F E B R U A R Y 15 , 2014
Our day and age has allowed female talents to flourish in Literature and the Arts.
Women bring to art a fresh, particularly joyful view of the universe.
There have been women painters in every period, and their marvelous art is so delicately pleasurable to both the intellect and the imagination that it would not be at all surprising if there had been more of them.
In Italy, the sixteenth century produced Sophonisba Anguissola, celebrated by Lanzi and Vasari. Pope Paul IV and the king of Spain competed for her works. They now hang in Madrid, Florence, Genoa and London. The Louvre owns not a single one.
Born in Cremona in about 1530, she quickly surpassed her teacher, Bernardino, and greatly advanced the art of portraiture. In modern times, some of her paintings have sometimes been attributed to none other than Titian. After enjoying huge success in the court of Philip II, she eventually retired to Genoa, where she went blind. According to Lanzi, she was known as her century’s best speaker on the arts, and Van Dyck, who went to listen to her, claimed that he learned more from that blind old woman than from the most clearsighted of painters.
Sophonisba Anguissola is the highest example so far of a woman achieving glory through art.
Mlle Marie Laurencin has successfully expressed, in the major art of painting, an entirely feminine aesthetic.
From her first paintings, drawings and etchings, even though these efforts were remarkable only for their natural simplicity, it was already apparent that the artist who was about to emerge would one day express all the grace and charm of the world.
She then produced pictures in which arabesques formed delicate patterns.
Since then, all her experiments have been marked by the feminine arabesque whose secret she has never lost.
Whereas Picasso, by highlighting all the previously undiscovered pictorial qualities of an object, concentrates on obtaining from it all the aesthetic emotion it can give, Mlle Laurencin, whose art is indebted to the works of Matisse and Picasso, aims above all to express the pictorial originality of objects and faces. This means that her work is less severe than Picasso’s, even though they are not without similarities. In her work she enumerates the elements that go to make up any particular picture. So she is close to nature, studying it with fierce concentration but carefully rejecting anything which is not young or gracious and, from among undiscovered aspects of things, keeping only those which appear youthful.
I believe she has deliberately chosen to direct her art towards youthful originality, be it serious or joyful. Female aesthetic sensitivity, which has rarely stepped far beyond applied arts such as lacework and embroidery, needed first of all to express in painting the very originality of that feminine quality. In future, other women will go on to explore other feminine aspects of the universe.
As an artist, Mlle Laurencin can be placed between Picasso and Douanier Rousseau. This position is not hierarchical but simply recognizes the relationship between them. Her art dances like Salome between the work of Picasso, the new John the Baptist who cleanses the Arts in the baptism of light, and the work of Rousseau, a sentimental Herod, a prodigal and childlike old man who was led by love to the frontiers of intellectualism, where angels come to calm his sorrows and to prevent him from entering the awful kingdom whose customs officer he had become, so that eventually he was much admired among their company and grew massive wings.
The younger generation of artists have already shown how highly they esteem the works of poor Henri Rousseau, the old angel, the Douanier, who died at summer’s end in 1910. He could also be called the Master of Plaisance, because that was the name of the place where he lived and also because of what makes his pictures so pleasant to the eye.
Few artists have been more ridiculed during their lifetime than the Douanier, and few men have reacted more serenely to the mockery and crude insults which were heaped upon him. This courteous old man remained as calm as ever and good-naturedly detected in the very insults being directed against him a mark of the interest in his work which even his greatest critics could not help showing. This serenity was of course nothing other than pride. The Douanier was well aware of his strengths. Once or twice he let slip that he was the best painter of his day. And it could be that in many ways he was not far wrong. For though as a young man he did not receive an artistic education (as his painting shows), it seems that late in life, when he decided to paint, he passionately studied the old masters and was almost alone among modern artists in understanding their secrets.
His only failing is that he was sometimes over-sentimental, almost always with a down-to-earth, good-natured simplicity which he could not transcend, and which did rather contrast with the scale of his artistic ambitions and the attitude he adopted in the world of contemporary art.
