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Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity: Staying In.

Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity: Staying In by Jasmine Rault Ashgate, 2011

This fascinating book on Eileen Gray examines the links between the oeuvre of this Irish-born designer and architect and her ties to the lesbian culture of Paris during the early decades of the twentieth century. Searching within a wide range of examples, both artistic and literary, author Jasmine Rault has found indications that Gray belongs within a sphere of non-heterosexual women artists--Romaine Brooks, Radclyffe Hall, and Djuna Barnes, to name but three--as well as male "decadent" artists of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Expanding upon existing scholarship, Rault adds a provocative dimension to the discourse on Gray and her role as a sexual dissident in the history of modernism. Unlike Caroline Constant, (1) in whose excellent writings Gray's unique, sensuous aesthetic signals nothing more than a highly personal style within the modernist rubric, Rault asserts that comparisons with contemporary works by lesbian artists and writers, and an examination of Gray's friendships with those women, show that Gray's own sensuous decorative arts and architecture are uniquely related. Rault also sees Gray's similar pursuit of luxury within a realm of privacy related to her desire, as a lesbian, to be safe from intrusion. With her lucid prose and diligent research, she makes a compelling case about Gray and other women in her circle. Moreover, Rault's rigorous scholarship and the rather esoteric nature of her subject matter do not lessen the accessibility of her text, even for those with little exposure to gender theory.


Rault's fascination with Gray's position as a sexual outlier seems to have started when she discovered Beatriz Colomina's study of Le Corbusier's bizarre defacement of Gray's most famous work, her house, E1027. (2) Built between 1926 and 1929, E1027 bears a name that reflects the close connection between Gray and Jean Badovici, her sometime lover and collaborator on the house (E stands for Eileen; 10 is for the tenth letter of the alphabet, J for Jean; 2 symbolizes the B for Badovici; and 7 is shorthand for the G in Gray). Colomina's theory that Le Corbusier's "attack" on the house--in 1938, without Gray's permission, Le Corbusier painted a mural in the living room--was a personal assault, not only on Gray but on her legacy, led Rault to examine the ways in which Gray's work reflected her sexual identity. Was Le Corbusier's vandalism an act of envy? Le Corbusier, after all, admired the house an d bui l t hi s o w n nea r by. O r w as i t simple hostility? Or perhaps both? This bizarre episode prompted Rault to examine theories of modern architecture and Gray's divergence from mainstream modernists such as Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier himself. She also refers to Piet Mondrian as an architect; admittedly, Mondrian's assertion that abstract interior design calls for "new people" reveals an attitude from which Rault launches her case that one of the main purposes of modern architecture was to purge society of unhealthful living (27). She writes:
   Early twentieth-century modern
   architecture would put this production
   of "healthy" living spaces
   at the centre of its modernist project.
   Rather than proclaim the
   regenerative effects of ornament,
   privacy and domesticity, however,
   early twentieth-century architectural
   discourse managed to conflate
   these values with the decadent
   tendencies and the degenerative
   diseases they had been introduced
   to combat, and thereby was
   able to proclaim itself modernity's
   only healthy option (39).

Among the unhealthful practices Le Corbusier and his ilk fought against, Rault argues, was homosexuality. Le Corbusier's rant against houses of the nineteenth century reflects not only concerns about hygiene, but decency as well. In Toward a New Architecture, he called the house "a coach full of tuberculosis," as well as "a moral crisis." (3) This was at odds with Gray's own, less austere designs for interiors, which included fur blankets and other highly-tactile accessories.

Those accessories, which included Gray's beautiful lacquer screens, were, according to Rault, influenced by lesbian artists like Romaine Brooks, as well as homosexual artists and writers, including Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde (in whose Salome, even heterosexual obsession has elements of same-sex desire) (79-82), and, despite Rault's characterization of him as misogynist and homophobic, Gustav Klimt. Also influential was the Ballets Russes, including the sets and costumes of Leon Bakst; Gray owned copies of Bakst's designs for the 1910 production of Scheherazade, which display what Caroline Constant has called "the blurring of gender distinctions." (4) Of equal significance for Rault's argument is the fact that the bal- let company's impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, "chose to cast in the lead roles two of the early twentieth century's most renowned queer icons: Vaslev Nijinsky as the feminized and sexually submissive Golden Slave to Ida Rubinstein's powerful femme fatale ... " (84). Rault is critical of Constant for failing to make that point in her book.

