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La Création du Monde By Bellow, Juliet

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM73-1
Published: 09/05/2016
Retrieved: 26 October 2020, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/la-creation-du-monde-1

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Abstract

A ballet inspired by a creation fable in Blaise Cendrars’s Anthologie nègre (1921), La Création du monde (The Creation of the World) was produced by Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois troupe, premiering on October 25, 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. Together with the painter Fernand Léger, Cendrars proposed a ‘‘ballet nègre’’ in 1921 to de Maré and the troupe’s choreographer Jean Börlin. Börlin’s 1920 suite of solo dances Sculpture nègre signaled his interest in African art and artifacts then on display at the Musée d’Ethnographie and in galleries and private collections—an influence also visible in the stylized body-masks that Léger designed for La Création du monde. The ballet’s score was contributed by Darius Milhaud, a member of the group Les Six, known for infusing the European symphonic tradition with aspects of jazz and blues music. Freely mixing African and African American cultural references, La Création du monde grew out of European primitivism and typified the ‘‘negrophilia’’ which pervaded high art and popular culture in the 1920s. The ballet’s narrative, which resembled the biblical story of Genesis, purportedly drew from myths of the Fang peoples of West Central Africa, then part of French Congo. This theme of creation linked the French colonial enterprise with the regeneration of the nation in the aftermath of World War I.

Paris, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, October 25, 1923

A ballet inspired by a creation fable in Blaise Cendrars’s Anthologie nègre (1921), La Création du monde (The Creation of the World) was produced by Rolf de Maré’s Ballets Suédois troupe, premiering on October 25 1923 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris. Together with the painter Fernand Léger, Cendrars proposed a ‘ballet nègre’ in 1921 to de Maré and the troupe’s choreographer Jean Börlin. Börlin’s 1920 suite of solo dances Sculpture nègre signalied his interest in African art and artifacts then on display at the Musée d’Ethnographie and in galleries and private collections—an influence also visible in the stylized body-masks that Léger designed for La Création du monde. The ballet’s score was contributed by Darius Milhaud, a member of the group Les Six, known for infusing the European symphonic tradition with aspects of jazz and blues music. Freely mixing African and African American cultural references, La Création du monde grew out of European primitivism and typified the ‘‘negrophilia’’ which pervaded high art and popular culture in the 1920s. The ballet’s narrative, which resembled the biblical story of Genesis, purportedly drew from myths of the Fang peoples of West Central Africa, then part of French Congo. This theme of creation linked the French colonial enterprise with the regeneration of the nation in the aftermath of World War I.

Contribution to Modernism

A compilation of tales attributed to various African peoples, Cendrars’s Anthologie nègre combined a rhetoric of ethnographic authenticity with a frank acknowledgment of the European stamp imposed on these tales—a paradox central to La Création du monde. In the book’s introduction, Cendrars (who had never visited Africa himself) admits that these myths, told to the reader thirdhand, are inexact renditions collected from writings of European missionaries and travelers. Each story in the anthology is said to come from a specific African community, yet the abstract label nègre applied to the entire volume, and the thematic grouping of the tales, promote the notion that a set of common beliefs unified all African societies. The first entry, the basis for the ballet’s scenario, centers on three gods—Nzamé, Mébère, and Nkwa—who create the sky, earth, animals, plants, and human beings. The idea of an avant-garde reinterpretation of folk or ‘primitive’ ritual has numerous precedents, including the Ballets Russes’s Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring, 1913) and the ‘‘Fête nègre’’ (Black Fete) held at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 1919, in conjunction with the Première exposition d’art nègre et d’art océanien (First Exhibition of Negro and Oceanic Art) at Paul Guillaume’s Galerie Devambez. Guillaume featured African art, with an emphasis on West African masks and sculptures, both in his gallery and in his journal Les Arts à Paris, along with poems and artworks by members of the Parisian avant-garde.

