Gurdjieff International Review

Alexandre de Salzmann

Basarab Nicolescu


lexandre Gustave de Salzmann was born on January 25, 1874 in Tiflis to an ethnically German family. His father, Albert Salzmann, studied at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and became a greatly renowned architect. His mother, Emilia Jürgens, was the daughter of a famous architect. The couple had five children: Boris, Alexandre, Malvina, Olga and Adelia. Alexandre received an excellent education from his family. He spoke fluent French, English, German and Russian. He also spoke Persian.

Emilia Jürgens was known for her talent and skills in refined sewing techniques, as well as for her extraordinary energy. In order to keep her children entertained, she created her own marionettes. Certainly the roots of Alexandre’s activities at the Munich’s Marionette Theater came from his youthful experience under his mother’s magic wand.

To further educate her son, Emilia did something that became legendary in their family. She was well acquainted with a band of outlaws who lived in the mountains and came down to Tiflis every year. One day, the band’s leader said to her, “Leave your son, Alexandre, with us for one year and we will return him to you as a man.” It was said and done. They all left on horseback and the following year they brought Alexandre back to her, ready to take on life.

Between 1892 and 1894, Alexandre de Salzmann studied painting in Moscow at the studio of the post-impressionist painter, Leonid Pasternak, father of Boris Pasternak. Next, he attended the Moscow Professional School of Art, Drawing, Sculpture and Architecture.

A turning point in his life occurred when, on November 5, 1898, he enrolled in the Academy of Arts in Munich. His primary teacher was the famous symbolist and expressionist painter, Franz von Stuck. In 1900, Alexandre shared a studio with Albert Niemeyer and Carl Strathmann, and also shared an apartment with the Romanian Jew, Ernest Stern, who was both a decorator and cinematographer. It is difficult for us today to imagine the extraordinary intellectual effervescence that reigned in Munich at the beginning of the twentieth century. In any case, Munich was, for Alexandre de Salzmann, a true initiatory crucible that would release his genius.

Between 1900 and 1933, Alexandre’s seventeen covers and ninety-seven illustrations for Munich’s Jugend: Illustrated Weekly Magazine for Art and Life built his reputation as a master of Art Nouveau. These illustrations are striking through their power, and often grimacing humor. His paintings, while remaining deeply rooted in Art Nouveau, anticipate Surrealism. Women occupy a central place. Women, tragic goddesses, are domineering (compared to men, who are sometimes depicted as miniscule beings), and hierarchical, like the characters of theater or opera. Paradoxically, they have no expressions on their faces. All of their personality comes out through their clothes, which are extremely elaborate in the minutest details and in the infinite variety of shades of color in their patterns.

In November 1911, Alexandre moved to Hellerau, where the Jaques-Dalcroze School was founded. He became one of the most important collaborators of Émile Jaques-Dalcroze[1] and Adolphe Appia.[2] He was project manager of the extraordinary festivities room at the Institute of Hellerau, a true temple of light. Marcos de Michelis described Alexandre’s lighting invention as follows:

The final design was fashioned ingeniously. It called for coating the walls and ceilings of the room with two layers of white cloth, infused with wax, at one-meter intervals. Inside, thousands of small light bulbs, with adjustable intensity, formed a kind of ‘luminous organ,’ which produces an immaterial and diffuse light. It is completely adjustable, ranging from total darkness to the most resplendent light. The system adapts perfectly to the architecture of the room that Tessenow[3] and Appia designed, like a large parallelepiped without fixed installations, in which either the stage or the bleachers for the public can be configured in any manner thanks to the movable parts. Neither scene nor curtain interrupts the continuity of the space that opens at one end of the large garden in the back. Even the orchestra pit, which is excavated under the pavement, and can be covered, is invisible to the spectators.[4]

This lighting system, which influenced twentieth century theater, has been the subject of several patents. Researchers in the theatrical field rightly wonder how such a feat was possible for a painter who did not have an engineer’s knowledge. But Alexandre de Salzmann had an incredible capacity for invention in craft.

