Time to Saddle Up and Ride: How an Illustration Captured The Zeitgeist of the Period

The Introduction

fig 2

Figure 1. ‘L’Afrique’ from La guirlande des mois, TT500 G84 1921 COURTESY ROYAL ONTARIO MUSEUM LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES

While riffling through pages at the Royal Ontario Museum, I came across a small book titled La Guirlande des Mois pour 1921, which translates from French to Garland Months of 1921. In this book, I was met by a diverse assortment of stunning images symbolizing various locations. Europe, Africa, Asia among others, was all immortalized on the canvas, with very stereotypical imagery. One such example was the African scene, which is depicted with black women in a jungle setting, wearing loin clothes, while carrying baskets of fruit (see figure 1). Europe on the other hand, is depicted with white women, in lavish attire while being waited on by a butler. While perusing the images, I was told that this book was thought to be a travel diary of sorts. It described numerous travel locations and this book was very popular during World War I in France (Arthur George Barbier…War). This issue was the final installment of five almanacs that were created during World War I; throughout these pages were countless images that served as a reminder of the ongoing conflict, with illustrations of war efforts and soldiers. Although these books served as a reminder of the war, they were also used as a distraction for the French consumer. These books were filled with “calendars, musical scores, articles and fictions by noted cultural figures, [to] evoke a privileged world of elegant splendor (Arthur George Barbier…War).” Although, each illustration was stunning in its own right, the one that piqued my interest was an illustration titled “L’Amerique.” Perhaps, it is my love of old spaghetti western movies, or my inherent Alberta roots, but there was something about this illustration that held my attention in a way that the others couldn’t.


Figure 2. ‘L’Amerique’ from La Guirlande des Mois http://www.nevspec.com.ua

The Illustration

As one can see, this image depicts a cowboy riding away, while his assumed wife waves goodbye (See Figure 2). During the 20th century Europeans were enthralled with American Wild West, consequently it’s not surprising that the image of the cowboy was chosen to symbolize America. As this was during World War I, many Europeans “viewed America as a model of freedom, a glimpse of modernity and promise (qtd in Polzonetti 22).” The first aspect of this illustration I’d like to discuss revolves around the clothing the cowboy is wearing. First, the cowboy is wearing chap trouser coverings, with fringe detailing down the leg. “Native American tribes of the Plains and elsewhere had long created garments with fringe, which served as a type of gutter that repelled rainwater from the wearer (“Fringe”). The fringe detail has been an aesthetic symbol synonymous with Native Americans; in fact, this detail can be seen on many fashionable clothing items in today’s culture (asos.com). Secondly, we see a blanket of sorts underneath the saddle of the cowboy. Blankets with this aesthetic style can be attributed to many Indigenous tribes, in particular the Navajo, who reside in Monument Valley Utah (See Figure 3). Although, these may be small details in the overall image, they prove to be important in today’s culture. Jobling would argue through his critique on Barthes, that these details could be used to indicate the tension between past and present style (Jobling 133). These details can be used to affirm the connection to Native Americans, and when one appropriates and commoditizes a culture they effectively rob people of the very meanings by which they organize their lives (Kirtsoglou, Theodossopoulos 136). The idea of a Frenchmen illustrating a stereotypical American scene, exemplifies the historical nature of the frontiersmen appropriation of Indigenous culture

Figure 3. Winter (hogan) house built by Navajos near Bluff City, Utah. http://digital.denverlibrary.org

Figure 3. Winter (hogan) house built by Navajos near Bluff City, Utah. http://digital.denverlibrary.org

(http://nativeappropriations.com). This notion of appropriation has gained popularity in the present day, as many Indigenous groups are fighting back for their culture, and spreading awareness of the negative effects of cultural appropriation. On initial viewing of L’Amerique this may seen like a depiction of an imaginary American life in the 1920’s, but further analysis of this image reveals certain aspects that become increasingly curious. One such aspect of this illustration that warrants further discussion is the overall feminine nature of the cowboy. The narrow shoulders, slender figure, and overall, small build of the body all suggest a feminine impression. Also, when zoomed in on the face, one can see the impression of mascara, blush, a slender nose, dark lips, and a delicate jawline which are all synonymous with the overall female or androgynous aesthetic (See figure 4). I found these feminine features to be rather contradictory to the stereotypical characteristics of the American cowboy. When I think of the quintessential cowboy, my mind is flooded with images of the famous Hollywood cowboys of the big screen like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, In fact, “Media has shaped the cowboy image into both a symbol that is

