President delivers Eileen Gray address
And if Beckett was later to drive an Irish Red Cross ambulance in St Lô in Normandy immediately after World War II – having been a Résistant during the conflict – then let us remember too that the dashing Eileen Gray, as well as flying airplanes, drove an ambulance in France during World War I.
Eileen Gray when she first arrived in Paris in 1902 at the age of 23 had not explored the medium of laquerwork that she was to embrace with enthusiasm and that was to make her strong contemporary reputation as a furniture designer of the Art Déco movement and the Avant Garde.
It was only in the 1920s that, as a self-taught architect, she became a leading, and early exponent of Modernism. She uncovered and manifested her genius gradually, emerging into it over time. Her spirit of independence, of difference and above all of integrity shines through the story of her life and her artistic journey. Those living on the
Rue Bonaparte had a special neighbour for almost seventy years.
One commentator has suggested that
“Modernists of all stripes shared two defining attributes: first, the lure of heresy that impelled their actions as they confronted conventional sensibilities; and secondly, a commitment to principled self-scrutiny.
The one thing that all Modernists had indisputably in common was the conviction that the untried is superior to the familiar, the rare to the ordinary, the experimental to the routine. ‘Make it New!’ boomed
Ezra Pound. And the principled self-scrutiny had far deeper roots than just unconventionality”.
We can recognise Eileen Gray in this, just as we can perhaps connect her work with a poem by Arthur Rimbaud, a novel by James Joyce, a painting by Pablo Picasso, a piano piece by Eric Satie, a play by Samuel Beckett, or a choreography by Serge Diaghilev. “Astonish me!” - the call of the great Russian - could be a plausible watchword for the entire troupe, Parisians all. It might also reflect somewhat the esprit of their contemporary, Oscar Wilde, the great Dubliner, who rests amongst you at Père Lachaise. They heralded the advent of the twentieth century and cleared an ascent to many of its highest peaks.
Another Irish modernist, Peter Rice from Dundalk, followed in their footsteps. As a pioneering structural engineer Rice established a base here in Paris and his groundbreaking work with materials of all kinds forms the foundation for the Pompidou Centre, I.M. Pei’s pyramids at the entrance to the Louvre, the Cite des Sciences et d’Industrie in the 19th arrondissement and the TGV stations in Lille and Roissy.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is sad to reflect that for much of her life, the work of Eileen Gray was not accorded the recognition that it clearly merited and that latterly, and happily it now enjoys. In this regard, among those deserving acknowledgement for having done the right thing before it became fashionable to do so were writers and friends of hers such as Peter Adam, who I am so pleased to see here this evening. He was not alone and one thinks of Colette, Jacques Doucet and Yves St. Laurent – as well as Pierre Bergé who too is most welcome here in this house. But they were not a majority.
In her native land, for decades they were few in number who publicly celebrated Eileen Gray and her work. One imagines that this was for a variety of reasons, not all of them innocent. The State itself also was short of the mark. And yet the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland presented an exhibition of her work in Dublin in 1973, with the support of the Bank of Ireland and the citation of Robin Walker at the time was fittingly elegant.