At Hellerau, there was another major event in Alexandre’s life. He met a young Jaques-Dalcroze student, Jeanne Allemand. Jeanne was twenty-two years old and Alexandre, thirty-seven. In the university year of 1910–1911, Jeanne Allemand was still a third year student at the Dalcroze Institute at Dresden. She earned her diploma from Hellerau in 1912 and went on to marry Alexandre de Salzmann on September 6, 1912 in Geneva. Despite her young age, Jeanne Allemand was already an important contributor to Jaques-Dalcroze.

After the outbreak of First World War in 1914, Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann returned to Moscow where Alexandre worked with Alexander Yakovlevich Tairov,[5] director and producer of the Kamerny Theatre. In 1917, the de Salzmanns moved to Tiflis, where Alexandre reconnected with his old friend from Munich, the composer and director of the Tiflis Opera, Thomas de Hartmann, and his wife, the opera singer, Olga de Schumacher.

On Easter day of 1919, Olga and Thomas de Hartmann, who had been practicing the teaching of G. I. Gurdjieff since 1916, introduced the de Salzmanns to Gurdjieff, who was also in Tiflis. They had a passionate conversation on spiritual questions. After leaving, Gurdjieff said to Thomas de Hartmann regarding the de Salzmanns, “That is a man of great finesse, and she, she is intelligent.” Big praise from the mouth of Gurdjieff.

Very quickly, Jeanne and Alexandre de Salzmann became close associates of Gurdjieff. In 1919, they were among the founding members of The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, along with Olga and Thomas de Hartmann and Doctor Leonid de Stjernvall, one of Gurdjieff’s oldest students. It was no accident that Gurdjieff honored the de Salzmanns by attributing the name “Salzmanino”[6] to a solar system not far from the Holy Planet Purgatory.

A request was made to the Georgian government to acquire a building for the Institute. But the Georgian government was slow in responding. So Alexandre found a solution. In the December 14, 1919 edition of a satirical Georgian newspaper The Devil’s Whip, he published a sketch inscribed, The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man with the caption, “He (Gurdjieff) has, in a certain way, found a place for his Work.” The drawing showed the Tiflis town square with Gurdjieff, Thomas de Hartmann, Leonid de Stjernvall, and Alexandre de Salzmann all in winter jackets and surrounded by various instruments and tools. The effect was immediate: the authorities of Tiflis gave the Institute a two-story house.

Alexandre took care of the staging for Gurdjieff’s ballet, “The Struggle of the Magicians,” for which rehearsals went on at a frenetic pace. This ballet—which should have been presented in the spring of 1920 at the National Theater of Tiflis and was to include a series of Sacred Dances—never came to be, though Alexandre left us some magnificent pictorial testimonials.

In 1920, Gurdjieff closed the Tiflis Institute and, accompanied by his associates and pupils, moved to Constantinople. There, he opened a new branch of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man to the public, located on Yéménédji Street in the Péra Quarter. The Institute had little money, but Gurdjieff found—with his alternative economic skills—a way to make ends meet. Jeanne de Salzmann was “Harmonic Rhythm Instructor,” Ouspensky gave lectures, Alexandre de Salzmann taught painting, and Thomas de Hartmann, music.

Very soon, however, life became too difficult in Constantinople and Gurdjieff relocated to Berlin where he stayed until 1922. Gurdjieff tried, with Alexandre’s help, to acquire the buildings used by the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute of Hellerau which certainly would have been, because of its indisputable prestige, an ideal location for Gurdjieff’s activities. Furthermore, he could also have shown western intellectuals that he could accomplish the project that Émile Jaques-Dalcroze had been unable to complete. Alexandre accompanied Gurdjieff to Hellerau and Harald Dohrn promised them that they could get a long-term rental agreement for the property. But, five years previously, Harald Dohrn had promised the venue to Alexander Sutherland Neill, the Scottish Libertarian pedagogue, who in 1921, founded the Summerhill School. That is why Gurdjieff finally made the decision to establish himself in France.

On July 14, 1922, Gurdjieff and his companions arrived in Paris. Shortly thereafter, in October of the same year, the Institute was established at the Château de Prieuré des Basses Loges at Avon, where Alexandre took charge of its interior design.

