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Did this famous Irish designer nearly fall into obscurity because of chauvinism?

Eileen Gray was known for her pioneering work within architecture’s Modern Movement.
Jan 17th 2015, 9:45 AM 12,702 28

eileen gray

ANGULAR STEEL TUBING, Japanese-inspired lacquer screens, barely-there lighting stands, geometric designs woven into rugs; a villa named E-1027, built overlooking a bay in France. These are what obsessed the Irish designer Eileen Gray, as she broke new ground in the Modern movement, and stunned the architecture and design worlds with her work.

Given the recent retrospective of her works in two of Ireland’s museums, the books, documentary, and gasps at the €20 million sale of one of her chairs, you may be led to believe that Gray has had consistent support in the design world.

But a new film, The Price of Desire, directed by another Irish woman, Mary McGuckian, shows how Gray lapsed into obscurity for a time. Her disappearance was, the director argues, due to a string of seemingly innocuous sexist occurrences.

Gourdon Collection sale preview Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Starring Irish actress Orla Brady as Gray, Alanis Morrissette as her lover Melissa Damier, and Vincent Perez as fellow modernist Le Corbusier, the film explores how Gray’s career was affected by others around her.

McGuckian tells TheJournal.ie that she was asked multiple times over the years if she would make a film about Gray. The answer was that she couldn’t quite work out the story cinematically.

The key in the past

But as she discovered more about the Wexford woman – who was born in 1878, and lived in London and Paris during her life – she found the answer: “It seemed to me the story was rooted in trying to figure out what it felt like to fall into obscurity - she fell into obscurity for a while”.

McGuckian says it wasn’t just one catastrophic event that led to Gray’s temporary slide into nowhere-land. “I guess what emerged for me is a pretty universal female experience. It’s not a big story; there was not one major event that relegated her to obscurity… it was a lot of tiny events over a lifetime.”

These were small things that, when added up, became something quite significant. McGuckian has termed it “insidious chauvinism”.

It was little remarks; forgetting to invite her to things; calling [E-1027] Jean Badovici [a Romanian architect and peer]‘s house. Even just by his sheer presence on the site, people started calling it “his” house.

Badovici was, for a time, Gray’s lover, and the name E-1027 referred to their names. Le Corbusier painted his murals throughout the house in the late 1930s, encouraged by Badovici – an act of vandalism that enraged Gray.

If you start to pull all these events together, says McGuckian, you can see how “they have their impact on the general perception [of the artist], and impact on the artist. The artist starts to feel marginalised, alienated, not part of the movement.”

She hopes that the film will lift the level of awareness beyond what is generally discussed about Gray – E1027, the extraordinary 2009 sale of the chair – but without belittling her work.

“She was so ahead of her time,” says McGuckian. “It was the actual quality of the work which was so ingenious and ahead of its time.”

Why the title ‘The Price of Desire’? That came, in part, from McGuckian exploring how “so much of her work was motivated by and inspired by the people around her, or relationships in her lifetime”.

Gourdon Collection sale preview Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“You tend to find at every period of the work, great pieces emerged almost as gifts or inspired by relationships. And the work in itself and attitude to the work was highly integrous.”

She was very pure – that had a cost.

The title also refers to the 2009 sale of Gray’s ‘dragon’ chair. The sum which changed hands was the most ever paid at an auction for a piece from that era: €19.5million. The dealer responsible for the sale, when asked about it afterwards by the stunned press, replied that it was “the price of desire”.

Gourdon Collection sale preview The only known surviving example of Eileen Gray's 'Bibendum' Club armchair, circa 1926-1929 Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

It was difficult to cast the perfect Gray, and it took a number of years before McGuckian got her first choice, Irish actress Orla Brady. At one point, American actress Shannyn Sossamon was mooted to take on the role.

Remarkably, it took a while to convince people that an Irish woman should play an Irish woman in a film. McGuckian has known Morrissette for a long time, and considered her perfect to portray Gray’s lover, chanteuse Melissa Damier.

The director hopes that the film will inspire other creative women. “Certainly on an emotional level, it explores that experience that I believe women relate to creatively or professionally. So often, female characters in films are associational – they are the mother of, wife of, daughter of, lover of. This film clearly isn’t that.”

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A woman behind the camera

As a female director, McGuckian herself, like Gray, is a minority in a male-dominated profession. “In a way, making the Eileen Gray film has helped me recognise a) the experience and b) how it can come to pass,” she says of how sexism can derail careers.

It is a lifetime of slight marginalisation, of insidious chauvinism. There’s no big event. No one has ever said ‘you’re a female director – you’re no use to us’. But it’s just harder. I don’t have a big answer in terms of the overall film industry.

Recently, McGuckian tells me by way of explanation, she experienced a moment of sexism herself while showing a film of her own at a cinema. Although she’d clearly identified herself as the director to them, a staff member asked just minutes after their introduction what ‘the director’ thought, pointing to her male friend.

But McGuckian is optimistic for the future, saying that with changes in distribution, films have to find their audience – and with women making up 51% of the world’s population, that’s a massive audience (and audiences within an audience) to target.

Gourdon Collection sale preview Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

Jameson Dublin International Film Festival

The Price of Desire is to premiere in Ireland for the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (JDIFF), which McGuckian says is “right and fitting”.

In particular, she singles out Grainne Humphreys, Festival Director of JDIFF, for her enthusiasm about the film.

“From my point of view, it’s always interesting to keep tabs with what is happening with Irish directors,” says Humphreys.

“If you said to people 15 years ago ‘Eileen Gray’, I’m not sure many people would have known of her, but [with] the combined efforts of museums and the recent documentary, it’s incredible how fast her reputation has really been re-established.”

Film festivals are all about discovery, says Humphreys, and this film is about discovering a new side to Gray’s life. ”The film takes place in a time far, far away from the present day. But in the same way, you could view how some of the issues [are pertinent]. The clothes have changed, but the arguments are still the same.”

The Price of Desire will be shown at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Read: Minister, mother, and TD on why young women need to see more female leaders>

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Aoife Barry

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