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"No mere Fauvette" - The art of Marie Laurencin
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We’re taking a look at a queer woman artist who was at the heart of the European avant-garde scene and yet has been almost forgotten by mainstream art history – Marie Laurencin.
Picture the scene; a café in Paris in the early 20th century. The patrons are drinking, smoking and passionately arguing about art, literature, philosophy and politics.
Do you imagine Picasso holding forth, or Cezanne? Maybe even the poet Guillaume Apollinaire or the composer Erik Satie, reciting their works over what we can only imagine to be vast quantities of wine.
But did you picture any women in that mix?
We’re sure we don’t need to tell you about how often women have been forgotten or left out of mainstream art history. Perhaps no painting better illustrates this than William Roberts’ The Vorticists at the Restaurant de la Tour Eiffel: Spring, 1915. The male artists at the table literally have their backs turned to the women entering the restaurant – their fellow artists Jessica Dismorr and Helen Saunders.
Like Dismorr and Saunders, Laurencin deserves greater recognition for her contribution to the modernist movements of the early 20th century. She was a painter and printmaker who was an important figure in the Parisian avant-garde and one of the few female Cubist painters (along with Sonia Delaunay, Marie Vorobieff, and Franciska Clausen).
She exhibited alongside the Cubists, including Picasso and Jean Metzinger, at the Salon des Indépendants (1910-1911) and participated in meetings and exhibitions held by the Fauvists. However, even from this early part of her career, her independent spirit meant that she didn’t just slavishly copy the work of her male counterparts. Henri Matisse once remarked, “she, at least, is no mere Fauvette”.
Her pictures hang in almost every national gallery and no private collection is considered complete without one.
Dorothy Todd, editor of Vogue, 1928
During this same period, Laurencin attended the salon of Natalie Clifford Barney, an American expat and famed lesbian writer. Barney was inspired by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and her island community of women on the island of Lesbos to create a creative space that centred on female inspiration and relationships. Joan Schenkar described Barney’s salon as “a place where lesbian assignations and appointments with academics could coexist in a kind of cheerful, cross-pollinating, cognitive dissonance”.
Laurencin is known to have been romantically involved with a number of women throughout her life, although details of these affairs have mostly been lost. Her primary companion in her later years was her maid Suzanne Moreau. It is often said that the two were romantically linked but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Laurencin legally adopted Moreau in 1954 (when Moreau was 54), making her the beneficiary of her estate.
However, her best-known romantic relationship was with the modernist poet Guillaume Apolliniaire. Frustratingly, she is often remembered better for being his muse rather than as an artist in her own right.
Worse than being dead
even more pathetic
is being a forgotten woman.
Le Calmant, a poem by Marie Laurencin
Although we can see the influence of both Picasso and Georges Braque in Laurencin’s work, she had her own unique aesthetic. She often depicted groups of animals and women, using a particularly feminine aesthetic in her pastel colour palette and curvilinear forms.
The women Laurencin depicted are feminine yet also ambiguous, often staring out at the viewer enigmatically with large eyes. When arranged in groups of two or three, these women exude a sense of quiet intimacy – eventually, this implied sexual tension became more overt.
Later feminist readings have re-positioned Laurencin’s work in the context of her bisexuality and as a means of subverting patriarchal notions of femininity. Art historian Elizabeth Kahn has described her as “a young woman in the process of negotiating her way out of conventional femininities”, adding “she seemed to be searching for a unique identity that could resist the historic control of the male viewer”.
Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier.
Although Laurencin has been neglected by the Western art canon, her fame has at least endured in Japan. In 1983, the Marie Laurencin Museum opened in Tokyo to house the private collection of Masahiro Takano, the founder of the Green Cap taxi company. His collection included more than 600 of her works. Although it unfortunately closed in 2019, it was the first museum in the world to be devoted to a single female painter.
Laurencin’s unique aesthetic created space for female and lesbian identity alongside the masculine, heterosexual art created by the dominant male artists of the early 20th century. It created a vision of a peaceful world of independent women, embracing feminine tropes in a way that was soft and beautiful – yet also radical.