Marie Laurencin and the Avant-Garde: An Introduction to the Exhibition

Rosenberg & Co.
Jul 16, 2021 6:21PM

Excerpted from the exhibition catalogue.

Installation view from A Future We Begin to Feel. Left to right: Charlotte Park, Marie Laurencin, Alma Thomas.*

In broad strokes, A Future We Begin to Feel: Women Artists 1921–1971 traces the shift in predominance from European Modernism to the New York School, focusing on the innovations, connections, and concurrences between women who worked within the differing aesthetic vanguards.

Selecting artists based on their assigned sex at birth—i.e. curating an exhibition of “women artists”—is perhaps contrived, but it is also a representation of a varied but extremely identifiable life experience. To be referred to as female has meant something vague and continuous throughout history; under-recognition has been (until very recently) one of the persistent elements of a designated female existence. By removing the over-recognized men of art history, an exhibition can draw clear-sighted attention to artists who lived and worked with far too little acclaim. In 2021, it is largely accepted as fact that for those artists who are not white, male, and economically mobile, talent and innovation are rarely commensurate with accorded fame. There is a fear, however, that by choosing only “women artists”—and thereby naming these artists as such through the insistence on the modifier of “woman” before the noun “artist”—we would unintentionally reinscribe the false sex and gender binaries that we seek to dismantle.[1]

Additionally, it is difficult to say whether all of the artists represented in this exhibition would wish to be included in such a show. Esphyr Slobodkina, Sonja Sekula, and Irene Rice-Pereira exhibited in Guggenheim’s 1943 Exhibition of 31 Women, but Georgia O’Keeffe famously declined to participate, writing that she did not want to be known as a “woman artist.”[2] Before the feminist art movement, however, an exhibition would include either no women, a tokenized woman, or only women. All of these are fraught formulations, and as issue-ridden as the all-women show was and is, it has historically given crucial exposure to otherwise undervalued artists. It is with this framing that we pay homage to an imperfect form of great impact.

The dates that bookend A Future We Begin to Feel—1921 to 1971—feel providential. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1971 publication of Linda Nochlin’s foundational essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Published by ARTnews in the midst of second-wave feminism, Nochlin’s essay answered the titular question by puncturing the concept of “greatness” and placed in its stead the historical reality of unequal institutional access. Nochlin irrevocably changed the art historical discourse: critics and scholars today rarely use “great,” or the Romantic ideal of genius, as a comprehensive qualifier for an artist of artwork.

The beginning date of this exhibition, 1921, is not only one hundred years from the present, and fifty years before Nochlin’s essay, but it is also the year in which Paul Rosenberg began representing the artist Marie Laurencin. Paul Rosenberg & Co., from which this gallery is descended, was the foremost dealer of the School of Paris before the Second World War: Paul Rosenberg represented Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Fernand Léger, and after holding a solo exhibition of Marie Laurencin’s work in 1920, began a professional relationship with Laurencin that lasted until her death. When Paul Rosenberg & Co. reopened in New York City in 1941, Laurencin was shown alongside Braque, Léger, and Picasso at the inaugural exhibition. Her work is among the earliest in A Future We Begin to Feel, and our desire to reconsider her artistic legacy was the spark that prompted the organization of this exhibition.

Marie Laurencin is often overlooked in contemporary efforts to trace the course of Modernism. Unless it is to note her participation in Picasso’s group of Cubists or her inclusion in Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Cubist Painters, Laurencin and her figurative portraits go largely unexamined and unhistoricized. Born in 1883 to a single, working- class mother, Laurencin initially studied porcelain painting—a classic trade for young women. She switched to studying fine art at the Académie Humbert, and as a young artist she met Picasso at the gallery of Clovis Sagot in 1907. According to artistic legend, Picasso saw in Laurencin a potential fiancée for his friend Apollinaire—and indeed, she and Apollinaire soon began a tangled relationship that lasted for several years. During this time, Laurencin’s success as an artist grew; Apollinaire often wrote of her work, Gertrude Stein purportedly gave Laurencin her first sale, and Laurencin’s participation in the coterie of successful Cubists led to critical recognition and inclusion in exhibitions and salons. In 1912, Laurencin was the only woman to be included in La Maison Cubiste at that year’s Salon d’Automne.

