Nicolai Remisoff

Portrait of Remisoff painted by Ilia Repine in 1917

Nicolai Remisoff is a very important figure in 20th century Contemporary Art and to have one of his paintings in the Cotton Contemporary Art collection is extremely significant. He was born in St Petersburg in 1884 and died in in Palm Springs in 1975. He was famous as a theatrical designer, painter, muralist, and architectural consultant with important contributions to the world of cinema, and his influence as a painter, as a stage and theatrical designer, continues nearly 50 years after his death. This is the artist who bought “Russian Vogue” to New York. Remisoff’s artistic style, which has been termed “Russian Vogue,” had significant impact on the fashionable theaters and magazines of the 1920’s. Along with Boris Aronson and Nicolai Roerich, Remisoff was one of the most noteworthy 20th century stage designers to emerge from Russia and to settle in the United States and achieve success.

Nicolai Remisoff’s exposure to the world of theatre came virtually at birth. Both his parents were actors in the Russian Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, and the young boy grew up steeped in the make believe world of the stage. He proved more enamored of drawing and design than acting, however, and this artistic bent was encouraged by the family. By 1901 Remisoff had finished his general education and, at the tender age of 17, had married a young woman named Sophia. In 1902 the couple’s only child was born, their son Leonid. Remisoff worked odd jobs to support them for several years, but in 1905 Remisoff’s caricatures and political cartoons were published in the magazine Strely [Arrows], earning him an income. In 1908 Remisoff and several partners founded a magazine, Satiricon, in which he and his friends published caricatures of celebrities, drawings of other illustrious contemporaries, and political illustrations of current events including the First World War. Remisoff published hundreds of caricatures and cartoons for this popular magazine under the pen name “Re-mi,” a shorthand version of his own name that he often used to sign his popular or commercial art.

Remisoff entered the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in 1910, essentially as a self-taught artist. Having forgone the usual years of preparatory art school, Remisoff had studied in a private studio for a year before managing to achieve admission to the Academy at the age of 26. There he acquired a reputation as something of an experimental or independent artist — a “bad boy” — which was perhaps appropriate for the editor of the impudent Satiricon and its successor, the Novy Satiricon (1914-1918). Remisoff’s artistic work was not limited to the satirical, however; while in school he became associated with Mir Iskusstva and contributed to the group’s 1913 exhibitions in St. Petersburg and Kiev.

Concerning his life during the tumultuous years of the Russian Revolution and first year of Civil War, it is only known that Remisoff served as a soldier in the Russian Army in 1917, and that in 1918 he graduated from the Imperial Academy with high honours.

Not surprisingly, the Bolsheviks were little amused by political cartoons in the Novy Satiricon that took aim at them, and they suppressed its publication. Even more serious, however, was their ordering that Remisoff be brought to trial. Consequently, like many other artists of the time, Remisoff made the decision to flee. He traveled with his wife and son south through Russia to Ukraine, where the family lived in the homes of friends in various towns. For two years father and son laboured to earn money for the family’s passage out of Russia, but the economy was unstable in the towns where various factions, and then armies, fought for dominance. The Remisoffs at last secured free passage on a French ship that they understood was bound for France, sailing out of Odessa just a scant ten days before the Red Army took the city. It was lucky for the Remisoffs that their passage was free, since their accumulated roubles had become worthless. However, the crew of the ship on which they had sailed mutinied, and the Remisoffs ended up stranded in Constantinople for five months before they could earn enough money to buy passage to Marseilles.

The Remisoffs arrived in Paris in 1921, quickly assimilating themselves into the society of other Russian emigres who had settled there. Nicolai painted and exhibited with the Paris World of Art, and after this exposure was invited by Nikita Balieff to serve as principal artistic designer (along with Sergei Sudeikin) for his theatrical company, Chauve-Souris, the Bat.