But for all that, what positive qualities he had! And how significant it is that the young generation of artists was able to recognize them! They are to be congratulated, especially if their intention is not only to honour those qualities but also to emulate them. The Douanier saw his paintings through to their logical conclusion, something we rarely see nowadays. They are not the product of any mannerism, formula or system. This explains the great variety to be found in his work. He had no less confidence in his imagination than in his artistry. This explains the grace and richness of his decorative compositions. The fact that he had taken part in the Mexican campaign meant that he had very precise plastic and poetic memories of the tropical flora and fauna.
As a result, this Breton and long-time denizen of the Paris suburbs is certainly the strangest, most daring and most charming of the exotic painters, as is clearly demonstrated by his Snake Charmer. But Rousseau was not just a decorator, nor just an illustrator: he was a painter. And that is why some people find his work so difficult to understand. He had a sense of order, as can be seen not only in his paintings but also in his drawings, structured like Persian miniatures. His art was pure, and in female figures, in the shape of trees, in the way different tones of a single colour sing harmoniously together, it had a style which belongs only to French painters and marks French paintings out, wherever they may be. I am, of course, only referring to masterpieces.
This painter was among the most single-minded of them all. There can be no doubt of this when one sees his attention to detail, which is in no way a weakness, and neither can there be any doubt when one hears the song of the shades of blue and the melody of the various whites in his Wedding, where an old peasant woman reminds one of certain Dutch paintings?
As a portrait painter, Rousseau is incomparable. One portrait of a woman painted from the waist up in blacks and delicate shades of grey is taken further than a portrait of Cézanne. I twice had the honour of being painted by Rousseau and I often saw him at work in his bright little studio in the rue Perrel. I know what care he took over every detail, how he held onto the first and definitive idea of a picture until he had completed it, and also how he left nothing, certainly nothing essential, to chance.
Among Rousseau’s beautiful sketches there is none more astonishing than the small canvas entitled The Carmagnole. (This is a preparatory sketch for his Centenary of Independence, beneath which he wrote some words from the song “Auprès de ma blonde”:
When I’m with my blonde girl
How good, how good, how good it feels…)
Sensitive drawing and varied, pleasant and delicate tones make this sketch an excellent little piece. His flower pictures also show what resources of charm and modulation there were in the soul and hand of the old Douanier.
At this point it is worth noting that these three painters – and I am not trying to establish any hierarchy between them, but only to see how far they are related – are all portrait painters of the highest order.
Portraits have an important place in Picasso’s brilliant output, and some of them (the Portrait of Vollard and the Portrait of Kahnweiler) will rank among the all-time masterpieces. Douanier Rousseau’s portraits are in my view prodigious works, whose beauty cannot as yet be fully appreciated. Portraits are also an important part of Mlle Laurencin’s work.
The prophetic dimension of Picasso’s work and the intellectual dimension which, despite everything, entered Rousseau’s painting, the painting of an old man, all recur here transformed into an entirely new pictorial dimension. It has analogies with dance and is, in the language of painting, an infinitely gracious rhythmic enumeration.
Everything which up to now contributed to the originality and delicacy of the female arts in lacework, embroidery, the Bayeux Tapestry etc., recurs here, transfigured and purified. Female art has become a major artistic category, no longer to be confused with the work of male artists. Female art is spirited, courtly and joyful. It dances in light and lingers languorously in the memory. It has never known imitation, never sunk to the depths of perspective. It is a happy art.
Mario Meunier, who was then Rodin’s secretary and had produced excellent translations of Sappho, Sophocles and Plato, told an amusing story about one of Mlle Laurencin’s most tender paintings, La Toilette. He was showing the sculptor some photographs of Fauvist paintings, among which there also happened to be a picture of a painting by Mlle Laurencin: “At least”, said the illustrious old man, “this one isn’t some twittering Fauvette, she known what grace means, she is serpentine.”
That is absolutely right. Female painting is serpentine, and the precursor of today’s female art may well have been that great artist of movement and color, Loïe Fuller, who invented lighting effects combining grace, painting and dance, and which were indeed known as the Serpentine Dance.
And Rodin was referring to the work of another woman when he perspicaciously came up with that particular word!
Female art, Mlle Laurencin’s art, by attentively observing nature tends towards a pure, humanized arabesque which, because it is so expressive, without being any less agreeable, becomes more than just decoration.
Quotations were taken from Collected Works of Guillaume Apollinaire in three volumes. Book Club Knigovek, 2011.