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Camp or Kitsch? The Met Gala

Romaine Brooks would have been highly amused by the latest edition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s exhibit, Camp: Notes on Fashion. The  show is an annual May fundraising event and comes on the heels of Romaine’s birthday which I recently blogged about with Suzanne Strohn( http://www.suzannestrohcreative.com/romaine-brooks-145-stonewall-50/ ).

 

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Venus in Fur

 

CAMP: Notes on Fashion, reprises lesbian icon Suzanne Sontag’s groundbreaking essay published in 1964. Camp is many things to many people. Chaired by Gucci Creative Director, Alessandro Michele, energized by Vogue, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Serena Williams and supported by Gucci and Conde Nast, this is an intentionally slick, safe, fun party for the rich and famous.  Tickets are expensive and are snapped up by the wealthy and celebrated who strut the red-carpeted steps of the Met like royalty. Indeed, they are the cream of the art, fashion and corporate worlds.

Romaine was famously introverted yet she played hostess to the likes of Zelda and Scott, Virgil Thompson, and many other luminaries.

She loved to dress up and parties. What she did not like was being on parade at her lover Natalie Barney’s famous international salon. If Romaine had succumbed to attending the Met gala she would have been paradoxically flattered and disdainful of Thom Browne’s homage to her portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge which is prominently on display in the Camp exhibit.

Brooks and her muse and lover, Ida Rubinstein, the lady Gaga of her day set fashion and style in their individual performances. Both exhibited conspicuous outrage, a marker of high fashion. But, it is Brooks’s performative self-portrait of 1923 that takes center stage. You may ask why? The answer brings us right back to what distinguishes high camp from empty kitsch.

Romaine Brooks Self-Portrait-SAAM
Satorial

For gay people, high camp is the essence of resistance, subversion, and mockery as well as what Japanese gay author, Yukon Mishima define as, Miyabi--courtly elegance. It is radical, it is queer. Both Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks were well aware of these distinctions.

As lesbians they were both out and, they were both radical, lesbian feminists at a time when it was hardly fashionable to be so open about their love of their own sex. Natalie was notorious and shunned by many of the gratin (French high society) and wealthy Americans. Romaine entertained privately, usually small select groups of people. She painted the gay, lesbian and creatives who attended Natalie’s famous salon. But she also painted the Weeping Venus, a collaborative effort and highly political, inspired by Natalie’s poem of the same name that lamented the subservient status of women in society. Today, they would have both been at the head of any demonstration protesting the control of women’s bodies by men, ie. the states of Georgia, Ohio and Alabama.

Lily de Gramont, a princess of the blood, part of the happy threesome that made up their complicated family, was a social commentator, a friend of Marcel Proust, and a great party thrower and goer. She would have loved the Met Gala and dressed to the nines while reporting on the various luminaries there. She was a taste-maker and breaker. A social arbiter as well as author and translator in her own right. But, Lily also was known as the “Red Duchess” because of her embrace of Communism. While she spoke for the workers, she nonetheless retained her aristocratic status, although being supported by Natalie after she left her abusive husband despite being a working journalist.

As New York gears up for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Stonewall riots of 1968, it seems all the cultural institutions in the city want to get in on the act. Therefore, the Met theme makes perfect sense.

I wish I could say I loved the show because I do love and admire camp and fashion. The problem for me as a gay person who has modeled and had my fling with fashion as a younger woman, is that having grown up with gay camp; think drag queens in Miami Beach, gay bars, and the gay entertainment scene I found the Met’s notion of camp lacking in radical, queer resistance. img_1896Missing from the Met’s pink botique, Quentin Crisp, Keith Herring’s extraordinary self-portrait as one of his artworks (photographed by Sontag’s lover Annie Leibowitz) and where was Linda Stein’s Wonder Woman body armor?

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So all over high art CAMP

The Jewel Box Review. Martha P. Johnson shabby street chic, Charles Ludlem’s Ridiculous Theater Company, or Jack Smith’s Flaming Closets. I simply point these well known, at least in the GLBTQI communities, as historical references easily accessible to any knowledgeable curator who has done their homework.

The problem with the Met’s Camp is that it exploits queer culture to set the stage for contemporary fashion design and its sponsors; Gucci and Condé Nast . In doing so it undermines the subversive and oppositional meaning of Camp as a critique of the 1% be they celebrities, industrialists, or politicians.

