View of “Eileen Gray” 2013. Transat armchairs, from left: 1926–29, 1926–30, 1930. Photo: Hervé Véronese.

View of “Eileen Gray” 2013. Transat armchairs, from left: 1926–29, 1926–30, 1930. Photo: Hervé Véronese.

Eileen Gray

View of “Eileen Gray” 2013. Transat armchairs, from left: 1926–29, 1926–30, 1930. Photo: Hervé Véronese.

THE RECENT ELLEN GRAY RETROSPECTIVE at the Centre Pompidou aimed to elucidate the work—long underestimated—of a figure identified by curator Cloé Pitiot as a “total” modern artist. Indeed, during a career spanning the first half of the twentieth century, Gray (1878–1976) devoted herself to the design of a stunningly wide array of objects, interiors, and, beginning in the mid-1920s, architecture; she also experimented with photography and collage. This diversity of mediums led Pitiot to locate in Gray’s oeuvre “a conception and creation process that falls under the Gesamtkunstwerk.” Such a claim, however, is fraught. Both formalists and Marxists converged in critiquing the Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art), which was seen as distorting not only the processes of creation but also the relations of production: For Theodor Adorno, its fusion of genres and sensations risked obfuscating real conditions of labor and construction behind a kind of immersive, and fraudulent, spectacle. And it is worth noting that distortion often operates on the notion itself, encouraging vague historiographic and epistemological uses of the term. Historian Caroline Constant has observed that while Gray did view furnishings, art, and architecture as interdependent, she objected to the seamlessness of the “total design” associated with De Stijl and the Bauhaus. In the show’s catalogue, references to “totality”—and to the “mysteries” of the oeuvre under examination—work against a historically specific understanding of Gray’s heterogeneous and often ambiguous modernism.

Born in Ireland, the daughter of a baroness, Gray studied art in London and Paris, settling in the latter city in 1906. In 1910, she set up two workshops, one for lacquerware and the other for carpet weaving, and then began to make and exhibit furniture, objects, and textiles. In 1922, she opened a shop, Galerie Jean Désert, that she had designed with Romanian architect Jean Badovici. Badovici, Gray’s longtime professional and life partner, encouraged her to take up architecture, and she did, vigorously. Eventually she was to realize twelve buildings or renovations, five of them in collaboration with Badovici, all of them evincing her conviction that “the poverty of modern architecture stems from the atrophy of sensuality.” But sensuality for Gray was not necessarily voluptuous or even libidinal—it meant something more literal, a focus on the senses and on the sensing, perceiving body. She expressed this emphasis via objects and buildings that are grounded in a refined attunement to haptic, temporal, and psychological experience. For example, in a plan for E 1027 (1929), a vacation home in the south of France that she designed with Badovici, she carefully diagrammed the sun’s path over the course of a day, anticipating the way the house’s inhabitants might move from room to room as the light changed.

The Pompidou show covered Gray’s career via a more or less chronological installation, beginning with her lacquerwork, then showcasing the rugs and furniture she produced for Jean Désert and private clients in the ’20s, and then devoting large galleries to her plans, designs, and furnishings for E 1027 and another Provençal villa, Tempe à Pailla (1935). With great perspicacity, the first gallery emphasized the precious, intimist character of the lacquered- wood objects Gray designed in the 1910s. By intimist, I mean they specifically inhabit and create the world of the haute-bourgeois domestic interior, albeit in its more bohemian manifestation, and represent that world as hermetic, brooding, and, above all, private. Tables, an armchair, screens, boxes, and other objects were displayed under soft lighting, in separate nooks painted in warm colors. While contextualizing Gray’s production in relation to the fin-de-siècle Aesthetic Movement, and in particular its Japonisme, this exhibition design also had the advantage of suggesting the slippages between intimism and fetishism, between aristocratic detachment and commercial fantasy, that infused Gray’s oeuvre. Her black-lacquer Brick screen, for example, at once establishes a space of enclosure while providing apertures through which a voyeur might peer; it is hieratically sculptural, an exemplar of classical craft, even as its gleaming surface and streamlined modular components link it to industrial processes.

The mode of presentation changed completely as one passed into the next gallery—the lighting became brighter and the exhibition space opened up, echoing the objects themselves, which increasingly renounced enclosed or enclosing form in favor of a lighter and more flexible quality. For instance, in the late ’20s Gray developed lightweight furnishings that could be easily moved from place to place and adjusted for multiple uses. These were represented in the E 1027 gallery by three _Transat armchairs, made between 1926 and 1930, with their movable headrests, and by wheeled or adjustable tables. Analogously, the lacquer coatings were abandoned in favor of cork, leather, celluloid, canvas, rubber, metal, and uncoated wood.