Around this time, Laurencin ended her relationship with Apollinaire. The reasons are not clear, but art historian Elizabeth Louise Kahn draws attention to the fact that Laurencin had recently met Nicole Groult, with whom she had a well-documented and long-lasting romance.[3] Her relationship with Groult lasted through Laurencin’s brief marriage to the German Baron Otto von Waëtjen, her subsequent exile from France during the First World War, and her divorce before returning to Paris in 1920. Other relationships with women followed, including with Suzanne Moreau—whom Laurencin legally adopted, seemingly so that Moreau could inherit her estate when she died.

Laurencin’s public influence lasted well beyond her relations with famed men and her early career with the Cubists: after she had ended her relationship with Apollinaire, Laurencin was included in the 1913 New York Armory Show; her 1921 representation by Paul Rosenberg garnered her financial success, and by 1925 she earned enough as a painter to buy her own house. By 1930, she was a celebrity, and had been featured in Vu magazine with Anna de Noailles and Colette with the caption “the three most celebrated women in France.” [4] Through commissions, Laurencin was able to financially support herself during the Second World War—a rare situation for a Parisian artist, particularly during the Occupation. Her style had matured and crystallized during the interwar years: her figures flattened, and the faces grew homogenous and dreamlike; the darker, saturated colors of her early work faded to dove-gray and pink; and, most interestingly, her subjects became almost exclusively women, often depicted in couples and groups. Sometimes, these women are in varying states of undress; almost always, the feminine subjects are represented as being in intimate relation with one another. Curtains, screens, and swaths of fabric shroud the compositions, as if to signify the privacy and intimacy of such encounters. These paintings were lauded during her lifetime, yet after Laurencin died in 1956, her work was soon forgotten.

I believe that it is the very femininity of her work that has kept Laurencin from contemporary critical attention and categorization, even by feminist and queer scholars. [5] In scholarship examining the Parisian “modern woman,” or in accounts of the lesbian coteries of the time, Laurencin is largely unmentioned—though she frequented Natalie Barney’s salon and was well-acquainted with Gertrude Stein. [6] Even in correctives to sexist art history, such as Whitney Chadwick’s heavily-illustrated Women, Art, and Society, the Laurencin work most commonly shown is her 1908 group portrait Les Invités, which depicts Picasso, Fernande Olivier, Apollinaire, and herself—before she developed her mature style and became famous, before her preferred palette turned to pastel, and before her figures became entirely female, feminine, and very arguably queer. [7]

The term “femme invisibility” is used in queer communities to describe the misrecognition of feminine-presenting but queer- identifying people. This misrecognition happens in both straight, heteronormative spaces and in queer, feminist ones. The writers Apollinaire, André Salmon, and Roger Allard all characterized her as an ideal feminine painter, and during her lifetime, Laurencin benefitted from her femme invisibility: it allowed her financial success and a steady stream of upper class patronage, and enabled a homophobic society to look the other way. In terms of contemporary scholarship, however, this invisibility has often caused her to be excluded. [8] Her life and work must be reevaluated and rehistoricized as a subversion of the norms of art, gender, and propriety. It is my hope that this exhibition will help prompt further examination.

Marie Laurencin
Autoportrait, 1912
Rosenberg & Co.

Whether associated with Cubism, Surrealism, British Modernism, or Abstract Expressionism, the artists in this exhibition devoted their lives to furthering artistic innovation. Most, but not all, have been excluded from the canon. A Future We Begin to Feel is not intended to insert any new artists into a “canon,” but to question the notion of the canon as such. In 2006, Linda Nochlin wrote a response to her 1971 essay, assessing what had changed in the art world due to the feminist movement:

"In the post-Second World War years, greatness was constructed as a sex-linked characteristic in the cultural struggle in which the promotion of “intellectuals” was a Cold War priority... Today, I believe it is safe to say that most members of the art world are far less ready to worry about what is great and what is not, nor do they assert as often the necessary connection of important art with virility or the phallus. No longer is it the case that the boys are the important artists, the girls positioned as appreciative muses or groupies. There has been a change in what counts—from phallic “greatness” to being innovative, making interesting, provocative work, making an impact, and making one’s voice heard. There is less and less emphasis on the masterpiece, more on the piece."[9]

