Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Hiding in Plain Sight: Problems of Modernist Self-Representation in the Encounter between Adolf Loos and Josephine Baker

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Hiding in Plain Sight: Problems of Modernist Self-Representation in the Encounter between Adolf Loos and Josephine Baker

Article excerpt

Josephine Baker's name has appeared on three autobiographies--none of which she wrote herself. They were authored by the men in her life: a journalist who helped discover her (the ironically named Marcel Sauvage); an early lover-turned-manager named Pepito Abatino; and her second husband, a fellow performer who shortened his name to "Jo" so that he would have the same nickname as hers. Most recently, a posthumous book mixing the genres of memoir and biography has been published by Jean-Claude Baker, a son she adopted when he was already an adult, who not only took her surname but also liked to use a shortened version of his Christian name that was a variant of Josephine's own, like Jo. To differing degrees, all four of these "memoirs" openly fluctuate between third-person and first-person, with few clear indications of when the interviewer's voice leaves off and the interviewee's begins.

Baker's contemporary, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, once said, "I only master other people's languages. My own does whatever it wants with me" (24). (1) Josephine Baker reverses his epigram: other people mastered her language, in so many ways. Yet she too had an artistic response to this, like Kraus. Others "mastered" her language in autobiographies, onstage, or in celebrity journalism, but her skill was to create space for herself using the stereotypical terms available to her perversely as a mask to screen herself from view while remaining in full sight. Outside the official appearances scripted by others, Baker would say or do things that clashed with the image cultivated by her producers and fans--actions that aligned her with the avant-garde of the period and signaled that elements of her identity were unrepresentable in public discourse of the period. She necessarily allowed others to "master" the language she used and others used about her because legitimate, uncompromised terms of her own, to express the complicated identity of a mixed-race person, did not yet exist in the shared language. Yet she found ways to signal the presence of something withheld, something she herself was excluding from public discourse even in her most nakedly public performances. She ironized her character's role in films like Princesse Tam-Tam, and deployed a series of successful--but evanescent--flamboyant actions that showed her participation in the development of modernist avant-gardes. A final attempt to construct a space outside of public discourse as a basis for private identity was her rejection of the dream house designed for her by the seminal modernist architect Adolf Loos and her adoption instead of a foreign patrimony, the French castle Les Milandes.

The encounter between Adolf Loos and Josephine Baker is a crucial, if surprising, one for understanding the early-twentieth-century tension between public and private personae and the role of performance in creating self-identity. By the end of their lives, both Loos and Baker were engaged with the difficulties of representing a public self while sheltering a private one. They did so through coordinated efforts interwoven inter- and contextually: clothing, writing, and the construction of houses to live in. Furthermore, both understood their acts of self-fashioning as the consequences of an encounter with others--by choice or by necessity. Already controversial celebrities in their own right, both were engaged in the process of artistic self-fashioning by the time they met one another. Yet the encounter seems to have clarified the process and altered the trajectory of each. Loos was a polemicist actively promoting his version of modernism through salon lectures, newspaper articles, and the construction of buildings where more and more people could participate in the performance of "modern living" in their daily lives. Baker, by contrast, was the star of scripted stage spectacles. Her truly creative modernist performance lies in the gap between the stereotypical roles she performed onstage, in the movies, or even on the pages of her "autobiographies," and the dissonant impressions created by the way she improvised off the script, underlining the presence of an unarticulated, hidden self that exceeded racialized and sexualized stereotypes. …

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