In an extraordinary collage from 1936, the surrealist Pavel Tchelitchew laid out his costume and set designs for A Paper Ball: Cirque des Chiffonniers (Circus of the Ragpickers), an elaborate event he organized as part of the Hartford Festival at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (fig. 1). Everything for the ball being constructed from repurposed materials, the title referred to “ragpickers” who traveled the streets of Paris collecting refuse for recycling. Tchelitchew “wish[ed] to show how something elegant and beautiful can be made up of scraps of paper, and bits of ribbon and broken fragments,” as reported in a contemporary newspaper.

Illustration of costumed figures

fig. 1: Pretreatment image of Pavel Tchelitchew, Hartford Festival, 1936. Collage of cut and pasted paper and newsprint, with colored gouache and black ink. Yale University Art Gallery, From the collection of Richard Park Beard. © Pavel Tchelitchew

Similarly, Tchelitchew’s collage is a complex composition of various layers of cut and pasted paper. Upon being requested for loan, the work recently underwent conservation treatment to address brittle paper components and fragile paint layers. Its collaged elements include off-white, thin, smooth papers as well as newsprint, all applied to a slightly textured support of white paper. Over top, Tchelitchew painted in gouache. The variety of colors and textures, along with the layering of paint and paper, give the work a physicality and tactile nature.

The Paper Ball featured 16 distinct pageants, including the parody “Perseus and Andromeda and Modern Artists.” The majority of the costumes depicted in the collage may relate to this theme. At right, a man is shown dressed as Perseus, with wings and hooves representing the latter’s flying horse, Pegasus. The muse of poetry, identifiable by the writing on her dress, hangs on the man’s neck. At left, Medusa appears both before and after her decapitation by Perseus: in pink, with snakes on her head, and again in black, with rivulets of blood streaming from her body. Next to them, Athena, in blue, holds a lance.

In the center background of the image is a circus-ring mistress, alluding to the larger theme of the ball. Tchelitchew transformed the Wadsworth’s three-level Avery Court into a circus tent. Meanwhile, he decorated the pageant venue, Morgan Great Hall, with spectacular lighting reminiscent of the aurora borealis. Like Tchelitchew, the artists Alexander Calder and Eugene Berman were invited to design sets and costumes for the 1936 Hartford Festival. The weeklong celebration introduced new works by avant-garde composers and choreographers, among them Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Virgil Thomson, and George Balanchine. Though many of the 700 guests who attended the festival’s Paper Ball wore costumes, few of these have come down to us. One remarkable survival is Tchelitchew’s paper costume of a horse for the circus pageant, preserved at the Wadsworth along with the related watercolor
sketch (fig. 2 and fig. 3).

Female mannequin dressed in a black tutu with black bodice and black gloves. On the mannequin's head is a large pink and orange colored plume, tied with a black ribbon beneath her chin

fig 2: Pavel Tchelitchew, Costume of “The Black Horse” from the 1936 Paper Ball, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn., Gift of Mrs. Robert Hyde Smith, 1983.759a,b

An illustration of a ballerina drawn on warm-toned paper. The woman wears a grey tutu, black bodice, black tights and ballet slippers with pink ribbons. She also wears black mittens and a decorative headpiece that is a black horse head with with large pink plumes and pink ribbons

fig. 3: Pavel Tchelitchew, Black Horse, Paper Ball, Hartford Festival, 1936. Watercolor on paper. 16 3/4 x 7 7/8 in. (42.6 x 20 cm). Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Conn., The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1936.25. Photo courtesy Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum

The pretreatment condition of the collage likewise exemplified some of the unique preservation challenges associated with some 20th-century papers and watercolor. The newsprint had darkened over time due to its inferior quality, having been made from unpurified wood-pulp fiber. Along the vertical crease at the center of the collage, both the paint and the underlying paper had begun to flake; bright-white spots were visible, interrupting the design. The adhesive originally used to fix the collage elements to the support had dried out and discolored. The gouache applied over the paper components appeared unchanged in color, with the exception of slight fading in the light-blue band along the top.

The conservation treatment focused on stabilizing the cracked, loose areas of paint and paper. Under a binocular microscope, the paint along the crease was resecured by applying adhesive with a superfine-tipped sable brush. To prevent further damage by relaxing this deformation in the paper, I applied moisture locally to the reverse side and dried it under gentle pressure. I then applied a clear, colorless filler, which also served as a sealant upon which retouching could safely be done. The most disturbing losses were infilled with dry pigments and pastels. I removed disfiguring areas of adhesive using small cotton swabs and warm deionized water. Where the collage elements were detaching from the support, I readhered them.

Colorful drawing of costumed figures

fig. 4: The collage after stabilization and retouching of losses on the center crease

After the treatment, the collage was matted and framed under ultraviolet-filtering plexiglass (fig. 4). This blocks the light waves that can cause fading of the paint and discoloration of the adhesive and papers. The materials used to conserve, mat, and frame the collage were chosen for their chemical inertness and stability: they will not damage the artwork and can be reversed, if required.

Paper has long been sought out as a material by artists for its variety, versatility, and economy. Garments made from paper date back as early as 910 C.E., with clothing created from recycled-paper sutras in Japan. Paper clothing continues to be a popular theme for fashion shows, museum exhibitions, and related events. The Wadsworth held a Paper Dress Ball in 1966, and as recently as March 2018 the Yale University Art Gallery hosted the costume ball Plaster, Paper, Wood, and Wire. The shared history of Tchelitchew’s complex collage—created for the Wadsworth’s 1936 Paper Ball and housed today in the Gallery’s collection—highlights some of the challenges posed by this material when conserving works of modern art.

The author would like to thank the staff at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art for their assistance in researching the historical background surrounding the Hartford Festival collage.

Theresa Fairbanks Harris
Senior Conservator of Works on Paper, Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art

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