119. Alexandre de Salzmann

Drunken Russians in the Snow
Size: 50 × 45 cm
Gouache on card

Jeanne de Salzmann died in 1990 at the age of 101, and twenty years later her notebooks were published under the title: The Reality of Being, The Fourth Way of Gurdjieff. My parents knew her quite well during the time they spent with Gurdjieff, and admired her greatly. Thomas de Hartman had introduced her to Gurdjieff in Tiflis in 1919 while her husband Alexandre was working at the Opera House there, and she remained at Gurdjieff’s side until his death in Paris in 1949. But then she decided to nominate herself as his successor, and assumed the role of a spiritual teacher for the rest of her life. My parents, among others, thought this was a mistake and that Gurdjieff’s ‘system’ was unworkable without him, and had no further contact with her and her organisation as a result. Therefore, she was a shadowy figure, but of sufficient interest for me to buy The Reality of Being when it was published. The material of these notebooks, while interesting in a certain way, seemed to me of no use to anybody – precisely because the context for using them no longer existed – but what did catch my attention were the biographical notes, particularly regarding her husband Alexandre, about whom I knew nothing. Something in my mind was triggered by what I read, and later when I took this painting out of its frame, there on the back was a label: Alexander von Salzman, born Tiflis 1870. It was painted by Jeanne de Salzmann’s husband. This delighted me. I had bought it at auction in 1990 because I found it so funny, but until then had never made the connection.

In 1901 de Salzmann was part of Blaue Reiter with Kandinsky in Munich, developing the idea of the ‘total work of art’, incorporating theatre, painting, music, speech and dance, with lighting as an essential unifying feature. He developed this concept further with Jacques Dalcroze and Adolphe Appia at Hellerau between 1911 and 1915, and the influence of his revolutionary lighting techniques is still felt today. After two years at the Kamenny Theatre in Moscow he moved to Tiflis in 1917, to escape the excesses of the Revolution, and because his friend from Munich days with Kandinsky, Thomas de Hartmann, was director of the Opera House. The de Salzmanns, along with the de Hartmanns, were founding members of Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, and the first public performances of Gurdjieff’s sacred dances took place at the Tiflis Opera. From 1921 he worked at the Theatre des Champs Elysées in Paris.

Alexandre de Salzmann was greatly admired by many artists. The writer René Daumal dedicated his masterpiece, Mount Analogue, to him. Edward Steichen photographed him in 1932. He crops up in different memoirs of the time. Carl Zigrosser, later vice-director of the Guggenheim Museum, wrote: ‘In the summer of 1927 I spent several long weekends and a few days in between at the Château du Prieuré near Fontainebleau where Gurdjieff had set up his Institute… There was one person among the original initiates at the Prieuré with whom I quickly established some kind of understanding. He was Alexandre de Salzmann. Because he was an artist we had a common interest. Likewise because we both spoke German I was able to communicate more freely with him. I spent much time with him at Fontainebleau and also saw him in Paris on weekdays. I bought drawings and decorative screens from him for my gallery in New York. He had great talent as an artist, though he modestly called himself a craftsman. He reserved the name of artist for those who had achieved what he called major works of art such as the Sphinx or the Pyramids. These objects, he felt, had a deep significance which modern works lacked.’

And yet today, his name is known to very few. A good example, perhaps, of the mysterious process by which we choose whom to remember and whom to forget, whom to value and whom to neglect.