Published: October 14, 2008
Painted and sculpted portraits have been around for a very long time, and they remained generally realistic and flattering through numerous stylistic and cultural changes. A major shift came early in the Twentieth Century with the onset of the avant-garde in Paris, with their new ideas about how art should be created. While traditional likenesses continued to be created in the French capital, bold, energetic Modernists †Fauvists, Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Expressionists †began to produce portraits the likes of which had never been seen before.
The cult of personality that fueled the careers of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Foujita and others required new forms of human portraiture. The avant-garde responded with an outpouring of Modernist work that changed forever how we look at likenesses.
All this came in the wake of French painter Paul Delaroche’s famous statement in 1839 after he saw a daguerreotype for the first time: “From today painting is dead.” He seemed to be declaring the end of not only the medium but of portraits in general. Why paint or sculpt a likeness, people asked, when photographs could make more lasting records more cheaply, with greater ease and increased accuracy?
Nonetheless, by the turn of the Twentieth Century, avant-garde artists, overcoming doubts posed by the new medium, rose to the challenge with remarkable new styles. In effect, contrary to Delaroche’s conclusion, Modernist painters and sculptors believed photography had freed them from making portraits that simply mimicked the appearance of sitters, allowing them to depict their contemporaries and themselves in new ways.
This fascinating chapter in art history is documented in “Paris Portraits: Artists, Friends and Lovers,” on view at the Bruce Museum through January 4. Astutely curated by Kenneth E. Silver, professor of Modern art at New York University and adjunct curator of art at the Bruce, it is the first museum show of this “group portrait” of the Parisian avant-garde. It comprises some 50 works.
Ego, introspection and self-promotion, common traits among Modernists, inevitably led to a spate of self-portraits. Many were anxious to depict themselves as observed in the mirror or in the mirror of the mind. “Paris Portraits” features a number of idiosyncratic self-likenesses, some rarely seen.
Marie Laurencin (1883‱956) created a deft pencil “Self-Portrait” in 1906, before she became the lover of poet Guillaume Apollinaire and launched herself as a Parisian art star. At age 23, she looks sensitive and vulnerable, as though uncertain where her career is headed. An interesting comparison is offered by Swiss sculptor Hermann Haller’s calm terracotta “Head of Marie Laurencin,” circa 1920, as she was about to become “firmly established as the one and only major woman painter in Paris, a position she would maintain for decades to come,” in curator Silver’s words.
The only important Asian artist among the avant-garde was the shameless self-promoter Foujita (Tsuguharu Fujita) (1886‱968), whose bizarre clothing and exotic look attracted attention. “Publicity is important,” he declared, “There’s nothing that beats the combination of ability and publicity.” Two self-portraits in the exhibition, a 1928 pen and ink drawing and a late 1930s color woodblock print, underscore his bowl-like haircut, round-rimmed glasses, wispy mustache and affinity for cats, and the manner in which he combined Japanese and European motifs in his art.
Foujita, says Silver, “figured out how to make himself an indispensable player in the comedie humaine of contemporary art. Indeed, Silver adds, few artists were as successful in branding their “look and their personality in the Parisian art world as he.”
At the opposite extreme is a restrained, inward-looking “Self-Portrait” by Hungarian artist Margit Pogany (1876‱957), better known as the model for several famous sculptures in marble and bronze by Romanian Constantin Brancusi (1876‱964). His “Mademoiselle Pogany II,” 1925, a dazzling abstract rendering in polished bronze, captures her characteristic gesture of cradling her head in her hands (as does her self-portrait). “An icon of modern beauty, ‘Mademoiselle Pogany’ is as austere in its elegant configuration as anything that Brancusi ever made,” observes Silver.
Portrayals of spouses and romantic partners transmit varied signs of love, lust and sometimes alienation. One standout is the intimate, highly fragmented likeness of his pensive wife by French artist Jean Metzinger (1883‱956), painted in 1911.
A highlight of the entire exhibition is Robert Delaunay’s portrait of his jaunty friend “Jean Metzinger or The Man with a Tulip,” 1906, animated by brilliant Fauvist colors applied with Divisionist vigor in discrete brushstrokes. “The intensity of [Delaunay’s] gaze is matched by the intensely hued paint and its powerful, atomized application,” Silver notes.
