Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Marie Laurencin, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris (21 February-30 June 2013)


Despite achieving extraordinary fame in France in the 1920s and 1930s, the name and work of Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) fell into virtual obscurity after her death.  There was a partial revival of interest in the 1970s when some of her major works came onto the market and were bought by a few Japanese collectors, but Laurencin’s position in the history of art of the first half of the twentieth century is still seen as very marginal.  A few loyal academic fans have attempted to keep her name in circulation, but the decorative excesses and self-indulgent repetition of motifs of her late works together with the apparent self-sabotage in her translated writings, have consigned Laurencin to the fringes of contemporary enquiry.  She is also considered a problematic case study within feminist art history – her lesbianism is too coded, her painting techniques too rococo and subsequent descriptions of her work as having a uniquely feminine aesthetic as being too existentialist.

The current exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet is the first major retrospective organised by a French museum.  With around 100 works on display, the exhibition has examples from the four recognised phases of her work - her first so-called Cubist period (1907-1914), the second period between 1915-1921 during her exile in Spain, the third period in the 1920s and 1930s when she reached the height of her fame and finally her artist decline from the 1940s onwards.

It is the first two phases of her career which are of most interest to me and the reason for my visit to the exhibition, as Marie Laurencin is the subject of the dissertation for my MA in Art History, in particular the use of her self- image.  Laruencin was the only female artist to play an active role in the group surrounding Pablo Picasso and the Bateau-Lavoir, the birthplace of Cubism.  Yet despite working within this highly macho and phallocentric group, Laurencin developed an individual ‘feminine’ artistic language, seemingly unable or unwilling to engage with the aesthetics of the radical movement.

My dissertation will argue that Laurencin deliberately resisted fully integrating Cubist style and subject matter into her work in favour of using her self-image to create performative spaces within which to exert her identity and sexuality.  It will directly challenge the assumptions made about her work and suggest that as well as the well-recorded commitment to her own pictorial style and relationship between feminine complicity, it was also a direct challenge to the masculine avant-garde she found herself a part of.  In doing so, Laurencin can indeed be seen an early precursor of the politically activated feminist subject. 

This exhibition wonderfully shows the development of her work from her very early realist self-portraits which demonstrate a confident and assertive use of paint, through to her flirtation with and ultimate rejection of Cubism, to that point in her career where the delicate balance of her arabesque stylisation reached its peak with its characteristic French mix of Louis XIV elegance and contemporary art and rococo charm, before tipping over into the aforementioned decorative excesses and repetition. 

My only criticism with the exhibition is that it did not include anything from her extremely accomplished early engraving ouvre, which are fantatstic examples of her talent as a draughtsperson as well as a painter.

Permanent Collection, Musee d'Orsay, Paris (23 March 2013)

Three things struck me while walking through the vast galleries in the Musée d’Orsay.  Firstly, how surreal it was to turn a corner and suddenly be confronted with a particular painting that is so famous and which I have seen so many times in various books, it is almost like bumping into an old friend.  The actual size of many of these is nearly always a surprise from the magnificence of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, famous under its colloquial name Whistler's Mother to the relative smallness of Cezanne’s Card Players.  To see ‘masterpieces’ such as these, as well as paintings by Van Gogh, Gaughan, Corot, Courbet and Monet up close and personal is a true joy and well worth having to become another (somewhat) patient tourist within the throngs queuing to get in.
Secondly, in this immense collection of art created between 1848-1914, only five female artists are represented and only with a miniscule number of their works – a couple of paintings by Berthe Morrisot, one Eva Gonzalez, one Mary Cassatt, one Marie Bashkirtseff and one Camille Claudel.  Unarguably the time period the museum covers was notoriously difficult for female artists, but even so, notable absences to my mind are Gwen John, Marie Laurencin and Suzanne Valadon, to name but three. 
Thirdly, for lovers of paintings of idealsed beautiful women presented as openly sexually alluring and passively available or caught in scenes of verious states of undress, then this is the place to come!  Any and every excuse to portray a naked woman has been explored by the vast majority of artists included at Musée d’Orsay, from Courbet’s The Artist’s Studio, as well as his infamous L’Origine du Monde, to an endless array of minor nineteenth century predominantly French artists through to Degas and Renoir, etc, etc.  If that wasn’t enough, the museum also has on display a collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century artist photographs, again concentrating on their naked models, all of which offer various degrees of titillation and in some cases, pornography.  The museum does attempt some kind of rhetoric to accompany the sheer scale of such images on display, but its approach is problematic.

Despite my misgivings and mixed emotions at being confronted by such a celebration of female objectivity, Musée d’Orsay is still worth a visit.  Its collections present a fascinating window into a period of art history which underwent immense change and eventual challenge, much to my delight.