Modernism’s

The Engines of Modern Art

By CASSANDRA LANGER

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 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.

Did she stop painting?

According to Romaine Brooks she never laid aside her brushes. In her audio interview from 1968 she was dismayed that McAvoy had painted her in a background that show her with dried up brushes and a pallet. She said emphatically that he had not shown her glass table that she used as a pallet which implied that she was not painting any more. By implication this suggest that she was still actively making act at the time he painted her.

So for those of you reading Wiki I am in the process of updating the errors in it. It is a work in progress. It was her intention to paint him but he never was available long enough to sit for her. So she painted Duke Umberto Strozzi at the age of 87 in 1961.

MACAVOY_tab10_romaine-brooks

A Banner Year For Romaine

Wishing each and every one of you Brooks fans a very happy holiday and a good New Year. Let’s lift a glass to our girl.

2015 has been a banner year for all things Romaine. After 40 plus years of on and off energy devoted to rediscovering the real Romaine Brooks my new book completely revises how the artist and woman is seen. I count myself very happy to finally see this critical biography in print. Be sure to catch our recent panel of November 12 on the Leslie Lohman Museum in New York City web site.

Romaine Brooks - Book
University of Wisconsin Press

As an added bonus a spectacular show of Romaine Brooks’s work opened on my birthday, December 18,  at the Fortuny Museum in Venice, Italy. It is a groundbreaking showcasing her many faceted talents as a world class  artist, designer and stylist. All points my new book  Romaine Brooks: A Life highlights.  I am happy to report that the show has been so successful that its run has been extended past its original closing date. More good news is that the catalog is being translated from the Italian into English.

Put June 10, 2016 on your calendar, when The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. opens an exhibition of Romaine’s works from their collection. My biography will be available for purchase in their book store. So Brooks fans, let’s celebrate and keep these dates in mind for the coming year.


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.

Plus ça change

Gay Marriage is nothing new. Almost 100 years ago in 1916 when Romaine Brooks became so famously involved with Natalie Barney she accepted the fact that the love of her life had been lovers with her good friend–Elisabeth de Gramont, duchesse de Clermont-Tonnerre, since 1909.

Brooks and Barney had only been passionately involved for 18 months when Gramont reached the breaking point. Natalie made no distinction between the two great loves of her life.  A lesbian crisis worthy of a Wagnerian opera occurred.  Lily wrote Natalie a scathing letter, ending their relationship, and left Paris for Evian during a lull in the fighting.

Frantic, Natalie drafted a marriage proposal and pursued Lily hundreds of miles to get it signed. It is probably not the first gay marriage contract in history but it is certainly among the most startling and original between two lesbians.

Romaine and Natalie stayed together, although we don’t know how or when they solemnized their private vows.  Romaine’s 1920 portrait of Natalie is one of the greatest wedding presents ever given by one lesbian to another.  All three women accepted the fact that their marriages would not be monogamous. They would have to live independent lives.  Nonetheless, their love for each other was so great, and Natalie’s sexual allure so magnetic, that all three remained loving partners for the rest of their lives until Lily’s death in 1954.

NatalieImageProxyNLV8N5FE
Romaine Brooks painted this portrait of Natalie Barney in 1920, in the year after Natalie and Elisabeth de Gramont returned from their wedding trip to America. Romaine’s portrait of Lily de Gramont, painted around 1923, hung in Natalie’s house for the rest of their lives. Brooks and Barney were also together for life from the moment they met in 1916.

As we celebrate this 4th of July, Independence Day 2015, many people, gay and straight will be taking a page from this extraordinary playbook for pursuing life, liberty and happiness, understanding that a stable household is best achieved in a family made up of those you love and who love you.

I’m So Excited!

Now that Romaine Brooks: A Life is in production (coming from University of Wisconsin Press in Fall 2015), I’ve begun work on the book trailer.

2D Animated Book Trailer to Launch Brooks Bio

This is a really exciting experience: an animated story of Romaine’s life narrated partly by herself and partly by me. I am learning so much from executive producer Suzanne Stroh and her team at Fixed Gaze Films about how these projects get made.

We seem to be starting with last things first. While the soundtrack is usually the last thing that gets laid down, it also sets the tone and pace of the piece. Music is crucial for understanding the biographer (me), the subject (Romaine) and the book itself (a biography and critical appraisal of the artist).

Jared Balogh Soundtrack

I’m delighted that we’ve chosen a cool, elegant and very Modern piece by jazz composer Jared C. Balogh, “Pulling Myself Up Through.” It’s a beautiful composition and a perfect fit for both Romaine and me. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet Mr. Balogh, but if I do, I’m going to buy him a drink and toast his creative genius.

You can hear an excerpt in this sneak preview of Fixed Gaze’s logo animation, a work still in progress.

Romaine Brooks Attracts Young Audience at Age 141

We are still only in the storyboard stage of preproduction on Romaine Brooks: A Life. I don’t want to give away the story line; suffice it to say that even at age 141, Romaine is not alone! I have not yet seen the character sketches, but I couldn’t contain my excitement and wanted to share it with all you Romaine fans.

Genealogy

Why should any of us care about family history?

Even I sometimes wonder but am consistently reminded why. As a biographer, researcher, art critic and writer, tedious as tracking these things can be, it’s worth the effort. A case in point is Romaine Brooks and her vague connection to the Bonapartes’ family tree. The question as to which branch comes up in her memoir and now — suddenly — in a Barney letter that is for sale on eBay. One path leads to another entirely.

Independent of the Bonaparte question, tracking down the connection becomes more interesting when you consider that it will establish a date for when Natalie was in Nice visiting Romaine. It requires re-reading of other biographers to see if they are aware of the resulting dates. After that, there’s the cross-referencing of information as the pieces of various puzzles begin to fall into place. And then it’s back to re-checking my chronology of Brooks’ life to see if everything fits.

This is why the small details count in the larger picture of reconstructing a subject’s life and understanding how they lived it as much as anyone removed from a life can.

If you want to read a fictionalized adventure in biography, try Possession. For added enjoyment, see the film.