A Future We Begin to Feel focuses on interesting, impactful pieces— whether they are the small works of Anne Ryan and Marie Laurencin, or the large canvases of Irene Rice-Pereira and Janice Biala. The artists in A Future We Begin to Feel have social and historical connections, and the aesthetic connections are just as strong. The untitled watercolor (c. 1960) from Alma Thomas’ time associated with the Washington Color School revivifies the compositions and palette used by Marie Laurencin. Janice Biala’s Blue Interior (1956) and the Rayonist Composition (c. 1950) of Natalia Goncharova use similar colors, brushstrokes, and organize space with an anchoring vertical line; both artists spent time in Paris in the 1930s, but there is no evidence that they knew of one another. Charlotte Park and Perle Fine, though of different generations in the Abstract Expressionist movement, were in the same periphery of the exclusionary male group that had Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning at its center.

Connections and missed connections pervade the show, and together the artists form just one version of an alternate history of midcentury Modernist art. There are as many art histories as there are artists, and this exhibition simply constellates art made between interwar Paris and postwar New York, tracing what Sonja Sekula called the “future that we begin to feel underneath the current of war and strife and uncertainty.”

— Emma Wippermann, Rosenberg & Co.

* * *

[1] I would like to hereafter refer to male artists as “men artists.”

[2] Griselda Pollock, “The Missing Future: MoMA and Modern Women,” Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010), 43. Pollock wrote, “Only O’Keeffe was in a position strong enough to decline to participate. I do not imagine that feminist O’Keeffe’s refusual to show as a ‘woman artist,’ as cited in the letter she wronte in response to Guggenheim’s offer, was a rejection of solidarity with women. It was more a recognition of the dangers of a move that, however necessary, only consolidated the sex segregation against which the modernist woman was fundamentally struggling. To be an artist and a woman is to integrate the whole of one’s humanity into an open contribution to the world; to be labeled a ‘woman artist’ is to be disqualified by sex from membership to the group known as ‘artists.”

[3] Elizabeth Louise Kahn, Marie Laurencin: Une femme inadaptée in Feminist Histories of Art (New York: Routledge, 2003), 13–17, 29–33.

[4] Kahn, Marie Laurencin, 12.

[5] There are, of course, notable exceptions: in 2020, Jelena Kristic organized a Marie Laurencin exhibition at Galerie Buchholz, New York; Elizabeth Louise Kahn’s 2003 monograph on Laurencin is refreshing in its direct discussion of her sexuality, and is the only comprehensive text on Laurencin in English; several publications about Laurencin came out in the 1980s and early 1990s by writers that include Daniel Marchesseau, Fernand Hazan, and Flora Groult; and Laurencin had a surprising revival in Japan when the collector Masahiro Takano established the Marie Laurencin Museum in Tokyo.

[6] Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (New York: Vintage Books, 1933), 60–61. Stein writes about Laurencin in a way that seems both knowing and admiring: “Everybody called Gertrude Stein Gertrude, or at most Mademoiselle Gertrude, everybody called Picasso Pablo and Fernande Fernande and everybody called Guillaume Apollinaire Guillaume and Max Jacob Max, but everybody called Marie Laurencin Marie Laurencin”; and “Marie Laurencin, leading her strange life, and making her strange art.”

[7] Kahn, Marie Laurencin, 26. Kahn’s analysis of this painting is excellent: “Picasso is relegated to the lower left corner and constricted by the rigidity of his bodily contours and profiled face. Although Apollinaire is seated center stage, Laurencin inverts the gendered convention of the family portrait; she as the standing figure becomes the patriarch, the owner of the group’s status.”

[8] It is worth noting the contemporary celebration of masculine-presenting queer artists such as Romaine Brooks and Claude Cahun, which begs the question of whether femininity is still a liability in the arts.

[9] Linda Nochlin, “‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After,” in Maura Reilly, ed., Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015), 312.

*Charlotte Park: Courtesy Berry Campbell, New York; Marie Laurencin: Private Collection; Alma Thomas: Courtesy of Vallarino Fine Art.

Rosenberg & Co.