Even more germane to Gray's own sexuality is the influence of Romaine Brooks, given the friendship between the two women. It is, according to Rault, no coincidence that two of Brooks's paintings, White Azaleas and The Screen, depict either folding screens or wallmounted panels. The screen is fraught with sexuality in art, and some of Gray's earliest works were screens. As Rault points out, "Considering the history of folding screens, it seems surprising that the existing literature on Gray neglects to explore the fact that Gray had chosen the folding screen as her first medium" (78). Rault also cites the attenuated figures in Gray's panels, La voie lactee, which recall those in Brooks's paintings. Indeed, even the sickly appearance of the figures reflects a decadent attitude that is at odds with the modernist vision of health. That is so, but decadence was not restricted to homosexuals. Decadence, conflated with ill health, might have been at odds with the attitudes of many modernist architects, but it was not, by definition, exclusively gay.

Rault's analysis of the issue of discretion is especially intriguing. Following the obscenity trials surrounding Radclyffe Hall's book The Well of Loneliness in 1928, female sexual dissidence became pathologized, and women such as Gray, not wishing to be exposed or categorized, became more concerned with privacy. Her house, Tempe a Pailla, with its obstructive exterior and byzantine approach, was designed to shield Gray from prying eyes. Even when one finds the entrance (Fig. 1), the house continues to guard its inhabitants. Rault compares Gray's reticence to that of Djuna Barnes, whose novel Nightwood defied clarity and conventional interpretation. Both the book and the house, says Rault, promise and deny access, either syntactically or materially (147).

While Rault's arguments are quite strong, they are not all entirely indisputable. Individual style is certainly an important part of a designer's identity, and Gray, as a versatile artist who excelled in many media, was not tied to any one aesthetic. Indeed, the formal qualities of her architectural works are not so different from those of Le Corbusier. Moreover, Rault paints modernism with a rather broad brush. For example, she invokes the name of Peter Behrens as part of the austere group of modernist architects, but neglects to mention the sensual aspects of much of his work; surely The Kiss, his famous woodcut depicting two women with sinuous, interlocking hair, celebrates same-sex desire. Even what is arguably his best-known work, the turbine building for the Allgemeine Elektricitats-Gesellschaft, is anything but sterile. Modernism is not monolithic; Eileen Gray is not easy to pigeonhole, but neither are many other modernist artists and architects.

In terms of sexuality, it is hard to deny that Gray had affairs with women, and may have even preferred them as friends and lovers. But sexuality is often more complex than definitions of gay or straight. Indeed, Gray's relationship with Jean Badovici complicates her identity considerably; and the desire for privacy would have been, and still is, important to many women, particularly those living alone.

One also feels that Rault is too critical of earlier scholarship on Gray. While other authors may not have adequately addressed Gray's sexuality, surely they provided valuable resources for Rault's own work. This is not to say, however, that Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity is not an extraordinary book. It is cogent, well researched, and interesting. And by addressing the issue of Gray's lesbianism and the notion of a distinctly lesbian aesthetic, Rault has opened up new avenues of inquiry that will undoubtedly enrich future discussions of this remarkable, multifaceted artist.


(1.) See for example, Caroline Constant, Eileen Gray (London: Phaidon, 2000).

(2.) See Beatriz Colomina, "War on Architecture," Assemblage 20 (1993), 28-29.

(3.) Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, F. Etchells, trans. (New York: Dover Publications, 1986), 4.

(4.) Caroline Constant, "E.1027: The Nonheroic Modernism of Eileen Gray," The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 53, 3 (September 1994), 279. Quoted in Rault, 84.

Ricki Sablove, a PhD candidate at Rutgers University, is currently writing a dissertation on American architects and their travel sketches.
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Author:Sablove, Ricki
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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