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Design: Living Color

By: Jenna Curry

When Raoul Dufy’s intricately carved woodcuts first debuted in 1911, as illustrations for Guillaume Apollinaire’s book of poems Le Bestiaire ou cortège d’Orphée, the quality and importance of the French artist’s technique went relatively unnoticed by his contemporaries. Yet one man, the couturier Paul Poiret, recognized Dufy’s gift for innovation and would later offer him an opportunity to expand his talents through textile design—where Dufy would make a vibrant impact on the world of fashion.

Born in Le Havre, France, in 1877, Dufy was a painter first. He was influenced by
Fauvism and Impressionism but did not confine his work to one movement. An artist with a taste for beauty, he worked tirelessly on his paintings, ceramics, wood engravings, stage designs and textiles until each fully reflected his joyful approach to life and his appetite for both light and color.

Although he never ceased to be a painter, Dufy enjoyed exploring different outlets that could enrich his skill and technique as an artist. His relationship with Poiret developed out of a shared appreciation for elegance and beauty in decorative art. In 1911 Poiret commissioned Dufy to create a letterhead design, using woodcuts, for his furniture and accessories business; the duo later thought of using the woodcut technique on fabrics. “We dreamed of sumptuous curtains and dresses decorated in the style of Botticelli,” Poiret wrote of their collaboration. “With no regret for personal sacrifice, I gave Dufy, who was just starting out in life, the means to realize some of his dreams.”

That same year, with an advance from Poiret of 2,500 francs, the pair opened a studio called La Petite Usine (“The Little Factory”), with the initial plan of producing furniture upholstery. Using designs from the woodcuts he engraved for Le Bestiaire, Dufy transformed single-colored material—silk, velvet or satin—into exquisite textiles with floral motifs and animal themes. Printing large patterns on silk was a new concept for early 20th-century fashion. Dufy would use the hand-carved woodblocks to first print on the fabrics in black ink and then applied other colors with wooden sticks. One of Dufy’s floral designs in particular seemed to be a favorite for Poiret, who used La Perse when creating capes, coats and dresses for France’s elite. A block-printed cotton-and-velvet coat of this design was featured in an exhibition of Poiret’s fashions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007.

Though Dufy would later collaborate with Poiret on more projects, his partnership in La Petite Usine was cut short when, in 1912, Charles Bianchini offered him the first and only contract position for a Parisian artist at Bianchini-Férier, a textiles manufacturing company in Lyons. The designer position was a good fit for the artist—and one he didn’t dare pass up—because it allowed him to work solely on the creative side of textiles: He would draw or paint his designs in gouache and watercolor while other employees oversaw their production. Dufy recognized textiles as a medium that would allow him to continue studying his true passions, form and color. “Nowhere else but in fabrics do we have the pleasure of witnessing the optical phenomena of lines and colors,” he said. “It is here that we can enjoy the grace of a beautiful unfolding line, like a delightful melody.”

During a span of 16 years Dufy designed more than 5,000 textiles for Bianchini-Férier, which were used to create wall hangings, clothing and furniture. “Other (textile designers) didn’t have the verve, the creativity, the color sense or the subtlety,” says Shirley Howarth of the Montreal-based Humanities Exchange and the curator of a traveling Dufy show that is currently at the Mississippi Museum of Art, through July 5. “Many of the others were commercial artists creating fabric designs. But what you have here is a fine artist who is working in the fabric medium.” In 1928 Dufy ended his employment with Bianchini-Férier to refocus his attention on painting, but he had made his mark on fashion. In addition to Poiret, other high-end clothing designers such as Christian Lacroix and Mongi Guibane have used Dufy’s textiles in their clothing lines. And today, many of his designs are still produced by Nouvelle Société Bianchini-Férier.

His short stint working with textiles also had a profound effect on his painting style. “Dufy’s work with fabric made him a better painter and certainly enabled him to explore color harmonies and color relationships very thoroughly,” Howarth says.

Dufy’s textiles rarely come on the auction block. However, in a 2001 Bianchini-Férier sale at Christie’s South Kensington, a Dufy work brought the highest price: A framed version of Dufy’s textile design, Pégase, sold for $10,883 against an estimate of $4,000–7,000. “His designs are simple and direct both graphically and in terms of color, while also being cleverly worked out,” says Monica Turcich, a fashion and textiles specialist at Christie’s.

In order to pay homage to Dufy’s work in this field, the Mississippi exhibition, Raoul Dufy: A Celebration of Beauty, will showcase the artist’s textiles—dresses and large swatches—alongside his sketches, paintings and ceramics. As the show demonstrates, Dufy used recurring themes and ideas throughout his oeuvre. Aside from flowers and animal motifs, his family’s love of music (two of his brothers in a family of nine children became professional musicians) is evident in his paintings and textile designs for Bianchini-Férier.

Perhaps one of the artist’s most-treasured childhood memories was the sea. To him, it represented intriguing patterns of light and change. One Dufy oil-on-canvas, Les Martigues (1907), which depicts colorful boats in Martigues, France, sold at a Christie’s New York auction in 2007 for $657,000 (est. $400,000–600,000). Dufy once commented on the sea’s importance in training artists: “Unhappy the man who lives in a climate far from the sea, or unfed by the sparkling waters of a river,” he told his biographer, Pierre Courthion, in an interview. “The painter constantly needs to be able to see a certain quality of light, a flickering, an airy palpitation bathing what he sees.”

When Dufy died in 1953, after suffering from crippling arthritis since the ’30s, many critics and historians looked only to his paintings and drawings in discussing his art. However, each facet of Dufy’s career, especially his work in textiles, played an important role in shaping his ability to project joie de vivre, color and beauty into each of his creations.

Raoul Dufy: A Celebration of Beauty
Feb. 7–July 5
Mississippi Museum of Art

Author: admin | Publish Date: March 2009

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