Magazine article The Spectator

A Dumpy Girl from Chicago Who Was the Toast of Naughty Nineties Paris

Magazine article The Spectator

A Dumpy Girl from Chicago Who Was the Toast of Naughty Nineties Paris

Article excerpt

Recently I bought an alabaster bust of a woman, done (I guessed) in Paris in the second half of the 1890s. It is of the very essence of art nouveau, the woman's hair being dressed in three swirling confluences, one on each side of her head, the third on top. In its own way it is one of the most delightful objects I have ever acquired and has been much admired by visitors. Then, this week, browsing through a reprint of Lara-Vinca Masini's comprehensive catalogue of art nouveau, I discovered who the sitter was.

My bust is undoubtedly of Loie Fuller, the American dancer from Chicago, who fascinated Parisian audiences in the 1890s when she gave a 45-minute display every evening at the Folies Bergere. I knew of Fuller only through Henri de ToulouseLautrec's 1892 study of her in crayon. In fact, scores of artists tried to capture Loie, in pencil and oils, in pastel and gouache, in glass and bronze, marble, stone, plaster and wood - as well as alabaster. She is the subject of one of Jules Cheret's most striking posters for the Folies Bergere, and the architect-decorator Henri Sauvage built a theatre for her act at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900.

LoWe Fuller was a brassy girl, not intended by nature to be a dancer at all. She was plain and rather stockily built. By training she was an actress, and was performing in a routine piece when an accidental combination of lighting and costume - her dress was so long that she picked it up in both hands to move across the stage and the stage lights shone through it - led the audience to shout, 'A butterfly!' and then, when she turned round, `An orchid!' (I am quoting her own account.) This gave her an idea. She constructed her own voluminous outfits of silk and other lightweight, transparent materials, which she extended on either side using hand-held batons, and she employed a team of specialist lighting electricians to provide a rapidly changing kaleidoscope of colour. Using these devices, she choreographed four main dances: the Serpentine, the Violet, the Butterfly and the White Dance. Audiences were not then accustomed to the use of coloured stage lighting for aesthetic purposes, and they were enraptured.

From New York and London, Loie Fuller took her show to Paris where (after it was turned down by the Opera Garnier), it was put on by the Folies, opening on 5 November 1892 and running for 600 performances. Art nouveau was then the fashionable aesthetic and La Loie seemed to personify it. The French, in their funny, condescending way, took her to their hearts, and artists from all over Europe came to Paris to see, draw and paint her.

The critics were at a loss how to characterise Loie's dancing, or to decide whether it was a dance at all. She moved her legs very little and achieved her effects through her arms and hands and sinuous body movements. Jean Lorraine, in his famous series Poussieres de Paris, confessed himself baffled: `Was it a dance? Was it a projection of light, or an evocation of some kind of spirit? A mystery.' The great American dancer Isadora Duncan wrote of the performance: `Before our very eyes she turned into many-coloured, shining orchids, into a wavering sea-flower, and at length into a spiral-like lily, all the magic of Merlin, the sorcery of light, colour, flowing form . . . I was entranced. She transformed herself into a thousand colourful images before the eyes of her audience. Unbelievable. Not to be repeated or described. …

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