Rediscovering Romaine

An art historian’s work it seems is never done. One of the great joys of spending more than half your life in the dust bins of history is discovering something new and then being able to bring that find before the public. Few art historians much less one who is also a painter, poet and arts critic such as myself can hope to achieve in a lifetime.

Being able to add lost work to an artist career is rare but Romaine  herself led me to the discovery of an early work by her hidden in  plain sight in the music room of the Vittoriale Foundation in Gardone Riviera, Italy. The backstory is fascinating.

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An Aristocracy of Taste

The performance artist Claude Cahun contended that lesbianism “occurs with special frequency in women of high intelligence.” Absolutely, when it came to what she called an “aristocracy of taste, few could equal Romaine Brooks. This contention is amply borne out by the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s current retrospective of Romaine Brooks’s paintings and drawings on view until October 2, 2016.

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Behind the Scenes Of An Exhibition

Behind the Scenes

The first Romaine Brooks solo exhibition in over 16 years opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. on the 17th of June. Most viewers remain unaware of what goes into researching, organizing, and putting on an exhibition. So somewhat like Dorothy’s dog Toto in the  film the Wizard of Oz let me pull the curtain back to reveal one aspect of what goes into making it all happen: art conservation.

As a graduate student at the Institute of Fine Arts in NYC in 1968 I first became acquainted with this subtle art through the pioneering pair of art restorers, Sheldon and Caroline Keck. At the time, like many young art historians today, I had no idea what went into restoring a painting. Sheldon Keck died in 1993 but not before he and Caroline set up the first conservation school in the country. They taught students how to remove accumulated grime, discolored varnish and other signs of wear and tear from paintings, restoring them to their original beauty.

The art of a sensitive conservator is a miraculous thing. At the Smithsonian Tiarna Doherty’s sensitive insights into the art of Romaine Brooks have contributed immeasurably to this exhibition and our knowledge of Romaine Brooks as a skilled painter.

Tiarna will give two gallery talks this summer: the first on Tuesday June 21st at 4 p.m. and the second on Monday August 15 at noon. She will highlight the paintings of Romaine Brooks with an in-depth look at how conservators work to preserve an artist’s intended effects. This is a must see for artists and lovers of art worldwide who want to really appreciate this great painter.

My book devotes a considerable number of words regarding how to look at, see and experience a Brooks painting to get the fullest possible pleasure from it. Happy viewing. The show will run through the end of September.

Speaking engagements can be arranged by request.  At events, signed copies of the book will be available for purchase, please contact U of Wisconsin Press or myself.

Nous Sommes Unis’, ‘We are One’

Romaine, Brooks, Natalie Barney and most especially Lily de Gramont would all be standing tall with France and saying give life a chance while defending Paris with all their hearts and might.

For those of us that stand for life, love and liberty today is a day of mourning for all the innocents who have been heartlessly killed by pure evil. The streets of Paris are running with blood.

There is absolutely no excuse for these murders. Anyone celebrating them is part of the problem, not the solution. For love of life, Nous Sommes Unis!NatalieImageProxyNLV8N5FE

For one and all
For one and all

Lily de Gramont

“I Am Alone and You Are With Her”

Romaine Brooks had a lifelong love affair with the storied isle of Capri. It began in the summer of 1898 when as a poor student she rented a cheap Gothic chapel to paint in, complete with a courtyard full of fig trees. She loved the island’s easygoing ways and swam daily in the sea off the rocks at the Bagno Timberino.

Sometime near the end of World War I, about a year after she and Natalie Barney became lovers, Romaine purchased the Villa Cercola in Capri. Foremost on her mind was escaping wartime and the sweltering heat of Paris summers, but she also needed to come to terms with the emotional storms she and Natalie were experiencing in settling their three-way marriage. She routinely visited the Roman ruins that brought so many tourists to the island. Naturally daring and athletic, she wasn’t daunted by the dangers that kept so many of them from swimming in the blue grotto.

Grotta d' Azur.

That made her even more conspicuous, for an arresting beauty who regularly attracted the attention of other women. Faith MacKenzie  (whom rumor has it Romaine bedded) wrote that “for the first time in my life I had met a woman so complete in herself and independent in her judgments that she could accept and reject people and things at will without guilt or hesitations.”

