Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Shades of Gray

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions Shades of Gray

Article excerpt

Eileen Gray Centre Pompidou, until 20 May;

Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 11 October to 19 January 2014 The Anglo-Irish designer Eileen Gray keeps on being rediscovered but she remains a puzzle. The nub of the Gray 'problem', which her last large retrospective at the Design Museum in 2005 failed to answer, is this: how did the author of some of the most sensual, disturbing interior design and furniture of the 1910s and 1920s become an uncompromising modernist whose preferred materials were tubular steel, aluminium, plywood and celluloid?

Of course artists do reinvent themselves - designers and architects more than most.

Careers have odd trajectories that upset linear histories of art. Gray studied at the Slade and had she stayed in England her interest in applied art might have led her to the amateurish Omega Workshops or to her friend Wyndham Lewis's short-lived Rebel Art Centre. But she moved to Paris where her work was shaped by a very particular milieu and where she had access to highly skilled artisans and craftsmen.

At the Pompidou Centre the panels and screens decorated with Beardsley-esque figures, the camp neoclassical consoles and the knowingly primitivist low tables and massive bowls that fill the first rooms of the exhibition were chiefly made for a wealthy group of exquisites, elegant Sapphists kitted out in tweeds, silk cravats and furs. They became her closest friends, clients and collaborators and her famous brick screens (lacquered panels pivoting on brass rods) and her dark interiors pay homage to that secretive, sophisticated world.

But there was always an architectonic quality to her work that, as this show successfully demonstrates, could translate into something quite other. Her remarkable rugs, well represented at the Pompidou Centre, look like ground plans for utopian buildings and her famous Transat chair employed luxurious art moderne materials while being rigorously modernist in conception. Biography is key to her development. She fell in love, in a characteristically ambigu way, with Jean Badovici, a Romanian architect and founder editor of the journal L'Architecture Vivante. …

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