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).

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

What’s up with Romaine Brooks?

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People keep asking me about my forthcoming Romaine Brooks book. I am doing some tweaks in light of startling new information about her personal relationships that came to light while I was working to determine the proper copyrights issues.

My book contrasts Brooks’ work with the political, social, and interpersonal environment within which Brooks painted, whether during war, while living separately, in communal houses with her partners (who included Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont), or during her prime years as a socialite in Paris.  Romaine Brooks: A Life proceeds chronologically through Brooks’ works and the documented interactions with both her subjects and her peers to persuasively emphasize her struggles and change the current perception of Romaine Brooks. Here is  the key to finally restoring Brooks to the history of American and International art that is her rightful place in the development of art. Although a conservative modernist in her chosen artistic style, content, and approach, she was decidedly modernist in that she documented a lesbian and bi-sexual subculture. She also applied a new musicality to her work, developing a unique approach to both monochromatic harmonies and tonal scale in her use of paint and its application to the canvas.

Recognition of Brooks for the originality and quality of her work, as well as for her courage in demanding to be seen, is long overdue. My book establishes once and for all how important and innovative her contributions to art were. I firmly believe that, had she not been a conservative modernist, expatriate, and sapphist-lesbian, she would not have been neglected as she has been. Much work remains to be done clarifying the details of Romaine’s life and art. It is my hope that a new and younger generation of scholars will take up the mantle where I have left off.

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.