Petrine Archer-Straw, Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s (Interplay) (Paperback 208pp.) Thames and Hudson, New York, London, 2000
ISBN-10: 0500281351 ISBN-13: 978-050028135
My initial interest in negrophilia grew out of my studies in art history. I came to the subject via what modern artists in the early decades of the 20th century called "primitivism". The term "negrophilia" itself describes the craze for black culture that was prevalent among avant-garde artists and bohemian types in 20s Paris, when to collect African art, to listen to black music and to dance with black people was a sign of being modern and fashionable. In the same way that, today, aspects of black culture such as hip hop, reggae, gangsta rap, locks and Afro hairstyles proliferate, in the 20s the craze was for dances such as the charleston, the lindy hop and the black bottom, for Bakerfix hair paste, and for wearing African-inspired clothes and accessories. This passion for black culture and a "primitivised" existence flourished in the aftermath of the first world war, when artists yearned for a simpler, idyllic lifestyle to counter modern life's mechanistic violence. But, even as the "negrophiles" of 20s Paris affirmed a love of black people, their relationships with them demonstrated, at least covertly, sentiments closer to fear - sentiments that still persist to this day. Black personalities were either lionised or demonised in a manner that denied normality. I felt that an examination of these mood swings from negrophilia to negrophobia might be a useful way to see how black people have historically become objects of affection or derision, and continue to be.
About the Book
Following the First World War, large numbers of Africans and African Americans emigrated to the cities of Europe in search of work and improved social conditions. Their impact on white European society was immense. In Paris, where the artistic climate was particularly sensitive and experimental, avant-garde artists courted black personalities such as Josephine Baker, Henry Crowder, and Langston Hughes for their sense of style, vitality, and "otherness." Leger, Picasso, Brancusi, Man Ray, Giacometti, Sonia Delaunay, and others enthusiastically collected African sculptures and wore tribal jewelry and clothes. More importantly, they adopted black forms in their work, and their style soon influenced a larger audience anxious to be in vogue. A passion for black culture swept through Paris, and by the end of the 1920s, black forms that had provided the initial spark to the modernist vision had become the commercially successful Art Deco style. Negrophilia, from the French negrophilie--the contemporary term to describe the craze--examines this commingling of black and white cultures in jazz-age Paris. Painting, sculpture, photography, popular music, dance, theater, literature, journalism, furniture design, fashion, and advertising--all are scrutinized to show how black forms were appropriated, adapted, and popularized by white artists. The photographs, writings, and memorabilia of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, art collectors Paul Guillaume and Albert Barnes, shipping heiress and publisher Nancy Cunard, and Surrealists Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille help to recreate the contemporary atmosphere. The book raises questions about the avant-garde's motives, and suggests reasons and meaning for its interest. Thames & Hudson, London, 208pp. 115 b/w photographs and illustrations.