by Roderick Conway Morris

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Séverine Desmarest/Collection of Marzano
La Belle Hélène by George Barbier, 1922

George Barbier Rediscovered

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 14 November 2008


In the France that emerged from World War I, George Barbier, then in his 30s, was one of the best-known artist-designers, especially famous as a creator of the brilliantly colored fashion plates that had been launched by the couturier Paul Poiret a decade earlier, and of jewelry for Cartier. He also made his mark as a writer and reviewer for magazines, a designer for theater and film, and a book illustrator.

Yet when he died in 1932, at the age of 50, his name rapidly sank into obscurity. 'George Barbier: The Birth of Art Deco' at the Fortuny Museum in Venice, is the first posthumous exhibition of his work. The show of more than 200 paintings, fashion plates, drawings, dresses, books, articles, manuscripts, photographs and other pieces continues until Jan. 6.

Contributing to his disappearance were his own reticence and a surprising sparseness of biographical information. Born into a prosperous bourgeois family in the provincial town of Nantes, he lived a clearly very different lifestyle in Paris, where he frequented unmistakably, if not exclusively, homosexual circles - he was, for example, an intimate of the dandy and poet Robert de Montesquiou, who introduced him to Marcel Proust.

His burial in his home town was conducted with a discretion bordering on the furtive, and none of his descendants seem to have tried to keep his memory alive.

His library, containing many rare editions, was auctioned off and his collection of Japanese and European erotica was donated to the Bibliothèque Nationale, where it was placed in the restricted 'Enfer' section, reserved for works considered threatening to public decency.

His own surviving works are now dispersed in many archives and private collections.

The subtitle of the exhibition, 'The Birth of Art Deco,' risks giving a misleading impression. The term Art Deco only came into use in the late 1960s and is easier to define in architecture, interior design and household wares than in the visual arts. Barbier's work differs from that of obvious Art Deco artists like Tamara Lempicka, for example, and he was untouched by Cubism, one of the principal inspirations of later Art Deco.

From the outset an ardent admirer of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, he produced sumptuously colorful albums celebrating Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, and designed costumes for the ballerina Anna Pavlova. But he parted company with the Ballets Russes aesthetically and musically with the Cubist-style production 'Parade' in 1917, which he condemned in print as 'strange, noisy, eccentric' and 'the apotheosis of the sneer.'

Although Barbier's fashion plates in the 1920s inevitably reflected current styles of dress, his backdrops hark back to earlier, and in his eyes more elegant, eras and other worlds: the sacred groves and frescoed bedchambers of ancient Greece; the harems of the One Thousand and One Nights; the courts of imperial China and Japan; rococo Versailles and the carnivalesque frivolity of 18th-century Venice.

One of the first works on display is a gouache and watercolor, 'Les Dames Seules' (Single Women), from around 1910, the year before his first solo show, in which an absinthe-drinking, Oscar Wilde-ish figure in black morning coat, waistcoat, starched collar and tie casts a louche, predatory, sideways glance at a daintily feminine, powdered and rouged coquette with a black choker and plunging neckline next to her at the bar.

A fashionable sapphic subtext is often present in Barbier's exquisitely composed fashion plates of highly feminine couples and trios, sometimes with companions in immaculate white-tie evening dress, who are either ambiguously epicene or clearly women in drag. 'Real' males seldom appear in the artist's œuvre. When they do, they are usually abject slaves of haughty or indifferent females, or mere props, such as the husband or lover blithely ignored by the gorgeously and provocatively dressed, utterly self-absorbed creature putting the final touches to her maquillage in 'Le Grand Décolletage.'

A kind of lipstick lesbian chic even appears in some of Barbier's advertising images - he created around 50 for 30 different advertisers - such as his gouache draft design for a publicity poster for the town of Aix-les-Bains, executed around 1925 and his 1928 work for the French carmaker Renault.

Barbier turned his skills to the more explicit depiction of lesbian relationships in a series of editions of the erudite poet and novelist Pierre Louÿs's 'Chansons de Bilitis' - the results, however, being more decorously erotic than pornographic by modern standards.

'Bilitis,' first published in 1894, purported to be a prose translation of newly discovered lyrical verses by an eponymous Greek courtesan and friend of Sappho, celebrating physical love between women. So adept was Louÿs that the imposture at first fooled even classical scholars.

The exposure of the hoax did nothing to undermine the popularity of the book, and it became a favorite text for illustrators and producers of limited, deluxe editions.

Some of the verses were even set to music by Debussy. The author followed up the success of the verses with a novel published in 1896, 'Aphrodite: Ancient Manners,' the tale of a courtesan in Hellenistic Alexandria, which became a best seller and for which Barbier also did illustrations.

The artist's plates from the second two of his three sets of illustrations for 'Bilitis,' executed between 1910 and 1929, are included in the Fortuny show, as are some from his 'Aphrodite' set, which was first published only in 1954.

His color plates for publications like the luxurious monthly 'La Gazette de Bon Ton,' published from 1912 to 1925, were produced using 'pochoirs' or stencils, a technique criticized by some purists but vigorously defended by Barbier as a way to present 'the artist's work in all its freshness without that often slightly cold transfer produced by mechanical means.'

The hand printing process involved, inspired by the methods of the classical Japanese masters, produced a still-undimmed, jewel-like quality in the resulting images that testifies to Barbier's judgement in championing the pochoir technique.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024