From Fetish to Subject: Race, Modernism, and Primitivism, 1919-1935

By Carole Sweeney | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Black Woman/Colonial Body

Almost immediately after her debut in La Revue Nègre, an 18-year-old black American woman became the metaphor of the negrophile moment: “the sound of jazz, the beauty of African art as interpreted by the Cubists, represented by decorative artists and symbolised for them in the angular movements of Josephine Baker” (Hammond and O’ Connor 18). The combination of the modern and the ancient, or the primitive, offered a concretising moment of self-assurance for the French audience as the spectacle of both forged fragile links between the past, the present, and the future. Jean Laude calls this “la présentification du passé,” in which the anxieties of the civilisation—the uncertain realignment of European nation-states, the growth of consumer capitalism, and mass culture, urbanisation, and social alienation—are sublimated into the immediacy of an exotic/primitive spectacle of “l’expression corporelle” (410, 417). The success of La Revue Nègre and Baker herself was, in part, predicated upon a collective desire for a fanstasmic geographical and temporal elsewhere. The blatant artifice of the music-hall stage was ideal for this particularly modern(ist) configuration of race and visual spectacle and the primitivist discourses that became commonplace in the numerous reviews of the Revue acknowledged the artifice of the shows but were nevertheless drawn into the “truth effects of the spectacle.

In 1926 postcards and posters bearing the image of Josephine Baker were among the fastest selling of the decade in France. This was the beginning of the marketing of La Bakaire phenomenon in France: publicity stickers on bananas for her film Zou Zou (1934), ads for driving schools,

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