The most memorable achievement of Alexandre at Avon was the construction and decoration of the Movements Hall, known as the “Study House.” With his attention always alert, Alexandre discovered that the Air Force was selling an old hangar and the Institute bought two sections of it. The students erected the building quickly. The Hall, finished in December 1923, could hold approximately 300 people. It was decorated like a Turkish tekke, a Sufi place of worship. In front of the platform, there were two fountains which lit up for Movement demonstrations with lights that varied in intensity, and which emitted the essence of a different spice every hour. Under a balcony, facing the platform, there was a box reserved for Gurdjieff. The box was surrounded by curtains on three sides. Over the balcony hung a collection of antique musical instruments. Beautiful oriental rugs were placed everywhere. Along the walls, reserved for guests and visitors, were high benches with stools for their feet. The passages were illuminated with the help of electric lamps covered with red translucent lampshades. On the ceiling were swathes of decorated cloth whose main theme was the enneagram.

Thirty-eight aphorisms were inscribed on the walls of the Study House using an extremely beautiful cursive alphabet that Alexandre had designed. Gurdjieff had codified the aphorisms in 1922. This writing, for the English speaking students of the Prieuré, was developed partly from phonetic Russian and partly from phonetic English, with a simple substitution code. Thus only Prieuré students could decipher them.

On July 8, 1924, Gurdjieff was the victim of a serious car accident on the road from Paris to Fontainebleau, and on August 26th of the same year, Gurdjieff announced the closure of the Institute.

Between 1925 and 1932, Alexandre de Salzmann worked in Paris and went to the Prieuré on the weekends. Beginning in 1925, he worked as an antique dealer and interior decorator. He painted frescoes on a number of important buildings, houses and cafes (at Montmartre), but there is no trace left of his work. He also made custom furniture. Eventually, in 1932, Alexandre and Jeanne de Salzmann left the Prieuré.

In 1933, the same year that Gurdjieff sold the property at Avon, Alexandre contracted tuberculosis, the same disease that later took René Daumal’s life. Alexandre de Salzmann died on May 3, 1934 in the Le Belvédère Sanatorium in Lysine, Switzerland. Jacques Hébertot[7] announced Alexandre de Salzmann’s death to Paul Claudel[8] in these words:

When I was Director of the Champs-Élysées, I remember how much you wished that I could have Salzmann as a collaborator. Then one fine day, he was introduced to me. He helped me to achieve some beautiful productions that I will never forget and his memory remains attached to my work from 1920 to 1925.[9]

His memory will also remain attached to some letters addressed to René Daumal, who had become his close friend and spiritual double. Flashes of genius are passed through these letters, as well as cries from his soul.

Alexandre de Salzmann was certainly an artist and extraordinary man, completely bohemian, a romantic, passionate, soulful poet of astonishing character, a man who lived only for art—but an art related to the meaning of life. As a genius in the field of lighting, today he is revealed as a major figure in the art of the twentieth century and a visionary of our twenty-first century.

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Translated from the French, this excerpt is from Basarab Nicolescu’s book, René Daumal: et l'enseignement de Gurdjieff (2015) L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France: Éditions Le Bois d’Orion, pp. 83–112.

[1] Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865–1950) was a Swiss composer and musician who developed Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a method of learning and experiencing music through movement.

[2] Adolphe Appia (1862–1928) was a Swiss architect and theorist of stage lighting and décor. Appia is best known for his many scenic designs for Wagner’s operas.

[3] Heinrich Tessenow (1876–1950) was a German architect, professor, and urban planner active during the Weimar era.

[4] Marco de Michelis, L’Institut Jacques-Dalcroze à Hellerau, in Richard C. Beacham (Ed.), Adolphe Appia ou le renouveau de l’esthétique théâtrale, Payot, Lausanne, 1992, pp. 39–40.

[5] Alexander Yakovlevich Tairov (1885–1950) was one of the leading innovators of theatrical art, and one of the most enduring theatre directors in Russia during the Soviet era.

[6] Salzmanino is the name of a planet in G. I. Gurdjieff’s magnum opus, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, first published in 1950 by Harcourt, Brace & Company (New York), 1238p.

[7] Jacques Hébertot (1886–1970) was the pseudonym of André Daviel. He was a French theater director, poet, journalist and publisher. The Théâtre Hébertot in Paris is named after him.

[8] Paul Claudel (1868–1955) was a French poet, dramatist and diplomat. He was famous for his verse dramas and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature six times.

[9] Unpublished letter from Jacques Hébertot to Paul Claudel dated December 31, 1934.


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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 1, 2019