Eileen Gray, Designer of Art Deco

Eileen Gray (1878-1956)

Art Deco Furniture Design

If Cassandre gave the Jazz Age its distinctive graphic style, then it was a woman, an architect and a designer who gave the decade its most memorable piece of furniture, still in production today. The E. 1027 side table, designed in 1927, is one of the few objects from Art Deco that is ageless and timeless and transcends its period and is still sold as “modern” furniture. The chrome frame does an efficient double duty–the lower level, an almost-closed circle, and the upper circle, elevated by a verticle slide that allows the height to be adjusted, is filled in with glass. The design is simple geometry–two circles and two straight lines–elegance in and of itself. The ingenuity of the operation, cleverly concealed and modestly articulated along the verticles, allows the table to be raised or lowered according to the height of the accompanying piece of furniture. This bent tubular steel table dates from 1925, coinciding with similar work by Mies van der Rohr and Marcel Breuer. Like Gray’s Bibendum chair, the table is made of circles, one at the top, a circle of bent steel topped with glass and at the bottom there is a broken circle as the base of an adjustable table that could be slide under a bed or pushed near a chair. The two circles are held together by an elegant long thin rectangle. The height could be adjusted with an elegant chain attached to a pin which can be slotted into the desired hole so that one could use it as a side table or as an over the bed table for having breakfast or an afternoon tea. The famous side table is one of those rare products that has never been altered. Indeed, in her own right, Eileen Gray was a rare individual in those days—a woman who became successful in fields that were owned by males: art, design, and architecture. The entrance of a woman into the field of architecture during the early decades of the twentieth century would be considered an effrontery to her male peers, but perhaps because she was an outsider, Eileen Gray simply walked into the discipline without any formal training and designed one of the most famous houses of the twentieth century, the E1027, after which her famous table is named.

E. 1027 Adjustable Side Table

Eileen Gray lived in multiple worlds, shifting with ease between the domain of the arts and the terrain of the wealthy, the class to which she was born. During the Jazz Age, Paris was one of the cultural centers where lesbians were allowed to live openly and productively, contributing to society with literature and art. As a member of the group of creative women, Gray was wealthy enough to accessorize her Garçonne look with elegant coats designed by Paul Poiret and stylish hats by Jeanne Lanvin that covered her short bob. The fashionable designer roared around Paris in a fancy car, accompanied by one of her lovers, the singer, Marie-Louise Damin, known as “Damien.” Damien owned a pet panther, who rode in the back of the car.

One of the modern artists of lacquer, the Irish artist learned of lacquer while she was a student at the Slade School in London. In 1900, according to her biographers, Jennifer Goff, Gray found a display of lacquer first at the Victoria and Albert Museum and later at the shops in SoHo, where she found a restoration shop on Dean Street. The owner Dean Charles took her on as a pupil. Two years later in 1905 Gray, resumed her education with the restorer. Discussing the 1688 book, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, Goff wrote that “Gray would eventually import all of her pigments from China. The colors which were popular in the manual included ivory black, lampblack, verdigris, umber, indigo or yellow ochre. The manual advocated the use of only the best varnish which also could be used for varnishing light colors such as white, yellow, green, sky red, silver or gilded. A black ground was advocated, through grounds could also be, though rarely, white, which in the seventeenth century imitated porcelain.” This last sentence was interesting in its reference to the color white and the rarity of its use as a ground color, for some of Gray’s most famous work of the 1920s would be in white. From London, Gray traveled to Paris to continue her training in the difficult and labor-intensive craft of lacquer working.

Using her early work as an introduction, Gray apprenticed herself to the Japanese lacquer artist, Seizo Sugawara, a man as young as she was. Thanks to this specialized training, she was part of a modern revival of this ancient art form. For years, partnering with Sugawara, Gray perfected the demanding methods of producing perfect lacquer pieces. As Goff pointed out, as early as the turn of the century, France had been involved in an arts contest with Germany, which was especially strong in crafts and design. Thanks to the government’s interest in competing with an old foe, designers felt emboldened to form a Société Nationale des Artistes Décorateurs to promote themselves and their art. In this pre-war period, the Sociéte was a precursor of the Bauhaus in its concern with industrial design. After the Great War, France resumed the competition with other nations in the world of modern design and it was in the year of the famous exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 that Gray joined the Société. The moment of modern Art Deco design had arrived, and, although the design achievements of this period discussed in traditional art history texts tend to be limited, the twenties was a golden age of design innovation. In a nation that used lacquer only for conservation purposes, this resurgence of an ancient craft attracted the attention of well-heeled clients and Gray herself became an established designer who specialized in the painstaking craft of lacquer which she transformed into a stunning art form. As the Phillips auction house noted, “Gray was devoted to Asian lacquer, which she first encountered in 1900 as an art student at London’s Slade while wandering the halls of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. From 1908 she worked in the medium with mentor Sugawara, originally a maker of Buddhist lacquer shrines. Whereas her modernist peers advocated a rejection of timeworn methods, Gray embraced those traditions, lacquer paramount among them: it grounded her high-flying experiments in form.”

