Elegance’s Internationalisms

Le monde nouveau de Charlotte Perriand is an imposing presentation of an artist who registers the contradictions of the 20th century. But did Perriand’s world consist only of men?

Charlotte Perriand, Air France office in London, 1957.

In the spring of 1955, Charlotte Perriand arranged the exhibition Proposition d’une synthèse des arts, Paris 1955: Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Charlotte Perriand in Tokyo. As the title states, the exhibition consisted of works and objects by the three architects and artists, giants in the European art and architecture world around mid-century. The synthesis of the arts that Perriand proposed was a synthesis between architecture, painting, and sculpture, but also between artistic artefact and industrial object, craft and mass production.

“When the forms of the industrially produced objects are studied perfectly, when they conform to functions, techniques, and materials, then this precision renders them beautiful,” Perriand wrote. “They respond to the demands of the great masses.” If the arts could be brought to cooperate, in other words, then the people would be able to make them their own. Variations on such an idea seem to recur throughout Perriand’s long career, her versatile practice as a designer, architect, and visual artist.

Perriand worked on the Tokyo exhibition for over two years – Japan’s economic crisis hampered production and delayed deliveries. When the exhibition finally took place at the large department store Takashimaya, it only remained open for just over two weeks. It was a stylish affair, a sort of unitary artwork in the shape of an exquisitely furnished residence, where the International Style of the European masters met the simple exactitude of the Japanese interior in elegant diplomatic accord. Form for the people in a luxury department store: this contradiction recurs throughout Perriand’s history too.

Proposition d’une synthèse des arts offered a scenography for effortlessly refined lives. The exhibition’s formal language was somehow both democratic and exclusive. Its spaces were spaces for people who were universally sophisticated and in universal agreement. With their non-ornamented and reduced style, the low wide sofas – which invited a sort of horizontal, yet urbane coexistence – appeared to be derived from basic geometric shapes. The softly organic ovals of the coffee tables, on the other hand, signalled a closeness to nature, to smooth forms slowly polished into shape by calm clear waves. The handsome chairs looked as if they had been cut out and folded together from large sheets of soft wood, for mass production and efficient stacking. On tables and surfaces stood beautiful plants and playful sculptures. The walls were adorned with Perriand’s intricate, tastefully coloured shelf units, between which were mounted textiles, paintings, and ceramic reliefs by Le Corbusier and Léger. Together, the elements formed a pleasantly organised whole.

It is a measure of the ambition of the comprehensive Charlotte Perriand exhibition now on view at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, that Proposition d’une synthèse des arts is one of almost a dozen exhibitions and displays that have been partly reconstructed for the private art center’s venture. Le monde nouveau de Charlotte Perriand is in many ways an extravagant exhibition. High production value is everywhere flaunted. In gallery after gallery, on floor after floor, the visitor is met with recreated showrooms for Perriand’s furnishings, artworks, and objects; full-scale architectural models of modern living cells and mobile alpine huts; whole interior decorating schemes from apartments in Rio and Paris, featuring authentic furniture pieces and original works by Léger, Matisse, Picasso, Miró; extensive presentations of Perriand’s artistic development, featuring sketches, photographs, publications, objects. One can only imagine what resources have been invested, what degree of museological care and diligence has been exacted.

Reconstruction of the exhibition Proposition d’une synthèse des arts, Paris 1955: Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Charlotte Perriand, in Tokyo 1955.

Le monde nouveau de Charlotte Perriand is an argument for canonisation. It asserts that Perriand’s contribution to art and architecture history, in France and internationally, should be considered as equal to that of her mainly male colleagues, such as Léger, Le Corbusier, Jean Prouvé. In this respect, the exhibition is also a somewhat pretentious, almost aggressive move on the part of the opulent art centre in the Bois de Boulogne, a show of force on Paris’s institutional scene. Fondation Louis Vuitton wants to claim that it is an institution that can canonise, that can compete in historiographic influence with the established art centres and public museums. There is of course a risk here that Perriand becomes a piece in a larger power game, a game that furthermore has an unclear – or perhaps all too clear – relation to the prestige economy within which the owning corporation LVMH operates.

Charlotte Perriand is an artist of the 20th century. Literally: she was born in 1903, died in 1999. In many ways her multifaceted practice registers the great developments of the century, as an index of sorts for history’s fluctuations. She broke through during the mid-20s, with Le bar sous le toit (Bar under the roof, 1927), an acclaimed interior for a modern living room with bar, whose shining chromed surfaces celebrated the functional and aesthetic qualities of metal over wood – a position she would later revise completely. During the same years, as a collaborator in Le Corbusier’s studio, she made a number of iconic armchairs and chaises longues based on simple steel structures, which until today remain the signature pieces in her practice (Fauteuil pivotant [Swivel chair, 1927] and Chaise longue basculante [Tilting lounge chair, 1928], both in collaboration with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret). Among her famous later productions are the architecture for the large hotel and ski station Les Arcs (The Arcs) in the Savoy, a complex of structures that in dramatic cascades, waves, and diagonals inscribe themselves into the topography of the mountain, planned and built between 1967 and 1989; and Maison de thé (1993), her tea house for the gardens of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, a graceful, light, open bamboo structure, constructed using techniques from traditional Japanese craft.

