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The Genius of Erte

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‘Symphony in Black’, Serigraph, Erté, 1983

Those enthusiastic about Russian art will be familiar with the stock names associated with stage and costume design; Goncharova, Larionov, Bakst, even Malevich on occasion. ‘Erté’, however, may not ring so loud a bell. A prolific costume designer, he was one of the finest fashion illustrators of the early twentieth century.

I regret to say that I had never come across him until I was looking into the history of Harper’s Bazaar magazine. It turns out that this popular publication had a 22 year relationship with Erté, who was responsible for producing over 240 iconic covers for the magazine. His elaborate designs put Harper’s Bazaar at the forefront of creative innovation. For someone interested in both art and fashion like myself, Erté’s designs are a pure delight. He managed to perfectly capture the elegance and simplicity of the female silhouette, all the while combining it with an art deco aesthetic. How lovely to think that such a magazine once relied on original hand-drawn illustrations to sell itself (a sharp contrast to today’s unanimous choice of a close up of the celebrity-du-jour’s expressionless face).

Erté’s cover design for the November 1934 issue of Harper’s Bazaar

Born in St Petersburg in 1892, Romain de Tirtoff was raised amidst the social elite. His father owned a collection of Persian miniatures and it was perhaps this exposure to bright and exotic patterns from a young age that shaped his distinctive style in years to come. In 1912, set on becoming a fashion illustrator, Tirtoff moved to Paris (where he took the name ‘Erté’ from the French pronunciation of his initials). He was quickly hired soon after by then-leading couturiers Paul Poiret, under whom he mastered his craft and gained an international reputation as one of the world’s leading fashion illustrators. It appears few where surprised when in 1915 he signed a contract with Harper’s Bazaar, who he would carry on working with until 1937.

Erté’s cover design for the March 1934 issue of Harper’s Bazaar

While still working for the magazine, Erté had a successful career during the 1920s and 30s as a costume designer for productions at Paris’s Folies Bergère, and on New York’s Broadway. Even Hollywood came calling, asking Erté to design costumes for the epic ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘The Mystic’, among others.  His vibrant and elaborate designs drew on influences from Russian icon painting to Greek and Egyptian motifs, although some might argue he owed a lot to Leon Bakst. 

‘Alphabet Cloak’, lithograph, Erté

Erté’s figures, lithe and swathed in furs, came to define the opulence and luxury of his time. He was awarded the title ‘Officer of Arts and Letters’ by the French Government in 1976, and many of his designs became popular posters. In later years his work inspired collections from designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta. Today examples of his work can be found in the collections of institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the V&A. Erté died in 1990, aged 97.

Erté sporting one of his own bullfighter costume designs