Clearly, what we have here is more Kitsch than camp. It is more about fashion and style than opposition, it is the wealthy having fun and flaunting their wealth and privilege for a good cause i.e. Katy Perry’s chandelier and hamburger costumes.
that spring board off the originality of subversive gay culture into today’s fashion designers who have effectively taken the cutting edge of camp out of its natural element and moved it into a realm that is antithetical to its very essence.

Improbably filmaker, John Water’s Pink Flamingos and shit eating Devine are now acceptable icons in today’s high fashion world. Add Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow which I suppose symbolizes something to the exhibition’s organizers but strikes the gay people who worshipped her as gratuitous.

if you love fashion and Gucci branded display by all means go and enjoy the spectacle. Feast on the rich and famous enjoying themselves and contributing to the Costume Institutes coffers to the tune of 15 million, but don’t think for one nano-second all the photo ops, dressing up and advertising in any way really represents Camp’s historical essence.

Romaine would have have sniffed at it and thought it was a party full of posturing arriviste. Continue reading Camp or Kitsch? The Met Gala

A Birthday Excursion

Yesterday was Romaine Brooks’s birthday. I had the pleasure of sharing it with blogging friend and Brooks admirer, Suzanne Stroh. We had the pleasure of letting our active imaginations roam with us at http://www.suzannestrohcreative.com and pull up a chair and join us in the celebration of Romaine’s 145th and Stonewall 50.

Please stay tuned for the premiere of the YouTube channel Kulture-Re-View for my video interview, Paris Lesbos featuring the circle of Romaine Brooks highlighting Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont along with their friends–the real lesbians who made Paris the mecca of modernism’s in literature, art, dance, theater, fashion, and design; to say nothing of life and love styles

If anyone out there knows a good illustrator in the style of Philip Julian or Hillary Knight (think Eloise ) please let me know as I am looking for someone good at fluid line drawing style who would jump at a chance to create a Romaine style figure to illustrate some of her more pithy words to the wise concerning life, love, aesthetics and staying alive.

Domesticity, London-the 1920s

Romaine Brooks took a house in London during which time she painted her friend Una Trowbridge’s portrait. It featured a sky-lighted top floor and a lovely little garden.

Last year I had the pleasure of hunting for this very house with my adventurous editor and friend, Suzanne Stroh. The house is now for sale at over 9 million pounds. Romaine, an heiress with a substantial fortune paid nothing near that in the 1920s. Walking the streets where she lived I tried to feel her presence. I imagined her starting the day drinking a cup of black coffee so strong that Natale Barney said you could stand a spoon in it. Opening her door out to the garden, passing through the gate to gaze at the lifting fog over the river sans all the newly constructed architecture that now lines its bordering streets. I tried to feel the quiet of her London mornings and imagine her working days and evenings of entertaining carefully selected friends.

I got a little of the feeling from reading Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Forge in which her main character is loosely based on Romaine with an appearance by a thinly disguised Natalie. Romaine did not like “Johnny’s” portrayal of her but it is a strong statement of character and shows Hall’s respect for Romaine as an artist if not a person. Among this circle of creative lesbians opinions and feelings about each other were fluctuating.  What was not was Romaine’s demands when it came to her residences something Natalie remarked on in their correspondence.

Not Romaine’s Taste

Interior of a flat Romaine formerly lived in during her stay in London in the 1920s when Una Troubridge posed for her in a costume of her own choosing leading to the supposition that Romaine had satirized her testy friend.

Romaine characteristically depicted what she saw and knew of Una who could turn on a dime if offended by someone. The duality of Una’s character was forcefully captured by Romaine in her 1924 portrait now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.

Try to imagine Romaine’s famous palette of grays in this appealing space and how she might have decorated it. Check out my book to get some idea of how bold and audacious yet subtle her color scheme would have been. Architectural Digest eat your heart out! I can imagine the charcoals, mauves grays and teal grays all subtly blended with touches of silver in the frames of her favorite foil leaf mercury. And huge charcoal drawings on blue or gray paper such as those that adorned her studio in the Carnegie Hall building in the 1930s.

Conversion Therapy

Romaine Brooks - Book
For one and all

My memoir dealing with conversion therapy is on-going and shaping up. The whole issue of conformity is a story in and of itself. Thinking back on being left-handed, dyslexic, introverted, a misfit calls to mind the entire normalization project of the 1950s in Education and psychology, particularly child psychology and the push for parents to conform and make themselves and their children little carbon copies of what a punishing society told them they should be. What I experienced was a virtual gender gulag.

