The Riddle of Daedalus – Pavel Tchelitchew as Psychedelic Architect

In May 1964, Jean Houston and Robert Masters – two scientists who had met when conducting government research on the effects of LSD, and who would later found the Human Potential Movement and publish The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (1966) wrote a letter to Edward James. They asked permission to photograph two works by Pavel Tchelitchew – the Russian-born painter James had known and collected since 1932. Houston and Masters wanted The Riddle of Daedalus (1946) [named after the architect of the Cretan labyrinth that housed the minotaur] and Eye (1947), which were at that time on show at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York, to feature in an experimental film they were developing on ‘techniques for affecting alterations of human perception’[1] It is not difficult to see why the paintings would have been appropriate. [x] They are early examples of Tchelitchew’s so-called ‘Interior Landscapes’ or ‘Celestial Physiognomies’, produced soon after Hide and Seek (1938-1942) – a painting based upon a visit to West Dean almost a decade before – in which a semi-translucent figure appears at the bottom-right. This figure was soon extrapolated into The Golden Leaf (1943), [x] a painting in which the translucent body, seen from behind, is packed with a mesh of physiological systems, overlaid according to a symbolic colour scheme aligned with the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.[2]

At the beginning of 1945, having seen the work-in-progress the previous summer, Edward James was emphatic about the importance of Tchelitchew’s new work.[3] He considered it a ‘new period of painting […] among the finest work produced in our lifetimes’, describing images ‘filled with X-rayed figures […] with all the veins, arteries and nerve systems glowing like Aurora Borealises’, as well as commenting on the painter’s technique of ‘blow[ing] gelatine […] between every layer to make them glow’ (and getting ‘terribly out of breath’).[4] The first ‘Interior Landscapes’ were well received by critics too, even if some felt that the artist revealed his anatomical secrets ‘pitilessly’ – surely an ungenerous response to works so alive with empathic energy and wonder.[5]

[x] What developed from these paintings were not mere renditions of anatomy, however. Although the young Tchelitchew was briefly a student of medicine, his only attendance at anatomy class – complete with perfumed handkerchief over his mouth – resulted in him being revived in the street. His appeals to traditions of anatomical representation are obliquely present yet, ultimately, singular.[6][x] Tchelitchew’s lineage is not one that aspires to anatomical accuracy through dissection (a la Leonardo da Vinci) or meticulous measurement (a la Albrecht Dürer); his debt to Vesalius and those flayed figures posing in Tuscan landscapes are merely a platform. Furthermore, if Tchelitchew’s vision echoes an ancient desire to see into the body, it is also coloured by more modern insights, such as X-ray analysis, microscopy, perhaps even psychoanalysis, [x] but also by his own earlier focus on nested forms and double-images, metamorphosis and the mutability of form, hallucinogenic emulsions and ‘oil slick’ colours [such as Phenomena].[7]For Lincoln Kirstein, the artist’s friend and commentator, Tchelitchew’s living bodies [x] are penetrated not by the ‘scalpel but by light’, and remain ‘motile, dynamic’, as precarious as an ‘alcohol flame’, upheld by inner illumination.[8]

[x] Kirstein asserts that Tchelitchew’s focus to the human body is a matter of manifesting a universal intimacy, a ‘symbol in microcosm of the universe in macrocosm.’[9] He famously posited that Tchelitchew selected topographical elements of anatomy like landscape features – sites – emphasising complex interrelationships between inside and outside, energy and matter.[10]Yet whereas Kirstein was determined to point out that the artist was ‘no scientist’, it is tempting to speculate on what happens when Tchelitchew is instead cast as architect (even a singular – and ultimately psychedelic – one).[11]