In the years just before the Great War, Gray, now well known for her unusual art, acquired the French designer and art collector, Jacques Doucet, as one of her new clients. Doucet was at a turning point in his life and he suddenly decided, in 1912, to sell off the 18th-century contents of his 18th-century apartment and to become avant-garde. The story of the Doucet about-face is one of the legends of stylistic change. In 2014 Louis Bofferding wrote for Architectural Digest that “Eighteenth-century French antiques defined the taste of the Belle Epoque, and Doucet joined the throng. He commissioned society architect Louis Parent to build an 18th century-style mansion, completed in 1907, on rue Spontini in the 16th arrondissement. With the aid of Georges Hoentschel, the influential decorator-dealer, Doucet then conjured interiors replete with exquisite treasures.” In fact, Doucet had been collecting eighteenth-century furnishings for decades and this home was expressly built to display his treasures. And then something remarkable happened. A mere five years later, Doucet suddenly put his entire collection on the auction block, and, in a four-day extravaganza, the buying frenzy made him the equivalent of seventy-five million of today’s dollars. The auction was apparently an act of mourning on the part of the famous dress designer, grieving over the death of a woman he planned to marry. However, Doucet recovered and purchased a new home on the avenue Foch. Turning his back on the past, he hired the most trendy designers from Paul Iribe to Eileen Gray to design the furnishings. Apparently inspired by this new start in modern Jazz Age surroundings, Doucet married a younger–much younger–woman.

But it was his librarian future Surrealist André Breton who persuaded him to purchase Picasso’s painting, Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907). This painting had spent most of its life rolled up under the bed of the artist and had been shown publically only once, in a 1916 exhibition during the Great War. In 1924, Doucet purchased the now famous painting, which was eventually installed at his wife’s home. In 2004, Les Demoiselles, now at the Museum of Modern Art, was cleaned. According to The New Yorker,

John Elderfield thinks that Doucet’s restorer may have varnished “Demoiselles,” whose installation, on a landing at the top of a grand staircase in Doucet’s apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine, left it somewhat vulnerable to bibulous dinner guests. There is no doubt that it was varnished, or revarnished, in 1950, by a conservator at moma, which had acquired the painting in 1939. “I do think it was done with preservation in mind.” James Coddington, the Museum’s chief conservator, said tactfully, “but in fact that doesn’t necessarily preserve it. This is a classic, robust, straightforward oil painting. Picasso used really high-quality paint, and he was very good in his craft. To remove a varnish does expose the picture to potential hazards.”

Much more compelling and modern, however, was his commission of an unusual work by Marcel Duchamp in 1924. The Rotative Demisphère, is one of his machines, a revolving disc inscribed with a spiral, which, once set in motion, gives an art viewer something to look at. “Olfactory art,” as Duchamp termed traditional art, was merely attractive, an act of good taste that nourished the senses and not the mind. Therefore, Duchamp argued one might as well look at a spinning line for all the intellectual nourishment “art” gives.

Sadly, Doucet had little time to enjoy his acquisitions. Just a few months after the apartment was completed, Doucet died in 1929. It has been said that his wife tired of the relentless gazes of the implacable five nudes, Les Demoiselles, glowering from the top of the stairs and sold the painting to the Museum in 1939.

Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907) at the top of the stairs

at 33 rue Saint-James, Neuilly-sur-Seine

An Irishwoman in Paris, Gray was a successful businesswoman, creating products for an aristocratic clientele and group of collectors. Part of running a business meant advertising her wares, which, in that period, would be done discretely in sites such as the 1913 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, where Jacques Doucet saw her screens. During this period, Gray went beyond mere pattern or decoration and created narratives with mythological and mystical themes played across her screens. Competing in the heady company of Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Amedeo Modigliani, and Picasso, Eileen Gray contributed several pieces for the new décor for Doucet’s new decorative project, including a remarkable example of what was, at that time, her signature work, a red four panel lacquered screen, Le Destin. Doucet also commissioned several of her most famous earlier works for his new home. The Table modèle bilboquet is usually dated between 1915 and 1917. This premodern work is an early version of the E.1027 table in that it also is composed of two circles, one at the top and one at the bottom, both supported by four squared off legs, made of an ensemble of multiple wooden squares. The bilboquet in question is a simple game for children. The skill involved consists of a ball attached to the stick with a cord. The handle has a cup at the top and the ball is released from its perch, still on its leash, and is caught by the cup. The game is illustrated on the edge of the black lacquered top in red and silver, at the client’s request.

