Erik Martiny

Flocking to Paris in the Roaring Twenties


There’s always something deeply exciting about an exhibition devoted exclusively to women. Even the most blasé art-loving treasure hunters know that a women-centred art show is going to allow them to discover artists they’ve never seen or heard of.

Historians and publishers of the past have ensured that women have been erased from memory, but this is still unaccountably the case today in some cases. Just to give you one example, I recently came across a newly published book on pop art that had only one female pop artist discussed in it.

The Musée du Luxembourg’s latest exhibition Pionnières turned out to be as sensational as I expected it to be. It’s a lavishly illustrated show that provides eye-opening documentation on the lives of women living in Paris throughout the Happy Twenties.

The first images that greet you as you enter are film extracts of women rushing jerkily to munitions factories. The strange thing is there isn’t a single man in sight in these films. Treated to so much footage of 1920s women bus drivers, postal operatives, women manning all kinds of machinery in all areas of modern life, you start to wonder if you aren’t in a counterfactual dream in which men have disappeared off the face of the earth, until it dawns on you why they are missing. These reels were shot during the Great War when men were in very short supply, especially after the carnage.

Apart from technological progress, the only positive thing to come out of war is increased emancipation for women—and this goes back at least as far as the crusades of the Middle Ages. This being said, it’s important to realize that the situation in Paris was somewhat two-faced when it came to women’s liberation.

While on the one hand women artists from around the world swarmed to the French capital in search of artistic, sexual and behavioural freedom in the Roaring Twenties, French women were still bound by iniquitous gender laws and they didn’t obtain the vote until long after the Golden Twenties were over.

Interestingly, the reason for this tardiness is not what you would expect: French women were actually disbarred from voting until 1944 in France because left-wing progressive senators feared that many new female voters would cast their ballots conservatively for the right-wing Church parties they tended to support.

Alongside the female factory workers assembling bomb shells and bullets, the first exhibition space also displays the work of two outstanding women who contributed to the war effort in a uniquely healing way. The American sculptress Anna Coleman Ladd and her French assistant Jane Poupelet pioneered facial reconstruction for the many thousands of soldiers whose faces were so badly ravaged that they were beyond the reach of plastic surgery. Together they sculpted and painted prosthetic masks to make these war-damaged men look human again—poignantly, many young men were so unspeakably disfigured they didn’t dare to go home to their families after the Great War was over.

On entering the exhibition room dedicated to women’s abstract art, I have to admit I was initially a little crestfallen. The first pictures (by Marlow Moss) that meet my eye struck me as excessively derivative Piet Mondrian paintings until I found out that Moss’s homages actually contributed Mondrian’s signature double red line. Mondrian was so taken with Moss’s addition to his line combinations that he “stole” it from her—an interesting instance of the pupil inspiring the master.

Abstract art was not the area in which 1920s women artists excelled (other paintings remind one too strongly of Fernand Léger whose influence was pervasive after he opened a school for budding artists at the time) though mention should be made of one notable exception: Ukrainian-born Sonia Delaunay’s “simultanéiste” experiments with sharp colour contrasts and hypnotic geometric arrangements. I cannot help but feel that more space might have been given to Delaunay’s work to give the show-goer a more accurate and uplifting picture of women’s contribution to abstraction.

For the most part, it was undoubtedly figurative painting and sculpture that inspired creativity in the women artists who rose to prominence in Paris. The wonderfully unique Tamara De Lempicka is generously represented in the exhibition with several large paintings depicting Sapphic nudes (as lesbian nudes were called in those days). La Belle Rafaela (1927) with its masterfully evocative chiaroscuro eroticism is one of the highlights of the show and one of De Lempicka’s most widely known masterpieces.