Certainly my choosing to write about Romaine Brooks and compelled to understand what happened to her–what drew me to her was something in her self-portraits that drew me to her. It was intuitive, unthought through and totally compelling. Because her portrait embodied everything anyone who has been an outlier has felt despite outward appearances. While Romaine projected a picture of outward strength and absolute control the child within was more vulnerable and fragile than anyone gazing at her self portraits could ever imagine.

In a way, having completed my biograp freed me to write my own memoir of being a vulnerable girl thirteen being put under the dubious care of Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychoanalyst who ran a school/camp for disturbed children in Croton on Hudson based as his experiences with prisoners at Sing-Sing. More to follow.

The Revision Thing

The beauty about research is that one is ever having to revise. New information comes in over days, months and years. I post as soon as I have fresh information on Brooks and her circle.

Lately, I have discovered that one of the images in my slide presentation for the talk on March 14th at the Proust Society at the Jefferson Library from the last 6-7:30 has to be revised. Why? Simply because Jean Chalon’s book that has a picture supposedly of a very young Elisabeth de Gramont is in error and it’s all over the web. Yes the young woman illustrated was one of Natalie Barney’s lovers but she wasn’t Lily Continue reading The Revision Thing

It’s in the stars​​​

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Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Lily de Gramont shared an interest in Astrology and Tarot throughout their lives, as was Natalie’s other lover Dolly Wilde. This does not strike one strange because during the 19th and currently, people are curious about what the future holds and how it will affect their lives and loves.

In 2014, author and translator, Suzanne Gerber-Stroh consulted an astrologer to construct birth charts for Romaine Brooks and her intimates. Here are the results.

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Satisfy your insatiable curiosity and make what you will of how closely Mr. Mann’s findings correspond to the personalities of these highly creative and productive gay women.

For more go to Suzanne Stroh’s link and look for the 2014 entry.

Romaine and the Duchess

Romaine at the Polk Museum, Lakeland, Fl.

After having a wonderful interactive Q and A following my talk which I will blog about next time, I came home to a talk at the Proust Society.

Lily de Gramont biographer, Francesco Rapazzini

It was upsetting because I was trying to discern truth from fiction by asking a simple question concerning my research and the research conducted by Caroline Weber that centered on the models for Proust’s Duchess which I mentioned in my last blog. Unfortunately, I hit an exposed nerve because Weber opined that my citation of Italian/French author Francesco Rapazzini was “wrong, wrong, wrong”. She was put out because of his critique of her which appeared in the New York Times (August 17, 2018) and my own suggestion that her research wasn’t the definitive word on Proust’s models for his fictional duchess.

To my mind it is imperative that we appreciate different points of view. Rapazzini, Bruce Kellner (formerly of the Van Vechten Trust) and Edward Burns, Director of the Van Vechten trust and expert on Alice B. Toklas, myself and Alice B. Herself (1948 letter) opine that Natalie Barney’s lover, Lily de Gramont, Duchess Claremont-Tonnerre, was a primary model. Weber seemed exasperated by my daring to suggest Lily as a model and dismissed me like an untutored school girl. But the fact is that Lily is the lost Duchess because to Weber’s mind because she is a lesbian (by default unfashionable) therefore she could not possibly be among the models–this despite Weber using all four of Lily’s books for knowledge of the la noblesse of Faubourg.

Lily as a young child was moved from chateau to chateau and put in the care of her father, Agenor, 11th duc de Gramont and his wife, nee Princesee Isabelle de Beauvau-Craon. Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father then married the wealthy Marguerite de Rothchild who Lilly adored and the feelings were mutual. She escaped an abusive marriage which Proust refers to in a letter where he said her husband made her life hell. After two miscarriages caused by his brutality they separated. She met Natalie six years later and they became lifelong lovers and wrote one of the first lesbian marriage contracts ever constructed. In 1916 Natalie met and fell in love with Romaine Brooks and they became an eternal trio.

Lily immortalized her cousin, Robert de Montesquiou who Proust loved in her amusing book of memoirs. But according to Rapazzini little Marcel gleaned a major portion of his inspiration for the young Oriane de Guermantes from Lily and her family. Proust was introduced to Montesquiou by the painter, Madeleine Lemaire at a fancy ball 1893. Through both Lily and Robert, Proust became privy to the scandalous details , and secrets of high society. Proust thirsted for and thrived on gossip which he integrated into his fictional creation of a decadent upper classes.

