George Barbier: The Quintessence of Art Deco Tracing Back to Shunga
18 augustus 2021 
34 min. read

George Barbier: The Quintessence of Art Deco Tracing Back to Shunga

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.

George Barbier art deco

Fig. 1. George Barbier (wikiart.org)

George Barbier Le feu

Fig. 2. Le feu (artophile.com)

George Barbier Proserpine

Fig. 3. Proserpine (invaluable.com)

George Barbier design for Cartier

Fig. 4. Design for Cartier (fragrantica.com)

George Barbier Salabaccha

Fig. 5. Salabaccha, 1927 (onewhodresses.com)

George Barbier Salabaccha

Fig. 6. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (honesterotica.com)

George Barbier Tango

Fig. 7. Tango (tumblr.com)

Le bonheur du jour; ou, Les graces a la mode

Fig. 8. Le bonheur du jour; ou, Les graces a la mode, 1924 (metmuseum.org)

George Barbier Venus

Fig. 9. Venus (fineartamerica.com)

Man Ray

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.

Aubrey Beardsley

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.

George Barbier Chansons de Bilitis

Fig. 10. Song of Songs, 1914 (honesterotica.com)

Chansons de Bilitis George Barbier

Fig. 11. Song of Songs, 1914 (honesterotica.com)

Art deco George Barbier

Fig. 12. Song of Songs, 1914 (honesterotica.com)

Mermaid George Barbier

Fig. 13. Vignette for Les liaisons dangereuses, published posthumously, 1934 (honesterotica.com)

George Barbier Song for songs

Fig. 14. icanvas.com

George Barbier La Vie Parisienne

Fig. 15. Illustration for La Vie Parisienne (mycomfy-shop.com)

La Vie Parisienne George Barbier

Fig. 16. Illustration for La Vie Parisienne (mycomfy-shop.com)

george barbier Fantasio

Fig. 17. Illustration for Fantasio (mycomfy-shop.com)

george barbier erotic

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).

Chansons de Bilitis

Fig. 19. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (liveinternet.ru)

Chansons de Bilitis art deco

Fig. 20. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (liveinternet.ru)

Chansons de Bilitis art deco Barbier

Fig. 21. Chansons de Bilitis, 1910/1922 (liveinternet.ru)

George Barbier sensual art

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.”

George Barbier erotic art deco

Fig. 23. liveinternet.ru

George Barbier greek mythology

Fig. 24. liveinternet.ru

George Barbier Fêtes galantes

Fig. 25. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)

George Barbier Fêtes galantes

Fig. 26. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)

george barbier Les liaisons dangereuses

Fig. 27. Les liaisons dangereuses, published posthumously, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)

Les liaisons dangereuses Barbier

Fig. 28. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)

george barbier erotica

Fig. 29. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)

george barbier lesbian

Fig. 30. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)

Fêtes galantes george Barbier

Fig. 31. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)

Les liaisons dangereuses art deco

Fig. 32. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)

Les liaisons dangereuses george barbier

Fig. 33. Fêtes galantes, 1928 (liveinternet.ru)

Art deco George Barbier erotic

Fig. 34. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)

erotic art deco

Fig. 35. Les liaisons dangereuses, 1934 (liveinternet.ru)

George Barbier orientalism

Fig. 36. johncoulthart.com. Look at the image of a dragon and a robe decorated with bats.

Ode to Love george Barbier

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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About the author
Darya is a philologist who lives and works in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She is specialized in Russian literature.
JB
By

JB

on 18 Aug 2021

Barbier's works are a delight, tender and graceful. Like many illustrators of his time and whereabouts, his love of Shunga is subtle; he was influenced by it but left the more graphic aspects of Shunga prints hidden, as he could not do otherwise, at a time when nudity was equated with pornography. Barbier, Gerda, and many others were on a path (subconscious mission?) that created a buffer for later, bolder more defiant work, by future artists. It would be decades before things could significantly change. Untold struggle and much misery later, we are however still fighting so that the prudish can go on being prudish, as is their right, but leave be all those who aren't threatened by portraits and graphic depiction of human sexual interaction and enjoy it as art, or even pornography, or just for the fact that it's no one else's business --- and that's as valid a right. There was a time when "lewd" materials could not be sent through the mail, and being caught mailing any such materials would result in fines and emprisionment. The internet basically broke all the chains; or almost. Although human trafficking, forced prostitution, sexual exploitation, and child pornography and sexual abuse in its many variegated forms need to be fought, and where and when possible eradicated, it won't be by prohibition and censorship, but through education. And freedom of expression. Freedom is not license, but Liberty knows no compromise. The Shunga Gallery, honesterotica.com and many other websites are a vital part of this process. Let's just hope the clock doesn't turn back, because that ugly beast, censorship, is raising its head once again and doing well!

Darya
By

Darya

on 18 Aug 2021

People who fight erotic pictures don't fight against child abuse. It's the simplest thing - to punish an artist and to censor his sketches. It allows the appalled audience to feel morally satisfied. They don't need to solve real problems, they only need a scapegoat.

JB
By

JB

on 18 Aug 2021

Very true! They are simply fighting their own demons. How many prudes have a history of sexual abuse, child molestation, etc., Behind them? How many fight homosexuality because they can't come to terms with their own proclivities and sexual preferences? Can't even count them!

Marijn
By

Marijn

on 18 Aug 2021

You're absolutely right JB. As Plato said,'Ignorance is the root of all evil.'

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