The decisive transformation in Perriand’s development – as both artist and historical index – is the one through which her earlier political engagement, most apparent in the 30s, shifts into a less radical universalism and a search for the synthesis of the arts, outlined from the reconstruction period onwards, after the war. One internationalism is replaced by another: in 1937, she participated in the campaigns in support of the republicans in Spain, and designed the interior for the editorial offices of the communist newspaper Ce soir; twenty years later, in the mid-50s, she was appointed head designer for Air France’s international offices and travel agencies, at the same time as she proposed the synthesis of the arts in Tokyo.

Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret & Charlotte Perriand, Chaise-longue basculante, 1928–29.

Does Perriand have a style, a unique mode of expression or formal language that is her own? I don’t know. I cannot tell from my passage through the exhibition’s eleven densely hung galleries. The reason could be that her influence was so great that she affected everything around her, that generations of architects and designers have appropriated her work, so that her signature ceased to have a distinguishing function and instead became generic. Or else it could be that in her techniques, choices of materials, and stylistic decisions she remained fairly close to others during the same period, that she belonged to a great 20th century tradition – leading from Bauhaus and the CIAM (International Congress of Modern Architecture) to the humanist universalism of the postwar period – where she was a central rather than germinal or radically divergent figure.

In any case, there is a strong continuity in her work. The working desk she designed for the editor-in-chief of Ce soir in 1937 could have been found in an office section in Proposition pour une synthèse des arts in 1955. The shift from metal to wood starting in the 40s is clear – at the Fondation Louis Vuitton apparent not least in how spaces in a cold style, with glass, mirrored surfaces, and chromed metal, give way to spaces with carpets and panels in warm rich colours and objects in wood and natural materials – but the forms and the technical solutions are often not only related, but precisely the same: there is a bamboo version of the chaise longue. The way Perriand integrates large-scaled photomontages into the jazzy elegance of the Air France agencies in the late 50s and early 60s – you feel like lighting a Gauloise, drinking a Martini, booking Business Class to Rio – is in direct continuity with her work with photomurals during the Popular Front years in the 30s.

The transition between her political period and the universalist and synthetic one is therefore not accompanied by a shift at the level of style. Instead, what happens is that a dimension disappears, that Perriand’s social and progressive ambitions become unclear, go silent. In the 20s and 30s, she could advocate the advantages of metal as an artistic and functional material, and there was an obvious relation between this position and her simultaneous critique of the period’s housing policies and social injustices, of the growing threat of fascism. Her furniture pieces appear mainly to have been displayed and sold on a luxury market, by exclusive furniture dealers and in prestige design fairs, in a certain conflict with her radically democratic ambitions – but the contradiction was exposed, open, its resolution still possible.

Charlotte Perriand, Maison de thé, 1993.

In 1955, Perriand called for the synthesis of the arts into a popular unitary art, but it’s difficult to see how such popular ambitions could actually have been realised, or even formulated as a coherent project. Detached from political critique, the vision of an art that would respond to the demands of the masses became a beautiful dream, artfully articulated in the international humanist elegance of her interiors. The contradiction was gradually repressed, dispersed in the effortless sophistication of the forms. The universalism was no longer that of a political project of equality, but that of the fantasy of a limitless, conflict-free consumer power. From the Popular Front to Air France: Perriand’s internationalism from the 50s onwards appears primarily to trace the global expansion of the luxury and tourist industries. The exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, we might say, crowns this aspect of Perriand’s career, is its monument.

As an argument for Perriand’s canonisation, Le monde nouveau de Charlotte Perriand is attenuated by a few questionable curatorial decisions. It does not exclusively, or even mainly, consist of works by Perriand. A large number of great and conveniently canonical male artists have been enlisted to support Perriand’s art historical consecration. Works by Perriand’s colleagues and friends have been integrated in reconstructed interiors and showrooms – above all Léger and Le Corbusier, who have almost as many works in the exhibition as Perriand herself. Then there are works with a less direct relation to Perriand’s practice, for example those owned by collectors for whom she did commissions, or those which are in the collection of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, for which Perriand designed a new interior in the 60s: Georges Braque, Picasso, Joan Miró, Robert Delaunay, and others. Finally, there are works without any direct connection to Perriand, by artists who belonged to her “new world”: Hans Hartung, Alexander Calder, more Picasso, more Miró, etc.

