by Caroline Croasdaile
The “city of light“ is a name fitting the place of both enlightenment and entertainment that Josephine Baker would know from 1925 until her death in 1975. Although Paris would be transformed by war and plagued by social and economic problems during her time there, it always seemed to emerge as a triumphant cultural light to the world. This city was a dream-like refuge to the disenchanted and disillusioned.
In the 1920s the French capital welcomed many soldiers who had stayed on to linger as allies, along with an influx of American artists. A “lost generation” occupied the city during this postwar era determined to forget the soullessness of battle (Tripodi). With their mission civilsatrice, Paris saw herself as the cultural leader of the world and culture’s ambassador (Faron). Escaping the restrictions of prohibition, racism, and protestant morals which loomed intrusively in the United States, expatriates such as Langston Hughes, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald all found a new home in Paris (Lewis). The city had become the ultimate destination for expatriates, and a cultural flame to which the artists, moth-like, flocked.
In 1925, the same year that Josephine Baker arrived in Paris to perform in La Revue Negre, the city hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decortatif et Industriels Modernes (Chandler). This exposition introduced Parisians to the exotic and was the source of the term “Art Deco,” which was an elegant design style that followed Art Nouveau in the 1920s (Chandler). While the French were used to the influence of Arabic cultures, which are prevalent in their capitol, they found African cultures wild, unfamiliar, and seductive. In 1935 another exposition was staged, L’Exposition Coloniale Internationale de Paris, and Josephine Baker was voted queen (Chandler). The public took a particular interest in the expositions, where visitors could sample African foods and marvel at the traditional art and music. “Negrophilia” abounded, and in 1926 Man Ray produced a photographic series Noire et Blanche, which featured Kiki of Montparnasse (his model) posing alongside an African mask showing the influence that African culture had on Paris, art, and popular culture at this time.
France had never really recovered financially from World War I, and like America, faced economic hardships. The French great depression lasted much longer from the end of WWI into the 1930s. The nation struggled to recover from the physical ravages of war and loss of crops, as they attempted to extract reparations from Germany. The President of the Republic of France during this time was Gaston Doumergue. He held office from 1923-1931. On February 4, 1937, a riot broke out in Paris, which began as an anti-parliamentary demonstration led by the far right and became one of the major political crises of the day. Because of the turmoil, Doumergue was recalled to power in 1934. A member of the Radical party, he was supported by the working class which gained much national popularity during his time due to the impact the depression had on this segment of population. Also in 1934, a group of left-wing politicians from various political affiliations formed the Popular Front, probably as a result of the economic and social problems plaguing the country. The Front included the Communist, Socialist, and the Radical Party. The party, and Front, called for socialist reforms, such as the Matignon agreements, a cornerstone of French social rights (Simkin). These parties led the French country until the next decade when the winds of change for France would shift.
As the decades of the 20s and 30s came to a close, the storm clouds of World War II were gathering. In May 1940 the Germans arrived to occupy Paris after France was defeated in battle. An armistice was signed June 22, 1940, which divided France into an occupied northern zone and a “free” southern zone, while Alsace and Lorraine were recaptured to be included in the German nation. The French government was headquartered in Vichy and headed by Petain, a collaborator with the Germans (Chandler). Things looked bleak for France.
Parisians who remained in the city during the war faced a myriad of hardships such as night raids, a lack of food and raw materials, curfew, censorship, and other restrictions imposed by the Nazi occupation (McKinnel). However, there were many who resisted the German domination. The French Resistance was a movement that included guerilla warfare, underground newspapers, intelligence efforts, and it aided persecuted people and allied soldiers in trouble. The liberation of France began finally, to the collective sigh of Allied Europe when Allied forces landed on Normandy beach on D-Day June 6, 1944, and Paris was liberated on August 25, later that year (McKinnel).
France started the slow process of rebuilding itself and nursed its war wounds once again. During Josephine Baker’s time Paris must have been an invigorating but tumultuous place to be. Paris faced the political strains that many of Europe’s capitols experienced and responded to these issues by strengthening their socialist government and making it into what it is today. The city was ripe for Josephine’s taking both due to the artistic outpouring of the time and the city’s preoccupation with African art. Although Paris continues to change, the city has dedicated Place Josephine Baker in the Montparnasse Quarter of Paris to the star, so that even in death Josephine and her enthralling spirit never truly left the Paris that she lived in and so adored.
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