The spare, geometric quality of such work would seem to align it with dominant tendencies in avant-garde design, but in fact Gray took issue with both functionalism and formalism. A 1929 dialogue written with Badovici, “From Eclecticism to Doubt,” laments the “systematic simplification that seems to dictate modern art, [which] will only end by grounding this art in general, and architecture in particular, in a purely theoretical pursuit that is too intellectual to satisfy the demands of both our minds and our bodies.” Gray took this theory-laden approach to task for “intellectual coldness . . . which corresponds only too well to the harsh laws of modern mechanization.” As she flatly stated in another context, “A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of a man, his extensions, his release, his spiritual emanation.” Gray thus countermanded not only Le Corbusier’s most famous maxim but also the ideal of transparency, both formal and ethical, that went with modernist practice in general. Her spaces were still private, defined by the possibility of ocular occlusion—shutters and screens were key to her aesthetic. Her style had changed throughout the ’20s, in other words, but the intimism that underpinned it had not.

Gray advocated an approach that would “develop [modernist] formulas and push them to the point where they reestablish contact with life.” Rather than representing a return to premodernist ideals, her ideas—as the objects in the show made palpably clear—shared common ground with opponents of pictorial abstraction and architectural functionalism, such as Dada, biomorphism, and various antimodernisms. She rejected standardization in favor of what she called the “type,” noting that “to me a maison type is only a house . . . whose architecture achieves the maximum perfection for a given situation; that is to say, it is a model, not to be reproduced ad infinitum, but that will inspire the construction of other houses in the same spirit.” Within the exhibition, a more thoughtful historical contextualization might have served to illuminate Gray’s complex relationship to the artistic currents of her time.

During the ’20s, the avant-gardes radicalized a vision of an “open” subject, one realized through the relationships it formed with others. This open ontology corresponded to a critique of autonomous form and was linked to political outlooks that emphasized the interdependence of political subjects (whether within capitalist or communist societies). Meanwhile Gray, with her constant oblique or direct invocations of the individual—a unique creature deserving an equally unique built environment—expressed a vision that is quintessentially liberal. It was this aesthetic “liberalism”—a type that may inspire but perhaps should not be repeated—and its social and political corollaries that most fundamentally differentiated Gray from the designers and architects of her time. While her avant-garde contemporaries consistently addressed the question of social planning and the urban, communal built environment—even the hardly revolutionary Le Corbusier kept the needs of the masses in mind—Gray always addressed the bourgeoisie as a question of the individual bracing against what she called the “sad necessity” of the social. In this sense, Gray “adapted” the avant-gardes. Her work may ultimately be seen as part of the rappel à l’ordre and, more specifically, of a rapprochement—the reconciliation of the avant-garde and the bourgeoisie that, as Kenneth Silver has shown, had started during the war with Jean Cocteau and others. But she forged an idiosyncratic position within that rubric.

There is one aspect of Gray’s work that is particularly difficult to accommodate within the “virile” ideology of the rappel à l’ordre. Her conception of the body—an active, moving, organic entity, susceptible to the pleasure of touch and feeling, and vulnerable as a hermit crab within its architectural shell—cuts directly against the grain of the call to order’s lapidary classicism. This incongruence serves as a reminder that Gray’s production cannot be situated only within the histories of class and politics—it may be situated, for example, within the history of sexuality as well. Gray’s vitalist, sensual work, insisting on the individual’s right to and need for private and domestic space, can be seen as an affirmation, if not a declaration, of sexualities that in her lifetime were still widely considered deviant. (Indeed, some scholars have called hers a Sapphic modernism.) The individual for whom she designed and built was not necessarily one whose life would bear the scrutiny invited by a glass box, but neither was it an individual whose desires must be repressed or whose physicality must be sublimed into the light-filled ethers of modernist volumes.

If it is necessary to consider Gray’s oeuvre synchronically, it is still perhaps worthwhile to consider the organization of this show in diachronic relationship with certain other large exhibitions on architecture and design that have taken place at the Pompidou in recent years. With the exception of De Stijl architecture, which was exhibited with Mondrian’s paintings in 2010–11, the emphasis at the museum has been on individual designers, and French ones at that: e.g., Robert Mallet-Stevens and Charlotte Perriand. It is as if the priority were to valorize French modernism, whose aestheticism and individualism have been so regularly criticized by historians. Might there be a bias, a will to assert a national or at least local modernism, one more attentive not only to the individual but also to an essential Frenchness on par with the national identities of Germany, the USSR, or the Netherlands? In light of the Pompidou’s recent program, such a question is permissible.

“Eileen Gray” travels to the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, Oct. 11, 2013–Jan. 19, 2014.

Maria Stavrinaki is an associate professor in the history of contemporary art at L’Université Paris 1-Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Translated from French by Molly Stevens.