When the only thing you can impose on the world is your body…

By Sylvie Chalaye

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Long slender legs, amber skin, a willowy silhouette… globalisation influences the criteria of physical beauty, imposing an ideal that extols firm muscles and slenderness around the world. The black body – whose archetype was incarnated by Josephine Baker – has progressively become the ideal model

From New York to Tokyo, from Buenos Aires to Dakar, Paris, or Athens, the female ideal is pretty much universal. We have come a long way from Rubens’ chubby Venuses, Boucher’s odalisque curves, and Ingres’ milky beauties. The invention of a modern body that has ended up imposing its canons on Europe and the rest of the world is one of history’s riper ironies.
The very people who Europe stripped naked and reduced to their bodies through slavery have turned around the vision of the body that the West reduced them to by imposing this representation as a model. The very people whom the West stripped of all their possessions and property have finally, and inadvertently, created a model out of the only thing left to them: the carnal idea that the West had of them, the proof that the Other is often no more than the projection of one’s own fantasies. And the person who would crystallise this fantasy, brandishing it before the dazzled Parisian gaze, was Josephine Baker.
From the end of the nineteenth century to the 1930s, the vision of the body underwent a profound change, as did aesthetic canons and, of course, sensuality and eroticism. This change coincided with the advent of photography and film too. Yet this total revolution was not of a technical order. It was the result a profound change in mentalities inspired by the effect that the vision of the Other would have from within, in the context of what was then the emerging colonial empire. These changes, which were to trigger a new conception of the body, lay in the body of the Other and the discovery of a different way of apprehending this body through music and dance.
The invention of the modern body was intrinsically related to colonial history and the black world. The emergence, or rather the recognition of a new body, whose aesthetic criteria mirrored those of modernity, took place in the 1920s. This Twenties’ modern body was an African body in the same way that people spoke about « art nègre », or « African art », at the time. And it is no less of a paradox that this Africa, which colonial ideology defined as archaic, as the opposite of progress, ultimately imposed the canons of a modern aesthetic on Europe without Europe even realising it. What is more, these canons touch on what is most intimate, as they concern the body and people’s own self-projections.
At the very heart of this change in the vision of the body were movement, rapidity, and lightning speed – the same values that characterised futurism. These were the values of modernity that drove the avant-gardes, later expressing themselves in a new corporeality: that of black performers.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, the body was above all conceived in the representational arts as form and mass. In painting, the representation of female sensuality, and of nudity in particular, was expressed through plumpness and generosity. These evanescent forms were often hazy, clouded, with blurred contours in almost always lascivious, abandoned, proffered poses.
Tonicity, muscle, energy and movement, on the other hand, were associated with the virile body. This dynamic dimension of the body taut with effort belonged in particular to the in itself revolutionary work of the romantics, who represented the energy of the body. Géricault and Delacroix in painting and Rodin, and Camille Claudel in the field of sculpture heralded this vision of a new corporeality already incarnated by dance.
It was thus perhaps no accident that Géricault and Délacroix were among the first nineteenth-century artists to study the black body and to propose a real anatomical approach that highlighted its energy and dynamism. One only need think of the human pyramid in Géricault’s Radeau de la Méduse with its taut black silhouette that crystallises the vessel’s entire vital energy, or the black slaves with bodies rearing like horses in Delacroix’s La mort de Sardanapal.
This new vision of the body, which did not assert itself as the physical ideal until 1925 through the emblematic figure of Josephine Baker, emerged with the change in vision that took place at the turn of the century thanks to the discovery of a corporal reality that was accessible to people’s gazes: that offered by popular colonial anthropology.
Colonial anthropology and the rediscovery of the body
At the end of the nineteenth century, anthropology blossomed unprecedentedly thanks to the colonial enterprise. It was popularised through the organisation of exhibitions that were open to the general public, but which nevertheless claimed to advance scientific knowledge. As early as 1870, the first exhibitions of natives from the colonies were held in Paris’ Jardin d’Acclimatation, Hippodrome and on the Champs de Mars.
These exhibitions appeared in plates published by newspapers such as L’Illustration and Le Petit Journal. They were also turned into postcards thanks to the emergence of photography, posters and, a short time later, the cinema.