The Chauve-Souris, a unique manifestation of Russian cabaret theatre, originated in the Moscow Art Theatre and gained fame as it moved with Balieff to France. The cabaret played for two years in Paris to a devoted audience, and then traveled to San Sebastian, Spain, before finally moving on to London and Manchester — achieving an unqualified success in all venues. After these European successes, the Chauve-Souris traveled overseas and took New York by storm in 1922. Indeed, in New York, its success was “instantaneous and unflagging,” according to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Though the initial arrangement had been for a month-long stay in New York, the Chauve-Souris was such a hit that, after this run concluded, it moved to an 800-seat house on the roof of the Century Theatre. There, in an auditorium newly decorated by Remisoff with brightly coloured Russian folk motifs, it presented its “second edition.” The Chauve-Souris performed at the Century Roof Theatre until the following May, for a total of 544 performances in New York.

Remisoff’s sets for Chauve-Souris productions were often reminiscent of the Russian ballet: they were fantastically colourful, featuring scenes of the Russian countryside, Russian villages, and wondrous fairy-tale palaces. His costumes were also colourful, but also carefully designed to convey the theme of the skit: the Dresden figures’ dresses were delicately coloured and fragile looking, the wooden soldiers looked crude and blockish like real children’s toys. This evocation of Old Russia was part of a myth propogated by Balieff designed to reinforce “the public’s desired interpretation of Russia as a colourful, barbaric nation consisting of samovars, bears, merchants, and peasants in high leather boots, lovely country maidens, sleighs hastening across the snow, and carousing hussars . . .” (John Bowlt, The Salon Album of Vera Sudeikin-Stravinsky).

The popularity of the Chauve-Souris led to a mania in New York for all themes Russian. Remisoff himself became a fashionable figure, and soon was quite busy with commissions in addition to his work for the Chauve-Souris. He frequently designed covers and illustrated articles for Conde Nast publications, including Vanity Fair, House & Garden, and Vogue. Remisoff also illustrated advertisements for a variety of publications, designed the cover of one of Anna Pavlova’s dance programs, and exhibited and sold his drawings at the Wildenstein Gallery where he had a one-man show in 1922. It was in New York that the artist met beauty maven Elizabeth Arden, who selected Remisoff to design her newest beauty salon. This commission launched a partnership that would continue until Arden’s death in 1966; over the ensuing years Remisoff would design fashionable Arden salons in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Hollywood.

In 1924 Remisoff quit the Chauve-Souris, breaking with Balieff to open a Russian-themed nightclub called Club Petrushka with co-owner Theodore Bauer. Remisoff completely designed Club Petrushka, not only painting the many murals that decorated the several floors of the establishment, but also arranging and training the “Gypsy” entertainment that was to be a feature of the club. According to an undated and unidentified clipping in the archive, the club was an immediate success. The murals depicted scenes of a Russian tavern, including a scene in which a sign in Russian proclaims “Alcohol is not served here,” though the patrons pictured beneath are obviously inebriated — a jab at the ineffectiveness of America’s recent Prohibition. The waiters were dressed in the billowy white-bloused costume of authentic Russian waiters, and served a menu of blini, borscht, and caviar in candlelit dining rooms. All of this was new to New York, and all was enthusiastically received. Club Petrushka was regularly patronized by such entertainment celebrities as George and Ira Gershwin, Jascha Heifetz, Harpo Marx, and Rudolph Valentino. Balieff, peeved at Remisoff’s defection from the Chauve-Souris, forbade members of the company to attend the new club, though a significant contingent ignored this order and attended nightly. Remisoff regretted the breach, explaining that “the Chauve-Souris did not have my exclusive services . . . I never had a contract with Balieff,” and that he did not intend the Gypsy entertainment in his club to be competition for the Chauve-Souris’ cabaret. The popularity of Club Petrushka ended with a tragic accident in 1925: a fire broke out in the main dining room and consumed the building, trapping and killing manager and co-owner Bauer and his wife.

After the destruction of Club Petrushka in 1925, Remisoff moved to Chicago, remaining there until 1935. His artistic reputation preceded him: in 1922 Nicolai Roerich encouraged his younger countryman to contribute to an exhibit of Russian art as part of a Chicago show with Cor Ardens (“Flaming Heart”), the international society of artists Roerich helped to found in 1921. When Remisoff arrived in Chicago, he rapidly became as busy as he had been in New York. From 1925-1926 he taught stage design at the Chicago Art Institute, though he soon abandoned that post for more creative duties.     Read more below

Russian Tavern

Remisoff’s painting “Russian Tavern”

Most of Remisoff’s Chicago years were devoted to designing sets and costumes for the Adolph Bolm and Ruth Page Ballet companies. During the years of his Chicago residence, Remisoff designed more than 20 ballets, and he continued his personal and professional relationships with Bolm and Page (see Fig. 8) for many years after he left Chicago.