[x] Kirstein himself identified architectural archetypes within Tchelitchew’s anatomies, ranging from the ‘antrum, the vaults of the sinus, the spiral labyrinth of the inner ear, the corridors of the semi-circular canal; the labyrinthine skull, the crystal grotto; shells and caves’.[12]Beyond these specifics, however, we might also see how Tchelitchew’s bodies become increasingly invested with the mechanics of an architectonic principle, one in which the binding element of light is made manifest as a complex quality of transparency, both intellectual and perceptual, that combines the ‘literal’ (thematerially see-through) with the ‘phenomenal’, as in qualities that allow the mind to discern underlying sensations of spatiality itself.[13]

[x] Associations between human anatomy and architectural thought have been in play for centuries, such that representational conceptions of being-in-the-world have been approached through topographical projections of the body, from diagram to the built object (as it were), in different ways – whether as model of the divine or a vessel for the eternal, or later adopted as an organisational principle or unit of measurement concerning the ‘way space is imagined and how power finds its form’.[14]

[x] Yet one might start to think Tchelitchew-as-architect through his particular approach to transparency, considering his see-through bodies in relation to aesthetic and utopian discourses of modernism, especially those associated with glass: a near-mythic construction material in this context, one that denies secrets and reveals inner workings. [x] One might recognise in Tchelitchew’s figures an echo of theGläserner Mensch [‘Glass Man’], an exhibit first shown at 1930s Hygiene exhibitions as a paradigm for ‘healthy living’.[15]The Gläserner Mensch was made possible by Werner Spalteholz, whose material innovations (ironically in new plastics – the term ‘glass’ here denotes a generic transparency) allowed audiences to see through tissue, bone and blood vessel, such that ‘with the right illumination’, organs would be rendered semi-transparent and would ‘glow with an almost supernatural iridescence’.[16]Yet despite the theatrics of the pose (suggestive of sun worship, idealised religiosity, and an attempt to ‘overcome corporeality’), the emphasis here is still on an aesthetic one might associate with the Bauhaus: the elimination of ornamentation and the striving toward a principal of transparent clarity.[17][x] Although such anatomical exhibits elicited fascination more often than revulsion, they nonetheless rendered bodies transparent through the use of chemical agents, and remain resolutely ‘not-living’, stabilised, neutered, and dehydrated. Tchelitchew’s ‘Celestial Physiognomies’, by contrast, seem to sustain their appeal to a vital, vibrant, and nebulous organic life. As we will see, it would take time for a more universal, geometric, or crystalline architecture to develop from underneath Tchelitchew’s all too human bodies.

[x] One might also consider the transparent structures of the Celestial Physiognomies in the context of theories of ‘Glass Architecture’, as laid out in the visionary politico-aesthetics of Paul Scheerbart. Preluded by the interpenetrating illumination of Gothic cathedrals, and extending the possibilities of letting more and more light into living space (through technology), [x] Scheerbart’s theories were soon adopted by German architect Bruno Taut and the so-called ‘Glass Chain’ correspondents, whose letters detailed extraordinary visions for utopian societies, culminating in images of floating continents and crystal cities.[18]Taut considered glass a ‘material of brilliance’ that would allow man-made structures to interpenetrate their environment, a sentiment best understood in a cultural climate excited by [x] glass-skinned skyscrapers, dreams of fusing inside and outside, public and private (haunted, of course, by dystopian fears regarding what such fusions might actually imply).[19]Yet, interestingly, Scheerbart rejected the representation of the human figure in architecture, instead focusing on extrapolations from plant and mineral kingdoms, perhaps sensing that Glass Architecture’s aim of making interior and exterior space continuous would require an inevitable dematerialisation of the ‘human envelope’. [20]

