Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface

Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface

Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface

Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface

Synopsis

What does a black burlesque star have to do with some of the most enduring and passionate ideas in modern aesthetic theory? The spectacular Josephine Baker emerges in this fascinating untold story as a principal figure in the drama behind the making of Euro-American Modernism. Instead of seeing her nude performances as a Primitivist given, Cheng argues that Baker's famous skin was central to the debates about and desire for "pure surface" that crystallized at the convergence of modern art, architecture, machinery, and philosophy. Taking the reader across the Atlantic - through real stages and imagined houses; banana plantations and ocean liners; metallic bodies and radiant cities - this study tracks the ardent and protean conversation between the making of a Modernist style and the staging of a new black visuality. In this account, Baker and the Modernists known to have adored and objectified her in fact shared a common dream: the fantasy of remaking and wearing the skin of the other.

Excerpt

Why should modern architects who abhor ornamentation, tattoos, and other erotic markings choose to think about the surfaces of their buildings as “skins”? Why do the first modern bathing suits bear a graphic resemblance to nineteenth-century prison uniforms? What do museum displays have to do with burlesque performances? Is the twentiethcentury fascination for transparency a pleasure about seeing into or through things?

This book turns our attention to the mysteries of the visible, and how those mysteries dwell on the surfaces that we think we know all too well. The above, seemingly unrelated questions of style—and really of desire—are all part of what I call Modernism’s dream of a second skin. And our entry into this story will be the surprising figure of Josephine Baker, a woman who achieves international fame overnight for wearing her nakedness like a sheath.

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