In 1925, at the height of the jazz era in Paris, the sensational cast of musicians and dancers from Harlem, assembled as La Revue Nègre, exploded on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées. Its talented young star, Josephine Baker (19061975), captivated audiences with a wild new dance called the Charleston, and became the high priestess of jazz culture in Paris.Inspired by the tremendous popularity of these performers, French poster artist Paul Colin (18921985) created a portfolio entitled Le Tumulte Noir, which gave a name to the Parisian craze for African American music and dance that Josephine Baker epitomized. Published in 1929, Le Tumulte Noir contains a title page, four pages of text, including a dedication by Josephine Baker, and Colin's dazzling color pochoir lithographs printed on both sides of twenty-two sheets.
Baker's unforgettable opening night with La Revue Nègre, attended by the fashionable café society of Paris, was vividly described by New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner:
She made her entry entirely nude except for a pink flamingo feather between her limbs; she was being carried upside down and doing the splits on the shoulder of a black giant [Joe Alex]. Midstage he paused, and with his long fingers holding her basket-wise around the waist, swung her in a slow cartwheel to the stage floor, where she stood. . . . She was an unforgettable female ebony statue. A scream of salutation spread through the theater. Whatever happened next was unimportant. The two specific elements had been established and were unforgettable-her magnificent dark body, a new model that to the French proved for the first time that black was beautiful, and the acute response of the white masculine public in the capital of hedonism of all Europe-Paris.
When the troupe of twenty musicians and performers of La Revue Nègre came to Paris on October 2, 1925, Paul Colin, a young artist from Nancy, had recently created a poster for the Swedish Ballet. Through a friend who had become the administrator of the popular Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Colin was commissioned to create a poster for the Revue. The successful design of his poster-influenced by the work of Mexican-born artist Miguel Covarrubias, who created the backdrops for the Revue-launched Colin's career as a poster and theatrical designer. Over the next twenty-five years, Colin became one of France's preeminent graphic artists, creating some 1,900 posters and hundreds of sets for the theater. After a brief love affair, Paul Colin and Josephine Baker maintained a long-lasting friendship, which resulted in numerous commissions for posters, program covers, and other designs documenting her remarkable career.
In 1927, Colin contributed thirty illustrations to Baker's Mémoires and mounted a spectacular event called the Bal Nègre at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which was attended by three thousand Parisians. These efforts to celebrate the "black craze" led him to publish Le Tumulte Noir. Colin drew the images for his portfolio directly on lithographic stone, and they were subsequently colored using the process known as pochoir. Requiring great skill, this technique involves a series of hand-cut stencil plates for each color application, and short, stubby brushes called pompons. Pochoir prints, characterized by areas of rich, flat color painted in gouache or watercolor, determined the look of Art Deco graphics until the hand-color process gave way to less expensive photochemical methods around 1935.
Combining music, dance, and the reckless energy of the jazz era, Colin created dynamic images that reveal both his genuine admiration for his subject and his remarkable flair for graphic design. The lithographs-inspired by African sculpture, Cubism, and Art Deco modernism-portray the eclectic movements of the performers and the Parisians' frenzied imitations. One geometrical figure, holding a flag, was inspired by a Fernand Léger poster of the Swedish dancer Jean Börlin. A jazz ensemble performing against a fragmented backdrop of ocean liner, skyscrapers, and construction equipment evokes the Revue Nègre band, led by pianist Claude Hopkins, with drummer Percy Johnson, Bass Hill playing the tuba, Joe Hayman on saxophone, trombonist Daniel Doy, and Sidney Bechet on clarinet.
