What Josephine Baker and a Maharajah teach us about design

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What Josephine Baker and a Maharajah teach us about design
Eckart Muthesius, Pair of armchairs with integrated lighting, 1931. © Adagp, Paris, 2019. Photo © Ecl'art - Galerie Doria, Paris.

by Joseph Giovannini

PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In Paris, the deep design shift that occurred during the interwar years when modernism superseded art deco has long kept architecture historians scribbling. But two events in Paris — a recent week of performances in Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye and “Moderne Maharajah,” a show at the Museum of Decorative Arts through January — open up our understanding of a period we thought we knew cold. Each of the two events sees design through a polarizing cultural lens.

The Villa Savoye, on the outskirts of the city, was recently the stage for a troupe of eight dancers performing a revue inspired by a presumed romance between the celebrated architect and the African American dance sensation Josephine Baker, who knew each other, to much speculation. The weekend house, designed by Corbusier — a white, pristine box with strip windows and a rooftop garden — embodied his mantra, “the house is a machine for living in.”

In this revue, part of “Modern Living,” an ongoing series of dances performed in historical modernist houses, Baker challenged Corbusier as the house’s dominant voice: “My ass is a machine for dancing,” declared the sexually liberated dancer of the 1920s and ’30s. The American artists and choreographers of “Modern Living,” Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly, produced an hourlong show in which this mixed-race pair displaces France’s conventional bourgeois couple from the master bedroom.

Gerard and Kelly do not treat the house as the historical monument dryly described on the bronze plaque at the gate, built for a nuclear family, but as a trampoline for an alternative household. The directors, who themselves were once a couple, think of the house as a social construction capable of supporting different kinds of families.

Swiveling to drum beats and the swish of sexy snares, Josephine Baker and her troupe moved between rooms and floors. Performers sang and chanted a cappella to the beat of their own dancing, moving throughout the house as they performed jazz riffs, Charleston sets, blues moments, and conga sequences, with a little Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham thrown in.

In his recitatives, the Corbusier character identified Baker as a modernist whose disruptive performances are “the basis of a style capable of being the expression of the feelings of a new time.”

Baker, who in real life eventually bought a château in which she raised orphans, remodeled the villa socially as she imported an expansive multicultural perspective. The mostly white house should have blue and red walls, Baker sang: “Color breaks the unity of the volume.” In more ways than one, Baker herself introduced the color that opened up a single, unified interpretation of the house, challenging it as a vessel of white, patriarchal attitudes.

Gerard and Kelly interpret houses as texts, and Baker in her hypothetical relationship with Corbusier brought an outlier reading to a monument that architectural historians had “ironed out” in socially “correct” narratives that overlooked other histories. (The Savoyes found the house uninhabitable because of chronic leaks and humidity, conditions that nearly drove them to sue the architect.)

The other unexpected visitor this fall to Paris’ interwar modernism was the Maharajah of Indore — Yashwant Rao Holkar II (1908-61) — who, with his maharani, saw the flowering of modernist furniture and architecture in the 1920s and ’30s through the eyes of westernized Indians as they sat on the thrones of a still traditional Indian state. Beautiful, dashing, rich and royal, the toast of Paris, these largely forgotten figures were among the most important patrons on the French art scene in the Great Depression. Curated by Raphaëlle Billé and Louise Curtis, “Moderne Maharajah” exhibits furnishings that the couple commissioned and collected for the modernist Manik Bagh palace they were building in Indore.

Two sets of paired his-and-her oil paintings from 1929 by French society portraitist Bernard Boutet de Monvel show the couple in Indian court dress and formal European attire, illustrating the split-screen complexity of a couple who are simultaneously Western and Eastern. As at the Villa Savoye, we see modernist design through multicultural eyes.

Suave ebony office furniture by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the famous Transat chair by Eileen Gray, silverware by Jean Puiforcat, “Bird in Flight” sculptures by Constantin Brancusi — all transposed to India — did not arrive with the same meanings they had in Europe. If the royals were glamorous and exotic in France, the show’s 500 pieces were equally glamorous and exotic in Indore, where European avant-garde furniture and art must have seemed lunar. In India, the furnishings and paintings reversed the patronizing colonial attitudes that Edward Said, the cultural critic, called “Orientalism.” The royal couple were literally patronizing the European colonizers, switching roles in their own version of Occidentalism.

The meaning of geometrically simplified furniture intended for serial machine production shifted as it traveled east. Industrial culture hardly represented the subcontinent, where infantries of workmen, captured in archival film footage, lugged baskets of construction material for a building designed to look machined. Photos of the Manik Bagh interiors are juxtaposed to pictures of the maharani holding court in their traditionally decorated official palace, the women all dressed in saris.

Their collecting was intense but sadly brief. The maharajah stopped buying after the maharani suddenly died in 1937 at age 22. In the show, their modernist furnishings remain infused with the multiple identities of their owners and lives led in an intercultural ambiguity floating between Europe and India. Refracted by divergent cultures, any one object is not the same thing in two places.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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