The Engines of Modern Art


No Modernism without Lesbians
by Diana Souhami
Head of Zeus. 432 pages, £25.

FOR THIRTY YEARS, Diana Sou-hami has written books about lesbian writers, painters, and actors who were trailblazers both in their lives and work—mostly subjects with big names: Greta Garbo, Gertrude Stein, Vita Sackville-West; Radclyffe Hall, and Virginia Woolf. If it was a star who spoke English and refused to wear a skirt, she was all over it. Souhami’s books have been beautifully published on both sides of the Atlantic, widely translated, and routinely well reviewed in prestigious literary venues such as The London Review of Books and The New York Times.

            No Modernism without Lesbians is a new variation on the theme. In spotlighting four of our lesbian foremothers and their circles, Souhami challenges the modernist canon that has dominated cultural education at their expense, foregrounding instead great men and their muses. This book rebalances the historical record with a thoroughly absorbing look at the lives and times of Sylvia Beach, Bryher, Natalie Barney, and Gertrude Stein: their worlds, passions, and lovers.

            These were women who were avid for new experiences, hungry for connection, and determined to break conventions. Nothing came easy. These lesbian leading ladies were intense, decisive women fully capable of sleeping in any bed they chose, when they chose. Some of them, like America’s first princess, Winnaretta Singer, the sewing machine heiress who married Prince Edmond de Polignac, were high-maintenance closet cases. Those who were mostly out identified across a broad spectrum as butches, femmes, Sapphists, kikis, dykes, or sometimes just as garden variety queers. Love them or hate them, these were dangerous women: women to watch out for.

Madness runs all through this book. Each section includes protagonists or supporting characters who were mentally ill: Sylvia Beach’s mother Eleanor; Bryher’s life partner, the poet Hilda Doolittle (“H.D.”); Gertrude Stein’s neurotic brother Leo; Romaine Brooks’ mother Ella; Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, who was institutionalized along with Natalie Barney’s godson Raymond Douglas, the son of Oscar Wilde’s famous boyfriend; Joyce’s daughter-in-law Helen Fleischmann; Zelda Fitzgerald, who needs no introduction; suicidal poet Renée Vivien; bipolar ingénue Dolly Wilde; and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, another poet who wandered Paris dressed as a bag lady.

     Souhami’s gossipy tone sheds light on their complicated, often secretive lesbian lives. Many burned or destroyed their racy photographs and letters to keep them away from prying eyes. But there are some secrets that Souhami prefers to keep under wraps. It is odd, for example, that she never cites the work of Barbara Will and Janet Malcolm on Gertrude Stein’s active collaboration with Pétain’s pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II.

            Some of the book’s best writing focuses on Four Saints in Three Acts, a vanguard opera of the 1930s based on Gertrude Stein’s alphabet soup, with a brilliant score by Virgil Thomson and cutting-edge sets and costumes designed by another underexposed artist, Florine Stettheimer. Written in 1927-28, Four Saints languished for six years before its first performance. Directed by then-unknown John Houseman with choreography by Frederick Ashton, Four Saints was the Hamilton of its day. But the all-black cast shocked suburbanites at the traditionalist Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford and contributed to the firing of the museum’s pace-setting director Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr.—a great friend of another lesbian power couple in this circle, Grace Frick and Marguerite Yourcenar.

Original cast of Four Saints in Three Acts, at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1934. Harold Swahn photo.

Souhami calls for a deeper appreciation of gay lives, and  especially women’s lives. Take, for example, Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman), one of Britain’s richest woman who thought of herself as transgender. Bryher’s patronage was crucial in establishing the avant-garde platforms. More needs to be said about her financing of African-American artists and early experiments in film. Souhami asserts that Bryher loved H.D. unconditionally and regarded the sexually fluid poet’s madness as a gift that lent wings to her genius. Souhami also seems to regard Bryher’s tempestuous relationship with H.D. as controlling and insensitive.

            To learn more, I spoke with Susan McCabe, whose biography of Bryher is forthcoming from Oxford in 2021. McCabe sees the relationship more as a partnership of equals and suggests that Bryher and H.D. were kindred spirits drawn together by their mutual sorrows in a healing bond. This allowed them to survive punishing cycles of acrimony, oppositions, and flare-ups that ultimately proved unthreatening over a lifetime.

            No Modernism without Lesbians makes a compelling case for forgetting everything we thought we knew about the origins of Modernism. As an art historian, I am aware that there are many schools of thought on this. Convincing evidence is cited for the claim that Modernism began in painting with Courbet, or else started with the Post-Impressionists, and so on. Whether it began in Paris in 1905, 1912, or 1922 is irrelevant. Since the dawn of the arts, lesbians have always been at the vanguard of new movements. It has always been a necessity for lesbians to defy patriarchal norms to live freely and survive. This simple truth has been ignored by cultural historians for too long.

