Romain Tirtoff known as Erté (23 November 1892, St. Petersburg — 21 April 1990, Paris) was a Russian-born French artist, sculptor, interior, costume, and scenic designer, dressmaker and illustrator who practised Art Deco both in his work and his life. Celebrated, reputed, sought-after, and amazingly dedicated to work. The most peculiar about Erté’s art is the fact that, though he lived in the days of Cubism, Fauvism, Expressionism (and later, Abstract Expressionism and other avant-garde movements of the century), he was persistent and confident in his commitment to Art Deco. This eclectic and ornate style was once inspired by Japanese prints and gorgeous ballet costumes, had its roots in the exotic Egyptian and American Indian cultures as well as in the classical outlines and rich drapery of Rococo. Erté drew cover pictures for fashion magazines, sketches of men’s and women’s clothes and decorations, designed building interiors and cognac bottle labels, stage sets and costumes. He employed expensive materials, inlays, pearls and velvet; the outlines of people and animals in his works were expressly exquisite, elongated and ethereal — he never lost the appropriate lightness of style without letting it slide down into kitsch. Erté’s popular works are the Alphabet series, Twins, covers for Harper’s Bazaar, Autumn, Her Secret Admirers, The Twenties Remembered Suite. Erté was born in the nineteenth and lived throughout most of the twentieth century. He liked gouache and watercolours, velvet and silk, Persian miniatures and bronze articles. He was fond of travelling and delicious desserts, cats and fancy-dress parties. He only disliked boredom. ‘I’m in a different world, a dream world that invites oblivion. People take drugs to achieve such freedom from their daily cares. I’ve never taken drugs. I’ve never needed them,’ he wrote. Close in age to Pablo Picasso, Egon Schiele, and Grant Wood, Romain Tirtoff lived all his ninety-seven years as though he belonged to a parallel universe. All this time, he was constant in his devotion to Art Deco — the style that, as critics put it, only took some twenty years in the world’s history of art. Erté lived through the two world wars, got past the Great Depression and the post-war devastation and seemed to never notice them. He did not spend himself in battles of numerous avant-garde movements, but in his own lifetime he could see his own works on display at the Tate Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Of noble birth Romain Tirtoff came from a family that had a long history and a tradition to be never broken: the men were supposed to follow a military career. Tirtoff’s father, Pyotr Ivanovich, served as an admiral. He was head of the Naval Engineering School in Saint Petersburg, and for his severity, students called him Pike. As his son was getting older, though, the father was having less and less hope that the continuity of generations was likely to survive. Romain was growing up gentle, frail and dreamy, and seemed to be by no means suited for the army. The things he was really into were classical ballet and drawing. He took dance lessons from Marie Petipa, and was taught to draw by Dmitry Losevsky, who had studied under Repin. Young Tirtoff sketched out women’s dresses for a fashion magazine in Saint Petersburg, and dreamt of coming of age, which could allow him to go to Paris. At eighteen, Romain Tirtoff neither had an academic qualification in art, nor was he financially supported by his parents. It was the power of imagination combined with the audacity of youth that helped him captivate Paris. He sent his designs of women’s dresses to Paul Poiret, the most famous and scandalous fashion designer in France, and got what could be called a dream job. Since then, he succeeded in everything he did, be it fashion, stage design, book illustrations, or sculptures.
The new name The never-to-be Russian soldier left but the initials of his noble name. In his new life, he would be called Erté. He gained a reputation in Paris as a stage and costume designer. He created Mata Hari’s outfits, costumes for actors and cabaret dancers. By 1915, he had achieved fame throughout Europe and America for his Harper’s Bazaar covers. 240 issues within twenty years! Thousands of pictures published on its pages! Later, at the Harper’s Bazaar anniversary exhibitions, this period would be termed the Art Deco era. In 1922, he turned for support to some important friends and international organisations — and got his parents out of the post-revolutionary Russia to Paris. In their homeland, the Tirtoffs’ surname and family history were a life-threatening stigma. The concentration of ideas and images in Erté’s dreamworld is admirable. He worked nonstop, and the mere list of his big-name commissioners can take one’s breath away. He left the fighting Paris for America — to work for the magazines Vogue and Cosmopolitan, and for the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, to design costumes and scenery for Broadway shows and world-famous music halls. Back to Paris, he would come years later, as a fabulously rich celebrity. Erté lives in the dreamworld which is beyond worldwide disasters and shocks. Present here and now, it is almost as loud, smart, elegant, and fluid as the one in the pictures. Unlike other contemporary styles, Art Deco is consistent in transforming reality by the laws of beauty. It revamps the interiors of buildings, public places, dresses, and labels, finds its way into bedrooms and dining-rooms. Erté, commonly called the King of Art Deco, enjoyed doing commissions for private individuals, painting murals on the walls of sumptuous villas, designing goblets, vases, and jewellery, staging and making outfits for his friends’ costume parades. Erté’s dreamworld was quite secure and did not collapse too often. There were some collapses, though. In 1933, Nikolai Urusov died, Erté’s friend, lover, and manager, with whom the artist had lived under the same roof for two decades. Only once after that did Erté go as far as starting a relationship, and it turned out to be short and pitiful. Since then, Erté would always live alone.
The unbearable lightness Modern art historians believe that World War II made Art Deco, as an artistic and decorative style, unpopular and untimely. Europe and later America could not afford luxury, exquisiteness, and frivolity. The shock the world had experienced resulted in the decomposition of figurative art — and abstraction became the most expressive language in painting, the only appropriate language to speak of the horrors of those days. Indeed, the Art Deco era was over — but not for Erté. He kept on dreaming and suggesting new outlines in clothing, strewing pearls around, cutting out velvet and brocade, and weaving sophisticated patterns. However, he focused mainly on the sphere where his imagination was still in demand: theatre, music halls, and cabarets. After World War II, few people remembered Erté. Pop culture followed newer tendencies and was no longer in favour of Art Deco. In the fifties, Andy Warhol started making illustrations for Harper’s Bazaar. A couple of decades was to pass before, in the late 1970s, pop culture began looking at the art and fashion of the twenties with a revived interest. All the splendour of expensive fabrics, exotic themes, long cigarette holders, pleatings and one-shoulder dresses (it was Erté who created this type of décolleté) became a hot trend. And it came as a surprise that one of the Art Deco fathers was still alive and creative — in fact, that, all those years, he had been but working in the new trendy style! In the following twenty years, Erté would be travelling, publishing albums of his new drawings as well as of long-forgotten ones, casting bronze statues, inlaid and gilded, writing memoires, wearing bright-coloured vests and neckties of fur, making exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic, painting murals for Hollywood film stars, and inspiring printwork designers — doing exactly the same things that he had always been doing. But now he was paid for them 100 million a year. In one of his journeys, Erté fell ill. His death was quick and sudden. All his ninety-seven years, he had lived in his delightful, careless, infinite dreamworld that had almost never failed him.