The native body offered a lively, authentic nudity that was unheard of up until now. The body was presented live to those visiting the « native villages ». And that was precisely what fascinated society at the time – just like the Lumière Brothers’ film showing a spectacle that the Parisians just couldn’t get enough of: naked black children readily partaking in a little game of jumping into the water over and over again, to the great amusement of the spectators. The native body was exhibited in action, without any barriers – aside, that is, from those of these « zoographic » spaces.
At the time, nudity was taboo in European society. Bodies were covered to the extreme. Women were corseted and let nothing show. Culottes, stockings, high boots, petticoats – women’s bodies were hidden away beneath clothes and finery, whereas men wore hats and three-piece suits. Nudity was pictorial, but it was not real. The body remained representation, drawings, images, and dreams. Even the showgirls who exhibited their charms at the Folies kept their waists ensconced in bustiers, the only eroticism they offered being their chignons let down over the hint of a bosom… Yet the Jardin d’Acclimatation and the « native villages » offered spectators bodies in the flesh that were tangible, live, dancing and, above all, scantly clad. These bodies were to be viewed, unabashedly. This was a nudity, an authorised corporeality.
This cheap anthropology unclothed young black women for the pleasure of the bourgeoisie. These exhibitions naturally found their extension in the music halls. The show Zoulous titillated the ladies at the Folies-Bergère, whilst bare-breasted Dahomeans dazzled menfolk at the Casino de Paris. The feather-wearing savages’ bare, muscly torsos and the black dancing girls’ shimmying, jumping breasts moved the Third Republic’s bourgeois society.
This exotic nudity was soon joined at the music hall by the corporeal exhibition of black American boxers who started coming to Paris in around 1900, and who were soon all the rage, including Jack Johnson and Sam Mac Vea. Natives, dancers, or boxers, these performers’ bodies had a plastic and athletic quality that constituted the shows’ chief attraction.
The invention of the savage body
The bare bodies of savages, boxers or erotic dancers soon became a source of fascination. The male or female black body could not possibly arouse desire: it was indecent and practically immoral even to think of it in the Third Republic’s bourgeois and puritan society. Black male and female dancers were associated with forbidden pleasures, with the world of licentiousness and debauchery. The cabarets recognised this at once, precisely using a complete array of advertising imagery in which the dancing black person was the guarantee of a place where people had fun. These included the Bal Tabarin, the Bateau-Lavoir and all the other venues in Montmartre where the Edwardian bourgeoisie came to let its hair down…
In addition to this fascination for the bare, athletic body was a fascination for « black body movement », those undulations that liberated the chest and pelvis. These movements came to represent an unbridled sensuality, as André Salmon recounts in La négresse du Sacré-Coeur, describing the dance of « the supple African woman with streamlined bronze skin. » The body of the savage, an « instinctive body », the image of freedom, of unbridled erotic urges was thus invented. It incarnated the emancipation of the body, freed of the spiritual and reason. It spelt transgression and letting oneself go.
These dancers were rarely given a face in the drawings and posters that depict them. They were above all silhouettes and an undulation, a movement. We are truly looking at bodies here. The faces have vanished. It is not the beings, but exclusively the flesh that titillated, and people refused to see the individual.
Already by 1902, what can be defined as the black silhouette was already fixed in the imagination of the bourgeoisie out looking for new sensations, as proves the caricaturist Auguste Roubille’s drawing. This drawing already established the female silhouette that would impose itself on the Parisian public some twenty years later: a moving shadow, with a swinging leg, pert rump, naked missile breasts, and a smooth head… The savage body was the incarnation of sexual fantasy. And it was a fantasy because the real coming together of bodies was not even thinkable or avowable.
The black body thus inspired a great deal of Edwardian artists. Painters such as Matisse or Van Dongen renewed the conception of the nude by working notably on silhouettes and movement.
After 1910, when Europe was on the brink of war, the colonial empire adopted a real ideology. The African native was systematically associated with the image of strength, effort, a surging tonicity needed by an ageing Europe. The energy and vitality of the natives from the colonies guaranteed France’s future. The attributes of the black body highlighted were thus energy, strength and tonicity. A « virile » aesthetic was conferred on the black female body, a muscly, streamline bronze coloured body with no hair, breasts sticking out like missiles, and body movements that were indecent and provocative in their brazen tonicity.
From the black to the modern body