Remisoff also created sets for the Chicago Grand Opera. His designs for Strauss’ Salome were among his most popular; indeed they were reported in the press as vying with the music and story line for the attention of prurient concert-goers.

In Chicago Remisoff found ample opportunity to exercise his skills as a muralist, completing works for the Chicago Club, the Casino Club, the Keeley Memorial, the Graceland Cemetery Chapel, and the Lake Forest Public Library. Most of these paintings, including the decoration of the clubs, involved popular designs of no great importance — although a few were singled out for particular disdain or acclaim. One of the controversial projects was Remisoff’s mural for the Graceland Cemetery. This mural shows the figure of Christ laid out at the foot of three great dark crosses surrounded by a crowd of contemporary Chicago personalities in modern dress. Both undertakers and clergymen found the work “too gloomy,” or as one cemetery trustee delicately put it, there was “a possible excessive solemnity . . . when viewed in times of great emotional stress.” Remisoff’s murals for the Lake Forest Public Library, however, were more positively received. His first creation was for the large reception room of the library, featuring writers of ancient Greece and Rome. The figures of Homer, Sappho, Aesop, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Xenophan, and Virgil and are pictured, painted in a style reminiscent of Attic vase painting. This mural was a popular success and led to a second commission to decorate the newly constructed garden room. This second cycle of murals depicted scenes of a garden throughout the course of the seasons: spring pruning, summer flowering, fall harvesting, and winter hothouse cultivation.

In 1931 Remisoff was commissioned to decorate State Street for the Thanksgiving Parade, producing “70 Mysterious Giant Fantasies,” wooden figures designed for the tops of the State Street lamp posts. There were ten different characters: “Crooner,” who cradles a saxophone and grins through broken teeth and a black eye; “Pole Sitter,” who sits hunched at the top of the lamp post, brooding; “Ali-Oop,” two circus performers in gymnastic display; “No Parking,” with the double deterrent of a policeman’s fist and a watchful seated pigeon; “High and Dry,” a waiter holding aloft a four-foot tall beer stein; “Lamp Lighter,” a giant thug attempting to ignite the lamp with his cigarette; “Gold Coast,” a portrait of rich man and his valet; “Zoo Skyscraper,” a perky giraffe; “Laughs,” a totem pole of exaggerated faces; and “Zoom-Zoom,” a bass player whose bowing would suggest the sound of his name. These figures were installed under cover of darkness and kept under wraps until the celebratory unveiling on the morning of the parade.

In addition to the artistic works and projects mentioned above, Remisoff consulted on architectural projects. These included commissions for the General Motors Cadillac Salons; the Sears Roebuck building (a part of the Chicago World’s Fair); and designs for the Punch and Judy Theater and the New Palace Theater. Remisoff also worked as a graphic artist, illustrating covers for the Marshall Field & Co. catalogs and creating advertisements for other companies, including luxury car manufacturers Cadillac and Murray Corporation in Detroit.

Remisoff also continued to work as a fine artist, producing paintings on Russian themes for sale and exhibition. He had exhibitions at the Arts Club of Chicago (1925), the Laura Davidson Sears Academy of Fine Arts (ca. 1926), the Art Institute of Chicago (ca. 1926), and the Century of Progress Exhibition (1933).

In 1935, Remisoff went to San Francisco to join Adolph Bolm, who had become Ballet Master of the San Francisco Opera, to design sets and costumes for a production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or. Remisoff exhibited these designs and gave a series of lectures at the San Francisco Museum of Art during the run of the opera, from the late fall of 1935 through early 1936. During their stay, the Remisoffs discovered that they found the climate of California congenial, and in 1938 the Remisoffs moved to California for good, joining Adolph Bolm who had also left Chicago several years before.

