Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker
at the Folies-Bergère
Stanislaus Julian Walery (active 1880s-1920s)
gelatin silver print, 1926

dancer in palm skirt

dancers in headresses

man in hat

In 1925, Josephine Baker (1906-1975) and the musicians and performers of her troupe, La Revue Nègre, exploded on the stage at Paris' Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with a wild new dance called the Charleston. The Jazz Age was at its height, and Baker was destined to become its high priestess.

Four years later, French poster artist Paul Colin (1892-1985), Baker's one-time lover and life-long friend, published a portfolio of vividly colored lithographs titled "Le Tumulte Noir" ("The Black Craze") which captured the exuberant jazz music and dance that dazzled Paris.

Fourteen lithographs from Colin's portfolio are on view through September 14 at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in a one-room exhibition titled "Le Tumulte Noir: Paul Colin's Jazz Age Portfolio." The works were selected from the portfolio in the gallery's permanent collection by LuLen Walker of the Department of Prints and Drawings.

The show is augmented by recordings of Baker and other musicians of the day, including the renowned clarinetist and saxophone player Sidney Bechet, one of the featured artists of the Revue Nègre.

When Baker arrived in Paris, Colin was an aspiring young artist from Nancy. A friend at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées commissioned him to create a poster to publicize La Revue Nègre, which launched his career in graphic design. Colin recalled that his first glimpse of Baker was during rehearsal for the "Danse Sauvage," an erotic pas-de-deux she performed wearing only a string of feathers about her waist and neck. He invited her to visit his studio that night to model for his poster, which was such a success that he was asked to join the theater's artistic staff.

The meeting of Baker and Colin was fortuitous for them both. Baker found a devoted supporter who introduced her to French society and some of Paris' artistic elite. Colin found a muse and a career that produced some 1,900 posters and hundreds of stage sets, and brought him preeminence in the graphic arts in France.

Baker left the Revue in 1926 to star in her own show at the Folies-Bergère (a vintage photograph of Baker taken by Stanislaus Walery at the Folies in 1926 is included in the show), and the troupe disbanded, but Baker's star continued to rise as she performed to wild acclaim in clubs across Paris. In 1927, at age 21, she published her memoirs with illustrations by Colin.

Encouraged by Baker's growing popularity, Colin mounted a spectacular event in 1927 called the Bal Nègre, which was attended by some 3,000 Parisians. This success and the growing craze for Baker-inspired music and dance convinced him to celebrate, as well as capitalize on, the phenomenon by creating "Le Tumulte Noir" in 1929.

Baker is specifically portrayed twice; in one print she wears a skirt of palm leaves, and in another she wears the famous skirt of yellow bananas introduced at the Folies-Bergère music hall in 1926. Other prints feature various performers from the Revue, including a double sheet rendering of the orchestra performing against an Art Deco cityscape, and Parisians ecstatically dancing the Charleston.

Also on view is the dedication page in Baker's own handwriting, titled "Topic of the Day," a humorous anecdote describing the Parisians' fascination with the Charleston. Published in an edition of 500, the lithographs for "Le Tumulte Noir" were drawn on stone by Paul Colin, and subsequently colored by hand using a then-popular, and time consuming technique called pochoir. This process required a separate stencil for each color application and special brushed called pompons.

"Le Tumulte Noir" is a marvelous achievement of Art Deco graphic design, a style which took its name from the influential 1925 Exposition of Decorative Arts in Paris. The portfolio also shows elements inspired by artists such as Cubist painter Fernand Léger and Mexican-born artist Miguel Covarrubias, who designed the backdrops for La Revue Nègre.

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