[x] By the early 1950s, Tchelitchew’s own renderings of bodily tectonics (now focused on the head) were reduced to purely linear contours: near-monochrome compositions of ‘weightless, transparent, dematerialized forms’, manifest as ‘illuminated linear tracks rather than as a glassy, continuous, transparent surface’.[21][x] Commenting on his 1950 exhibition in Rome, fellow painter Fabrizio Clerici noted how Tchelitchew’s latest works ‘identify themselves in space and withspace’, how they ‘circumvent it, cover it […] make it visible, just as breath makes the surface of still water palpitate with the concentric vibration of successive waves’.[22] [x] Yet the more striking feature of these linear heads, for Tchelitchew-as-Architect, is the provocation of their reversibility – what Parker Tyler describes as a ‘simultaneous going-and-coming’, whereby a ‘single head, by its ingenious concave-convex treatment, had begun to look like two heads, and in reverse, two heads to look like one’.[23][x] This reversibility is a radical extension of Tchelitchew’s transparency (and part of his psychedelic architectural methodology!). As Tyler also suggests, the artist here moves from transparency to something like transmutation, where ‘every distinct anatomic structure [is] translated into a network […] different seen from the inside, and yet the same.’[24]Still subtly suggestive of the ‘elaborate symmetries’ of baroque church construction that the artist recalled from his youth, this would be an architecture capable of ‘showing in- and outside [as a] continual interplay of expanding surface and revealed interior’, which results in what critic Laurence Alloway called a new kind of ‘transparency-universality equation.’[25]

But where does Tchelitchew-as-Psychedelic-Architect go next? [x] Up until his death in 1957, his approach would seem to be the gradual dematerialisation of human presence. The baroque complexity of revealed inner organs is more and more ‘aerated, evaporated’ (yet no less alive), as Tchelitchew strips away everything but an underlying substrate, a field of kaleidoscopic light and energy in which linear vectors coalesce into a mesh of facetted polyhedra.[26]The resulting ‘super-geometrical diagrams’ move from organic form to more crystalline structures, as if presenting a movement between the vibrancy of organic bodies and that of inorganic matter.[27][x] The wireframe lattices pulsate, hinting at a quantum world of entangled fractals, far beyond what Kirstein calls the ‘complex separations and superimpositions of systematic levels in structure.’[28]It is worth noting that, at the opening of his 1954 exhibition at London’s Hanover Gallery, Edith Sitwell declared that Tchelitchew’s work reminded her of the eighteenth-century Swiss philosopher and scientist Lorenz Oken, [x] whose assertion that ‘matter is rigidified light’ was made in the context of referring to crystalline forms being the ‘secret rays of the universe’.[29]Yet what does this emergent field lay out, or make possible? [x] If one might attempt to diagram Tchelitchew-as-Architect through his connections to the ‘crystalline Renaissance’ of Luca Pacioli [x] and the nested Platonic Solids of Kepler; [x] the mathematical proportions of Matila Ghyka or the psychedelic utopias of Wenzel Hablik [x], one might consider Tchelitchew’s effervescent ground in relation to what David Lewis-Williams calls, in his discussions of the spaces inherent to altered states of consciousness within the minds of early humans, a ‘neurological substrate’.[30][x] Lewis-Williams describes a spectrum of consciousness, with prismatic colours an early visual manifestation of alterity, whether it be ‘irrational, marginal, aberrant or even pathological’.[31]The sensory deprivation of seers and shamans here provides a means for shifting consciousness along an ‘intensified trajectory’ toward the release of inwardly generated imagery.[32][x] The resulting ‘geometric visual percepts’, including ‘dots, grids, zigzags, nested catenary curves, and meandering lines [which]  flicker, scintillate, expand, contract, and combine with one another’, are produced by the neurology of the human nervous system. They are not strictly hallucinations but ‘phosphenes’ (generated within  the eye) or ‘form constants’ (generated within the optic system) – a call back to Tchelicthew’s sustained focus on the transparent eye.[33][x] Lewis-Williams also asserts that there is a ‘spatial relationship between the retina and the visual cortex’, such that when links between retinal receptors and neurons are reversed (such as following the ‘ingestion of psychotropic substances’), the ‘pattern in the cortex is perceived as a visual percept. In other words, people in this condition are seeing the structure of their own brains.’[34]Tchelitchew’s effervescent architectural diagrams could also be considered as images of mind-manifesting – the etymological root of the psychedelic.