The provocative painter Francis Picabia (1879‱953) was all over the lot in styles, including Cubism, Dadaism and eventually representational work, which was criticized as amateurish and unsophisticated. In his 1942 oil, “Portrait of Suzanne,” depicting his married lover, Suzanne Romain, with whom he had a passionate, decadelong affair, she comes across as a superficial, anxious woman caught up in the fashions of the day.
German-born artist Max Ernst (1891‱976) was a leading Surrealist, as exemplified by his enigmatic portrayal of his lover, “Gala Eluard,” 1924. For a time, Ernst, Gala and her husband, poet Paul Eluard, lived together. Using a Man Ray photograph of Gala’s eyes, Ernst in effect penetrated the mind of his mistress and close friend’s wife, revealing symbolic, floating sand dollars, akin to sea urchins. It is a haunting image. Several other portraits of Gala, painted by her next husband, Surrealist megastar Salvador Dalí, suggest her strong will and attraction to men.
“Paris Portraits” also showcases works about the larger Parisian social and art world. During a sojourn there, German artist Max Beckmann (1884‱950), apparently at the behest of the German embassy, painted a somewhat disjointed party scene of German émigrés, “Paris Society (Gesellschaft Paris),” 1931. Created on the eve of Hitler’s advent to power, it shows a crowded mixture of formally clad noblemen, businessmen and intellectuals, and assorted women, whose attitudes run the gamut from boredom and snobbishness to flirtation and animation. “Beckmann accomplishes here,” observes Silver, “what almost none of his fellow artists in Paris could †he makes a group portrait that is both charming and ominous.”
Humorous group caricatures by Frenchman Louis Touchagues (1893‱974) appeared in the magazine L’Art vivant . In a 1925 issue, he depicted artists Maurice de Vlaminck, a jaunty Fauvist, as a hunter of “landscapes;” Georges Rouault, best known for religious works but an early painter of prostitutes, eyeing a group of streetwalkers; a stern, pipe-smoking Picasso looking like a Cubist x-ray; Paul Signac, head of the Salon des Independants, manning a skiff named The Independent ; Pierre Bonnard, painter of intimate domestic scenes, as a housewares merchant, and Matisse, famed for his decorative canvases, as an Oriental rug salesman.
A popular subject for avant-garde portraitists was the influential French art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866‱939), whose risk-taking support had done much to advance the cause of Modernism and Modernist painters from Cezanne to Picasso. Jean Puy (1876‱960), a Fauvist pioneer, painted his longtime dealer in an unusual pose, languishing on a couch reading a book. “Portrait of Ambroise Vollard,” 1908, reflects Puy’s conventional style, affinity for bright colors and friendship with the formidable sitter.
A decidedly less distinguished dealer who was often portrayed was Frenchman Martin Fabiani, who was depicted in sketches by Matisse as a thoughtful soul, and as a cold, determined personality by a perhaps suspicious Picasso, both in 1943 during the German occupation of the French capital. Whereas Matisse saw Fabiani as a mild-mannered, even sensitive fellow, Picasso created the more perceptive view of him as a confident, greedy, bon vivant by portraying him in profile as though viewers could see into his head.
Later it was learned that during the occupation Fabiani operated a brisk business selling works confiscated by the Nazis. Indicted in 1946, he was fined a large sum.
Other notable pictures are the vividly colored, Cubist “Portrait of a Man,” circa 1909, by August Herbin (1882‱960), and self-taught artist Albert Gleizes’s (1881‱953) “Man on a Balcony (Portrait of Doctor Morinaud),” 1912, in which the subject’s image and Paris behind him are broken down in Cubist planes. The latter, exhibited at New York’s famed Armory Show of 1913, was promptly purchased by an American collector, and is now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
A section devoted to paintings of friends, critics and other writers who might help promote an artist’s career suggests that such images could be both affectionate and opportunistic. Gertrude Stein, the American expatriate author who ran a cultural salon in Paris and promoted the work of many Modernist artists, was the subject of numerous artworks. The most famous painting †the standard by which other Stein likenesses are judged †Picasso’s 1906 portrait, emphasized the sitter’s bulk and stoic qualities, but was attacked by friends as not looking like her. It is not in the show.
