New York

Erté

Rizzoli Bookstore

Erté comes from a generation in which you had to wait a very long time before you could expect to be revived. Somehow he always knew the day would come. Hundreds of examples of his inexhaustible supply of drawings were on display at the Rizzoli Bookstore in November.

It is true that Erté has a very special, very narrow charm. But I don’t take readily to most of what he has done, mainly because he produces that offensive product, the art surrogate. Erté is an old Peter Max with an overlay of nostalgia, peddled at ripoff prices. I find him even more annoyingly flaccid than Beardsley, without the intelligence of Beerbohm, and unsuccessful at the simpleminded prettiness of the continental fashion-plate tradition on which he draws. Like most of Cecil Beaton (who has rare moments), Erté is not even an artiste manqué, but simply an expert at self-promotion, a professional niche-finder, his own commodity. Enthusiasm for Erté is an esthetic equivalent of vice.

It is probably no accident that one of the few fascinating works was Silhouettes (1928), a study for an illustration in the 1929 Encyclopedia Britannica showing four years of women’s fashion, 1925–28. We start at the left and as we progress (as the ’20s would put it) to the right the boxes with figures within get bigger and brighter. The work is probably only eye-catching at all because of the intervention, between then and now, of Michael Snow’s early silhouettes of women, and probably only rewarding at all because in it the essence of flash—Erté’s only real concern—comes to the fore.

––Joseph Masheck