After the war, the physique of the black dancing body continued to inflame the music halls which put on shows starring Habib Benglia and Aïcha. But it also interested the avant-garde theatre scene. Roger Bastide, Gaston Baty and Firmin Gémier integrated Benglia into shows in which he performed naked and danced to the sound of drums.
Every time, the press was extremely sensitive to Benglia’s bodily presence. Pierre Scize from the Bonsoir paper thus described the actor’s performance in Coup de bambou, directed by Bastide with the La Grimace theatre, as follows: « Mr. Benglia – La Grimace’s Negro – is naked, and thus handsome. He has an absolutely outstanding plastic sense. When he bends his light bronze leg and arches back his torso rippling with long and pure muscles to fire the bow of Kama, he looks like one of those Indian divinities, those carnal and ethereal ensembles, caught in matter and breathing in the heavens. » (1)
Gaston Baty even staged L’Empereur Jones at the Odéon in 1923 with Benglia in the lead role. The critics’ comments remained just as focused on Benglia’s bare body: « His entire body bends, straightens, leaps up and falls back down. He turns his black nude into a poem expressing distress or hope. An actor acts with his mind and his face. Mr. Benglia acts with his muscles. It cannot be said of Mr. Benglia that his chest speaks and his shoulder blades cry. He is drenched in sweat, making his bronze coloured torso shine, proving that he indeed suffers all the agonies of Emperor Jones. It is impossible to be more sincere, to be closer to animality, and to be more of a performer. This is self-sculpture. This is life incarnated in the flesh. This is the triumph of anatomy. » (2)
Baty also put on Haya at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées a year earlier, with Aïcha in the role of the young black woman Nyota. She wore only a « short rustling grass skirt » and the critics appreciated the audacity of the stage direction: « We have to strongly applaud the delicious impression of plastic harmony that Mrs Aïcha offers us », it could be read in Comoedia. (3)
The change in the new aesthetic canons and the vision of the body as a primarily dynamic and streamlined silhouette was stigmatised by the Revue Nègre in 1925, again at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, the avant-garde’s lair. This hairless, uncorseted androgynous image of black beauty echoed that of the Roaring Twenties’ liberated woman, who was indeed nicknamed « la garçonne », or tomboy.
In 1925, Josephine Baker became a symbol of this modern corporeality in which sensuality was tonic, body movements sporty, legs kick high in the air, and the body was suspended. It offered the Parisian spectators the image of black women that they themselves had constructed: nudity, tonicity, sensual undulations, a streamlined figure, and a string of bananas around the waist for guaranteed exoticism.
But it was Paul Derval, the new director of the Folies-Bergère, who would inscribe the beauty canons’ modern metamorphosis on the parchment of the show world. Before the war, women’s waists were trussed in corsets, their long and sylphlike hair expressing their sensuality. But, as of 1920, Mistinguett showed her legs at the Folies-Bergère and Erté’s costumes revealed the performers’ bodies. There was a play on veils, the transparency of materials, and feathers that half-hid. They started to unveil a breast… Yet, this image lacked movement and energy, the girls just posing and parading.
Josephine Baker introduced this streamlined body whose criteria of eroticisation came from its tonicity and energy – masculine values that reflected women’s nascent emancipation. She bared all: just a flower on her nipples and a string of bananas to cover her behind. Moreover, Josephine exposed herself differently, moving, in a physical performance, comic gesticulations, and contortions even, rather than in lascivious abandon. Her body did not pose; it exploded with energy and imposed the image of the whirlwind, of an animated, undulating liana whose movement Paul Colin tried to arrest in his drawings.
After the success of the Champs-Elysées, Paul Derva, who had just been put in charge of running the Folies-Bergère, and who was seeking to give his music hall a new lease of life, saw that Josephine incarnated the muse of modernity. He thus hired her to star in a major revue, La Folie du jour, directed by Pierre Fréjol. He redid the music hall’s entire décor ready to open in style in 1926. On the theatre’s art deco façade (which still exists today), and in the auditorium’s ceiling rose, which became the Folies-Bergère’s emblematic image, spectators discovered a female silhouette in the style of Josephine in 1926. She is not black, of course, but the female body here the aesthetic canons of the female body had definitively changed. With its simple traits, purity of lines and undulations, beauty now lay in the muscle, the slender silhouette, the stretching, the energy. The « girl » was born, modelled on Josephine Baker’s shadow, and would impose its ideal silhouette on generations of women to come…

1. Pierre Scize, Bonsoir, 21 December 1922.
2. René Wisner, Le Carnet, 11 November 1923.
3. Marcel Rieu, Comoedia, 24 February 1922.
///Article N° : 5687

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