oliver craner

Sunday, June 27, 2004


Paula Gellibrand looked like a Modigliani come to life. Rooms framed her. She dressed according to the instructions of avant-garde decorator Baroness d’Erlanger: very plain nurses coifs; her nun’s habit wedding dress; a hat trimmed with wisteria for the Ritz; a coat of honey beige summer ermine to match her Bentley’s pigskin upholstery. She married the Cuban-Castilian Marquis de Casa Maury, a Bugatti-driving Grand Prix ace who owned the first Bermuda-rigged schooner in Europe. He lost his fortune during the Wall Street Crash and 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 Lord Byron’s old house in Piccadilly, attended by a Mameluke. A distinctive belle-laide, her black bob was as hard and glossy as Chinese lacquer, she rimmed her eyes with thick kohl, painted her lips scarlet and the tips of her nails maroon. She wore severe black robes and masculine suits to contrast the prevalent chiffon plunge and emphasise her razor-shell figure. On the Riviera she wore swimsuits threaded with jewels and artificial fruit, topped with a tarbush cap. In the late 30s she opened a shop in Paris selling Tyrolean 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 glycerine 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, lose corporeal bits. Shadows organised on a white disc. Inside Beaton’s lens 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 Caviar.” 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. Hedonism 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 are new options. There is dancing in restaurants. Dancing at the Silver Slipper with the glass floor and dancing to stay slim for clothes and tennis. Smart, rich girls in Coco Chanel lines. Nowitzky bathing suits on the Venice Lido; a champagne picnic on the sand. In some hovel in Montmartre, choking on nicotine and tar; abstraction, a beautiful woman who does not wash, hard liquor 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 indestructible 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, and 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 artefacts, 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 aristocracy who embraced Surrealism, Modernism, Communism and civil rights. An only child, she was heir to the Cunard Liner estate, but formally disinherited for living with a black jazz pianist on the Left Bank. In 1931 she wrote a matricidal pamphlet titled Black Man - White Ladyship, a satirical attack on the moral hypocrisy of English society as embodied by Lady Emerald Cunard, whom she buried. She was a poet in thrall to Eliot and Pound, wrote a superior Wasteland pastiche (Parallax) and set up The Hours Press which printed original editions of various Cantos and Beckett’s first published poem. Later, she traveled to Spain and reported on the Civil War for the Manchester Guardian. She collated a massive anthology titled 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 U.S. Langston Hughes hailed her as “an appreciator of the off-beat from jazz to ivory bracelets and witch doctors to Cocteau.” Final accounts tell of deteriorating mental health, alcoholism, 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 kohl 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!
Cecil Beaton

Interior of white silk, feather and crystal by Lalique and Daum with a couple of Balla lamps. Straw hats and summer dresses: emphasis on the outdoor life: sport and exercise and sunshine. 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 bandeaux to keep hair off face, black bone cigarette holder so fingers stay unstained.

...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 Madeleine 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: breeze ripples in pen and ink illustrations, long bodies and low waists. Expensive cases lifted onto transatlantic flights. Exclusive cocktails, complex crossword puzzles and bright yo-yos to otherwise break monotony and underline boredom or undermine elegance. Cloche hat flat and cold breath, nylon rolled down to toes and Perri gloves past wrists. Finery silk stockings, sphere suspenders and French heels. Lee Miller and Marion Morehouse spilling around Conde Nast’s New York apartment, handcuffs stashed in a laundry bag. Free of guilt with plenty of Freud; galoshes unbuckled, brims angled just so. We want to be: the quick, the quintessential. 

Without beauty the appeal of myth remains: lost estates; creeping vines; deer in vast parks. On the wind: the first aviators attempt another Atlantic crossing. At play, for very high stakes, outside the blank and black hearts of Mayfair and Fitzrovia, the Champs-Élysées 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, green lawns with cement paths. Le Corbusier and Gropiu
s draft Utopia and the next bout of hate delivers a chance to turn theory into practice. 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 /
My Choice.

Le Corbusier

posted by oc  # 3:24 PM

citta vecchio

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