Pierre-Emile Legrain's (1889-1929) African-inspired Art Deco furniture, currently on exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, incorporates African influences quite unlike the work of his contemporary purveyors of "primitivism."
Though the exhibition includes only seven works in total-- four of Legrain's objects and three native African objects -- there is plenty to look at. Curator Lydia Puccinelli has juxtaposed Legrain's chairs and stools with works from West and Central Africa, so as to encourage a comparison. Close observation reveals that Legrain's works do not imitate the "real" African objects, but merely allude to their forms.
While Legrain's contemporaries -- Picasso, for one --Africanized the European by representing African motifs in traditionally western mediums and styles, Legrain frenchified the African. Tabouret (ca. 1923), for example, is very similar in shape to the accompanying Ngombe chair from the Democratic republic of the Congo, yet it is lacquered and gilded like an Empire armoire. Next to the Ngombe chair (ironically covered with brass and iron tacks acquired through European trade), Legrain's chair's edges and symmetrically beveled, horn-covered legs look streamlined and rectilinear, typifying the industrial esthetic of Art Deco design.
Legrain, famous for his bookbinding designs, never visited Africa. Following the fashionable fetish for things exotic, he created all of his African-inspired furniture for the homes of French couturier Jacques Doucet and the French milliner Jeanne Tachard, as Pucinelli explains, to complement their collections of African sculpture and modern European art.
It seems unlikely that Tachard and Doucet commissioned the objects to be used as anything more than decoration. Legrain's chair and stools seem more delicate and fragile than their African cousins, and though his Curule stools (both ca. 1923) closely resemble the royal "thrones" of African leaders, their perfect edges and pristine sheen seem untouched by a single derrière.
Though some may be quick to read imperialist undertones into Legrain's work -- from the re-design of functional objects into purely decorative luxury items, to the transformation of various cultural phenomena into a single, bastardized "African style" -- it can be read, as Puccinelli chooses, as a form of flattery.
MEREDITH MENDELSOHN is Assistant Editor of ArtNet Magazine.