 

When Doucet came to Gray’s studio, she was working on a symbolic theme, Le Destin, which the collector understood to be a work of art and demanded that she sign the screen as a painter would sign a painting. Gray and Doucet came together at the height of the pre-war surge in design in which artists were stretching beyond Art Nouveau and searching for new modes of expression. Many examples of Gray’s work that were displayed at the Doucet homes were from the pre-war period or were made during the War itself. Le Destin, completed in 1914, the brilliant red folding screen, sold to Doucet, showed two silver and blue men, drawn in the style of a Greek vase on the front, while the back was a swirl of sharp cut curves, with some arcs filled in with slices of black and silver.

Gray, who was widely read, found inspiration as much from literature as from works of art. While this pre-war period of her early work can be described as the end-point of Art Nouveau because each piece of furniture was a unique exquisite work of art, the beautiful Lotus Table, also made for Doucet, was obviously inspired by Egyptian sources. Moreover, this unique green lacquered table with its golden lotus legs was distinguished by four hanging black cords ending in green tassels, topped by red beads, was designed over a decade before the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in 1925. The red lacquer Charioteer Table, which dates to the same year as the red screen, stood in the entrance foyer of the Doucet home at the bottom of the stairs. A floor above, Les Demoiselles loomed.

 

During the pre-war period, Gray custom-made, with her own hands, each and every piece of furniture for wealthy clients, giving herself unsparingly to perfection, no matter how long it took. This artist-crafted quality meant that each piece of her furniture is a work of art that was exclusive, non-replicable and non-repeatable, adding to the exquisiteness of her products. Sadly, few of these remarkable works of art are extant. During World War II, much of what she had made was warehoused in Toulon but the site was bombed and the art was destroyed. The Doucet collection is not only all the more precious because of this loss but also because the Great War interrupted the artwork of Eileen Gray. Gray returned to England in 1915, taking Sugawara with her, and even drove an ambulance as her contribution to the war effort. In London Gray would be exposed to a new form of Cubism or its antithesis, Vorticism. The further discussion of her artistic development will be discussed in the next post.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Post-War Cubism in Paris, Part One

Cubism After Cubism

Paris Coming to Order, Part One

What happened to Cubism? Before the Great War broke out, the movement seemed to be dominant, even hegemonic in Paris, but after the War was over, Cubism was history. In other words, the Great War nothing would ever be the same, the culture had been moved, as if by a gigantic quake, out of the lingering nineteenth century. By 1918, almost twenty years too late, the shock of the modern pushed the decade into the early twentieth century. While the larger culture, the wider society adapted to the presence of technology and accelerated change, accepting the present and even the uncertain future, the art world in Paris turned inward and went backward and became conservative. The rising poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) coined a term that became the phrase for the retreat that characterized the 1920s in Paris. He called for a rappel à l’ordre, or a recall to order, a return to the order of classicism in his 1923 book Le Rappel à lordre. As early as 1920, Cocteau discovered, while reading the poets. who lived before Baudelaire’s profound transformation of poetry, the virtues of rhyming, simplicity, and figuration rather than Symbolist evocation. Working with his creative partner, Raymond Radiguet (1903-1923), the poet sought to create a timeless style. The couple began a short-lived magazine Le Coq in 1920 and the goal of the six issues was a “return” to the past in reaction to the post-war fascination with the “machine.” “Return to Poetry. Disappearance of the Skyscraper. Reappearance of the Rose” was their slogan.

