The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Josephine Baker was a living symbol of the new 20th Century woman. Sexually daring, athletic, funny and beautiful, she became the cultural amima of Paris in the Jazz Age. Matisse was one of many admirers and she dined well among luminaries of the Moveable Feast. Flappers like Zelda Fitzgerald lived on the edge, walking a tightrope between two world wars, booze in one hand, pen and paper in the other. Paris embraced the world of American Jazz, Oriental art, philosophy and African and Sub-Saharan culture with a explosion of visual art, music and literature. From Dada to Existentialism, the French avant garde movements provided vigorous intellectual fireworks, until they were overshadowed by the bombs of World War II. Salons, like Gertrude Stein’s gathered and supported writers and artists who found patronage and creative synergy. The Cone Sisters and the Steins were among the most loyal collectors of Matisse, including most of the paintings and sculptures shown in these posts.
Matisse painted vital, often sexual imagery in the inner language of the subconscious. Yet, he portrayed women with their own agency who were emotionally and intellectually complex.
Obviously, we have a long way to go before we achieve true equality; there always seems to be one step backward for every two forward. But, the energy of independent women in the arts, in the workforce and culturally propells us forward through interminable wars.
We started with Josephine Baker and I’ll end with a clip from Princesse Tam Tam, somewhat ironic yet apt. Josephine Baker’s character came to Paris as an exotic Moroccan “princess” who arouses the ire of blonde society matrons. They trick her into throwing off the flimsy chains of civilization, revealing the wild beast within as she must respond to the beat of tribal drums. Notice the synchronized choreography of the white chorus girls (ala Busby Berkeley) before she leaps into the dance, a wild woman freed.