Paula Gellibrand was like a Modigliani come to life. Rooms framed her. She dressed to the strict diktat of avant garde
decorator Baroness d'Erlanger: for example, very plain nurses coifs or her nun's habit wedding dress; otherwise, a hat trimmed with wisteria for the Ritz, or a coat of honey beige summer ermine to match the pigskin upholstery inside her Bentley. She married the Cuban-Castilian Marquis de Casa Maury, a Bugatti-driving Grand Prix ace. He owned the first Bermuda-rigged schooner in Europe, lost his fortune during the Wall Street Crash, and then remade it running the Curzon cinema in Soho. Baba d'Erlanger, daughter of the Baroness, was Paula's best friend, and another exotic addition to London nightlife. She grew up in Byron's old house in Piccadilly, attended by a robed and turbaned marmaluke; her parents held magnificent children's parties and dressed her up in gold. A distinctive belle laide
, Baba's black bob was hard and glossy like Chinese lacquer; she rimmed her eyes with thick khol, and painted her lips scarlet and the tips of her nails maroon. Her black robes and suits were very severe to contrast the prevalent chiffon plunge and emphasise her razor-shell figure. On the Riviera she wore swimsuits threaded with jewels, bunches of artificial fruit and a tarbush cap; in the late 30s she opened a shop in Paris selling Tyroclean beachwear. In 1923 she married Prince Louis de Facigny-Lucinge. This left: Iris Tree and Tallulah Bankhead; a floor girl or two at Taglioni's; Duchess Sforza in a silver lace hat with glycerined ostrich feathers; Ina Claire wrapped in an enormous rough white caracul coat; the Dolly Sisters gambling away all their money at Cannes in front of a crowd six-deep.
Cecil Beaton and Greta Garbo indulged in "a dangerous game of staring full-face at each other" - dangerous because obsessive scrutiny disfigures, contours become indistinct, flaws magnify and twist into deformities. Individuality immolates when parts fracture. So Beaton liked to remake the face
, let it compose itself and record that final composition. In so doing, the face would lose flesh and blood and breath, lose corporeal bits
. Shadows organised on a white disc. Inside Beaton's lense and out (after-image
) the face became an orchestration of light. Selenic topology: LUNAR FACES. A peculiar, half-empty idolatry, signifying nothing but secular apotheosis.
"Panchromatic film dragged the face back down to earth" ushering a wider malaise: singularity erased. In 1957, Beaton published an anthology called The Face of the World
, his eulogistic gift to a "faceless" society filled with "Human Caviare." Individuality, he said, must entail: a certain intensity and mystery; something exclusive and divined
a shopping trip could not only make you a new person but might help to salvage the human race, resisting the drab regimentation that had overtaken the world.
No one actually thinks about it anymore. Sour joy is a satisfying and sensual response to destruction. In the Weimar Republic it is bitter, savage, deracinated; something other, sublimated or violated (George Grosz, Otto Dix). For the rest, it is not exorcism, just rejection, simply. For example, things happen. People appear out of nowhere. There's new options. There's dancing in restaurants. Dancing at the Silver Slipper with the glass floor and dancing to keep slim for clothes and tennis for the same reason. Smart, rich girls in Coco Chanel lines everywhere. Nowitzky bathing suits on the Venice Lido; a champagne picnic on the sand. Trauma, broken glass, blood, a bit of make-up, a dance and a swim. In some hovel in Montmartre, choking on nicotine and tar; abstraction, a beautiful woman who does not wash, hard licqour, and crusty loaves. Or, a flight to the Alps, to go skiing; a whole new set of friends and clothes and snow still settled, still untouched, sky surprisingly clear.
Add inherited wealth: money amassed alongside prestige and indestructable class and social tiers, all part of the same tight bond that will, in turn, harness the hard glow of youth. Nancy Cunard and Iris Tree cause a slight rip in the social fabric: have it all given, use it, lose it, gain something else.
Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Baraba Ker-Seymer portraits, 1928.
Nancy's Hours Press office at 15 rue Guebeguad in Paris gave off...an antipatriotic glow made of blue notes and fed flags and ivory bracelets, - a certain surrealistic glamour composed of sex, primitivism, left politics and jazz. And there she staged a series of salons in the 20s and 30s around the intersections of surrealism, communism, avant-garde writing, African art and ivory artifacts, jazz and anti-fascism in Spain, a centre where African intellectuals and political leaders and black artists from all over the world were apt to meet Beckett or Janet Flanner, Louis Aragon or George Moore.
