouache; 34 x 25 cm. Private Collection
Corps de Neige – Coeur de Feu, 1917. Design for Harper’s Bazaar. Gouache; 28 x 27 cm. Private Collection

Over the course of his long career, Erté (whose adopted name derived from the French pronunciation of his initials ‘R.T.’), created over 250 cover designs for Harper’s Bazaar in a relationship that began with his first commission from the magazine in 1914.

A few years before, as a 21 year-old in Paris, Erté had already gained work at the esteemed couturier House of Poiret where, as the late critic Brian Sewell writes in his essay for the book, “he brought theatre into the field of fashion”.

Costume for Ginger Rogers, 1975. Design for the ballet, Ragtime (‘I’ve Got Rhythm’), Grand Théâtre, Angers. Gouache; 34 x 25cm. Private Collection
Charnos, 1974 Design for stocking packaging. Gouache; 23 x 15.5 cm. Private Collection

One of Erté’s skills, Sewell suggests, was his ability to adjust the essence of a particular style or period to his own ends. For example, the fascination with all things Egyptian that took hold in the 1920s after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was a style he incorporated into his work.

After a year in Hollywood working on set designs in the mid-1920s, Erté returned once again to France to work, but demand for his art began to fall after the Great Depression. The Second World War and the aesthetic tastes of the post-war generation saw interest in his style of work declining further still.

Les Modes se suivent et ne se ressemblent pas, 1926 Cover design for Harper’s Bazaar. Gouache, 34 x 25 cm. Private Collection

Yet while the dominance of the Art Deco style had wained during these decades, a re-interest in the movement in the 1960s flung Erté and his work back into the limelight.

His first monograph was published in 1970, his memoirs came out five years later and, in 1977, Erté finally printed his famous Alphabet lettering series based on the human form, which he had originally begun in the 1920s.

Admirateurs, 1936. Maquette for cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Gouache; 7 x 5 cm. Private Collection

At his death aged 98 in 1990, few 20th-century artists could be said to have seen their work embraced by the comings and goings of art, fashion and theatre as Erté had. As a result, it is fascinating to pore over the highlights from his seven decades of work.

Erté: A Celebration is at the Grosvenor Gallery, 35 Bury Street, London SW1Y 6AY until December 15. The accompanying book, Erté: Romain de Tirtoff 1892-1990, is published by Fontanka (£19.95). See grosvenorgallery.com and fontanka.co.uk

December Issue, 1936. Maquette for cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Gouache; 7 x 5 cm. Private Collection

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