Museum  March 4, 2022  Rachel Ozerkevich

Loïe Fuller: Innovator on Stage from Paris to Pacific Northwest

Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.

Detail of Loïe Fuller in La Danse Blanche.

Illinois-born dancer Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) took Paris by storm in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was famous throughout both North America and Europe for her groundbreaking multimedia Serpentine Dance, glimpses of which endure in photographs and the films she herself created. Appearing regularly at the famed Paris cabaret the Folies-Bergère, she became a fixture in the works of Belle Époque artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose prints merged her swirling skirts with her body in an attempt to capture the sensory overload of her dances.

It may come as a surprise that a treasure-trove of archival material related to this interdisciplinary performer and innovator is housed in rural southern Washington, at the Maryhill Museum of Art, in an isolated mansion situated miles from any major city. More fascinating still, Fuller played a major role in founding the museum in 1917, though she died twelve years before the first road would finally bring visitors along the northern edge of the Columbia River to the museum. Today, Maryhill contains a collection of items donated by her friends and admirers that help paint a picture of her life and legacy in this remote location.

Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.

Loïe Fuller in Folies Bergère poster by Ferdinand Bac.

Fuller’s performances involved huge layers of swirling, colorful fabrics. She sewed rods into these costumes to help them pirouette over and around her body as she moved. The colored lights she projected onto her stages seemed to dye her fabrics and body, an effect that hand-colored film would later try to replicate. These live and documented performances became her signature act and enraptured audiences and other image-makers of the period. In still images, and even in films, it is still difficult to discern where the dancer’s body begins and where her elaborate, sculptural costuming ends.

Fuller toured extensively and her performances were unlike anything that Parisian and American audiences had seen before. She herself did not fit the mold of a typical showgirl: she was older than most when she became a celebrity, did not have any formal dance training, and was criticized for not being a naturally gifted, or graceful, dancer. But she was a master of illusion, costuming, and technology—all of which she harnessed into an unprecedented kind of visual feast that eclipsed her unglamorous offstage persona in favor of something utterly new. She became one of the most well-known figures in Belle Époque performance.

Loïe Fuller in her butterfly dress, c.1898. Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.
Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.

Loïe Fuller in her butterfly dress, c.1898.

Detail of Loïe Fuller in La Danse Blanche. Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.
Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.

Detail of Loïe Fuller in La Danse Blanche.

Fuller did not abandon her ties to the U.S. despite her success in Europe, and she maintained her vision for an institution that could bring French art to the inland Pacific Northwest. In 1917, she suggested to her friend Sam Hill, a prominent railroad executive and major player in Washington’s transportation infrastructure, that he turn his mansion—unfinished and languishing on an isolated stretch of the Columbia Gorge—into an art museum. Along with friends Queen Marie of Romania and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, Hill and Fuller collaborated to bring the Maryhill Art Museum to life. The Museum was not founded with Fuller’s collection in mind. But the performer’s presence at Maryhill has only grown over the last several decades, thanks to donations from her friends and admirers of materials related to Fuller and her work.

Today, Maryhill’s Fuller holdings feature a large number of archival photos, some of which curator Steven Grafe describes as “rather bizarre,” but delightfully so. Despite the fact that these images of Fuller’s solo and group performances are over 100 years old, they seem refreshingly modern for being playful, experimental, strange, and forward-thinking. In addition to photographs, the collection includes posters by Art Nouveau artists that promoted and celebrated Fuller’s performances, glassworks reminiscent of her stage presence, and diverse memorabilia that honor her life and career. The collection grounds Fuller’s legacy in this remote location, one that she had long envisioned as being an arts oasis of sorts. The property even holds Fuller’s own sculptures by Rodin.

Courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.

Fernand Massignon (Pierre Roche), Loïe Fuller, c. 1895 - 1905. 3 x 9 x 2½ in.

A great deal of performance, dance, and art historical research has focused on Fuller’s role in French modernism. But she played a crucial part in bridging gaps between artists and movements on both sides of the Atlantic, having appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and on American vaudeville stages in addition to major Parisian cabarets. Maryhill’s collection and the research and publications it supports all draw attention to Fuller’s innovative ideas and contributions to stage lighting techniques, set design, and costumes.

Curator Grafe hopes that the museum’s plans for 2023, which include displaying even more photographs of Fuller and her work, will further emphasize the important role she has played in modern dance history.

About the Author

Rachel Ozerkevich

Rachel Ozerkevich holds a PhD in Art History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's an art historian, writer, educator, and researcher currently based in eastern Washington State. Her areas of expertise lie in early illustrated magazines, sports subjects, interdisciplinary arts practices, contemporary indigenous art, and European and Canadian modernism.

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