A lot of this is of course fantastic art. As a sort of minor thread through the exhibition, a large number of textile works by Léger, Le Corbusier, and Miró are displayed. Le Corbusier called them “muralnomads”: textiles or tapestries that should serve as murals in residences or public spaces, but that should simultaneously be mobile, in the sense that one should be able to roll them up, bring them along on journeys, and install them in new places, as the built environment was becoming increasingly standardised, that is exchangeable. Many of these works, which are generally the size of large easel paintings, but are manufactured in textile workshops and could in principle be produced in editions, are remarkably beautiful: something in the formal language of European postwar abstraction, with its simple confident lines and its warmly luminous colour schemes, seems particularly suited for the materiality and formal conditions of weaving. In the exhibition, there is also a clear relation between these “muralnomads” and Perriand’s work with new types of large-scale reproducible artworks at the intersection between photography, mural painting, and architecture.

Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret & Charlotte Perriand, Interieur d’une habitation salon d’automne, 1929.

Other curatorial choices appear more arbitrary. To take one example, for some reason a version of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) has a prominent position in the part of the exhibition that deals with Perriand’s political work during the 30s. Certainly, Perriand and Picasso were allied in the struggle against Franco, but as far as I can see there is nothing specific, either biographically or stylistically, that motivates the presence of this masterpiece (in the form of a copy) in the exhibition – apart from it being a prestige work and a certain crowd pleaser. And did Perriand’s “world” consist exclusively of men? That’s the impression one gets at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. As if Perriand could not be canonised in her own right, but had to be legitimised at every step by the already sanctioned works of her male colleagues. One effect of this is also that certain aspects of Perriand’s own practice in this enormous Perriand exhibition appear paradoxically underrepresented.

The photomurals: they are what I’m in Paris to see. I first read about them a few years ago, in Romy Golan’s essential study of European mural art around mid-century, Muralnomad: The Paradox of Wall Painting, Europe 1927–1957 (2009). They are undoubtedly Perriand’s most important works as a visual artist. It is not a large production. Apart from the gigantic photomontage La grande misère de Paris (Paris’s great poverty) from 1936 (about which I wrote a few lines here), the significant works consist of two suites, both commissioned by the French Department of Agriculture: photomurals or tapestries for a waiting room; and, together with Léger, a series of panels for the department’s pavilion at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Paris, 1937.

Charlotte Perriand & Guy Rey Millet, Les Arc, 1968–1969.

Unfortunately, not much of this material is on view at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. To see La grande misère de Paris in actual scale is to be reminded of the form’s open politics: the montage’s size, level of detail, and narrative organisation demands a mobile and autonomous spectator. It is an image without a determined focal point. As we move along the sixteen-meter-wide arrangement of photographic elements, maps, texts, and statistics, constellations of forms and signs shift into and out of focus, clusters of meaning enter into correspondence with one another, the logic of the whole comes into view without determining the reading. Somehow it is semantically abundant, didactic, and humble all at once.

In addition to La grande misère de Paris, three of the panels from the International Exposition are shown, and that is all. The most prominent wall surface in this part of the exhibition is instead occupied by the Guernica replica. Why such a limited presentation of what is one of the most important aspects of Perriand’s work? That it should have to do with the absence of originals – all of the photomurals in the exhibition are reconstructions – is not a valid argument: this is an art form that per definition rejects the distinction between original and copy. Instead, my impression is that the exclusion has to do with the irreconcilable character of these works with respect to Perriand’s following development, to the image of her continued practice that the exhibition presents. They are old works, they speak of a distant reality, but still they remain uncomfortably explicit in their political critique and their social ambitions. The world that they show does not belong to LVMH. The contradiction troubles.

In a stairwell in the art centre hangs Joies traditionelles, plaisirs nouveaux (Traditional joys, new pleasures, 1937), one of Léger and Perriand’s panels from the International Exposition. The shape of the space makes it difficult to properly take in the work’s ten-meter expanse, but the experience is still overwhelming. It is an uncomplicated, even naïve image, which celebrates in bright and strong colours the new leisure culture to which the French working class suddenly gained access during the Popular Front years. Hands hold up flowers, a man plays a saxophone, we see women in funny folk dresses, children reading in the grass in front of a library bus, a group of people engaged in some kind of dance or sport. The composition is almost rudimentary, a centre of circles in red, yellow, green, and blue, from which colour fields emanate, forming a vaguely sketched landscape. It’s a simple, almost provokingly joyful image, an image of enthusiasm not yet repressed.

Charlotte Perriand & Fernand Léger, Joies traditionelles, plaisirs nouveaux, 1937.