An Art History Detour You Can Dangle from Your Wrist

At last, my blog has regained consciousness! I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation of how it wound up in a persistent vegetative state; suffice it to say that a server crash last year did have something to do with why the old posts here are still incompletely restored, and also that I myself never went “offline”. Au contraire, I’ve been continuously hunting down, researching, and purveying vintage goodies with gusto, as well as bubbling over nonstop with things I’m dying to blog about. One of them is this purse, which I just listed in my shop last week:

les trapezistes print purse

I spied it on an HMS Insomnia cruise of eBay purse listings, poorly photographed and described with great exactitude as a “really retro purse”.  (I really can’t account for why, when I’m massively stressed out, sleep deprived, and just this side of brain dead, my skills at detecting a vintage purse’s fabulosity in a crummy ¾” x ½” gallery thumbnail are at their peak; all I can do is be grateful for my strange gift, I suppose…)

A couple of days later, when I proudly posted a pic of the purse for the delectation of my colleagues at the Vintage Fashion Guild, my description of it was only marginally better than the eBay seller’s (in my inventory spreadsheet, I had it tagged as “circus theme purse”), but I had already begun obsessing over the print on it, the imagery of which seemed awfully familiar somehow. Finally, on an investigative lark soon after, I submitted an evolving string of terms to the Google search engine, including various combinations of the words “trapeze artists” and “le cirque” (don’t ask me why, I don’t speak French, my snooty introductory clause in the first paragraph to this entry notwithstanding) and eventually stumbled on a link to a poster of a Fernand Leger lithograph.

Bingo! Now I knew why the line drawings of the dangling (and floating) trapeze artists with Amazonian torsos and curiously sausage-like bent limbs had such a nagging familiarity to it—it reminded me of Fernand Leger, who I’d gobbled up a few art books about in my twenties and not thought all that much about since. Since the poster I’d found was clearly but inexactly related to my purse, I fed not a timid run of quarters but a cocky whole dollar (the phrase “les trapezistes”, which you’ll never catch me mangling out loud, in public) into Google’s mysterious slot machine. And, lo and behold, I found myself looking at Leger’s oil on canvas work “Les Trapezistes”, which currently hangs in the National Gallery of Australia (and which must be displayed on a pretty darn good-sized wall, as it’s approximately 12 feet square). Between the superimposed color blocks and stripes; the at-right-angles position of the “trapezistes”; and the half-“Tubist” (as a punning early Leger critic put it), half-crime-scene-silhouette quality to the figures, I knew I’d found the artistic source of the print on my purse:

A puzzle remained, though, which was keeping me from dating the purse with confidence: According to the blurb on the NGA site, “Les Trapezistes” had been commissioned by art collector/historian Douglas Cooper for his restored French chateau, completed by Leger in 1954, and esconced in the “Chateau de Castille” till Cooper sold it in 1976. That meant that it hadn’t entered the public’s visual lexicon till the mid-70s and couldn’t have inspired my purse over twenty years earlier, which is when the purse’s shape and style dated it to. So I emailed a query to the NGA’s curator, Christine Dixon, about whether Leger’s painting had perhaps spawned a line of spinoff merchandise (beyond the “limited edition” tapestries mentioned in the blurb). Amazingly enough, she replied!

Prior to appearing in the Cooper-commissioned painting, Ms. Dixon informed me, the trapeze artists on my purse had made their debut in a book (or, more accurately, a portfolio) of lithographs by Leger published in 1951 and titled “Cirque”; she attached a fuzzy jpeg of the relevant plate, and after Googling for another week (I kid you not) I found a crisp online version of “Cirque” in its entirety at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s site. If you’ve got time, you should by all means browse the whole book; if not, just check out the image below (which appear on pages 52 & 53). The cheerfully colored, lickety-split patent; exaggerated oblong shape; and ladylike clasp beneath a boldly arched horseshoe of a handle all said my purse was chic early 50s. The scribbly, atomic era print on it had been cribbed from a famous artist’s early 50s artwork. The purse was early 50s: Case very, very satisfyingly closed.

pages5253 printcloseup

2 Responses to “An Art History Detour You Can Dangle from Your Wrist”

  1. sue Says:

    I love how you write, it is interesting and humourous! So much fun to read. Fascinating info you found out about this
    fabulous bag!

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words, Sue! I really had a great time learning more about this purse, and apparently I’m not done–it turns out Leger was a textile designer, too, working both in tapestry and printed fabric, and that Claire McCardell’s resort wear collection in 1955 included at least one dress with a Leger-designed print!

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