Written by Lacy Johnson, CNN
In 1957, actress Josephine Baker famously named French sculptor Jozon Paquette’s piece “Eternal Love” as her choice for honorary membership in the French Academy of Arts and Letters, the nation’s top art institution.
Today, the sculpture is the first and only work of its kind ever inducted into the prestigious institution.
The news came earlier this month, in a ceremony in St. Jacques, the Orleans suburb where the statues and coins of American, French and African-American creators are immortalized. The ceremony marked a major turning point in French pantheon which had been slow to recognize aspects of its history.
Josephine Baker, 1919-1956
‘From New Orleans to Paris’: Josephine Baker on her journey from New Orleans to Paris Josephine Baker is celebrated as a woman who once stood for freedom and danced at every night of the century. Her paintings offer a glimpse of the interior.
But representatives from the Academie reacion Francaise, the frugal body that oversees the UNESCO-designated gendarmes, decided that “Eternal Love” was not fitting. There were several objections that the controversial sculpture — “a roomful of crystals the price of which is too high for some” — didn’t glorify classical French aesthetics, according to a French journalist who covered the event.
Historically, the Academie often points to classical elements as its foundation, such as its symbol, the “expert.” Paquette — who also worked as the sculptor of Toulouse-Lautrec — has his own history with the Academie. In 1910, Paquette refused to participate in a ceremony honoring Alexander Calder — now considered a pioneer for modern sculpture — which took place on Paquette’s statue of Jean Gabin.
‘Lifetime of mobilization’
The sculptor’s later works — specifically “Eternal Love” — were not scheduled for display in the Academie, which, in the past, had chosen works that commemorated “senior moments” in French history and culture. Many of the surrounding buildings around the Parc de la Villette, where Paquette is now buried, are dedicated to historical figures who deserve the distinction.
Tous les showes artis, Josephine Baker amuine par l’Academy des Arts et métiers du Québec, le 10 mars 2013 / dalellette.com
However, Paquette’s work was scheduled to be officially unveiled at a home at the Place Claude-Richard, in a town called Levallois, on October 3, which would have been Josephine Baker’s 97th birthday.
“I’m sorry I’m unable to attend this evening because I wish to be here to dedicate this icon of the 19th century to my friend my friend Josephine Baker,” Paquette, who had not been consulted on the project, wrote in a letter.
“The high point of the lifetime of mobilization for justice, for human dignity, for liberty for and against racism, of the woman and of the human spirit that this monument’s face represents,” he continued.
Descendant: We don’t want racism or slavery
Pierre Paquette-Tiotijs, president of the Josephine Baker Academy, or FLA, said Paquette’s work is now “unofficial” and doesn’t concern the Academy.
“The Academy does not give patronage of this type. It’s only the home of big monuments, like those of Michelangelo, in the Mall. These monuments are not related to popular culture and taste,” he told CNN.
Josephine Baker (1917-1956), African-American dancer and actress, is credited with a largely independent existence after the end of the Jim Crow laws in the United States, and later made a reputation for traveling the world, promoting her adopted homeland of France, and promoting others to do the same.