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Indepth Arts News:

"Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks"
2000-10-11 until 2001-01-16
Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
Berkeley, CA, USA United States of America

This is the first large-scale American exhibition of her work since the 1970 retrospective exhibition at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., and the first to bring several lesser-known works from private and public collections in Europe together with the extensive holdings of the NMAA. Along with paintings, this comprehensive exhibition also will present drawings and rarely seen photographs, sketchbooks, and collateral materials. Taken together, these various aspects of Brooks's work provide an opportunity for a new assessment of her art in the light of its place within the culture of early twentieth-century Europe, as well as its connection to ideas about identity, class, and sexuality. As these issues are of great import to contemporary artists' concerns, a fuller understanding of Brooks's contribution is especially timely.

Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) was an American born to wealthy parents in Rome. She spent virtually her entire life in Europe, mostly in Paris, but at various crucial points also in England and Italy, where she received her early training and arrived at her mature style. She moved in many elite social and intellectual circles, including those composed of American expatriates, European aristocrats, artists, and homosexuals. The international lesbian community of which she was a part included Compton and Faith Mackenzie, Renée Vivien, Natalie Barney, Radclyffe Hall, and Una, Lady Troubridge.

Brooks's predominant subject was portraiture, and at the center of the exhibition are stark, gray-and-black-toned depictions of herself and her circle, which included the artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau, poet and pro-fascist Gabriele d'Annunzio (briefly a lover and a lifelong friend), pianist Renata Borgatti, dancer Ida Rubenstein, and Duchess Elisabeth de Gramont, among others. Brooks's so-called amazon portraits of the 1920s, stylistically influenced by another expatriate artist, James McNeill Whistler, can be seen as the artist's bold attempt to fashion a lesbian identity for her sitters. Sometimes she presents them in the guise of mythological ideals, as in La Chasseuresse; others are depicted as patriotic heroes, as in La France Croisée, or as martyrs (Weeping Venus).

Between 1911 and 1914 she was intimately involved with the Russian dancer and actress Ida Rubenstein, who sat for many paintings. Nearly all of Brooks's investigations of the nude female body are of Rubenstein, most notably White Azaleas, in which Rubenstein reclines on a sofa. According to Whitney Chadwick, White Azaleas would prove as daring as Manet's Olympia in their simultaneous eroticizing of the female body within the context of lesbian spectatorship and their repudiation of the conventions of the voluptuous female nude in Western art. Nude and clothed photographs of Rubenstein are also included in the exhibition.

Brooks's own image, and that with which she is most identified, is the subject of the famous Self-Portrait of 1923, in which she is attired in masculine riding habit and top hat. Several other self-portrait paintings, some predating the 1923 painting, as well as drawings from early sketchbooks and dozens of photographic self-portraits, provide a multifaceted look at Brooks's attempt to wed her artistic and lesbian identities in her own self-image. (For more on this subject, see Karen Bennett's essay on page 16.)

By the end of the 1920s, Brooks had produced an extraordinary body of work in painting. Subsequently she devoted much of her energy to drawing. An entire body of work in this medium shows another side of Brooks. She used drawing to create fantastic conflations of humans and animals, and surrealistic experiments in automatic writing. She is said to have understood the drawings to be psychological self-investigations.

Brooks made very few paintings during the 1930s and 1940s. World War II, which she sat out with her partner Natalie Barney in a villa near Florence, Italy, forever changed the privileged world of Brooks and her friends. Along with many other wealthy expatriates, Brooks adopted a highly conservative political stance. When she resumed painting, she concentrated less on sexuality and more on class. Her final portrait, of Duke Uberto Strozzi in 1961, is austere and sensitive and, in Chadwick's words, stands for the aristocratic ideal that Brooks herself had pursued throughout her life. Brooks died at the age of 96 in Nice, France.

Amazons in the Drawing Room was organized by curator Joe Lucchesi for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The catalog, published by the University of California Press and available in the Museum Store, contains essays by Lucchesi and by noted feminist art historian and professor at San Francisco State University, Whitney Chadwick.

Constance Lewallen
Senior Curator

Romaine Brooks
Baroness Émile d'Erlanger, ca. 1924;
oil on canvas;
417/8 x 34 in.;
Smithsonian American Art Museum,
gift of the artist.

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