Jean Cocteau. Self-Portrait in A Letter To Paul Valéry (1924)

The “return to order,” sometimes termed the “recall to order,” was based upon the confused conviction on the part of the public that Cubism itself was German. The anti-Cubist wave was intensified during the War and, after the War, Cubism was stranded on the hill of anti-German sentiments. Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) himself appeared to be adjusting to the new current and during the War, moved away from Cubism. The avant-garde artists held what historian Larry Witham termed “a patriotic exhibition” in 1916. As he pointed out in Picasso and the Chess Player: Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and the Battle for the Soul of Modern Art, although the former art audience was largely uninterested in art and consumed with the War itself, the exhibition “The Modern Art in France,” was notable for the first public appearance of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Those few who attended the show were uninterested in this now-famous work. After the war, the anti-Cubism sentiment was symptomatic of and part of a larger push towards conservative politics and Cocteau fashioned himself as “right wing.” While Cocteau was an odd messenger for conservativism— in 1915, he ingratiated himself to Picasso by dressing like a Harlequin for a studio visit—by 1920 he was a notorious and rebellious poet, whose demand for a “return” to poetic traditions summed up the post-war mood. After every war, there is always a sentiment of longing and nostalgia for the familiarity of the past before the world was irrevocably altered, and Cocteau’s sentiments seemed to be a recipe for healing. Based upon logic and order and rational thinking, the classicism of which he spoke was considered distinctly and uniquely French, the kind of classicism familiar in the Baroque paintings of Poussin.

Fernand Léger. Three Women (1921-2)

During the war, the Cubist artist Fernand Léger (1881-1955) had served in the engineering corps on the front at Verdun, where he was gassed. Hospitalized for two years, he worked through his battlefield traumas with art, which became more figurative and more conservative to graphically convey the horrors of the battlefield. In her book, When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends, Mary McAuliffe wrote of this artist and his mood at the end of the War:

“Peace,” the painter Fernand Léger exultantly wrote his good friend, the painter André Mare. Léger had been severely gassed while serving at Verdun, and Mare was badly wounded on the Picardy front while camouflaging artillery with Cubist designs. “Finally,” Léger went on, “after four long years, exasperated, keyed-up, depersonalized man opens his eyes, takes a look, relaxes and rediscovers life, gripped by a wild desire to dance, let off steam, scream, at long last stand upright, shout, scream and squander.” Keenly attuned to the moment, he added, “A hurricane of life forces fills the world.”

By 1920, a calm seems to have descended upon Léger who smoothed the waters of his early agitated Cubism with a new and elegant classicism. The most famous work of this new direction was Le Grand Dejeuner of 1921, a direct homage to Ingres and the French tradition of the grande nu. Constructed on a frankly expressed grid, the painting is stilled and rational, imposing order upon a complex and cluttered modern interior where three inexplicably naked women are having lunch. The work of a wounded veteran recovering from battle, this painting exemplified Léger’s return to order and society’s slow settling into a period of peace following a time of turmoil. Picasso, however, was not impressed with this strange combination of the classical with the new Machine Aesthetic, and, almost as if he was frozen in transition, did very little painting during the War. Picasso was not alone and there were allies in Rome. As Charlene Spretnak related in The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present, Mario Broglio, a painter, began a magazine of “plastic values” called Valori plastici in Rome. Broglio demanded a return to realism, figuration, the timeless topics of still lives and landscapes based in the timelessness of classicism. The classicism referred to was literally a resumption of the antique classical art of the Greco-Roman tradition and Witham noted Picasso’s friendship with Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), the Italian Metaphysical artist. Their friendship had begun before the War while the Italian artist was living and working in Paris and resumed during the War when de Chirico returned, after escaping the clutches of the Italian army. The “returns” to classicism were, of course, different in France than in Italy. In Italy the term “valori plastici” meant exactly how it translates–“plastic values” referring the strong forms of the early Italian Renaissance, such as those of Giotto. If the reaction against the avant-garde in Paris was a rejection of Cubism and pre-war disorder, in Rome, the abandonment of Futurism was a refusal to accept the eclectic historicism and diluted and misused classicism of the Vittorio Emanuele wedding cake at the heart of Rome and the disorderly avant-garde art that sought to replace the past.

Giorgio de Chirico. The Soothsayer’s Recompense (1913)