[x] In his extraordinary biography of the artist, Parker Tyler declared that, although suggestive of architectural diagrams and possessed of a ‘peculiar architectonic tension’, Tchelitchew’s ‘Celestial Physiognomies’ were ‘not true architecture’, claiming that their quality of magic made him ‘hesitate to imagine them in actual dimensions’.[35] Perhaps it is possible to consider them as architecture within psychedelic dimensions – or as ‘true’ psychedelic architecture, born of the labyrinthine structures that the mind inhabits and which disclose the mind’s inner workings to itself. [x] In their 1968 book on Psychedelic Art, Houston and Masters claim that Tchelitchew’s late geometric works capture the ‘profound, extraordinary consciousness of the basic structures of Being as apprehended on the deepest psychical levels’ – the reference to ‘basic structures’ arguably stands in for the complex, architectural nature of consciousness as it is opened to new possibilities.[36][x] From the perspective of Tchelitchew-as-Psychedelic-Architect, one might imagine his appeal to a form of architectural consciousness that is as unmoored, as if in zero-gravity, conceived and experienced without gravitational co-ordinates or expectations. Again, one might speculate on how this is an extension of Tchelitchew’s earlier concerns, such as the ‘improvised three-part perspectival system’ that Angela Miller describes as being at work in Hide and Seek, in which ‘forms are seen directly from above, as if one is looking down on them, as well as from below and at eye level’.[37]

[x] In classical mythology, the riddle of Daedalus – the architectural complexity of the Cretan labyrinth containing the monstrous minotaur – is ultimately ‘solved’ by the thread of Theseus, a gossamer linearity unspooled between exterior and interior, allowing the maze to be undone and escaped. [x] Tchelitchew’s solution, or attitude, to Daedalus’ puzzle is more complex – his labyrinth is challenged because all co-ordinates and expectations for solidity, transparency, reversibility, gravity, and so on, are laid radically open. As for a consciousness in an altered state, for the psychedelic architect, the labyrinth becomes an altered site that can be let go, released, as a cumulative result of the artist’s ‘back and forth [movement between] the vocabulary of human anatomy and the geometric idiom of architecture.’[38]


[1] Jean Houston, Robert Masters (and Robert Ross) to Edward James, 11th May 1964. Edward James Archive, West Dean College.

[2] Lincoln Kirstein, note for exhibition, np. Edward James Archive, West Dean College.

[3] These were among many Tchelitchew artworks owned by James. [surrounded his bed when staying in a minimalist, glass-walled house on top of a mountain in California; James asserts that one painting he purchased, The Lady of Shalott (1944) ‘was meant to be the inside of Martha Graham – the modern dance recitalist. It rather frightens me, so I have it in storage.’ James would also buy The Crystal Grotto (1943) for $850, with Parker Tyler noting spitefully that ‘Edward James buys three recent pictures but the artist doubts he understands them.’ [ref]

[4] ‘Pavel Tchelitchew’, January 8–February 3, 1945. Durlacher Bros., New York. Edward James, letter to XX, XX. Edward James Archive, West Dean College.

[5] Allen S. Weller, ‘The Image of Man in Contemporary Art’, in Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture, 1959, University of Illinois, p26. If Houston’s and Master’s film remained unrealised, it is worth noting that a documentary film about cancer, Challenge (directed by Low and Lambart, 1950), featured ground-breaking animation sequences – combining chiaroscuro drawings, staggered mixes and fades, linear outlines and transparencies – directly influenced by and commenting on Tchelitchew’s work. The way in which the film was restricted by requirements for anatomical correctness, and indeed the emphasis on pathology, disease and decay, throws into relief the vital dynamism of the paintings, in which ‘drama’ emerges from the notion that the ‘tubes, sponges, vessels and processes are not drained away but active in full force’. See: Cantor, D. (2021) Cancer, research, and educational film at mid-century: the making of the movie ‘Challenge: science against cancer(1950). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press (Rochester studies in medical history), p111.