Lily, after the first flush of her youth was never a fashion plate although she could be stylish as required of her as a princess of the blood. She left that to others like Countess de Greffuhle. Even so, Lily was, like her cousin Robert, an arbiter of taste and a wit whose pen could be dipped in acid when necessary to put some inferior in his or her place. She authored the page six of society of her time. Her warmth, sense of humor, knowledge of food, wine, pears and all the pleasures of life was renown. And, Marcel took full advantage of their friendship when he created the young Oriane.

Weber appears to have focused her attention on the older construction of Oriane who Proust may have created first rather than the younger version which probably was fully fleshed out after his having discerned the true nature of his aristocratic acquaintances and gotten them down on paper.

To be clear, Both Rapazzini and Weber seem to be running parallel but different tracks where Lily is concerned. This question came up as an inquiry concerning Romaine’s intimate relationships and her supposedly being a loner without family and close friends. A point I took pains to research and refute in my Romaine Brooks: A Life.

Lily, Natalie and Romaine

So tune in for more on Romaine and her fascinating circle of modern women and men.

Romaine and Her Circle

Romaine Brooks - Book
For one and all

Two new books; Joan Howard’s, We Met in Paris and Caroline Weber’s, Proust’s Duchess reference individuals who were part of Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Lily de Gramont’s circle.

The first is a biography of the entwined lives of Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar. Yourcenar, was the first modern women elected to the L’Academe francaise, an institution created in 1635. It is the pre-eminent council for matters pertaining to the French language. It is limited to forty seats and each member is assigned a number. Its members are known as the “l’immortaliete.  They serve for life. This honor was granted to Marguerite Yourcenar despite having lived in America and becoming an American citizen since the 1940’s. She was the first woman, elected in 1980 largely due to the advocacy of her friend and mentor, Natalie Barney.0826221556.1.zoom-1

Yourcenar’s highly complex historical novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, lovingly translated by her partner, Grace Frick won her the recognition she needed to be elected. Yourcenar’s number was 3.

Natalie had been aware of Marguerite’s talents and encouraged her early on. It was through Natalie’s friendship with both Grace and Maguerite, (known as Madame to her American friends and acquaintances) that Romaine Brooks became friendly with the couple. In fact, as Howard explained to me, Marguerite, in 1954 specifically requested to have a meeting with only Natalie and Romaine excluding Lily. Natalie had asked to bring the duchess along as she was part of the three-way marriage that Natalie had with these women. But Yourcenar and Grace scotched that plan much to Natalie’s chagrin.

I speculated with Howard that one of the reasons may have been Marguerite’s intense interest in art.  She wanted to have a serious conversation with Romaine about her portraits. The writer and painter would have had much to discuss since Yourcenar visualized her plots and characters before writing them down. She was interested in how Romaine, who was known as the thief of souls in the popular press created her portrayals.

She might have said, Romaine tell me how you see your models? And, Romaine would have been reluctant to reveal her secrets. But my book, Romaine Brooks: A Life attempts to reveal some of them. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall to listen in on what these four modernist women had to say. it must have been a fascinating conversation.

Lamentably, Caroline Weber’s, Proust’s Duchess, configures Lily as the invisible woman. shoppingIn the publicity referencing Marcel Proust’s models for his Duchess of Guermantes in Remembrance of Things past, Lily is barely mentioned. This is perhaps because the biography by Francesco Rapazzini’s has yet to be translated into English. Yet, Weber who is fluent in French seems to overlook it despite her extensive bibliography. Why?

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Here is the book you must read

Rapazzini, Elisabeth de Gramont: Avante-gardiste (Fayard in 2004 unfortunately not translated into English) proves over and over again that Elisabeth de Gramont, Duchess de Clermont-Tonnerre who was a close friend of the famous author, a star in her own right, and marvelously portrayed by Romaine Brooks was the source of Proust’s intimate knowledge of the French aristocracy and their carrying-ons.

At the very least, one has to question is Lily left because of her lesbianism. Once she left her husband (and eventually divorced him) she made no bones about the joys of her new life and moved in with Natalie Barney who supported her and her daughters. Leaving out Lily’s central role in forming Proust’s impressions only creates a host of future problems for Proust scholars. It is my sincere hope that Rapazzini’s book will soon be translated into English thus giving English speaking readers an opportunity to enjoy the life and adventures of one the most fascinating woman of this era.

Please check out my events page for future speaking engagements.