T wo images in Le Tumulte Noir specifically portray Josephine Baker: one shows her wearing a skirt of palm leaves, and the other, her famous skirt of bananas. According to her son and biographer, Jean-Claude Baker, this exotic costume was probably designed by Monsieur Christian, companion of the preeminent couturier Paul Poiret. Baker wore the original skirt of satin bananas that swung freely about her hips when she starred in her own show at the popular Folies-Bergère music hall in 1926. In her role as Fatou, set in a jungle, Baker descended to the stage by climbing backwards down a tree. The fashionable heiress Nancy Cunard described the provocative, improvisational dance that followed as "the purest of African plastic in motion-it was free, perfect and exact, it centered admirably on the spare gold banana fronds round the dynamic hips." The New York Times later wrote that "real stardom" for Baker dated to her banana clad appearance at the Folies-Bergère. Other female images in the portfolio, such as a figure dancing on a grand piano, evoke Baker's distinctive, long-limbed body type and flexible physique.
Unlike fellow dancer Louis Douglas, who was already popular in Europe, Baker was relatively unknown when she came to Paris in 1925. After two noteworthy appearances in music hall revues, she was chosen for the cast of La Revue Nègre. Although Paul Colin would later claim that he had persuaded the directors to feature Baker in the Revue instead of blues singer Maud de Forrest, she had already been engaged as the star before leaving America. However, he did introduce her to the haute société and the artistic elite of Paris. Baker enchanted a host of writers and artists, including Georges Simenon, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Alexander Calder, and architect Adolf Loos, to name a few.
The Parisian fascination with black culture, which peaked with the jazz era and the Roaring Twenties, was inspired by a complex web of cultural influences. Following Picasso's so-called discovery of African sculpture around 1906, l'art nègre became a dominant force in many avant garde circles, as artists perceived in non-Western art forms a pure and intuitive creative impulse, in contrast to the over-refined artifice they deplored in Western European art.
In the performing arts, the folie noire was an outgrowth of the nineteenth-century minstrel shows in the bohemian nightclubs of Montmartre. Around the turn of the century, Parisians enjoyed ragtime and danced to cakewalk music. During the First World War, jazz rhythms were imported by regimental bands and other groups touring in France. The advent of radio in the early twenties brought a greater vogue for American jazz, and it soon prevailed throughout the fashionable nightclubs and dance halls of the capital. New Orleans musician Sidney Bechet was among these early jazz disciples, playing in Paris several years before his appearance with the Revue Nègre.
The success of the 1923 ballet The Creation of the World-which incorporated African creation stories, a musical score with jazz overtones, and Fernand Léger's sets and costumes derived from African art-was a precursor to the more popular Revue Nègre of 1925. Both were produced by Rolf de Maré at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and culminated in the reign of Josephine Baker. In the words of dance critic André Levinson, she was a "sinuous idol that enslaves and incites mankind." After only a few weeks in Paris, Baker was appearing in fashionable nightclubs as one of the most sought-after entertainers. At a gala celebration for the monumental Art Deco exposition of 1925, "La Baker" was featured as the guest artist. She followed the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova-who had danced during the appetizer-with a tantalizing performance during the main course.
The Parisian infatuation with the Charleston is described in Baker's humorous anecdote, "Topic of the Day," which she wrote specifically for Paul Collin's portfolio. She adopted Florenz Ziegfeld's famous quote, "It's getting darker and darker in old Broadway," to relate to similar developments in Paris since the arrival of the Revue Nègre. In her later Mémoires, Baker was more critical of the Parisians' attempts at refining the Charleston. She insisted on more abandon, with "hips pressed together, one foot crossing the other, sticking out the behind and shaking your hands about. For too long people have hidden their behinds: they exist, I see no reason to be ashamed of them."
Josephine Baker lived the rest of her life in France. Over the next two decades, she made numerous world tours, starred in several films, and recorded songs that she had made famous, such as "J'ai deux amours." Although she retired for a few years in the 1950s with her "rainbow tribe" of adopted children, Baker maintained a rigorous performance schedule. Still adored by fans worldwide, she made her final triumphant appearance on the Paris stage at the age of sixty-nine.
Le Tumulte Noir captures the spirit of uninhibited expression that Josephine Baker embodied throughout her remarkable career. Paul Colin's unique tribute to the African American entertainers who brought the jazz age to Paris not only celebrates Josephine Baker, but also the French love affair with the Charleston and jazz music, and the monumental impact of these artists on French popular culture during the 1920s.
LuLen Walker, Department of Prints and Drawings