[6] Parker Tyler (1967) The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew: A Biography, New York: Fleet Publishing, p33.

[7] Angela Miller (2020) ‘Vibrant Matter: The Countermodern World of Pavel Tchelitchew’, The Art Bulletin, 102:2, p122.

[8] Lincoln Kirstein (1994) Tchelitchev. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twelvetrees Press, p92.

[9] Lincoln Kirstein (1951) Note published alongside Tchelitchew Drawings 1951, New York: Durlacher Bros, np.

[10] (p130; what is Kirstein quote?) Kirstein, L. (1994) Tchelitchev. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twelvetrees Press, p91.

[11] Lincoln Kirstein

[12] Kirstein 1994, p92.

[13] See: Rowe and Slutzky, 1955.

[14] Ross Exo Adams, ‘Becoming-Infrastructural’, E-Flux, October 2017, []

[15] The term ‘glass’ here being a metaphor for transparency rather than a material, as the Gläserner Mensch actually made use of ‘Cellon’, a celluloid-like material derived from acetylcellulose, which had been developed, ironically enough, by a Dresden manufacturer of preserves. See CB, p191.

[16] Klaus Vogel, ‘The Transparent Man—Some Comments on the History of a Symbol’, in Bud, R., Finn, B.S. and Trischler, H. (eds) (1999) Manifesting medicine: bodies and machines. Australia: Harwood Academic (Artefacts, v. 1), p38.

[17] Vogel p45.

[18] In 2017, the architectural practice, Space Popular, attempted to refresh attitudes to glass as a radical material using both physical objects and virtual environments, noting that the ideas of Taut and his correspondents remained unrealised.  redefine the limitations of the material and imagine its bright, colourful, and energising possibilities. The exhibition ‘The Glass Chain’ was held at Sto Werkstatt, London;  explores an alternative future for glass in architecture inspired by the legacy of the infamous Glass Chain Letters (1919–1920).t:

[19] Paul Scheerbart (1914) Glasarchitektur [Glass Architecture]. Taut, an architect and devoted disciple, dedicated his 1914 Werkbund Exhibition building, the Glass House, to Scheerbart [architecture as politics].

[20] ‘Aphorism 24: The avoidance of figure representation in architecture. While architecture is spatial art, figure-representation is not spatial art and has no place in architecture. The animal and human body is made for movement. Architecture is not made for movement and is concerned with formal composition and ornament. Only the plant and mineral kingdoms should be exploited – better still the whole repertoire of free invention – one should not think of the animal and human body as a design element. The fact that the ancient Egyptians did so is no reason at all for doing so today: we no longer associate our gods with the bodies of animals and humans.’ (Scheerbart, Glass Architecture, p48)

[21] (Kirstein? p128)

[22]  Fabrizio Clerici, exhibition catalogue, 1950 [translation by the author]

[23] PT, Divine Comedyp29-30.

[24] PT, Divine Comedyp29-30

[25] Laurence Alloway, ‘Rigidified Light’, Art News, 1954, Vol. 53, Issue 8, p60.

[26] Tyler p472.

[27] Kirstein, L. (1994) Tchelitchev. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twelvetrees Press, p96.

[28] Kirstein, p92.

[29] [ref]

[30] Lewis-Williams, J.D. (2008) The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, p112.

[31] Lewis-Williams, p121.

[32] Lewis-Williams, p124.

[33] Lewis-Williams, p126-127.

[34] Lewis-Williams, p124.

[35] Parker Tyler…

[36] Houston, Jean; Masters, Robert E. L., Psychedelic Art (1968) New York, Grove Press, p112. [my emphasis]

[37]  Miller, pXX. … centripetal pull toward the centre. Zero gravity architecture []

[38] Tyler, p272.


