Published  21/11/2013

Eileen Gray: Architect Designer Painter

Eileen Gray: Architect Designer Painter

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin
12 October 2013 – 19 January 2014


In David Eagleman’s series of thought experiments, Sum, the writer and neuroscientist proposes variations of the afterlife.

In one, he suggests: “There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” For many artists, fuelled by ambition and ego, the third death may be as terrifying as the first and the question of legacy must certainly cross every artist’s mind at some point. In this quietly triumphant exhibition by the Irish Museum of Modern Art, curated by Cloé Pitiot of the Pompidou Centre, there is a reference to how awareness of the extraordinary work of Eileen Gray (1879-1976) had “fallen almost entirely into oblivion”. How could such an innovative artist have almost been lost to us?

One of the great strengths of Gray’s art, design and architecture was also her weakness; she defied easy, facile categorisation. She excelled in many different forms and skirted the edges of isms rather than being tied definably to their dead weight. While ostensibly a Modernist, she was both out of step with it and beyond its parameters. In being eclectic and enigmatic, she was arguably “style” to her associate and occasional adversary Le Corbusier’s “fashion”. Born outside Enniscorthy, County Wexford, the artist moved back and forth between London, Paris and Ireland, escaping wars and stagnation, as well as undertaking artistic grand tours through Switzerland and Italy in more peaceful times. Though an excellent draftswoman, it was her cosmopolitan openness and attraction to the exotic that led her to her finest works. She collaborated extensively with Seizo Sugawara on her Japanese lacquer work. She fashioned Moroccan carpets and incorporated Franco-Spanish Cubism, French Orphism, Russian Constructivism, Dutch De Stijl and no doubt her Irish roots into her blueprints. The fact that she did not quite fit is the basis of why she was almost lost and, paradoxically, why she will last.

Gray’s visions emerge from the intriguing disputed border that exists between 19th- and 20th- century art and between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. The earliest work in the exhibition underlines this with her mythic, semi-pastiche Le destin (1914) and her masked anthropomorphic figures for Ballet des Animaux taking refuge in earlier styles. Yet her receptivity towards ancient Greek forms, for example, was soon replaced by more prescient and unusual influences and resonances. The spiral staircase at the core of her E-1027 building is said to have been inspired by Tatlin’s Tower as well as maritime objects such as nautilus shells. The curved leather tubes of her Bibendum chair (1929) were reputedly modelled on the Michelin Man. Often the motivation is organic, but through the prism of modern invention. The sea is referenced in her Transat (1925-27) deckchair, based as it is on oceanic liners (the title is short for “transatlantique”). Similarly, the air finds indirect expression in her S-shaped folding hammock chair (1938), modelled from aircraft of the day.

This progressive portrayal of the elemental may rely on geometry, but Gray’s work is not without its esoteric charms. A major part of her talent was the ability to make Modernism mysterious, sensual and almost mystical. The nebulous play of light and colour and the amorphous shapes of her paintings Cage (1940) and Map (1930) have the hint of Surrealism or perhaps klecksography (the art of conveying images from inkblots). Art, and “spiritual” art, seeps into her designs from the St Tropez rug (1975, from a drawing circa 1920) to the Six Panel Screen (1922-25), which are marked with strange arcane hieroglyphs and ideograms as if, à la Paul Klee, from some private mythology or invented language. Alongside the influence of Picasso and Braque, works such as her pencil and gouache Black Magic (c 1922) also recall Francis Picabia’s functionless machines. The same piece could be a construction or conceivably a nightscape, just as her Marine d’abord rug (1921) is both nautical and abstraction. Her Untitled collage (1930’s) could likewise depict mountains, fallen buildings or neither of the two. Unusually for an architect, significance and meaning are left to the eye of the beholder. Indeed, Gray’s 1929 declaration that “An object must be given the form best suited to the spontaneous gesture” could well have been a Surrealist utterance. She has made the boundary between the calculus of design and the vagaries of art permeable.

The irresolvable mystery of where art ends and design begins was one she inherited from her friendship with the still-underrated Orphist painter Sonia Delaunay. Immensely influential in terms of pre-empting the Pop Art and iconography of Peter Blake and Jasper Johns, Gray’s L’Art noir, project for rug (1922) seems ludicrously far ahead of its time, and a bolt from the blue in terms of inspiration. Yet art is a series of continuums and the work had partial origins in the French Tricolore cockade, the British RAF roundel and Delaunay’s paintings and textiles. So, too, did Gray’s willingness to merge the arts. “For me there is no gap between my painting and my so-called ‘decorative’ work,” Delaunay wrote. “I never considered the ‘minor arts’ to be artistically frustrating; on the contrary, it was an extension of my art.” Elsewhere, she elaborated: “In the sky we had rediscovered the moving principle of any work of art: the light, and the motion of colour.” Though it is likely the relationship was reciprocal, Delaunay’s influence on Gray is evident in the latter’s play with light and “the motion of colour”. Her masterpiece E-1027, built on the French Riviera, contains a solarium designed to catch the light on shimmering tiles, while several of her blueprints (including that for Tempe à Pailla) contain the word “Soleil” in capitals, marking the sun’s movement throughout the day and how it is manipulated into each room. Sometimes, the influence is marked by absence. Entering a darkened gallery space, we find Gray’s Brick Screen (1923) with its exemplary use of omission, its hinged panels casting shadows across the room. Furthermore, her unrealised structures the Ellipse House, 1936 (shown as a scale model in the exhibition) and her Camping Tent are nothing less than the shapes of Vorticism sprung into 3D.