            Even so, is the claim of “no Modernism without lesbians” too sweeping to be substantiated? Souhami makes her profession in literature, so it makes sense that the publication of Ulysses in 1922 is her jumping-off place. From that perspective, there’s no question that Modernism had many lesbian mothers who nurtured the men that history has privileged. This book offers unambiguous evidence that men were not at the center. For men like Cocteau and Dalí, Joyce, Picasso, Diaghilev, and Hemingway, it was women who published their books, bankrolled their galleries, threw their launch parties, translated their works, reviewed them in The New Yorker, bought their paintings, financed their operas, furnished their film equipment, starred in their pictures, and rescued their failing companies. Souhami’s argument might make better sense as “no Modernism without Paris,” which was the mecca that attracted all creative seekers.

            But No Modernism without Lesbians is important for 2020 because it rips apart the prevailing patriarchal model. What Souhami calls for is abandoning the Modernist canon and rebuilding it one lesbian at a time to create a new, inclusive, 21st-century model. This project will send readers back, not only to a cast of characters that Souhami has spent her life compiling, but to works of others writing about lesbians and their role in supporting and advancing the arts.

Cassandra Langer, a freelance writer based in New York City, is the author ofRomaine Brooks: A Life (Wisconsin).

Romaine’s Devine Muse

Romaine Brooks met Rubenstein in 1911 after her first performance in Le Martyre de Saint-Sébastien. Rubinstein fell deeply in love and she wanted to buy a farm in the country where they would live together, but Romaine was not interested in isolating herself in the country.

Always independent and her own woman

Rubinstein was Brooks favorite model, with her androgynous beauty. Brooks painted a series of nude paintings of Rubenstein which were extremely controversial at their time, especially because they were done by a female artist. The couple split in 1914. I write about it in my book.

What was the allure that Ida held for Romaine? Brooks summed it up far better than I could.

It was Ida Rubinsteins elusive quality that fascinated. She expressed an inner self that had no particular denomination. Her beauty belonged to those mental images that demand manifestation, and whatever period she represented she became its image. In reality she was the crystallization of a poet’s image, a painter’s vision, and as such she possessed further significance … It was her gift for impersonating the beauty of every époque, that marked Ida Rubinstein as unique.”

Birthday Thoughts on Romaine’s Day and Corona Virus Pandemic


Matthew Arnold 1822 1888 

Love, let us be true.

To one another!  For the world, which seems.

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor helped for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plane

Swept with confused alarms of struggle in flight

Where ignorant armies clashed by night.

Dover beach, 1.  21

Romaine penned this poem of Arnold’s to Natalie in a letter. They were both pacifists. They lived through two world wars, the Spanish flu, and the atomic blast and the cold war. Romaine knew what living on a darling plane felt like. She was a fortress of self-reliance and rectitude when it came to facing life head-on. Although to date, nothing from the epidemic had survived in her letters, sheltering at home would not have been new to her or her circle. When she painted her lover Ida Rubinstein, the lady Gaga of her day as a Red Cross nurse she was expressing her feelings, their feelings, about the war, and the tragedy of seeing so many human beings wounded and dying. She depicted Ida who had courageously put aside her theatrical career, turned her home into a hospital for the wounded and dying, and gone on the road to raise money and morale for the people of France. Romaine’s health was not robust enough to allow her to participate physically but she contributed time, energy, and money to the cause. And, of course, her talents.

For those of us who are introverts and introspective by nature, you would think sheltering at home would cause little hardship but that is definitely not the case here at the epicenter where I am in lockdown. I miss so many small pleasures, especially now that spring has sprung.  I miss the pleasures of walking freely about feeling the breeze on my face, nodding to neighbors, sharing a pastry, and coffee after a day spend researching or writing. I miss greeting friends with a big hug and sharing a glass of wine at Addictive or a meal at the Queensborough or Uncle Peters or Jackson Diner.

I am also disturbed by how many here are not taking the mandate to wear a mask seriously. The 40% of people dying or dead from the pandemic in my hood upsets me. I want to think human beings are better than they are. Romaine had no such illusions. She thought badly of most human beings and didn’t want to be around them. She told Natalie this straight out regarding Dolly Wilde and the people Natalie, who was very social invited to their hyphenated villa. She said she loved being with “Nat Nat” but when not with her she preferred being alone because other people’s energies interfered with her artist self.

So on her birthday, I salute our Mrs. Brooks and celebrate her wonderful body of work and hope with time we can all be unafraid together viewing her work and enjoying our lives in what will surely be the “new” normal. Now let’s blow out the candles on the birthday cake she and Natalie would be enjoying today and truly come together in this pandemic and be each other’s keepers until a various and new society emerges.img_1270

Lightening Struck

We are entering 2020 and I am looking back with gratitude despite all the burning patching across this country that I love.

There are so many things I have gratitude for. Let me start with dear friends of long standing who keep me sane and in touch with our natural human values. The people who are not afraid to tell you the truth and point out your very human flaws. The people who get down to cases and help you to be a better human being and aspire to do the very best you can.

I have had my little triumphs this year. I trained for and was able to do a long hike in the pristine wilderness of Maine with my best girl in February who knows everything there is about camping.

