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During the 1920s and 1930s, Charlotte Perriand and Sonia Delaunay both sought to transform the field then known as the decorative arts by applying the formal innovations of modernism and the industrial innovations of capitalist production to the design and manufacture of domestic objects. The two women were roughly contemporaries, formed by the avant-garde milieu of Paris between the wars, and both are now seen most often through the lens of feminist art history, which is in part responsible for recovering their work from obscurity. Two concurrent exhibitions—one in Paris devoted to Perriand and one in New York surveying Delaunay—offered a rare opportunity to consider how these two artists negotiated the line between modernism and design, and through it, the identity of the woman artist at mid-century.
The stories of their respective entrées into modernist idioms are instructive, if by now almost mythical. Delaunay, a painter, discovered abstraction in 1911 while sewing a blanket for her newborn son. She translated this private and craft-based treatment of shape and color into painting, alongside her husband Robert (who turned to more scientific arguments about perception and optics for his understanding of abstraction), and then into the design of mass-produced fabrics. Perriand, on the other hand, very publicly entered the studio of Le Corbusier when she designed the Bar sous le toit: an ensemble of metal furniture for the modern home that was shown at the 1927 Salon d’Automne. Despite their differences, both artists rooted their practice in the domestic, and both were concerned with the nature of interaction as a central principle of design: namely, how things touch the body and how one touches things, particularly the surfaces that caress and cradle, support and protect.
Charlotte Perriand: 1903–1999 de la photographie du design gathered together a comprehensive selection of objects and images covering the whole of Perriand’s very long career. Curated by Jacques Barsac, who has published widely on Perriand’s work and is married to her daughter Pernette, the show examined how photography played a fundamental role in Perriand’s design practice. Her photographs, Barsac argues, were a crucial inspiration for her furniture designs. Despite the sometimes simplistic formal comparisons the exhibition made between images and objects, the value and insight of this thesis lies in how these photographs afford a view into Perriand’s process of translation between world, image, and object.
Barsac’s central claim is that Perriand used photography as a way to distance herself from the rationalism of the 1920s, seizing on the asymmetrical, gnarled forms she found in nature to develop a more “humanist” modern design, most literally in the turn away from metal and a return to wood. At the same time, the juxtapositions of Perriand’s photographs with what Barsac calls her Art Brut designs prompts more compelling questions about how Perriand used photography (rather than what she photographed). In close-ups of tree stumps or fossils, the camera becomes a tool for abstraction; the series of images devoted to people sitting looks at how bodies recline and rest. In Perriand’s hands, a photograph is less of an origin point than a point of relay between the natural world and its consumption.
In addition to a lower-level exhibition gallery in which Perriand’s photographs were installed alongside objects of her own design, Perriand tables, chairs, and chaises were on display within the Petit Palais’s permanent collection, sprinkled among the sofas and armoires that line the long hallway of French decorative arts and furniture. This local comparison between Perriand’s work and the permanent collection was equally instructive. The skeletal architecture, cold metal, and stark black leather of the chaise lounge and chairs Perriand designed with Corbusier and Jeanneret—designs borrowed from modern engineering—stand in stark contrast to the traditions of interior decoration in which she was trained and then rebelled against. The latter are exemplified in the permanent installation of a dining room by Hector Guimard, a complete environment of paneling, cornicing, furniture, locks, light fittings, and furnishing fabrics full of elongated lines and rich materials.
While the politics of design often lie in choices about materials and modes of production, Perriand was equally aware that design could be used for political ends. Her most ambitious and public productions were the murals she designed with Fernand Léger for the Ministry of Agriculture Pavilion at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair. Banal images of the French countryside—peasants and animals laboring in the fields, leisure time defined by sports and folk culture—are cut out, enlarged, and juxtaposed against fields of color typical of Léger’s painting in the 1930s. Reconstructed within the nineteenth-century painting and sculpture gallery alongside Gustave Courbet’s cow and a prostrate Neoclassical statue by Antonio Canova, the mural’s deep connection to the ideological themes of nineteenth-century French art was as apparent as its aesthetic departure.
Ultimately, the most revealing images in the exhibition were a small display of photographs of Perriand herself, mostly taken in the 1930s by her lover Pierre Jeanneret. Representing close-ups of body parts, they are playful, sensual, and knowing. Perriand performs her “liberated” modern womanhood, her open sexuality becoming a cipher for her attention to materiality and form, as in a black-and-white photograph in which she is topless, her muscular back turned to the camera, her arms raised in an expression that suggests total self-exposure to the empty, snow-covered mountains in front of her. This intimate photograph, taken in 1930, was the image enlarged for the exhibition poster and visible everywhere in the museum and on kiosks around the city—the artist rather than her work on display.
