Imma comes back with a bang
The Irish Museum of Modern Art is reopening its main building, at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, with a weekend of family-friendly events – and a terrific Eileen Gray exhibition
Gray was born in Co Wexford in 1878. The family moved between Brownswood, near Enniscorthy, and South Kensington, in London. In her early 20s, Gray enrolled at Slade School of Fine Art, part of University College London, to study painting, but she became fascinated by oriental lacquer work and set about learning its techniques. By 1907 she had settled in Paris, buying a flat that she kept for the rest of her life.
She persisted with lacquer work but also delved into carpet, furniture and interior design and, with no formal training, architecture. In 1922 she opened a stylish shop, Galerie Jean Désert, which attracted a formidable range of clients. “There are some clues, but we are not sure why she chose that name for her store, one of many enigmas that remain about her,” Pitiot says. Many of Gray’s original designs for rugs are on display, together with some completed examples. As with so much else in the exhibition, their daring, inventive freshness is exemplary and still invigorating.
The first piece in the show is a portrait of Gray by the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis. “They were friends for many years,” Pitiot says. “Lewis was associated with an avant-garde movement, vorticism, comparable to Italian futurism, and I am convinced that Gray was influenced by vorticism.” As evidence, she points to a characteristically dynamic spiral pattern that recurs throughout Gray’s work.
Many of the early pieces on view occupy a “transitional space” between art deco and full-fledged modernism. They include several stunning screens, one of which had been out of sight for decades until it suddenly appeared at auction last December. In her innovative use of materials and her sense of form, Gray anticipated a great deal of what makes up our contemporary design environment, “100 years before Ikea”, Pitiot notes wryly.
Gray eventually consented to mass production of her designs in the 1970s; until then she produced only prototypes. “You can look at two or more pieces that appear to be the same, but in fact they are variations on a design. There are always differences.”
Around 1921 she met a young Romanian architect and writer, Jean Badovici, who founded the influential magazine ‘L’Architecture Vivante’.
By all accounts she and Badovici were romantically involved, if not continually, until 1932, but Gray had a tangled personal life: she was bisexual, her relationships seem often to have ended badly and she destroyed her personal papers.
In any case, she and Badovici worked together to design and build a villa, E-1027, on a beautifully sited plot of land they bought on the southeastern coast of France.
The villa, a modernist masterpiece, long neglected and currently undergoing restoration, became an object of jealous obsession for Le Corbusier, who had initially encouraged her. His subsequent shabby treatment of Gray has been well documented. (Le Corbusier eventually died of a heart attack while swimming within sight of Gray’s villa.)
Gray remained vigorous and creative until 1976. She died in her apartment in Paris. This exhibition can only help to raise her profile and enhance her reputation.
Eileen Gray: Architect Designer Painter is at Imma until January 19th