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.
A terrific and timely interview with me in Ms. Magazine by Mary Meriam.
Sexual politics are alive and flourishing in the GOP presidential race and in the current debates regarding Hillary Clinton’s qualifications for the office. So having independent women like Romaine Brooks and her circle, having their say about real women’s lives and creativity is a blessing.
Romaine’s circle of women and lesbians forged their own notions of a room of one’s own, in their case several houses and shared households, as well as space to spread their creative wings wide. Their notions of how to live authentic lives are much more contemporary than they have previously been given credit for.
Not everyone will want to emulate their lifestyle, but we have to give them full credit for demanding one given the limitations placed on women during the interwar period and beyond.
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.
“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.
Surfing 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?