Gray’s talent, and her ability to make the functional beautiful and vaguely esoteric, put her on a collision course with one of the grandest architectural egos of the time, Le Corbusier. Though Le Corbusier was more humanistic than is often remembered, and both architects encouraged each other at various stages, the relationship would nevertheless degenerate over differences in vision as well as competiveness. Initially, it seemed Gray was, if not a disciple of Le Corbusier, then a fellow traveller. He invited her to exhibit her designs at the Paris Exposition of 1937. Her pivoting cabinets, hidden compartments and stencilled instructions (“entrez lentement” – “enter slowly” for one) have a certain utopian aspect that Le Corbusier trademarked. Yet Gray would come to defy and see the soulless and dystopian possibilities in Le Corbusier’s claims that “A house is a machine for living in” with a reassertion that, however utilitarian or imaginative, a house should still be a home, even if we must broaden and diversify our definition of the latter. “Formulas are nothing. Life is everything. And life is simultaneously mind and heart,” Gray asserted. “A house is not a machine to live in. It is the shell of man, his extension, his release, his spiritual emanation. Not only its visual harmony but its entire organisation, all the terms of the work, combine to render it human in the most profound sense.” Even in E-1027, her most aesthetically Modernist work (shown here in models, blueprints and video footage), we learn that her emphasis was still on the human and the organic. Her E-1027 table was designed so her sister could have breakfast in bed and the sail-cloths attached to the balcony were there to mirror passing ships. The very title of the building with its robotic connotations was actually code incorporating her name and that of her erstwhile lover and collaborator Jean Badovici. Whether Le Corbusier was exhibiting arrogance, vengeance or mistaken gratitude when he “defaced” the walls of E-1027 with erotic frescoes is debatable. What is certain is that he could not supplant the joy, free spirit and sensuality already there in the best of Gray’s work. It should be remembered, for instance, that the title of her Bibendum chair comes from Horace’s Odes, “Nunc est bibendum” (“Now is the time to drink”). Might we even consider the probability that E-1027, long the subject of Le Corbusier’s obsession and envy, was that last thing he ever saw, floating like a white surrealist dream above the sea, as he drowned in the waters below it?

As with any artist, we can also locate a melancholy in Gray’s work and accentuate it as we wish. One series of photographs in the exhibition are distinctly eerie, with a tense focus on shadow and stillness. In contrast to her blueprints, they suggest deterioration; buildings that have outlived their use and inhabitants. All architects build their own ruins after all. The exhibition masterfully brings us into her world, or appears to do so, with personal correspondence, original magazine articles (Vogue, August 1917, for example), photographs, notebooks, possessions and ephemera, underlining the symbiotic relationship between art and life. It would be all too easy to paint her life as a tragedy and Gray as some kind of victim. Having burned a many of her letters, the surviving ones here show signs of insecurity and loneliness, from the overt “It's late and I’m so tired [...] am not very happy here” to the implied: “Did you not get my letter with the silly drawing Perhaps you thought it too silly [...] it is very boring going down and up the hill constant stream of cars one I always in the ditch, the town a pandemonium Beatniks etc [sic].” Despite a wealthy upbringing, Gray struggled continually against, often man-made, adversities. Her buildings were looted and vandalised by German soldiers during the second world war and her St Tropez apartment, with many of her possessions inside, bombed. She blighted her health working in lacquer. Faced with casual dismissal and derision by misogynists in her industry, she named her gallery after a fictional male owner, Jean Désert. After her relationship with Badovici and a host of female partners collapsed, she became withdrawn, even reclusive. Her reputation fell not so much into disrepair as replacement, with male architects being ascribed with her achievements. The clues to her late introversion seem there from her plans for E-1027: “Each person must feel alone, completely alone.”

We would, however, have no right to cast pity on Gray. Perhaps her unhappiness was fleeting; her genius was most definitively not. Here was an artist who had left puritanical Ireland for permissive London and bohemian Paris and had flourished in both, in the face of rampant sexism. She held court in artistic circles, evocatively represented here by Man Ray’s portraits of the likes of Gertrude Stein and Romaine Brooks. On the day she died, at the age of 98, Gray was beginning a new project. In this exhibition, from her creations to her vibrant peacock feather portrait of 1902 to the late exuberant television interview, she appears more vivid and real than any apparition. Her work did not flirt with oblivion: rather, we did in momentarily forgetting it. If we might inappropriately propose that Gray needed or needs saving, it is worth asking from what or whom? Perhaps from critics and the narratives we spin when her life and work tell their own with dazzling brilliance, or from her admirers and the vulgarity of their wealth (her Dragons armchair was recently auctioned for $28m/£17.4m). Certainly, her unbuilt buildings could be made real and those that have been left to decay restored and preserved. Art this fine will be its own testament, provided we allow it to be so, as the IMMA and Pompidou Centre have expertly done. It wants to be and, by enchanting audiences now and in the future, it will.

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