But she was far from being the only outstanding woman artist active in Paris at the time. A step down in terms of fame but not in merit is Suzanne Valadon whose La Chambre bleue (1923) deserves mention. Unconventionally, it depicts a plump, entirely clothed model reclining on a bed in a pose usually adopted by odalisques. Typical attributes such as the fan are replaced here by a cigarette and a couple of books left lying nonchalantly on the side of the bed. Instead of gazing languidly into the male spectator’s eyes to arouse, the sitter seems self-absorbed, lost in her own thoughts as she patiently poses.

Valadon’s Vénus noire (1919) takes on the ancient Greek tradition of the Venus pudica, or modest Venus, adding a firmer element of realism: Venus’s body language really makes it look as if she has been caught off her guard and is taken aback by the viewer’s indiscreet intrusion. It’s a bold piece that mirrors the efforts going on in the Harlem Renaissance in the same period to proclaim the beauty of blackness.

Valadon reached the pinnacle of her art in an earlier representation of Adam and Eve (1909), one of the most gorgeous renderings of the theme that I have ever seen (Renaissance depictions included): the painting movingly and vividly depicts Valadon bonded to her husband in the nude. Its bold diagonal lines lend the provocatively autobiographical subject a dynamism that is usually missing from even the best representations of the motif.

Painted eleven years earlier, Valadon’s Adam and Eve was only exhibited for the first time in 1920, on which occasion the artist was forced to paint vine leaves over her husband’s genitalia (to hint at the time-honoured self-adhering post-it-like fig leaf of old) under the instructions of the exhibition’s organizing committee. Cover-up operations of that sort were not uncommon in Renaissance Italy (some of Michelangelo’s nudes for instance were later given clothes by Daniele da Volterra under strict instructions from the clergy). Secular censorship in Paris reveals some of the limits placed on artists at the outset of the Roaring Twenties (which the French call the Crazy Twenties – not quite as crazy and free as they’re sometimes made out to be).

Polish-born painter Mela Muter was popular and critically acclaimed in her day, having been noticed early on by the influential art collector and gallery owner Ambroise Vollard, but after her death she fell completely off the radar of predominantly male art publishers. Her Nu cubiste (1919-23) illustrates her desire to push the boundaries of the acceptable. If you compare it with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), you see how much more daring her rendition of nudity is. Unlike Picasso, she does not use cubism to veil and de-eroticise her very much open-legged, hair-graced nude.

Maria Blanchard also deserves to be put back in the limelight with the best male artists of the School of Paris. Her style is deeply distinctive and instantly recognizable. Blanchard’s depictions of the mother and child motif (the most frequent subject depicted at the exhibition) are particularly eye-catching. Although her paintings put one in mind of Fernand Léger, Blanchard’s sitters are far more sensual and there is nothing derivative about her work: her highly distinctive, near-fauvist palette sets her apart from all the other artists present at the show.

One of the strong points of the exhibition is its broad international reach. There’s work from the Brazilian painter Tarsila de Amaral that is as striking in its genre (naïve painting) as the paintings of Le Douanier Rousseau. The same can be said for the Hungarian-Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil. Her self-portrait in particular is gorgeously evocative.

The exhibition ranges across the arts, dipping briefly into literature, the focus being mostly on Nancy Cunard, Sylvia Beach and the publication of Victor Margueritte’s 1922 iconic novel La garçonne—‘boy-girl’ being the French word for the bobbed ‘flapper’ look.

Also on display is costume designing by Sarah Lipska, sculptures by Chana Orloff and dolls by Germaine de Roton, Stefania Lazarska and Alice Halicka. Cross-dressing women (a strong new feature of the period in Paris) are hauntingly, sweetly, and at times disturbingly represented by the experimental photography of Claude Cahun.

Commercial spin-off products like tubes of hair gel bearing the Josephine Baker brand are a delight to behold. They’re so well preserved they look as if they’ve just come off the assembly line.

Overall, it’s a dazzling, heart-warming, wonderfully captivating show. If you can’t make it to Paris before the end of the exhibition and are experiencing FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), dipping into the thoughtfully executed, lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue offers a wonderful consolation.  

By Erik Martiny

Pionnières, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris
2 March – 10 July

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