Picasso’s move to classicism began as a slow turning away from Cubism even before the War, and it is generally conceded that Picasso and Braque were leaving atelier experimentation behind in favor of a version of Cubism that was more “decorative.” The last few months of their partnership was marked by a series of paintings that were delightfully dotted and frankly charming, in a rococo fashion. This final flourish of their partnership predicted that the real future of the second stage of Cubism would be the realization of its decorative potentials, played out in Art Deco. In 1917, Picasso began the exploration of Cubism as design or an applied art when he joined the group of outstanding performing artists participating in a revolutionary wartime production of the Ballets Russes in Rome. Presented by Sergei Diaghilev, based on a story by Jean Cocteau, with music by Eric Satie and choreography by Léonid Messine, Parade was a modern ballet made remarkable by Picasso’s set designs, his extraordinary stage curtain, and his inventive costumes. The Harlequin, once part of his Rose Period, returned as a building as if to announce a rethinking and the artist’s embarkation on a new style. Set in Paris, Parade was Picasso’s final farewell to Cubism, and his definitive parting from Braque, who was operating a machine gun on the Western Front. The costumes of the characters, human and animal, were Cubist collages manifested in three dimensions and set in motion. The revolutionary and whimsical play debuted on May 18, 1917, Théâtre de Châtelet and at a loss for words, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire termed the performance “surrealist.” For Picasso, Parade was a way out of Cubism, for the Salon Cubists, this new direction towards design was a way back into Cubism—Cubism could become an applied art.

Pablo Picasso. The American Manager (1917)

Before the war Cubism had been divided into parts: those artists who showed in the public salons, the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indépendants, and were therefore called the “Salon Cubists;” and Picasso and Braque who used their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler to sell directly to clients, usually in Germany or Russia. The Salon Cubists and Kahnweiler’s artists, whom he insisted were not “Cubists,” were separated from their colleagues by where they showed their art. Braque and Picasso showed in Kahnweiler’s small gallery and the Salon Cubists, as the name implies, exhibited in the large sprawling salons open to the public. Thanks to the ample newspaper coverage that accompanied the Salon d’Automne and the Salon des Indepenéants, in the pre-war years, the Salon Cubists were famous, even heroes, standing firm against critical disdain and public protest, but the War scattered them to the four winds. Fernand Léger and Georges Braque (1882-1963) both served in the French Army, engaged in active combat, while many of their colleagues were in the camouflage corps. Albert Gleizes served for one year and then spent the rest of the war in New York City where he joined Marcel Duchamp, who had earlier taken himself out of the art game. Duchamp’s brother, Raymond Duchamp-Villon was in the military and died of blood poisoning at the end of the war. His other brother, Jacques Villon, whose real name was Gaston Duchamp, also served in the army, as did Jean Metzinger. However, Henri le Fauconnier went to Holland and waited for the conflict to end, staying in the neutral nation well beyond the end of the War. Two major artists remained in Paris, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Like Juan Gris, who also remained in place, Picasso was from Spain and therefore outside the reach of the French draft. Matisse was simply too old for service. These artists continued their work, enjoying an uninterrupted stretch of creative development. Both Picasso and Matisse moved beyond Cubism and Fauvism, running ahead of the artists who were away at war. When the War was over, their former colleagues had to pick up their careers and put their lives back together, and they did so in the shadows of Picasso and Matisse, now major artists, stars who now outranked them and had moved on to new ideas. Picasso and Léger away from Cubism signaled the return to the order of classicism, while the Salon Cubists sought to revive pre-war Cubism and make it respectable. The route the rebirth of Cubism was a monetary one.

Georges Braque. The Round Table (1929)

The end of the war meant that the previous dissension over avant-garde art was now a settled matter and the once-unfamiliar art had acquired value. The idea that innovative art was valuable in the financial sense gave rise to a healthy art market in Paris after the War, and this was the real order that settled over the art world. Art should appeal to the now willing collectors, who wanted to invest in the avant-garde, but what they wanted was the work of a major artist that was recognizable, in other words, the signature style should be present, but what was disruptive before the war needed to be tamed for this growing audience. For the returning Cubist artists, modern art was Cubism and they carried on as they had before the War. Their stance may have seemed regressive, but their post-war Cubism continued with what was now a historical style. Their efforts were, in effect, a “return to order.” To return to order, post-war Cubism had to become more “classical” or more conservative to appeal to new patrons. When Georges Braque returned to the Parisian art scene, it was after serving on the front, being gravely wounded, and after undergoing a long recovery. The partnership with Picasso was broken, simply because the two men could no longer share their experiences. Their lives had gone in two different directions. The Cubism of Picasso and Braque no longer existed. While Picasso turned to the classical and conservative in the 1920s and Braque settled on a variation of Cubist collage, painting the elements instead of pasting paper on a support. As if seeking comfort in the familiar, for the rest of his life Braque painted endless variations on the still life on the guéridon, a small circular top table. It was Braque along with the Salon Cubists who inherited Cubism and carried it on to its new destiny in the years between the Wars. But this rescue was not the work of the artists on their own; they had the able help of the Rosenberg brothers–Paul and Léonce–the art dealers who knew how to market the past and make historical art valuable again.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]