In February 1926, the art critic Waldemar George coined the term “Neo-Romantics” when reviewing an exhibition at Paris’s Galerie Druet of young artists, all former students at the Académie Ranson, their teachers Edouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, and Maurice Denis. Among those included in the exhibition were two French painters, Christian “Bébé” Bérard (1902–49) and Thérèse Debains (1897–1975), a Dutchman, Kristians Tonny (1907–77), and three Russians, all refugees from the October Revolution of 1917, Pavel Tchelitchew (1898–1957), Eugène Berman (1899–1972), and Berman’s brother Léonid (1896–1976). Several of the artists, notably Bérard and Tchelitchew, enjoyed some fame in the years after, only to slip into near-oblivion later on. “Neo-Romantics: A Forgotten Moment in Modern Art 1926–1972,” a stimulating exhibition curated by the writer Patrick Mauriés and based on his recent book on the subject, published in 2022 by Flammarion and in English by Thames & Hudson, should spark new interest in them.1
Describing the Neo-Romantics as a coherent movement, however, is inaccurate since they were linked only by artistic affinity. Waldemar George, impressed by their reintroduction of the human form to art after its exile by Cubism, labeled them “New Humanists.” To the art historian André Chastel, they were “New Mannerists,” modern descendants of post–High Renaissance artists. The Picasso of Cubism and after seemed to some to exhaust the possibilities of art, and the Neo-Romantics picked up where the earlier “blue” and “rose” Picasso had left off. James Thrall Soby’s After Picasso (1936), the only book about the Neo-Romantics to appear until that by Patrick Mauriés, supports that notion. Using grainy paint with tonal variations, Neo-Romantics often showed acrobats, stranded waifs, and music-hall artists in ghostly landscapes, similar to the subjects in the Futurism of Carlo Carrà and the Surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico. Their art suggested “melancholy, exile and nostalgia,” wrote Mauriés.
Not for the first time, an artistic style born in France gained support in the United States. James Thrall Soby lived in Hartford, Connecticut, as did another champion of Neo-Romantic art, Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum. Austin held exhibitions by Neo-Romantics at the Wadsworth, and in 1936, he had Tchelitchew, Eugène Berman (the Berman brothers and Tchelitchew were now based in the United States), and Alexander Calder design a “Paper Ball” one evening in the museum, featuring paper-decorated interiors and costumes. The current exhibition includes a rare, entertaining film of the event from the Wadsworth Atheneum’s archives. The exhibition also celebrates another Neo-Romantic ball, featuring a blend of painting, decorative arts, and fashion typical of that world, designed by Leonor Fini and Eugène Berman and held on July 5, 1939 at the Parisian gallery of René Drouin and Leo Castelli at 17 Place Vendôme.
Celebrations of these parties mark the concluding section of the exhibition. There we first see Sir Francis Rose’s mural The Ensemble (1938), depicting Bérard, Tchelitchew, and supporters such as Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Tyrone Power. Friends of Neo-Romanticism like the Stein–Toklas duo, Cocteau, Edith Sitwell (who nourished a hopeless love for the homosexual Tchelitchew), and Cecil Beaton are now more famous than the painters themselves. Gertrude Stein’s pronouncements could be as capricious and arbitrary as those of André Breton, Surrealism’s pope. She heralded Tchelitchew as a promising painter upon seeing his Basket of Strawberries in the 1925 Autumn Salon, purchasing that work and others by the artist, only to banish them to a remote corner of her house several years later. Kristians Tonny’s After Van Eyck (Gertrude Stein) (1930–36) shows Modernism’s high priestess looking like a Buddha in a painting based on Van Eyck’s unfinished 1437 drawing of Saint Barbara. Gertrude Stein’s gown is as orange as a prelate’s, her straw hat a halo. Tonny found inspiration for the painting in Stein’s libretto for Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in an Act and in the painter-writer Georges Hugnet’s comparison of Stein to a Spanish saint, a bishop, and a cathedral. The completion of the portrait, however, was not enough to save their friendship: Stein disapproved of Tonny’s girlfriend Anita Thompson and broke contact with him.
There was a fierce rivalry between Bérard, a society favorite, and the tempestuous Tchelitchew, envious of Bérard’s social success. Tchelitchew aspired to be a Dante among painters, but Harold Acton wrote in his memoirs that Tchelitchew squandered his talents on “cerebral experiments” when his “innate gifts” were “theatrical.” Tchelitchew’s paintings in the exhibition support Acton’s judgment despite a good 1924 self-portrait of Tchelititchew’s haunted face. Several pictures by Tchelitchew in the following decades, including Interior Landscape (1947), seem to be forerunners of the psychedelic art of the 1960s.
The exhibition includes several of what Acton called Bérard’s “bewildering manifestations.” Two Self-Portraits on a Beach (1933) shows both masculine and feminine versions of the artist in the way of Plato’s Symposium, and before his later beard. The colors are elegant, with the sand’s ochre and yellow mixing with the sea’s shades of blue. Bérard’s 1948 Portrait of a Woman (Hélène Anavi) attests to what was lost by his premature death.
Bérard was adored by Thérèse Debains, who was described as the “most elusive” of the Neo-Romantics. Her “sunny” beauty was admired by her teachers, especially Vallotton. Her multiple pictures in the exhibition, among them Portrait of a Young Boy and Landscape in Brittany, both undated, make her a revelation. Eugène Berman, poverty-stricken in Paris, portrayed the homeless huddling under Paris’s bridges as refugees of the future. In America, Berman continued in the same vein, this time in New Mexico and Arizona with such paintings as Melancholy (1937) and Scenes of Bohemian Life (1936), reminiscent of paintings by Salvator Rosa and Magnasco and evoking aspects of the Sitwell siblings’ writings. In the 1940s, Berman created a series entitled “Muses of Desolation,” featuring Medusa, Cassandra, and Medea. Sunset (Medusa) (1945), a highlight of the exhibition, shows a melancholic Medusa, sitting down with her head in her arms, her orange hair hanging in the air.
This fascinating exhibition explores an unjustly ignored, underrated corner of twentieth-century art. It is not to be missed.