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.