I know how they used to visualize her. Weak and erotic, pliable and romantic, vaguely Eastern – she lay hidden in a locked room heavy with silks and thick perfumes.
Her arms were flung about her head, lush and weak, and her body curved like a sated serpent's. Her eyes gazed into the distance, into faraway Oriental skies the color of peacock feathers, a rinse of tinted shadows.
Although a creation of Victorian boredom and sexual whimsy, she actually did exist, and she was called an odalisque. She served the concubines of the harem, washing their feet, rinsing their hair with henna. She crushed flowers – ginger, lilies, orchids: the gifts of an Ottoman garden – to create new fragrances and brushed her mistress' wrists with the scented oils. She was a living woman, with exquisite skills.
But thousands of miles to the west she had become an art trend, and her name became a body writhing at the base of a lamp, or carvings that struggled against symmetry and the placid yoke of equilibrium. She defined the curling enamels on cigarette boxes hidden in a man's pocket.
Comfortably exotic, she was willing to share tea as well as a water pipe with the discerning Victorian gentleman. Weighed down with tassels and fabrics like a middle-class drawing room, she sighed across her couch, waiting.
She could be a child, crowned with flowers and glowing with false jewels and a brothel's promise.
She could be an exhausted icon.
To the Western mind of the 19th century, she was foreign but still accessible, genteel but still with the look of a concubine's apprentice. It was an inaccurate vision, but this manageable fantasy was the Victorian way.
But I have my own vision, too.
This woman is Josephine Baker – who danced with shameless joy and sang like a crystal bird. I look at this image, and think 'surely she is the odalisque, more so than those posed, upholstered women'.
Perhaps. Here, no bed or couch is evident – she seems to have stepped out of a bath of pure light. The length of glistening fabric she holds is the merest decoration, as are the rivulets of pearls pouring from her hands. Like Salome, she dresses in veils and jewelry and is a source of torment.
She does not look away into an imaginary horizon, steeped in pastels and mosques. Her eyes stare straight ahead, daring and demanding. Dark and feverish, cloaked in charcoal, they reflect a dangerous grace. She stands straight and sleek, with the soft indentations of bones and muscles noticeable throughout her feline body.
This is not a vision of weakness from the 19th century, but one from the 1920's, when women were learning about their own appetites, instead of satisfying the hungers of others. Still exotic, but with a bite.
Whose ideal was closest to the truth? No one will really know. The keys to those rooms, hung with tapestries both feminine and mysterious, were thrown away long ago.