Ross Exo Adams, ‘Becoming-Infrastructural’, E-Flux Architecture, October 2017 []

Laurence Alloway, ‘Rigidified Light’, Art News, 1954, Vol. 53, Issue 8, p60.

A. M. F., ‘Pavel Tchelitchew: Poet of Science’, Art News, Jan 15-31, 1945, Vol. 43, Issue 19.

Reyner Banham, ‘The Glass Paradise’, in Banham, R. and Banham, M. (1996) A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham. Berkeley: University of California Press, p32-33.

Rosemarie Hagg Bletter, ‘The Interpretation of the Glass Dream—Expressionist Architecture and History of Crystal Metaphor’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 40, no. 1 (1981)

Cantor, D. (2021) Cancer, research, and educational film at midcentury: the making of the movie ‘Challenge: science against cancer(1950). Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press (Rochester studies in medical history), p111.

Clerici, F., PT exhibition catalogue, Italy, 1950

Kuzentsov, A. (2012) Pavel Tchelitchew: Metamorphoses. Stuttgart: Arnoldische Art Publishers.

Kirstein, L. (1994) Tchelitchev. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Twelvetrees Press, p92.

Lincoln Kirstein, ‘The Interior Landscapes of Pavel Tchelitchew’, XXXXXX.

_____________ ‘The Position of Pavel Tchelitchev’ in Ford, C. H., Neiman, C. and Nathan, P. (eds) (1991) View: parade of the avant-garde: an anthology of View magazine (1940-1947). 1st ed. New York : Emeryville, CA: Thunder’s Mouth Press ; Distributed by Publishers Group West, p49-53.

Latimer, T.T. (2017) Eccentric modernisms: making differences in the history of American art. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Michel Leiris, ‘Man and his Insides’ in Brisées, (trans. Lydia Davis), 1989, San Francisco: North Point Press, p41-45.

Lewis-Williams, J.D. (2008) The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Angela Miller (2020) ‘Vibrant Matter: The Countermodern World of Pavel Tchelitchew’, The Art Bulletin, 102:2, 121-145, DOI: 10.1080/00043079.2019.1676130.

Nathanson, R. (arr.) (1972) Pavel Tchelitchew: a Selection of Paintings, Gouaches and Drawings. Ditchling: Ditchling Press.

Sarah Elliott Novacich, ‘Transparent Mary: Visible Interiors and the Maternal Body in the Middle Ages’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 116, No. 4, University of Illinois Press (October 2017), pp. 464-490.

Lorenz Oken, Elements of Physiophilosophy (trans. Alfred Tulk) London: The Ray Society, 1847.

Scheerbart’s Glass Architecture

Jeffrey T. Schnapp, ‘Crystalline Bodies: Fragments of a Cultural History of Glass’, West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, Vol. 20, No. 2. The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Bard Graduate Center (Fall-Winter 2013), pp. 173-194.

Tchelitchew, P. and Kuznetsov, A. (2012) Pavel Tchelitchew: Metamorphoses. Stuttgart: Arnoldsche Art Publisher.

Parker Tyler (1967) The Divine Comedy of Pavel Tchelitchew: A Biography, New York: Fleet Publishing.

__________ ‘Human Anatomy as the Expanding Universe’, XX: XX.

__________ ‘Tchelitchew’s World’, XX: XX.

__________ ‘Tchelitchew: The melancholy of anatomy’, XX: XX, April 1964.

Anthony Vidler, ‘Transparency’ in The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1992), pp. 217-226.

Vidler, Anthony, ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’, Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 56, No. 4 (May, 2003), pp. 6-7.

Klaus Vogel, ‘The Transparent Man—Some Comments on the History of a Symbol’ in Bud, R., Finn, B.S. and Trischler, H. (eds) (1999) Manifesting medicine: bodies and machines. Australia: Harwood Academic (Artefacts, v. 1).

Allen S. Weller, ‘The Image of Man in Contemporary Art’, in Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture, 1959, University of Illinois.