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Nicholas Kalmakoff

Nicholas Kalmakoff (born 1873, died 1955) was Russian Symbolist painter, whose work reflected his interests in martyrdom, asceticism, decadence, spirituality and sexuality. Person-wise he was known for his eccentric character and misogyny. His art was executed in a style marked by the Russian art nouveau.[1]

Biography

Kalmakoff was born in Nervi on the Italian Riviera in 1873 to an aristocratic family. His father was a Russian General, and his mother of Italian descent. Unlike most Russian aristocrats, he was baptized a Roman Catholic rather than a Russian Orthodox, possibly due his mother.[2] From Italy, the family moved to St. Petersburg where young Kalmakoff studied. After graduating at the age of twenty-two, Kalmakoff launched himself into painting. Unfortunately, nothing else is known about Kalmakoff's doings during this period. By 1905 he had married and was living in a small home in the quiet Petershof district.

According to his contemporaries, while living in Petershof, Kalmakoff joined the Skoptzy movement, a Russian sect which rejected the sacraments of the Orthodox church. They believed that Christ could reveal himself within the body of any faithful aspirant. The Skoptzy saw sex as the source of all evil, and the members were advised to combat their desires through abstinence, asceticism and even castration. Indeed, Kalmakoff's negative views on human sexuality became a recurring theme in his art, as did misogyny. During Petershof period he became isolated, possibly due to his misanthropy, and rarely left home. He was rarely seen leaving his home to go watch theater, which he was obsessed about.[3] Throughout the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Kalmakoff remained in St. Petersburg. He became interested in exoticism and history which reflected in his art as a theme of la femme noire, black woman as primitive and primordial, and as figures akin to art of Ancient Greece. Some artworks with these themes are The Negresse (1929) and Chariot with Eight Horses (1911). His fascination does not end at Africa and Greek, for he was influenced by art of Egypt, Japan and India, and by Hinduism and Buddhism.[4] Though Kalmakoff preferred a life of isolation, he could not help but respond to the war.[5] His painting The Wrath of War manifests his rejection of patriotism and bitter recognition of brutalities of war. During the revolution, he moved abroad, leaving behind his wife and children. Kalmakoff spent several years in the Baltic states, "hovering around Russia's borders as if hopeful that the Revolution would somehow blow over and he could finally return home".[6] During his move to Riviera, he got into a duel and killed a person. Due to this event, he fled to northern France. The blood-stained handkerchief from the duel was found among his personal belongings after his death.[7] Kalmakoff arrived in Paris in 1926. During this period his art took a turn to the dark with his fascination with the devil, as can be seen in Satan (1923), and with whole series of misogynist works, such as The Wife of Satan (1919).[8] In Paris, he shunned association with the Russian émigrés, refusing all invitations to their soirées.[9] In 1928, Kalmakoff undertook one of his career's greatest achievements. Author named Héliodore Fortin commissioned him to create a series of twenty-four paintings that would comprise the interior of a chapel.[10] Three years later, Kalmakoff undertook a new commission to paint a chapel dedicated to Jeanne d'Arc, who was canonized in 1920 in recognition of the spiritual aid and courage she brought to the French during the First World War.

Ironically, at the same time that Kalmakoff was producing these grandeur works, his own life was in decline. His money began to run out, and he was forced to move down to smaller and cheaper rooms. The hotel registry records this gradual descent, floor by floor. Finally, he ended up living in the hotel's small attic.

To survive, Kalmakoff took on a number of odd-job commissions. During the Second World War, Kalmakoff did illustrations for the Nazi occupation forces in Paris, such as The Soldier and his Girl (1941). However, Kalmakoff stayed in poverty and was starving. In 1941, a Guatemalian woman, who lived in the same building as isolated Kalmakoff, dared to enter his home. As she recalls: "One day, I took the courage to address a few words in his direction - to which he didn't respond at all. Still, I slipped into his room and left a cup of tea for him with a few biscuits. An hour later, Kalmakoff came to my rooms and ceremoniously presented me with a bouquet of roses."[11] In 1947, they worked out an arrangement. She entered him into a Home for the Elderly, in exchange for a collection of his works. At the age of sixty-eight he went into la Maison des Veillards in Chelles to the north of Paris. Kalmakoff himself didn't enjoy life there, as he explains in one of his letters, "Here, life continues, as always, very slowly, an almost vegetable existence. I bore myself nicely, surrounded by a horde of orangutangs, banal to the extreme, who offer a most disgusting spectacle. Psychologically, they remain vacuous, stupid, superstitious, uneducated and illiterate - earth to earth, dust to dust. Aside from eating, nothing really interests them. I myself must make an effort to withhold my disgust and aversion towards them. I master the despair that seizes me whenever I fathom the true depths of the mental abyss manifest in these brutes and goujats. May the gods grant me my share of Stoic fortitude.".[12] Kalmakoff died at the hôpital de Lagny, unknown and in poverty, near Chelles, in 1955 and was buried in the village cemetery.

Legacy

In 1962 some of his works came to light when Bertrand Collin du Bocage and Georges Martin du Nord discovered forty canvases in the Marché aux Puces, a large flea market to the north of Paris. All the works in this unusual collection were signed with a stylized 'K' monogram. The Hungarian merchant who sold the lot to them included with it a poster of an exhibition held in Galerie Le Roy, Brussels, in 1924. Here, for the first time, the full name of the mysterious 'K' was revealed to be that of Nicholas Kalmakoff.[13] After lying in darkness for thirty-seven years, Kalmakoff's works were finally exhibited at Galerie Motte Paris in February of 1964. Four years later, another exhibition followed at Galerie Jacques Henri Perrin.

In May of 1986, a large exhibition of his collected works was organized by Musée-galerie de la Seita, resulting in the colour monograph: KALMAKOFF, L'Ange de l'Abîme, 1873 - 1955. A documentary film by Annie Tresgot provided interviews with Kalmakoff's contemporaries.[14]

Gallery

References

Kalmakoff (Hopefully it is visible now!)

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