Birthday Thoughts on Romaine’s Day and Corona Virus Pandemic

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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.

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/ ).

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
Sartorial

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 boutique, 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 Ludlam’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 CondĂ© 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 the 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 springboard 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 filmmaker, 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 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.