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March 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1452

Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris

Reviewed by Mary Ann Caws

Edited by Simonetta Fraquelli and Cindy Kang, with essays by Simonetta Fraquelli, Cindy Kang, Jelena Kristic, Christine Poggi, Rachel Silveri and contributions by Corrinne Chong and Oriane Poret. 208 pp. incl. 112 col. + 64 b. & w. ills. (Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, 2023), £40. ISBN 978–0–30027–363–2. 

Marie Laurencin (1883–1956), a model free spirit, danced among the sexually fluid circles of 1920s Paris. Noted for her lengthy affair with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), who often took her as his muse, she was also closely involved with the city’s lesbian artistic circles, including the literary salon of Natalie Clifford Barney (1876–1972). Laurencin was a profoundly original painter, with an instantly recognisable figurative style, but she was also an inventive designer and worked on many collaborative projects across illustration, fashion, ballet and the decorative arts. 

Although she was a financially successful artist in her lifetime – Albert Barnes, the founder of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, once described her as one of ‘the best French women painters’ (p.vii) – today Laurencin’s name is less recognised than that of her contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Francis Picabia. In traditional art-historical narratives she is often positioned merely as the model or muse of such male protagonists. Challenging the secondary role she has been given, the exhibition devoted to Laurencin at the Barnes Foundation (closed 21st January) and its accompanying catalogue explore her role in the early twentieth-century European avant-garde.[1] As Simonetta Fraquelli and Cindy Kang outline in their introduction, by reassessing Laurencin’s career and her output in its entirety, they seek to ‘underline her fundamental contribution to the development of a “sapphic modernity”, based on an almost exclusively female aesthetic’ (p.1). 

Much of Laurencin’s work concerns allusion and illusion. Her female figures variously represent classic, romantic or romanticised roles; she created a kind of staged presence for her women, drawing on history, myth and literature. Indeed, curtains often appear in her painted scenes – ‘the most beautiful thing in a performance is the curtain – Why? Because it’s an illusion’ (p.7) – a symbol that would become real when she began to create designs for stage curtains. For Laurencin, the curtain was a dramatic tool for opening or closing – partially or completely – a narrative, drama or scene, whether visually or verbally implied. Another element of her fabricated world was a close association between women and animals: dogs, does, horses and birds are present in many of her canvases, with humans often inseparable from creatures. All the while, her self- conscious actors seem never to lose their awareness of the spectator’s gaze. In 1922 Francis Poulenc would title his ballet for the Ballet Russes Les biches (1924), inspired by Laurencin’s correlation of women and animals, and the multiple meanings of the word biche in French: a doe, a term of endearment, a kept young woman and a lesbian. In Laurencin’s design for the stage curtain (no.28; Fig.17), the woman is almost indistinguishable from the animal. 

Central to both the exhibition and the catalogue is Laurencin’s involvement in Barney’s famed literary salon at 20 rue Jacob, the garden of which contained a temple that was well-known for performances, sapphic theatricals and pagan rituals. Like others in Barney’s network, Laurencin developed a notion of sapphic modernism that ‘privileged women’s relationships with other women and the alterity of their position as a foundation for modernist practice’ (p.vii). Fraquelli and Kang have put this aspect of Laurencin’s life in the spotlight, revealing its impact on her painting. In the baroque or rococo curvature of Laurencin’s lines and spirals, for example, one can identify a noticeable excess, or exaggeration, of femininity: the length of the legs, extraordinarily long hands, pointed feet. Fabrics and drapery are also prominent, with theatrical curtains, fans with folds, flowing gowns, bows and hats. Most prominent of all is the motif of the pointed arm and finger, sometimes grasping a paintbrush or a musical instrument, symbolising the artist as observer. Laurencin’s portraits generally resemble her, but are complicated by mirrors, repetitions and multiplications of sameness; twins, triplets and group portraits abound. 

