Googling art of the 1920s, you’ll most likely learn about this French illustrator with an English name. Within his relatively short lifetime (1882-1932), George Barbier defined the look of his time, working as a stage and costume designer and book illustrator. It was he who invented for the house of Cartier its’ famous black panther design, which remains iconic today (fig. 4). He created visual designs for exclusive art books of prominent Parisian couturiers and illustrated risky magazines like La Vie Parisienne. His creative output combining orientalism and neo-classicism became the most vivid and elegant manifestation of Art Deco.
Fig. 1. George Barbier (wikiart.org)
Fig. 2. Le feu (artophile.com)
Fig. 3. Proserpine (invaluable.com)
Fig. 4. Design for Cartier (fragrantica.com)
Fig. 5. Salabaccha, 1927 (onewhodresses.com)
Fig. 6. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (honesterotica.com)
Fig. 7. Tango (tumblr.com)
Fig. 8. Le bonheur du jour; ou, Les graces a la mode, 1924 (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 9. Venus (fineartamerica.com)
Despite the prominence of the artist, little is known about his biography. Worrying about their reputation, Barbier’s relatives destroy the archives. Nevertheless, we can learn that the artist was born in the family of a well-to-do Nantes businessman from whom he inherited means for a luxury Parisian lifestyle. He could afford to collect rarities, maintain an extensive library and a car. The artist’s studio, located at 31 rue Campagne Première in the Montparnasse district, was elegantly filled with vintage items of every country: Venetian commode with golden Chinese figures, Japanese prints and Persian paintings hanging on walls, etc. Curiously, at the same address was a studio of Emmanuel Radnitszky, known as Man Ray. Having arrived in Paris in 1908, the artist continued his art studies at the Académie Julien, the studio of Jean-Paul Laurens. It should be mentioned that his artistic tastes developed already in Nantes.
He received initial training at the age of twenty when enrolled at the École régionale du dessin et des beaux-arts. His mentors were Alexandre Jacques Chantron, Alexis Louis de Broca, and Pierre Alexis Lesage. There Barbier won annual awards and became a part of a local artistic community. His patron in Nantes was Alphonse Lotz-Brissonneau, a wealthy industrialist and collector of antique prints. Allegedly, Barbier relocated to Paris in 1905, though his studies began three years later. Some researchers believe that the artist traveled to England within this gap. There he discovered the works of Aubrey Beardsley, which had a deep impression on him. Barbier obtained not only books illustrated by this artist but also a part of his archives. The replacement of the French name Georges with its’ English equivalent probably was respect for Beardsley. Some of the early works Barbier signed with an English alias E. W. Larry.
Fig. 10. Song of Songs, 1914 (honesterotica.com)
Fig. 11. Song of Songs, 1914 (honesterotica.com)
Fig. 12. Song of Songs, 1914 (honesterotica.com)
Fig. 13. Vignette for Les liaisons dangereuses, published posthumously, 1934 (honesterotica.com)
Fig. 14. icanvas.com
Fig. 15. Illustration for La Vie Parisienne (mycomfy-shop.com)
Fig. 16. Illustration for La Vie Parisienne (mycomfy-shop.com)
Fig. 17. Illustration for Fantasio (mycomfy-shop.com)
Fig. 18. Illustration for La Vie Parisienne (mycomfy-shop.com)
Influences and Contributions
At the age of 29, Barbier held his first solo exhibition. It was during this event when he began using the anglicized version of his name. By this time, Barbier had already contributed to magazines like Le Frou-frou and L’Humoriste. The catalog for the exhibition contained a preface written by the infamous Pierre Louÿs, whose book Chansons de Bilitis Barbier illustrated a year earlier. Besides Greek, Egyptian, and Asian ancient arts, Barbier was influenced by contemporary fashion, namely by prominent couturier Paul Poiret. Instead of corsets and yards of fabric, which corrected and hid the figure, Poiret suggested long gowns that followed the body shape. Designs were labeled vulgar and pornographic: “To think of it! under those straight gowns we could see their bodies!” (L’Illustration). Another source of inspiration was the Russian ballet that arrived in France in 1909. Barbier frequently attended their performances, which resulted in two illustrated albums devoted to the leading dancers, Nijinsky and Karsavina (published in 1913).
Major Fashion Magazines
From 1912 to the beginning of the war, Barbier contributed to major fashion magazines, Journal des dames et des modes and Gazette du bon ton. The first one gathered significant illustrators like Léon Bakst, Paul Iribe, Charles Martin, Adrian Drian, Armand Vallée, Gerda Wegener, etc. The second one was distributed not only in Europe but also in the USA through an arrangement with the director of Vogue. The group working on the design of the issues was nicknamed by Vogue the chevaliers du bracelet (knights of the bracelet) for their fashionable dandy looks and practice of sporting a bracelet. The aesthetic lifestyle and belonging to a circle of dandies one more time evoke the image of Beardsley when we speak about Barbier. Involved as a book illustrator, the artist produced images for Song of Songs, writings of Alfred de Musset, Théophile Gautier, Choderlos de Laclos, and Paul Verlaine (Fêtes galantes). In a post-war period, Barbier manifested himself as a costume designer working on two productions of Casanova and La Dernière nuit de Don Juan, written by Maurice Rostand, and on the silent Paramount’s movie Monsieur Beaucaire (1924).
Fig. 19. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 20. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 21. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 22. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (liveinternet.ru)
Appreciation of Shunga
As we mentioned above, Barbier was a devotee of Japanese and Chinese prints since his study in Nantes. Love for Beardsley’s works, which were influenced by shunga as well, indirectly strengthened Barbier’s appreciation of this art. Origin and income allowed him to become a collector of antiques. He gave his immense collection of five hundred shunga prints, including oeuvres by Utamaro and Hokusai, to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France shortly before his death by an unknown illness. Barbier was a printmaker himself, working with woodblock and stencil printing. His prints resembled shunga by richly decorated visual elements and elegant eroticism catching the eye of a viewer. Barbier carefully transported and adopted some features of shunga tradition in Art Deco. As writer Albert Flament once said, “When our times are lost … some of his watercolors and drawings will be all that is necessary to resurrect the taste and the spirit of the years in which we lived.”
Fig. 23. liveinternet.ru
Fig. 24. liveinternet.ru
Fig. 25. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 26. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 27. Les liaisons dangereuses, published posthumously, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 28. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 29. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 30. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 31. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 32. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 33. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 34. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 35. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)
Fig. 36. johncoulthart.com. Look at the image of a dragon and a robe decorated with bats.
Fig. 37. Ode to Love (proantic.com)
Sources: Arthur M. Smith. ‘Chevalier du Bracelet’: George Barbier and his illustrated works. 2013 (academia.edu); Wikipedia.org; honesterotica.com.
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