Lily de Gramont visited Romaine in the early 1920s and reported back to Natalie Barney that she enjoyed the view of Romaine sunning herself on the rocks, watched over by her current lover. Lily didn’t name names.

the rocks of Capri

But it was already a familiar picture for Natalie Barney. In 1920 Natalie, despite her various ongoing flings, took pen in hand to express both her jealousy and insecurity, writing Romaine:

“I am alone and you are with her. I know you have not bathed without everyone on the island desiring you—that they would follow the glimmer of your perfect form to the ends of the earth – yet can any of them but me so grasp the inner goddess, the real sense of your greatness?”[i]

To learn more about the fascinating life of Romaine Brooks order Romaine Brooks: A Life.

 :Langer, Cassandra (author).

Sept. 2015. 290p. illus. Univ. of Wisconsin, hardcover, $26.95 (9780299298609); Univ. of Wisconsin, e-book, $15.95 (9780299298630). 759.13.

REVIEW. First published August, 2015 (Booklist).

[i]. Natalie Clifford Barney to Romaine Brooks, July 21, 1920, Barney/Brooks Letters.

Where are the lost works?

So much is hidden
Always one for secrets

I am wondering where Romaine Brooks’ lost drawings and paintings are. There are so many intriguing clues scattered throughout her letters, papers, and last audio interview. We have reason to believe that somewhere out there are early works from the Capri period, as well as portraits and still-life pictures such as the one Freer bought from her when she was still painting in bright colors. And what of the drawings she refers to in her interview from late 1967 or 68? What were they of? Nudes of Natalie? Portrait sketches? We now know of works from only two periods, and yet she tells us she drew all the time, and Natalie Barney inquires in their exchange of letters whether she has been drawing to amuse herself.

Despite the many masks I have removed from Romaine, it seems as though even more mysteries remain for future researchers to discover.

New Event and interview with me about Brooks

Hi, all! Just letting you know about a great online event put together by a colleague of mine. Please tune in for Suzanne’s site reopening on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at www.suzannestroh.com.

It’s a virtual party to celebrate the 137th birthday of expatriate arts patron Natalie Barney (1876-1972). A major reappraisal of Barney’s life and legacy is underway, led by the translation of Francesco Rapazzini’s biography of the woman Barney secretly married in 1918, author and sculptor Élisabeth de Gramont (1875-1954). Forty years after Barney’s death, her secret 1926 novel has finally been published in French. It details the household both women established with American painter Romaine Brooks (1874-1970).

Inspired by Romaine Brooks

Unknown artist
Unknown artist

This painting is by an unknown artist. One of our followers asked if I knew who painted it. I don’t.

Differentiating Brooks’s Work

I have to say (as I did to her), you have to see a Brooks painting face-to-face to really appreciate how subtle and sophisticated her surface application of paint was and how subtle the transitions between shades of grays are. She uses a tonal scale, so unless you can actually see the paintings in person, it is very difficult to translate from on-line or reproduction. The values are much richer.

Romaine: “Camp” or not?

ImageYou will have to be the judge, given the recent issue of GLReview that discusses the concept of camp and gives various definitions:

“The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.” Wilde

“Camp is [understood] not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Sontag

Sontag goes on to say that, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks.” She associates camp with performance, “being-as-playing-a-role,” and with the artificial: “It is the difference…between the thing as meaning something, anything, and the thing as pure artifice.”

Certainly Brooks qualifies as one of the first female dandies, and her creation of an artist-self falls into the category of the performative identity. Her paintings and interpretations of various new women, bisexuals, and internatonal metro-sexuals  positions her as a radical modernist — albeit, as outlined in Romaine Brooks: A Life from the right rather than center or left. What could be more camp than her dramatic 1912 self-portrait or her stylized self-portrayal of 1923? This perhaps explains her enduring appeal across generations and various cultures.

Newly found portraits

ImageImageSurfing the net is something I do randomly. It’s like a treasure hunt for me. You never know what people will post. One of my favorite sites is Strange Flowers, and it was there that I recently came across some images of Romaine Brooks from 1925 that I have never seen before so.

I am thinking of using one of them in my forthcoming biography of Brooks.

What do you think?