Book Review: George Barbier. The Birth of Art Deco

George Barbier The Birth of Art Deco Edited by Barbara Martorelli Publisher: Marsilio List Price: $50 Release Date: September 8, 2009 176 pages ISBN Number: 978-88-317-9464-0 Image

This gorgeous book is the exhibit catalogue for the first retrospective exhibit on the work of George Barbier held at the Museo Fortuny in Venice, Italy from August 2008 through January 2009. The catalogue includes reproductions of drawings, articles, pochoirs, photographs, books, manuscripts, and sketches culled from the collections of Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo – Study Centre of the History of Fabrics and Costumes, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale in France, Musée des Beaux Arts in Nantes, as well as from private Italian and French collections. The catalogue contains eight illuminating essays by French and Italian scholars about Barbier’s work in the theatre, his impressions of Venice, eroticism, fashion, pochoirs, book illustration and advertising illustration.

Who was this talented and prolific artist? Well, we may never find out that much about Barbier’s personal life. Little, if any, personal correspondence or other archival material has been located to date. Six months after George Barbier’s death in 1932 at the age of 50, his entire library was auctioned off and his work was disseminated throughout the world to museums and private collections. Prior to his death he donated his erotic Japanese Shunga prints and a portion of his book collection to the Bibliothèque Nationale and a small collection of other work to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes.

Perhaps more importantly is what Barbier did leave us - - his work. This work comes alive in the beautifully reproduced illustrations. While he studied art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he seemed to find inspiration everywhere, but mostly through his love of art, fine books, and of Japanese prints. The influence of Japanese prints on late 19th and early 20th century artists was clearly not unique to Barbier, but he seemed to translate that influence a little more directly into artwork that was full of sinuous lines, full of detail, yet simple and modern at the same time.

Barbier worked with a who’s who of modern art disciplines. In the fashion world, he illustrated the designs for Poiret, Paquin, Lanvin, Worth, and Vionnet, among others. Beginning in 1910, he worked very closely with the jeweler Louis Cartier (who also was a collector of Barbier’s work), a relationship that lasted for many years. Barbier illustrated the first black panther for Cartier and created jewelry designs for Cartier, as well. He also worked with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes. He is most commonly associated with the fashion illustrations he executed for the Gazette du Bon Ton from 1912-1925. Barbier did not only illustrate other artists’ work, he created original designs for costumes and scenery for the theatre, and even film, such as Monsieur Beaucaire starring Rudolph Valentino in 1924. His love of fine books led him to create some of the most resplendent book illustrations of the period, many of which are displayed in the catalogue.

While this reviewer unfortunately didn’t make it to Venice to see this exhibit in person, by spending some time with this book, I almost felt as if I had been there. Barbier is considered one of the finest illustrators of the Art Deco era. No matter where one’s specific Deco interest lies, this would make an excellent addition to any Decophile’s library. Reviewed by Amy Ronnebeck Hall