In 1899, Nahum Tschacbasov (or Нахум Чакбасов) was born Nahum Stefanovich Licterman in Baku, Azerbaijan, to a Jewish family. Unlike the artists we’ve covered so far, he had little connection with his Russian roots, for by the time he was 8, his family had emigrated to Chicago, and he grew up an American. But his Russianness manifested itself in his expressionist and modernist creations. His art belongs to that of the Russian diaspora, and so I’ll say a few things about him.
By the time he was 13, his father’s business had collapsed and he had to leave school to work to help support his family. Later on, he served in the US Navy in the First World War, seeing action at Scapa Flow near Scotland. The light he saw there made a deep impression on him. He said: “Nothing could compare with the Scapa Flow. My feeling for color in my work has drawn from this palette of the Northern Skies. The color in the North made me lose my deep feeling of depression.”
After the war, he started a successful corporate collection agency. His first marriage resulted in two children and divorce. In order to cope with the stresses of life, he took up art. He was deeply influenced by the works of Cezanne and van Gogh.
His daughter Alessandra (‘Sondra’) was born in 1931. (She would later marry the author Saul Bellow.) She would become one of his favourite subjects for painting.
Between 1932 and 1933, Tschacbasov lived in Paris (Montmartre and Montparnassse, where else?) to train in the arts under Leopold Gottlieb, Marcel Gromaire and Fernand Léger. He travelled around Spain and North Africa and returned to the US, where he found that his business had gone bust in his absence. He then painted a series of Great Depression-inspired works.
In 1934, the Parisian Galeries Zak and des Tuileries exhibited his works, the first of his solo displays. Soon thereafter he ran out of money and had to return to the USA, which he did via a detour in Tunisia.
Soon thereafter he joined up with the likes of Mark Rothko and Adolf Gottlieb in the Galerie Secession, and co-founded the abstract socially committed art group The Ten. Nahum’s socio-political cause was more fervent than that of his colleagues, as he created works based on his experiences of the harsh immigrant life in Chicago. By 1937, he quit The Ten due to political and critical differences; his own work by then was predominantly on social satire.
Shortly thereafter, a succession of personal crises lead him to psychoanalysis, which revitalized his art; he also began writing his surrealist autobiography The Moon is My Uncle.
In 1940, he took up photography; his collection of pictures formed the foundation of the American Library Color Slide Company, which is a treasure-trove of material even today.
By the mid-1940s, his painting style had changed from the social to the personal. Some time spent in Oklahoma City resulted in landscapes and nature paintings.
In 1944, “Tschacbasov works at Stanley William Hayter’s printmaking workshop, Atelier 17, a center for surrealist ideas. He adopts the principle espoused by Hayter of automatism in which one, following the flow of a line, would be led to mythical images which he could then shape. Tschacbasov finds that an inner world of images and symbols of the unconscious opens up to him. This new affirmative mood of his painting, expressing the surrealist view of the “strangeness of reality” is well received by the public and critics.“
Nahum then switched to mythic-historic themes. In 1946, an exhibition of his works at the Perls Gallery received a high accolade from the Encyclopedia Britannica’s review of art: “the fantastic fairy-tale world… kindred in conception to that of Marc Chagall, showed an obvious artistic superiority of the Russo-American over the Russo-French painter.”
In the late 1940s, Nahum experimented with a fusion of cubism with psychic imagery, terming it abstract surrealism. “He created a powerful personal iconography in which the inner workings of the psyche are revealed as myth and metaphor. The multiplicity of images that emerge at this time: stars, moons, birds, boats, are at once personal and universal. Every painting is a landscape. There are horizon lines and tiny celestial bodies. The painter has presented man within his universe.” 
From the 1950s to his death in 1984, Nahum Tschacbasov began to drift out of sight, although his output of work continued apace. Curatorial and public interest moved towards abstractionism, while he continued in a melange of surrealism and cubism that appeared to the critics as unoriginal. “Tschacbasov’s reputation never recovered, and … it is hard to see how it could have. With few exceptions, his works are simply too derivative, unfortunately reminding one of the work of some other, more famous artist of the period. He could paint, he could draw, he could even make beautiful prints and watercolors; what he could never do was find a unique voice.” 
- “Nahum Tschacbasov (1899-1984) – Artist, Teacher, Poet“
- “Nahum Tschacbasov“, Leonard Barton, executor, Estate of Nahum Tschacbasov, Bravura Gallery, NYC. (link to Arthur Kalaher Fine Art).
- Benjamin Genocchio, “Re-examining the Works of an Obscure Social Realist“, New York Times, December 10, 2006.