I got to visit Sedona and ride a monster of a BMW motorcycle through the SW and experience parts of America I had not had time to see before.

I completed my harrowing memoir about the horrors of conversion therapy in a secular environment, a topic rarely exposed and especially when it is a teenage girl’s own story and exposes the bogus practices of the psychiatric profession following World War II. Now all I have to do is find a publisher with the guts to publish it🙏.

I focused on the little things that make life worth the struggle: optimal health, visiting friends and making time for each other and doing my all to make the world a better place.

A major focus has been climate control which many blind themselves to. It is going to change everything worldwide. We have a short ten years if that to get real about it. All the coastal waterways will be effected. Populations will need to migrate and we must prepare for helping people relocate and adjust.

For these and other reasons I oppose just about everything the despots of our world are doing. Their shortsighted sociopathic approach to the problems confronting the human race as well as all the species on our planet are primary in my plans for 2020.

Clean air, soil, water and habitats for all are where our energies need to be focused. All the money in the world will not save us from the havoc we have wrought on this green earth.

I will work as best I can with our terribly flawed systems of government. I will help Democrats in the coming year to win as many seats as possible and turn the country I love toward humanistic solutions rather than the hateful bigotry and lack of generosity displayed by the current administration.

This is not the America I wish to see or be a part of. This is not the vision of our framers. We are better than this–Now let’s prove it.

And while we are at it take time to meditate on what is good and true in all our lives. In the spirit of the season count your blessings and be grateful that your glass is half full rather than see it as half empty.

Wishing each and everyone enlightenment and blessings in the coming year. Aspire is the watchword.

Romaine’s Villa Sant Agnese

Romaine Brooks’s Villa in the hills of Florence is being restored. This is the place that she and her lover Natalie Barney suffered privations and constant threats of being sent off to an internment camp in Parma before deportation to a concentration camp because of being foreigners, and in Natalie’s case having Jewish blood during WWII.

Homages to Tomboys: Romaine was an original Tomboy and role model

7 Sweet and Brave Tomboys From a New Exhibition
By Christina Schlesinger’s art examines the intersections between gender, identity, fashion, sex, and representation.

I have written about Christina’s art since I first discovered it in the mid 1970’s. I was so delighted to see the Advocate magazine publish a feature on her recent show.

Gender Gulag

Author age 13

Gender Gulag is a story about how the best years of my life were stolen from me by reparative psychoanalysis. I have just completed the first draft of my book, Gender Gulag. It is the story of how a vulnerable 13-year-old dyslexic tomboy ended up at Quakerbridge School and Camp during the mid-1950s in Croton, New York under the guardianship of Dr. Samuel Kahn.

Just this morning on the heels of Gay Pride’s celebration of Stonewall 50, NBC news had an article by Gwen Aviles discussing Amazon’s removal of English language books by a man generally regarded as the “father of conversion therapy,” Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. Nicolosi was the founder of the defunct Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic as well as the infamous National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) But before Nicolosi was Samuel Kahn with his book Mentality and Homosexuality (1937). Five hundred men and women (New York Correctional institution inmates, of whom “seventy-five were investigated carefully” were the main subjects of Kahn’s study. The main object was to diagnose active homosexuality. Kahn referred to his subjects as “mental cases.”

I was diagnosed by him at the age of 13 as one of those mental cases. This is what he told my vulnerable parents, particularly my susceptible mother, when they came seeking help for my disruptive social behavior. Kahn regarded homosexuals as “degenerates.” This is a perception that wasn’t refuted by the American Psychology Association under pressure from gay professionals to declare “conversion therapy” a pseudoscience and discredit it. Today the majority of professional organizations are against it and refuse to engage in such bogus and harmful diagnosis and practices.

At the time I was placed under Dr. Kahn’s care, no such safeguards were in place. So why would I want to revisit my experiences in the penal colony of Quakerbridge where I was diagnosed and treated as a “moral defective and constitutional psychopath?” Who would want to read such a book? Parents, teachers, young adults, mental health professionals, and anyone interested in authenticity. My journey as a vulnerable girl of 13 lasted three-plus years under the rule of a man unfit to define “normality.”

The methods Kahn applied to me and others for a variety of reasons were popular during the cold war period when psychoanalysis became the rage in America. Kahn’s attempts at teaching homosexual children ethics and ethical qualities were often turned over to his physician assistants. This was certainly part of my experience after my first few months at Quakerbridge.

My story is important because it demonstrates that conversion therapies began much earlier than Nicolosi’s religious branding of these practices and damaged countless nongender conforming children and individuals seeking to change their “moral defects” according to the normative standards of the day. What I went through in terms of “treatments” was enough to drive any average, healthy teenager to suicide–and it did that to me. How I developed the resiliency skills and survived serves as a blueprint not only for survival but for finding your authentic self and transforming your life.

According to the Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 2 in 3 youths reported that someone tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, and kids who have undergone conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not. This is why my book is so timely and needed. It is a girl’s own story of erasure at a time when there was no internet to turn to, no groups to belong to, no gay and lesbian centers for refuge.

Continue reading Gender Gulag