Best to use the French “Pionnières” with the feminine extra “e” than the more neutral English “Pioneers”: the current exhibition at Paris’s Musée de Luxembourg describes female artists at work in Paris in the 1920s.1

Before the twentieth century, there were only a few female artists of some renown, including the Impressionists Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, the seventeenth-century Neapolitan painter Artemisia Gentileschi, and the charming Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, whose patrons included Marie Antoinette. This exhibition identifies the First World War and the Roaring Twenties as the period when the barriers against women in the art world fell, allowing female artists to flourish as never before. This is broadly true, though two of the women the exhibition celebrates, Suzanne Valadon and Marie Laurencin, were already known in the decade leading up to the war.

Suzanne Valadon, Jeune femme aux bas blancs, 1924, Oil on canvas. Photo: © Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy/G. Mangin.

The turmoil and confusion from the war undoubtedly aggravated the sense of restlessness already brewing among Parisian women. At a time when many young men were fighting and dying in the trenches, women were obliged to join the workforce, and some of them were able to make their way in the art world. The war and its aftermath also brought about a loosening of social mores that, among other things, permitted women a sexual freedom that had previously been available only to men (and, even then, had been discouraged and generally condemned in the case of homosexual coupling). 

Similar things were happening in London, Berlin, and New York. An exhibition on female artists in all these cities would prove to be interesting. Though confined to artists who made their name in Paris, the exhibition stresses that many of the female artists working in the city were born abroad. One of the stars of the show, the Russian painter Marie Vassilieff, started her Academie Vassileff in 1912 in Montparnasse. Both Modigliani and the Welsh artist Nina Hamnett, the “Queen of Bohemia,” studied at the school, which was intended for foreign-born artists. The show sets a cosmopolitan scene with Death and the Woman (1917) by Marevna (Marie Vorobieff), a painting depicting a young woman and a uniformed man. Her stance looks joyous, despite the gas mask covering her face, which contrasts with the ghoulish grin on her companion. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s sculpture  Study for a Head for the Women’s Titanic Memorial in Washington (ca. 1915), meanwhile, reveals the founder of the Whitney Museum in New York and the famous American Hospital in Neuilly as a fine artist working on the edge of Paris. Resident in the city during the First World War, Whitney, like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, did her part for the war effort by rescuing wounded soldiers and getting them to hospital. Nearby is an exquisite bust of Daria Gamsagan by the Romanian sculptress Irina Codreanu, who worked with Brancusi.

Tamara de Lempicka, Suzy Solidor, 1935, Oil on canvas, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Château-Musée Grimaldi. Photo: © Tamara de Lempicka Estate, LLC/Adagp, Paris, 2022/ François Fernandez.

Marie Vassilieff’s fourteen pantomime marionettes for the The King’s Chateau at the Théâtre de Bourdon provides the exhibition with a lighter moment with figures including two goggle-eyed, bespectacled females in modern business attire as well as others portraying an angel, the Devil, a king, and a pompous, self-satisfied philosopher. Nina Hamnett’s painting Homme Couché (Man Lying Down) of 1918 shows an unknown figure who appears to be of Indian origin. It reminded me of Somerset Maugham’s stories set in the tropics, such as The Moon and Sixpence, which portray a seemingly simpler and sunnier world. Hamnett, who worked at Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop and illustrated Osbert Sitwell’s People’s Album of London Statues (1928), traveled back and forth between London and Paris. Her portrait of Sitwell now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

One of Paris’s attractions for some of the artists in the exhibition was that the French had a more relaxed attitude towards racial or sexual differences. The exhibition includes a glance of the American-born music-hall star Josephine Baker, as famous in Paris as Alabama’s Tallulah Bankhead was in London. Marcel Proust, Colette, and André Gide openly portrayed homosexuality, until then suppressed in French literature, in their fiction, and Victor Margueritte’s 1922 best-seller, La garçonne, featured a “modern girl” who cuts her hair boyishly short and has affairs, mostly with men, but sometimes with other women. Tamara de Lempicka’s style exemplified the Art Deco of the period. Her 1935 portrait of Suzy Solidor, which appears on the exhibition poster, represents the bare-breasted singer in liquid yet angular forms. Famous for singing songs about same-sex love, Solidor, who entertained German troops during the Occupation, was considered the archetypical garçonne. 

Romaine Brooks, Au bord de la mer, 1912, Oil on canvas, Musée franco-américain du château de Blérancourt, © The Romaine Brooks Estate, Pascal Alcan Legrand. Photo: Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. Rmn-Grand Palais/Gérard Blot.

The exhibition also includes a section on “the third genre,” or the third sex. Here, the curators display Man Ray’s 1921 photograph of the ever-mischievous Marcel Duchamp dressed up as Rose Sélavy, his female alter ego, who seems a more manly version of Margot Asquith. Duchamp’s stab at cross-dressing is less convincing than that of the artist Marlow Moss. Moss, born Marjorie, appears in an undated photograph by Stephen Storm looking much the gentleman. Storm also photographed the boyish Claude Cahun (born Lucy Schwob), the minor surrealist who proclaimed in 1930 that she was “neutral” rather than masculine or feminine. In the section fittingly titled “Other Ways of Portraying One’s Body” is Vassilieff’s Nude with Two Masks (1930). Only the short-haired subject’s breasts indicate that she is a woman. Romaine Brooks portrayed herself as a confident dandy in a 1923 portrait, contrasting with an earlier self-portrait (1912) in which she appears as a wistful girl by the sea.

Claude Cahun, Autoportrait, 1929, Musée d’Arts de Nantes. Photo: RMN-Grand Palais/Gérard Blot.

Tamara de Lempicka is the most glamorous of the artists here. Her Art Deco–style illustrations, including some magazine covers for Vogue Paris, are typical of the period. Born in Poland and later resident in the United States, she was the art world’s answer to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.

One can regret that the exhibition gives so much attention to social issues rather than art. There is nevertheless enough good work shown to inspire interest in artists too often neglected.

  1.    “Pioneers: Artists in the Paris of the Roaring Twenties” opened at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, on March 2 and remains on view through July 10, 2022. 

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