Smithsonian spotlights Josephine Baker, Jazz Age 'Le Tumulte Noir' will remain on display through Sept. 14

March 02, 1997|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- During the 1920s, a unique form of American music, a fascination with black culture and a beguiling African-American stage star all combined to hold the celebrated cultural capital of the world in near total rapture.

The time was the Jazz Age in Paris, and its undisputed queen was the icon of the era, Josephine Baker (1906-1975).

hTC Today, Baker, the Charleston and the dynamic jazz music - which took Paris by storm during the Roaring Twenties - are spotlighted in a new display at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery.

"Le Tumulte Noir" ("The Black Craze") contains 14 hand-colored Art Deco lithographs by French graphic artist Paul Colin (1892-1985), which he produced as a portfolio set in 1929.

The show draws its title from the moniker Colin gave his collection of 44 vivacious Jazz Age works, and was organized by curatorial assistant LuLen Walker, of the museum's Department of Prints and Drawings.

The display sparkles with an exotic sensuality, as refined, suave figures seem to sway to the jazz rhythms of the time - which play overhead in the spacious one-room gallery.

Baker is featured in two lithographs.

In the first, she appears delicately extended and arched, clad only in the short banana skirt she made famous at the Folies-Bergere in 1926.

The second work shows her attired simply in palm leaf skirt. In each instance, she is depicted topless, and from behind.

Born in St. Louis in 1906, Baker ran away from home before she turned 14.

Attracted to show business, she developed her dancing skills with a traveling entertainment troupe known as the Dixie Fliers.

In 1924, she performed with a road production called the "Chocolate Dandies."

After the show closed the following year, Baker reluctantly joined a black company headed to Europe, which was backed by a wealthy Chicago white woman who supported black stage productions abroad.

Baker made her Paris theater debut on Oct. 2, 1925. To the amazement of the audience at the opening night of "La Revue Negre" at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, she appeared onstage wearing nothing but a pink flamingo feather, and being carried upside down on the shoulders of a large black man.

Among those present that evening was Janet Flanner, the eminent Paris correspondent for the New Yorker.

After the performance, Flanner wrote of the show's star and her dazzling entrance: "She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theater. Whatever happened next was unimportant."

Baker's popularity among the Parisians soared with each

performance. As a result, she became the embodiment of the Jazz Age.

Colin and Baker met shortly after she arrived in Paris. He had been commissioned to do a poster for "La Revue Negre," and soon decided to highlight Baker in the work.

The pair shared a brief romantic liaison and always remained friends.

In addition to the Baker lithographs, the show includes illustrations that reflect the exuberance of the Jazz Age.

The portfolio's centerfold print features a buoyant jazz band, playing in front of a backdrop that includes images of the Eiffel Tower, an ocean liner and high-rise buildings.

A sequence of four lithographs along one gallery wall depicts both couples and individuals dancing the Charleston - the latter frolicking atop grand pianos before a cast of undulating patrons.

Across the room, a slender male dressed in formal attire bends gracefully, with legs spread apart below the knees, forming what almost appears to be a giant X within the frame.

Nearby, a lively figure created of geometric shapes, sporting a Swedish flag in place of one hand, is thought to have been inspired by a poster of a Swedish dancer produced by Cubist painter Fernand Leger.

In the middle of exhibit rests the portfolio's binder, lying open to its dedication page - an anecdotal tribute to the Charleston, written by Baker in her own hand.

Printed in an edition of 500, the portfolio is believed to be among one of the few "Le Tumulte Noir" collections that still exists as a complete set.

The Smithsonian acquired this portfolio in 1991.

Exhibit hours

"Le Tumulte Noir" will remain on view through Sept. 14.

The National Portrait Gallery is at Eighth and F streets N.W. The Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.

Admission is free.

Pub Date: 3/02/97

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