If, while you’re reading this post you happen to be in Venice, you might have already noticed all over the town the posters of the exhibition “George Barbier – La nascita del Déco” (George Barbier – The Birth of Art Déco) featuring “La fontaine de coquillages” (1914) from the Gazette du Bon Ton. If you plan to be in town for a while and want to run away from the hordes of tourists, go to Palazzo Fortuny and visit this exhibition, as it provides a very interesting journey through the art of one of the forgotten illustrators, costume designers and protagonists of the Art Deco movement.
Born in Nantes in 1882, Barbier moved to Paris in the early 1900s after his studies at the local Ecole des Beaux–Arts. He soon became a versatile artist, working as a fashion illustrator, costume, set and accessory designer. Fashion illustration is actually the art he excelled in as his work for the Gazette du Bon Ton, together with other well-known artists such as Iribe and Lepape, prove.
Soon his fashion illustrations started appearing also on other magazines such as Le Jardin des dames et des modes, Modes et Manieres d’Aujourd’hui, La Ghirlande, L’Illustration, Les feuillets d’art, Femina and Vogue.
During the years before the First World War Barbier enjoyed a great success, designing wallpapers for André Groult’s atelier and collaborating with many designers such as Poiret, Lanvin, Worth and Vionnet. He also started a collaboration with Louis Cartier and, apart for designing a few jewellery pieces, he also created Cartier’s logo, the black panther.
Apart from illustrating work by famous writers and publishing his own books such as Bonheur du Jour (1924), Falbalas et Fanfreluches (1922-1926), Album dedié à Tamar Karsavina (1914), Dessins sur les danses de Nijinsky (1913), Barbier also designed costumes for a few theatre shows such as Maurice Rostand’s La dernière nuit de Don Juan (1922). He also worked with Erté on various set designs and costumes for the cinema and designed the memorable costumes for Rodolfo Valentino in Sidney Olcott's Monsieur Beaucaire (1924).
Barbier died when he was 50, at the height of his career. A few months after his death his library was put up for auction in Paris, this is why his works are scattered a bit all over the world, and some of them are also preserved in private collectors’ houses. This is the reason why retracing Barbier’s life through his work is rather difficult and. At the same time, this is also the reason why this Venice-based exhibition is extremely important.
“The Birth of Art Deco” features indeed over 200 works, among them sketches, paintings, articles, pochoir plates, photographs and books from the archives of the Palazzo Mocenigo - Centro Studi di Storia del Tessuto e del Costume, from Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Musée des Beaux Arts de Nantes and from various private collections, both French and Italian.
The exhibition is divided in different themes and starts with Barbier’s first sketches and drawings. This is an important starting point to understand Barbier’s art as it's in this section that the visitor will start understanding how many different sources and inspirations influenced the illustrator’s future works.
The second part of the exhibition focuses on Barbier’s contribution to cinema and theatre and also on his passion for the Ballet Russes. The latter inspired Barbier’s various drawings and were the source for his sumptuous costumes - those marvellous creations in precious fabrics and bright colours decorated with fringes, sequins and feathers - that often contrasted with his sober sets. This aspect of the exhibition will provide people with an interest in costume design with amazing inspirations, while fashionistas will definitely find more interesting the section dedicated to Barbier’s fashion illustrations.
Visitors will be able to admire the pochoir plates made between 1913 and 1925 for the Gazette du Bon Ton, the magazine edited by Lucien Vogel, but also sketches for other magazines such as La Vie Parisienne, a magazine Barbier started collaborating with in 1914. This section of the exhibition is completed by Barbier’s illustrations for advertising campaigns for famous brands.
Despite my interest in Barbier’s costumes and fashion illustrations, I must admit that some of the pieces that really struck me were his almanacs: many of them were dismembered after his death, but, in some cases, the exhibition allows the visitors to see them once again in their integrity. Some of the plates in the almanacs Falbalas et Fanfreluches (1922-26) and Le Bonheur du Jour ou les Grâces à la Mode (1920-1924) could in fact be used as ideas and starting points for very interesting photo shoots (you could easily recreate the illustration for Minuit ou l’appartement à la mode using contemporary accessories and pieces of furniture for example...). Barbier used this almanac to present a sort of history of the costumes of various periods and countries, giving in this way the chance to future generations to get to know different styles and costumes.
The exhibition in Venice also features period garments from the Pezzato collection, that will contribute to give the visitor a sort of 360° view of George Barbier, contextualising his work and his art.
Since in early 20th Century Paris, music was very important, “The Birth of Art Déco” is also accompanied by a special concert programme set to recreate the atmosphere of the time. The programme features for example a musical tribute to the Ballet Russes with music by Strawinsky, Satie, Debussy, Arensky, Tcherepnine and Ravel.
If you won’t be able to visit Palazzo Fortuny, you can still learn more about Barbier from the exhibition catalogue published by Marsilio and featuring essays by Barbara Martorelli (curator of the event), Giandomenico Romanelli, Alain Stoeffler, Mauro Nasti, Giuliano Ercoli, Doretta Davanzo Poli, Carine Picaud and Jean Izarn.
"Venice is a city that is both absurd and enchanting. She reminds me of a small case covered with shells, a music box with her sounds, like the insides of a guitar, overflowing with the songs of birds that soar up from the windows, their languid voices quivering and singing over the canals,” Barbier wrote on the Gazette du Bon Ton in 1923.
I’m sure that he would be very happy to know that the town he found so extraordinary has now produced one of the best exhibitions ever organised about his art.
“George Barbier (1882-1932) - The birth of art deco”, Fortuny Museum, Venice, until 5th January 2009.
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