Remisoff worked for a time in San Francisco with Bolm before moving to Los Angeles, which in 1938 was the scene of one of his greatest triumphs in stage design. Director Max Reinhardt commissioned Remisoff to create the setting for his production of Goethe’s Faust at the Pilgrimage Theater, a natural amphitheater in the Hollywood Hills. Remisoff bulldozed 38,700 cubic feet of earth from the surrounding hillside in order to accommodate a set large enough for the 150-member cast. He then created a horseshoe-shaped stage that wrapped around the audience on three sides, and extended more than 200 feet back. A 16th-century Bavarian village was constructed atop this, with labyrinthine streets and 35-foot tall houses complete with windows, doors, and staircases. The spectacle was a major success and did much to bolster Remisoff’s reputation.

From 1939 until his death, Remisoff made his home in Southern California, dividing his time between a summer house in Palos Verdes and a winter residence in Palm Springs. While in Los Angeles he continued his professional association with Reinhardt and forged a new one with director Michael Chekhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov). Remisoff created scenic designs and costumes for a number of Michael Chekhov’s plays, including his production of Gogol’s Inspector General. Remisoff also continued his work for the ballet, designing sets and costumes for Stravinsky’s Firebird for a Hollywood Bowl production choreographed by Bolm and conducted by Stravinsky himself (see Figs. 13 and 14).

By 1939 Remisoff began to move away from live stage productions. He renewed his interest in portrait and landscape painting, touring Mexico for several months to make special studies of its people and scenery. These studies ultimately resulted in a series of lithographs that were exhibited in Chicago and New York, and became the germ of Remisoff’s new passion: art on Southwestern themes. But this new interest would have to be indulged in his spare time, for upon his return to Hollywood Remisoff found his schedule increasingly occupied by set design for television and motion pictures.

In the summer of 1939 Remisoff began work on his first motion picture as art director for Lewis Milestone’s production, “Of Mice and Men”. Remisoff was responsible for the authenticity of the scenery, the mood of the sets, and the composition of each scene. To this end he first created a working ranch in environs faithful to the Salinas River region of Steinbeck’s story, complete with sluggish river, sycamore and eucalyptus trees, duckweed, and marsh grass. Remisoff then decorated the ranch house to imply years of solitary masculine habitation, including cracked plates and dirty curtains to suggest the character of Curley and his father. Finally, Remisoff provided a series of 500 sketches — or storyboards — delineating the actors’ positions, the background, and camera positions for each scene. This methodical preparation contributed to the speed and the facility of the shoot, and assured proper pictorial composition of each scene.

The success of Of Mice and Men helped to establish Remisoff in the movie industry, which would become his principal employer for the next twenty years. Remisoff was particularly known for his attention to accuracy of detail. For example, for his work in the 1944 picture “Guest in the House”, Remisoff traveled to Maine and New England for several months to research architecture, home furnishings, and even peculiarities of light and climate. Remisoff returned to California with books of notes and sketches and a truckload of antiques for the set, effectively transporting a bit of New England back to Hollywood. Before his career was finished, Remisoff acted as art director or production designer for 31 movies, including “The Red Pony”, and four television series.

Remisoff retired from the film industry in 1960 with the completion of “Ocean’s Eleven”. This film featured the “Rat Pack” — Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford — at the height of their celebrity. (N.B.: the USC Libraries own the entire production files for this film, including highly detailed blueprints for the creation of sets, hundreds of photographs of the completed sets, and “stills” of the shoot.)

Remisoff spent the remaining years of his life in personal artistic pursuits. He completed countless sketches, landscapes, portraits, and charcoal drawings, including a revival of his Re-mi persona in the form of his illustrations of the 1960 presidential debates. Remisoff also continued to delight in the California landscape, painting many studies of the mountains, deserts, and beaches near his home.

The Remisoffs retired to their Palm Springs home in 1965. Sophia passed away in 1973, leaving Leonid and his family as Nicolas’s only surviving kin. Nicolas Remisoff lived in Palm Springs until his death in 1975 at the age of 91 in the California Convalescent Hospital, Palm Springs.