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Sunday, April 22, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Art Deco Pioneer: Prolific Artist, Designer, Sculptor Erte Dies At 97

Erte, whose pioneering art deco designs in graphics, fashion and theater of the 1920s returned to popularity in recent years, died yesterday, a hospital spokesman said. He was 97.

A spokesman at Paris' Cochin Hospital refused to disclose the cause of death. Friends said Erte was hospitalized in poor health three weeks ago after returning from a vacation on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.

Erte - whose real name was Romain de Tirtoff - was known as a painter, sculptor, lithographer and set designer. He designed costumes for the legendary dancer Anna Pavlova and the performer-spy Mata Hari.

The prolific artist designed every cover of Harper's Bazaar from 1915 to 1936.

His most recent project was to design the sets for the Broadway musical ``Stardust.'' Some of his other major designs for sets and costumes included Debussy's ``Pelleas et Melisande'' and Racine's ``Phedre.''

He was also well known for the opulent clothes and sets he designed for George White's ``Scandals,'' the Ziegfeld Follies and the Folies Bergere.

Art deco, derived from cubism, is characterized by slender forms and straight lines expressive of modern technology during the 1920s and 1930s. The style regained popularity beginning in the mid-1960s.

Born Nov. 23, 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, Erte decided to be an artist from the moment he could use colored pencils.

``I was interested in fashion and even sketched a dress for my

mother when I was about five,'' he said.

The family expected him to follow in the tradition of serving in the Russian Navy, but Erte went to Paris at age 19 to study art and changed his name from Tirtoff to Erte.

Times were hard, but he loved Paris, and later his parents and sister joined him during the Russian revolution. A second-rate French seamstress had meanwhile hired and fired him, saying he would never succeed in art or fashion.

But he was soon working for the great designer Paul Poiret. Later came a major contract with William Randolph Hearst and Harper's Bazaar, which shot Erte to fame across the Atlantic as perhaps the leading star of art deco.

About 1925, he began work on what became probably his best-known works, his alphabet designs. The 26-part series took him nearly 40 years to complete.

The alphabet features the Erte woman: festooned with jewels and trailing feathers and furs. Often, at the end of a diamond-studded leash, was the ultimate art deco fur - a leopard or panther.

Erte became a French citizen and lived in Paris most of his life, but once said, ``I am probably better known in the States.''

The United States often honored him with big retrospective shows - including one at the Smithsonian Institution and at galleries all over the country during his 90th year.

But some of his biggest honors came from France: the ``Chevalier du Merite Artistique et Culturel'' and ``Officier des Arts et des Lettres.''

The irrepressible Erte never achieved the status of ``great artist'' and was dismissed as kitsch in the post-World War II period.

Always appearing trim and elegant, even past 90, Erte kept fit by walking long distances. But he once said he didn't start exercising until he was 70.

``I drink and eat what I like, smoke a little bit,'' said the artist, who looked fit at a birthday party at Maxim's last November hosted by fashion designer Pierre Cardin.

Funeral arrangements were not immediately known. Erte was never married and had no known survivors.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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