Which points to another function of photography in Perriand’s oeuvre, unremarked by Barsac, but undeniably present: photographs that stage the artist in relation to her work. Although she shared in its design, Perriand’s most visible connection to the iconic B306 chaise longue made of leather and tubular steel is as the stylishly dressed prone body demonstrating its use. This well-known photograph laces the practical function of the chaise with erotic overtones: Perriand’s knee-length skirt casually draped over the side, her head turned away from the camera. She is identified only by her signature ball-bearing necklace and short hair, both of which also mark her femininity as modern. If photography here seems to place Perriand in the role of object rather than maker, perhaps this operation can be read in terms of a French machine aesthetic rather than a feminist critique of authorship. In his staging of Perriand as an object of desire, Jeanneret’s photograph also foregrounds the dangerously intimate physicality of Perriand’s designs in the dramatic shadow cast on the wall by the hybrid of body and chair.
It has been only five years since the last Perriand retrospective in Paris (held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2006), but it has been thirty years since the first and only U.S. retrospective of Delaunay’s work at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, and close to fifty years since her last major exhibition in France (organized in 1967). That no emblematic photograph of the artist accompanied this recent exhibition of Delaunay’s textile and fashion designs at the Cooper Hewitt signaled not only the difference in Delaunay’s self-representation as an artist, but also a contrast in the curators’ approach to the presentation of a female artist/designer.
Unlike Perriand who was trained as an interior decorator and moved to furniture design under the tutelage of Le Corbusier, Delaunay was educated as a painter and, throughout her life, privileged painting as the true medium of her aesthetic activity. Her work in fashion was, the story goes, a practical necessity: while her husband, Robert, continued to paint and yet was unable to sell his work, Sonia became the breadwinner through the mass production of her fabric designs. A small side gallery showcased Delaunay’s painting and works on paper, while the majority of the exhibition was devoted to her textiles. Including works from throughout her career, the revelation of this selection was the series of watercolor portraits of her artist friends, including Tristan Tzara. In these “Robe poems” dated to 1923, Delaunay experiments with how to combine her attention to color contrasts with a new attention to clothes, specifically how garments can visually define a body, and the way that clothing, to draw upon semiotics, signifies (here literally in the portrait of Tzara where Delaunay traces the outline of coat and body with text).
After her revelation about abstraction while sewing a patchwork blanket for her son, Delaunay made unique garments for herself, like her now famous simultaneous dress, or for the theater, as in her remarkable costumes for a production of Cleopatra. In 1923, however, she turned to the printed fabrics that she called “tissus simultané,” for which she created colorful geometric patterns in watercolor and gouache that were then printed on cotton, silk, and sometimes woven in wool. The majority of the exhibition was devoted to swatches of these textiles. Although small and displayed like natural-history specimens in long glass vitrines, these fragmentary samples offer insight into Delaunay’s remarkable palette and her ability to use the dissonance of contrasting colors without repulsing the eye. But the real animation of the designs surfaces only in the grainy black-and-white photographs of models wearing clothes made of Delaunay fabrics, often against backdrops of a different simultaneous pattern. Although photographs of Delaunay were not prominent and images taken by her were absent, photography nonetheless played an integral role in the exhibition. Photographs are perhaps even more important for understanding Delaunay’s work than Perriand’s, serving as documents of how she imagined colorful abstract patterns could shape, or even construct, the body in new ways. One excellent example of this is a 1925 publicity shot of two models in Delaunay fabrics with a Citroën B12 decorated by the artist in which the women’s bodies are aligned with the car through their matching geometrically patterned surfaces.
For both Perriand and Delaunay, the aesthetic and social implications of design were inseparable. By the 1920 and 1930s, this was a widespread idea among the avant-gardes, from the Bauhaus to Constructivism. A generation earlier, however, Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc unsettled the very categories of art and design by noting their relatively recent inception. “What do they mean by ‘the decorative arts’?” he asked. “Where do they start and finish? Do the metopes of the Parthenon, the vault of the Sistine Chapel belong to decorative art simply because they are indisputably works of art and are intended for the decoration of the interior or exterior of buildings? . . . ‘Industrial art’ and ‘decorative art’ are labels which belong to our time” (Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, De la Décoration Appliquée aux Édifices, Troisième Édition, 3rd ed., Paris: Librairie de l’Art, c. 1880; reviewer’s translation). His point that the very category of “decorative art” was a modern creation, necessitated by new modes of production and distribution as much as by the function of a particular object or material, can perhaps begin to articulate a place for designers like Perriand and Delaunay, who brought modernist aesthetics to mass-produced objects with an understanding that both the categories of art and design had already been irrevocably transformed.
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University
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