She was a daughter of the land-owning classes who emraced Surrealism, poetry, Communism and civil rights. An only child, she was heir to the Cunard Liner estate, but was disinherited for fucking a black jazz pianist. In 1931 she wrote a matricidal pamphlet titled Black Man - White Ladyship
, a satirical attack on the moral hypocrasy of English society as embodied by Lady Emerald Cunard. She was a poet in thrall to Eliot and Pound, wrote a superior Wasteland
) and set up The Hours Press which published first editions of various Cantos
and debuted Beckett. Later, she travelled to Spain and reported on the Civil War for the Manchester Guardian
. She collated a massive anthology called Negro
which invented cultural studies before it was invented, and was better. In the 20s Vogue
wrote about her clothes and lovers. In the 30s the FBI tried to stop her entering the US. Langston Hughes hailed her as "an appreciator of the off-beat from jazz to ivory bracelets and witch doctors to Cocteau." Final accounts of Cunard tell of deteriorating mental health, drink problems, ravings in hotel lobbies and Paris streets. According to Janet Flanner she spent her last two years writing an epic poem in illegible handwriting on scraps of paper; a poem "against all wars" called Visions Experienced by the Bards of the Middle Ages
Nancy wears: tightly-bound headscarves, a net veiling the eyes, a silk scarf tied around her neck or a beaded necklace, heavy African bangles creeping up her arms, leg warmers ("chic shackles"), pale skin emphasised by khol and thick lipstick. In the gap between intention and effect style emerges. Cunard's askew and torn-in-two look clarifies itself: the more tribalised she makes her body, the whiter
it becomes. Skeletal arms weighed down with thick ivory bracelets up to her elbows. An aristocratic English body decorated with tribal markings. Appropriations and erotic codes: empathy and attraction. Crack continents apart, and re-convene.
We want elbow room; we abominate 'fuss'. Strange contradiction in a neurotic age!
Interior of white silks and feather and crystal by Lalique and Daum. A couple of lamps by Balla. Straw hats and summer dresses. Emphasis on the outdoor life: sport, excercise, sunshine. To keep the figure slim. For clothes. No fuss. As clear and calm as a Helen Dryden Vogue
illustration: black china coffee cup placed on steel table, black bandeux
to keep hair off face, black bone cigarette holder so fingers stay unstained. So
...Music came gently in the person of Constant Lambert, the brilliant writer of Diaghilev ballets, who told me that Osbert Sitwell is ill at Amalfi. A shoal of cinema beauties entered, led by lovely Madaleine Carroll. More and more men. All brought bottles...The heat was terrific - the very caviar was hatching out - but the party went on till six.
Easy sailing in slacks: very nice, lovely, breeze ripples in pen and ink illustrations, long bodies and low waists. Expensive cases lifted onto transatlantic flights. Nice cocktails and superexpensive kisses and tips and trips. Crossword puzzles and yo-yos to otherwise break monotony and underline boredom or undermine elegance. Cloche hat flat and cold breath and a khol slash and nylon rolled down to toes and Perri gloves past wrists. Finery silk stockings, sphere suspenders and French heels. Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse mumbling and spilling about and looking long and lenghy in Conde Nast's New York apartment. One or other kept handcuffs in a laundry bag just in case. Free of guilt with plenty of Freud; galoshes unbuckled, brims angled just so. We want to be: The quick, the quintessential.
Take away beauty and the appeal of myth remains: lost estates; creeping vines; deers in vast parks. On the wind, the first aviators, and another attempt at crossing the Atlantic. At play, for very high stakes, outside the blank and black hearts of Mayfair and Fitzrovia and the Champs Elysee and Montmartre
it explodes and tears land apart, striates continents, drains oceans. Franz Marc, The Fate of the Animals
the artistic reflex of all these offensives...
29th October 1929.
Replace trees with walls. The green lawn with cement paths. Le Corbusier and Bauhaus draft Utopian plans and the next bout of hate provides a chance to turn theory into practice. As cheap as possible, please. It's a beautiful victory, a vision: buildings in femo-concrete and vita-glass; marble, metals, variegated wood and lacquer.
Stress resolved; frames; dynamic forces; rivets and celluloid.
Instinct defaults like currency.
One has / With a Charcoal / Traced the right angle /
The Sign / Which is the response and guide / The Act /
The Response / The Choice / It is simple and naked /
But seizable / The savants discuss its relativity and rigour /
But of the conscience / In fact it is a sign /
It is the response and guide / The Act / My Response /