Picasso, incidentally, defended his work, declaring that while “everybody thinks she is not at all like her portrait but never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it.” Stein, who did indeed come to resemble the painting, said she was pleased with it and kept it for the rest of her life, bequeathing it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lithuanian-born Jacques Lipchitz (1891‱973) became a friend of Stein’s and shared an affinity for Cubism. But when it came to doing portraits, the sculptor favored a more representational style, resulting in a confidently composed head of Stein, original model 1920; cast before 1948. It makes Stein, replete with round face and bun atop her head, look at once stoic, calm and Buddha-like. Stein said she liked the sculpture, but did not buy it.
Another American in Paris who fascinated the French was Josephine Baker (1906‱975), the legendary African American music hall star who titillated and sometimes scandalized Parisians with her skimpy costumes and flamboyant performances. Her look was immortalized by French artist Paul Colin (1892‱985) in posters and a collection of perceptive, hand colored lithographs. Alexander Calder made wire sculptures of this toast of Paris, and Frenchman Emile Deschler captured her wide smile, glowing eyes and affinity for a white boa draped over her shoulder in a striking 1935 poster maquette.
Another larger-than-life theatrical figure, singer Marie-Louise Damien, known as Maryse Damia, was the subject of a stark, expressive Columbia Records poster by Colin in 1930, and a sensitive, closeup, offstage portrait of about the same time that emphasizes her intense, sensuous face by traditional French painter Christian Bérard (1902‱949).
“Kiki of Montparnesse” (real name Alice Prin), sometime singer and frequent model for avant-garde artists, was famous for her curvaceous figure, pale skin, dark-haired bangs, pert nose and sparkling personality. Spanish abstract sculptor Pablo Gargallo (1881‱934) retained the performer’s identity by delineating her bangs and nose in an otherwise complex polished bronze mask of voids and concave forms, created in 1928.
Capping off portraits of legendary figures of interwar Paris are likenesses of a beautiful stenographer from Prague, Maria Lani, who in the 1920s passed herself off as a movie star and had her image rendered by more than 50 artists over the course of 20 months. Lani proved to be an elusive sitter, seeming to appear differently to each artist.
Two portraits dating to 1929, a painting by Russian-born Frenchman Chaim Soutine (1894‱943) and a sculpture by Ukrainian native Chana Orloff, offer differing interpretations of the face of the faux actress. Soutine’s version, painted with characteristically heavy brushstrokes, vivid colors and Expressionist verve, emphasizes Lani’s soulful look, marked by heavy eyebrows, pronounced nose, pursed lips and narrow, pointed chin. Orloff’s streamlined bronze head focuses on the sitter’s elongated neck, uplifted head and facial features, such as her high cheekbones and inscrutable eyes.
As suddenly as Lani appeared on the Parisian scene, she dropped out of sight, moving to the United States in 1941, where she served servicemen at New York’s Stage Door Canteen before returning to Paris, dying in 1954.
“L’affaire Lani” reflects the theme of this superb exhibition †the enthusiasm with which the avant-garde explored the myriad possibilities of modern portraiture at a time when there were as many ways of depicting sitters as there were brilliant artists to create them.
Critics reacting to portrayals of Lani questioned the extent to which they were actual likenesses of her rather than portraits of the artists who depicted her, suggesting a subplot to this thought-provoking show. As one reviewer observed, “These portraits [of Lani] are less character studies of the sitter than revelations of the painters’ or sculptors’ personalities.” The New York Times critic wrote that “Apparently, no matter whom an artist utilizes by way of inspiration, if the subject is at all stimulating, he makes his own portrait, injecting into the living mask that reflects his own likeness the variations resulting from his inspiration.”
Bruce curatorial assistant Abigail D. Newman points out that even photographers seeking accuracy “introduce their own perspectives into their work, just as painters and sculptors present likenesses that may seem to tell more about the artist than the sitter.”
“Every man’s work,” wrote Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh , 1903, “whether it be in literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” These questions, raised in this challenging exhibition, continue to intrigue artists, art professionals and art lovers to this day.
The 144-page catalog, featuring an insightful essay by Silver and valuable commentaries on each work by Newman, along with numerous reproductions, makes a significant contribution to art history. Published by Yale University Press, Paris Portraits will be a welcome addition to many public and private bookshelves.
The Bruce Museum is at 1 Museum Drive, just off Interstate 95, Exit 3, and a short walk from the Greenwich train station. For information, 203-869-0376 or www.brucemuseum.org .
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