Fig.1: Leger, Fernand (1881–1955) © ARS, NY The Creation of the World, design for the scenery, 1922. Pencil on paper, 8 1/4 x 10 5/8”. Gift of John Pratt. (342.1949) Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A. Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Image Reference: ART309208

Léger’s initial sketches for La Création du monde—his second project for the Ballets Suédois, following on the modern-life production Skating Rink (1922)—drew from Fang heads and figures in Guillaume’s collection as well as tracings from illustrations in Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik (1915) and Marius de Zayas’s African Negro Art: Its Influence on Modern Art (1916). In his designs, Léger used a palette of stark black and white with touches of bright primary colors to render the scene and characters in simplified shapes and geometric patterns that evoked both African artifacts and Cubist paintings. His approach to the production blurred the boundaries between set, costume, and performer: for the ballet’s three gods he fabricated 26-foot-tall movable cut-outs which served simultaneously as characters within the story and decorative elements framing the on-stage action. The dancers playing these gods’ animal and human creations wore painted boards that occluded their bodies and interacted with the background to create abstract patterns of color and line as they moved. In subsequently published manifestos, Léger described the ideal theater as one that, like La Création du monde, transformed human actors into objects, machines, or mobile scenery, a spectacle capable of capturing the attention of distracted modern spectators. This concept of stage design not only imposed physical constraints upon Börlin and the troupe’s dancers, but also challenged the association of dance with expressive bodily movement. Börlin, a classically trained dancer, choreographed passages in which performers crawled on all fours, walked on stilts, or simply served as glorified stagehands carrying Léger’s constructions—leading to claims that the production subordinated dance to the plastic unity of the stage design.

Milhaud’s score, which juxtaposed a classical fugue with avant-garde polytonality and jazz syncopation and percussion, would seem to complement both the fragmented quality of Léger’s designs and the latter’s cross-pollination of Cubism with ‘‘l’art nègre.’’ The score’s assimilation of jazz into a primitivist framework in fact extended the production’s profoundly ahistorical character and its essentialist vision of a ‘‘culture nègre,’’ uniting black people across geographic, national, and chronological divides. In this tendency towards synthesis of disparate cultures and temporalities, La Création du ,onde manifested one aspect of the return to classicism advocated by the Purist journal L’Esprit nouveau, which published Cendrars’s scenario for the ballet in 1924. The Purists called for a fusion of classical simplicity with a mechanized aesthetic to reconstruct postwar France, ideals which resonated personally with the veteran Léger and echoed in the ballet’s narrative and style. This theme of regeneration dovetailed with the colonial politics surrounding La Création du monde. Following on the heels of the 1922 Colonial Exposition held in Marseille, the production took place at a moment of increasing awareness of the role which both the cultural and economic resources of France’s colonial holdings could play in rebuilding the country in the face of the massive physical, psychic, and bodily destruction wrought by war.

Further Reading

  • Cendrars, B. (1927) The African Saga, New York: Negro Universities Press.

  • Archer-Shaw, P. (2000) Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s, New York: Thames & Hudson.

  • Dorris, G. (1999) “Jean Börlin as Dancer and Choreographer,” Dance Chronicle, Vol. XXII, (2), pp. 167–88.

  • Rosenstock, L. (1984) “Leger: ‘The Creation of the World’,” in W. Rubin, “Primitivism” and Twentieth-Century Art, Vol. II, New York: Museum of Modern Art, pp. 475–484.

  • Shanahan, M. (2007) “Creating the New Man: War Trauma and Regeneration in Fernand Léger’s Designs for La Création du monde,” Konsthistorik tidskrift, Vol. LXXVI, (4), pp. 207–33.

  • Van Norman Baer, N. (1995), Exhibition catalogue, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

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09/05/2016

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10.4324/9781135000356-REM73-1

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Citing this article:

Bellow, Juliet. " La Création du Monde ." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 26 Oct. 2020 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/la-creation-du-monde-1. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM73-1

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