Figure 4. Close up of Cowboy

Figure 4. Close up of Cowboy http://www.nevspec.com.ua

idolized, sexualized, and fantasized over (Staszel 284).” This cowboy is the archetype of masculine culture, he’s rough, gritty and is the epitome of confidence (Petit, 67). This proves to be the opposite from the cowboy in the illustration, as neither ‘delicate’ nor ‘slender’ would be used to describe he idealistic American cowboy’s of old. At first, I found this contrast to be rather bizarre, as Barthes would argue, these details however small, inherently signify larger issues in culture (Jobling, 135, Barthes 9). If this was true, then the signature at the bottom, ‘G. Barbier, 1920’ would provide me with insight into the motivations for the overall feminine characteristics in L’Amerique.

The Artist

The signature G. Barbier belongs to George Barbier, a French artist who made his mark through book illustration and writing, as well as theater and film design. He was part of an influential group nicknamed “The Knights Of The Bracelet” by Vogue magazine, whose membership included the likes of Paul Iribe, Pierre Brissaud and Georges Lepape (Somerville 98.). He was prolific during the early 20th century and was best known for his creation of numerous fashion plates that were celebrated for their brilliant colour. He activity defended his choice of “pochoirs” or stencils to create his work because the results produced “a still-undimmed, jewel-like quality in the resulting image (Morris “Forgotten Art”),” much like the colors in the L’Amerique illustration. Barbier’s lifestyle became synonymous, with the work he produced; although Barbier was born into a bourgeois family, he led a very different life in Paris, where he “frequented unmistakably, if not exclusively, homosexual circle (Morris “Forgotten Art”).” This homosexual influence was seen in his artistic ventures, as the “sapphic subtext was often present in [his] exquisitely composed fashion plates (Morris “Forgotten Art”).” If the images were not directly showcasing feminine couples he was eluding to them in an ambiguous manner, either through epicene imagery or

Figure 4. Brokeback Mountain

Figure 5. Brokeback Mountain (2005) Movie Poster http://imdb.com

outright women in traditional men’s attire. These depictions of lesbian relationships were so evident in his work that many of his illustrations threatened public decency because of their erotic or pornographic imagery by modern standards (Morris “Forgotten Art”). Judith Butler postulates, “that one way in which this system of compulsory heterosexuality is reproduced and concealed is through the cultivation of bodies into discrete sexes with ‘natural’ appearances and ‘natural’ heterosexual dispositions (Butler 524). In L’Amérique, as well as his other work, Barbier plays on these ides of a ‘natural’ appearance; he illustrated a scene with clear heterosexual dispositions but hints at the contrary, through the use of semiotic feminine features. The cowboy is a good conduit for opposing these hegemonic norms because the image of the cowboy is admired, as well as romanticized as an erotic symbol for both men and women (Stazel 286). Although, this piece was made in the 1920’s we see examples of this in modern day culture, “women revel in the idea of riding a cowboy to save a horse, as well as some gay men dream about such sensual encounters with a cowboy as demonstrated by director Ang Lee’s 2005 Academy Award winning film (see figure 5) Brokeback Mountain (Stazel 286).” Overall, when one looks at this illustration, as well as his overall body of work and his lifestyle, it can be argued that the cowboy in the image is a female and the artist is alluding to homoeroticism. Furthermore, it can be theorized that perhaps his drawings were not simply based on his personal experiences, but a wider cultural shift going on during the time of the illustration.


I never thought, this small illustration of a cowboy could provide such insights into the artist and the culture during the time of its release. Perhaps a reason for Barbier’s success was that his creative pieces were able to tap into the zeitgeist of the period. Gone were the days of Victorian values, which had been replaced by the flapper and the bob haircut. “Women were [not only], exploring a new degree of sexual liberation, promoted by mass culture, [but also] were experiment[ing] more openly with sex (Somerville 97).” The older generation lost its authority in favor of writers and artists, while popular culture promoted travel, exoticism, and an androgynous style (Somerville 98). As youth culture took center stage, so too did Barbier’s art seize this moment, and although his success may have been brief, (he died in 1932 at the age of 50) it encapsulated the spirit of the roaring 20’s.



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