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The Exhibition Making the Case for Art Without Men

“If you want what is commonly accepted as ‘a straight answer to a straight question,’ don’t go to Marie Laurencin to get it,” Dorothy Todd, the British magazine editor, wrote in 1928. If answers from Laurencin — one of the most notable female painters in interwar France — were anything like her work, of course they wouldn’t be straight, but coy, queer, covert and very pretty.

“Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris,” a new exhibition that puts all of the artist’s coded qualities on full display, opened this week at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

Born in 1883 in Paris, Laurencin became a central member of the artistic avant-garde, ruled by her friend Picasso, in early 1900s Paris. By the 1910s, she had broken free of the Cubist grip to create a distinctive, immediately recognizable aesthetic all her own, in macaron tints that collectors couldn’t get enough of. After her death, in 1956, her work fell into relative obscurity.

The Barnes show is the first major solo Laurencin exhibition in the United States in three decades, and the first exhibition of her work to highlight the obvious: Laurencin’s art is unavoidably queer, and noticeably lacking in men.

“Marie Laurencin is of the ‘lipstick lesbian’ variety: She constructs this very soft, feminine world that really spoke to viewers at the time,” said Libby Otto, an art history professor at the University at Buffalo. “And if you realize that, in her soft way, she’s constructing a world without men, of female harmony, there’s something pretty revolutionary in there as well.”

“Marie Laurencin,” a 1925 photograph by Man Ray.Credit…Man Ray 2015 Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris 2023; via RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY

Jenni Sorkin, a professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Laurencin “a separatist,” describing the artist’s intentional and coded scenes. This show emphasizes Laurencin’s vision of a Sapphic world without men, which, Professor Sorkin noted, makes it the first of its kind in a major institution.

Of the dozens of faces featured in the Barnes exhibition, only two are male. One of her lovers, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire, makes the cut, as does Laurencin’s longtime art dealer, Paul Rosenberg. Outside of portraiture (Laurencin reportedly charged more to paint both men and brunettes), male faces almost never appear in the hundreds of paintings that she created over the course of her 50-year career.

This is a central Laurencin paradox: She thrived in an art world that was almost entirely male by painting a world filled almost exclusively by women. When Laurencin pursued the French tradition of the 16th-century fête galantepainting — pastoral scenes of courtship, flirtation and romantic intrigue epitomized by the work of Antoine Watteau — she excised all the men. There are animals and feminine mystique only, figures with her signature wide-set eyes with eerie hollow gazes, drenched in a creamy pastel palette.

“We’re always saying it’s diaphanous, because there’s a gauzy transparency to these paintings and everything is kind of floating,” said Cindy Kang, a curator at the Barnes. “This is an alternative world she draws you into that’s very dreamy.”

Simonetta Fraquelli, who curated the show with Dr. Kang, said that Laurencin wanted to create an alternative world for women. “But at the same time, she was very conscious of the male-dominated market,” she said. Laurencin made work that appealed to wealthy male buyers who might not interpret women embracing, kissing, and dancing as lesbian activities.

“She was adept at exploiting all the different constituents for her success,” Ms. Fraquelli added, invoking the “Barbie”movie, which similarly has no shame about either its sweet, girlie aesthetic or its profit-seeking ambitions.

“Perhaps we finally arrived at a moment that we can read Marie Laurencin in an interesting and robust way that we haven’t been able to in the past, due to her high femme style,” said Kenneth E. Silver, a professor of art history at New York University and the author of “Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925.”

“Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel,” a 1923 oil on canvas by Laurencin.Credit…Fondation Foujita Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris 2023; Bridgeman Images

According to Dr. Kang, part of the reason Laurencin is once again enticing the wider art world is that “there is clearly more of an openness to taking that femininity seriously.”

“One issue that Laurencin did have with being taken seriously by, say, feminist art historians in the ’90s is that she was so feminine,” she said. “They just couldn’t get it.” After Laurencin’s death, her work fell into an especially peculiar trap: It was dismissed for its femininity and criticized for its supposed lack of feminist sensibility.

The intentional absence of men should speak volumes about her priorities, but Laurencin’s paintings aren’t shouters. Their figures whisper; they operate in secrets. “They’re very private works,” said Katy Hessel, an art historian and the author of “The Story of Art Without Men.” “Her figures share some intimacy. You’re actually looking at someone’s private world, someone’s interior world.”

“It feels like this incredible utopian world,” she said.

Professor Otto noted Laurencin’s ambition to find “a new visual language for feminine beauty that’s not the same as it was in the 19th century or with the Impressionists.” “She’s really striving to come up with a new aesthetic language to express female modernity and embrace the feminine from the inside,” the professor said.

Dr. Kang and other scholars argue that Laurencin’s Sapphic themes were ignored or overlooked for so long precisely because of their femininity. One scholar, Milo Wippermann, calls the neglect of Laurencin’s queerness a matter of “femme invisibility.”

“To see her from the queer feminine perspective, you see a type of queer feminine gender performance and you start to see what Laurencin was actually doing,” Dr. Kang said. A male collector like Albert C. Barnes, who created the Barnes Foundation in 1922 and acquired five of Laurencin’s works, “could think of her as easily feminine, but there’s a surrealist edge. And I think we’re now positioned to start to see that out, as opposed to ignoring it.”

Laurencin’s fantasy visions were not restrained to the canvas. She designed sets and costumes for theater and ballet; she illustrated books; she created decorative plates and wallpaper (Gertrude Stein bought several rolls).

And in each medium, Laurencin’s weightless, floaty, femme aesthetic never wavers. Laurencin was so firm about her style that she declined to repaint a commissioned portrait of Coco Chanel, after Chanel complained it didn’t look enough like her. But Laurencin had no interest in adhering to straightforward likenesses. She was interested only in creating an entirely new world.

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