The catalogue includes six essays, selected biographies of Laurencin’s female network and a chronology of the artist’s life and exhibitions. In ‘Life in exile: becoming “Marie Laurencin”’, Fraquelli documents Laurencin’s time away from Paris: four years in Spain, displaced by the First World War, and an extended period in Germany due to her marriage to the painter Otto von Wätjen (1881–1942), which obliged her to adopt German nationality. According to Fraquelli, this time away allowed Laurencin to reassess her ties with the Cubists. However, it was a period of isolation for Laurencin. ‘Le calmant’, a fearful poem about her state of mind written in 1917 while in Barcelona, speaks to her feelings of abandonment in all senses: forgotten, ‘more than abandoned’, and faced with a solitude to which she would never be accustomed (p.64). Laurencin began divorce proceedings in 1920 and, with the help of the writer and diplomat Paul Morand, managed to restore her French nationality. In 1921 she returned to the Paris she had so desperately missed and was quickly given a solo exhibition at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg, which cemented her reputation as the most influential female artist in the city. In her essay, Jelena Kristic focuses on Laurencin’s prints and book illustrations and her relationship to literature. Christine Poggi tackles the artist’s ‘Cubism’, describing her as a Cubist ‘after her own fashion, as singular in her understanding and reinterpretation of its pictorial devices as she was in the conduct of her fiercely independent, creative life’ (p.37). In ‘No Modernism without Marie Laurencin: picturing queer femininity’, Rachel Silveri treats the artist’s femininity as ‘constructed, queer, and (proto)feminist [. . .] strategically coded, enabling her to achieve success in a masculinist art world’ (p.123). 

Laurencin’s relationship with Apollinaire lasted from 1907 to 1913. The poet’s round and rosy face is depicted in one of only two male portraits included in the exhibition (1908; Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris; no.11). The other depicts Paul Rosenberg (1913–14; private collection; no.19) with a sprig of leaves in his hat, a rose in his lapel, a matching pink ribbon over his right shoulder and a femininely drooping left hand. Apollinaire’s great collection Alcools (1913) is full of Laurencin’s presence, particularly ‘Marie’ and the distressing and deservedly celebrated ‘Le pont Mirabeau’. He also published Laurencin’s group portrait Apollinare and His Friends (1909; Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Modern, Paris), depicting the couple with Gertrude Stein, Fernande Olivier and Picasso, in his crucial volume Les peintres cubistes (1913). But it is Laurencin’s relationships with women that are central to Sapphic Paris: in particular with Barney, but also with Suzanne ‘Arielle’ Moreau, whom Laurencin hired as a housemaid and who later became her lover and heiress, and the fashion designer Nicole Groult (1887–1967), a lover with whom she travelled Spain. The œuvre presented in this catalogue reflects Laurencin’s vast female network, especially during the interwar years, during which she painted such figures as Helena Rubinstein (1934; private collection; no.51), Domenica Giullaume (1928; Musée de l’Orangerie; no.50) and Coco Chanel (no.48; Fig.15). 

A final note on the cover of the catalogue: Femme peintre et son modèle (no.8; Fig.16) is a complicated painting in Laurencin’s distinctive palette of pink, blue, grey and white. Small, riveting black shapes comprise Laurencin’s paintbrush, as well as her eyes and those of the model and animal. The dog gently chews on Laurencin’s fingers, while the model obliquely eyes the artist and her paintbrush. Laurencin’s gaze is cast downwards; she has a pink ribbon tied around her arm, which is mirrored in the pinkish curtains in the background and the model’s scarf. Laurencin’s hand is raised, the paintbrush is alert, in line with the model’s shoulder, as she holds one of the artist’s omnipresent fans. In this work, all of the elements – human, material and animal – symbolically and spectacularly intertwine. It is the perfect emblem of Sapphic Paris.

[1] The exhibition will travel to the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, where it will be on view from 5th April to 18th August 2024.