The great Russian born Parisian designer Erté (Romain de Tirtoff, 1892-1990) was born 130 years ago today.
I’ve known about Erté for over 30 years, and today it’s making me miss the friend who was undoubtedly the one who told me about him, Ana Colas. I take the bold step of printing her name because she seems to have vanished off the face of the earth and I’d love to know what became of her. At the very least, she’s not on social media, which in and of itself isn’t particularly worrying, as she is of the type who would never trifle with such things. Still, she was a bit of a melancholy hermit, and I can just see her romantically reenacting the life of Miss Haversham in some Upper West Side apartment. She was a really good friend, part of a tight knit circle with whom I worked and played during my tenure at Brentano’s Bookstore in the early ’90s. Ana was extremely cultured and erudite, and she absolutely would have schooled me in Erté’s importance as we shelved coffee table art books side by side. And amazingly, this major figure of the art nouveau and art deco eras had then only recently died — 1990, at age 97.
While I am certainly a fan of illustration and can really appreciate superlative set and costume design (and to a much lesser extent, fashion), I really can’t speak to the nature of Erté’s work with any specificity beyond being able to rather dumbly recognize something that smacks of his style in a broad way. “Look’s like a greyhound!” That’s about all I got. But his life and art intersected with many of the folks and productions we have discussed on this blog so I felt he merited a shout-out, combined with a little bold-faced name dropping. Erté’s early style was influenced by Aubrey Beardsley. He designed costumes for the likes of Mata Hari, Gaby Deslys, and Irene Bordoni, and dressed several major Broadway revues throughout the 1920s, including several editions of George White’s Scandals, The Greenwich Village Follies, The Passing Show, the Ziegfeld Follies, Artists and Models, and one offs like Topics of 1923, A Night in Paris (1926) and A Night in Venice (1929), while also designing for Parisian nightclubs like the Folies Bergère, Bal Tabarin, Théâtre Fémina, and later, Le Lido. This fabric fantasia, entitled “L’Ocean”, was devised for George White’s Scandals of 1923:
The same decade saw tons of work for the film studios, starting with The Restless Sex starring Marion Davies (1920), and continuing with pictures like Tod Browning’s The Mystic (1925), Time the Comedian (1925) with Mae Busch, Ben-Hur (1925), Bright Lights (1925), Sally Irene and Mary (1925), Dance Madness (1926), Paris (1926), La Boheme (1926) and The Hollywood Revue of 1929. He also created designs for the Golden Gate Expo (World’s Fair) in San Francisco 1939-40..
That’s the show biz stuff! He also designed covers for mags like Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan and others from the teens through the ’30s. Styles changed with the dawning of the ’40s. Demand for his designs fell off so he turned to sculpture, lithographs and other forms of expression for decades, until the art deco revival of the 1960s and ’70s brought him to light again, returning to prominence for his last quarter century. He was still designing, still working on projects, right up until his death at the dawn of the 1990s.
For more on show biz history, including the great Broadway revues, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.