Romaine Brooks: Sex and the Sitters

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2000

LESBIANISM may be all the rage, but what does it have to do with an artist's work?

"Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks," a handsome re-examination of the work of the late expatriate American painter known for her penetrating, early 20th-century portraits of female aesthetes and aristocrats, says: a lot. Others, including Meryle Secrest, the author of a 1974 Brooks biography, say: not very much. "Call her a traumatized child or the unlikely ornament of a vanished age," wrote Secrest in a recent letter to The Washington Post, "but please don't judge her by the sex of the people she went to bed with."

O tempora, O mores!

Today we've got "queer studies" and "identity politics." The old rules don't apply. National Museum of Women in the Arts guest curator Joe Lucchesi writes in his introduction to the "Amazons" catalogue: "In the thirty years since Brooks's death, a methodological transformation of art historical scholarship has opened up works of art to considerations of gender, class, and sexuality as both social conditions of artistic production and determinants of meaning. Recognizing this methodological shift, the present exhibition not only considers Brooks's individual aesthetic achievement but also investigates the ways in which her identity as a woman and a lesbian impacted her visual production."

Methodological transformation . . . determinants of meaning. But does any of this change the way we look at the pictures? Well, in a way, how can it not?

Francis Bacon had George Dyer (not to mention numerous other anonymous romantic dalliances). After Bacon's lover killed himself while sitting on the can in a Paris hotel room, the painter revisited the scene time and time again in his art. Can we appreciate these paintings without knowing this (or the fact that Bacon's canvases of rotting slabs of meat were necessary because he couldn't afford to pay a model)? Yes. Biography--and sexuality for that matter--is inessential, but it doesn't hurt. To fixate on it to the exclusion of other considerations is foolish, but to ignore it seems deliberately myopic at best and prudish at worst.

Not that Brooks's sexuality is the revelation here. In fact, compared to the directness of the catalogue, the exhibition wall text sometimes seems to dance around the by now fairly well-known issue of her orientation, using such euphemistic phrases as "women like Brooks" and "like many other people in her situation." Her 50-year relationship with writer Natalie Barney for instance--portrayed lovingly on canvas and described bluntly in the catalogue as Brooks's "partner"--is euphemistically refered to at the museum as a "personal and professional collaboration." What, did they open a bakery together?

But no matter. What seems like equivocation may be because Brooks's love life was, as love lives often are, complicated. Born Beatrice Romaine Goodard in 1874, the artist entered an early marriage of convenience with gay British pianist John Brooks in 1902. Weakened by friction (he wanted her to maintain at least the outward appearance of the good wife; she preferred independence and mannish suits), the union fell apart after just one year. Some years later, the artist began a torrid affair with the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, whose portrait against a backdrop of crashing waves is the only painting of a male in the show.

But "Amazons" is only peripherally about sex anyway, most obviously in the sequence of eight nude photographs taken by Brooks of her lover, the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, with whom Brooks became involved while still entangled with d'Annunzio. Looking at somewhat exhibitionistic photos of the boyish lover stripping for the camera feels vaguely voyeuristic, and it's likely the pictures were never intended for public display.

They're only a small part of the show, though, placed in the corner of a room with several painted images of Rubinstein, Brooks's only subject (not counting her own self-portraits) that the artist returned to more than once. After seeing Ida in the flesh, so to speak, the women in the Rubinstein portraits look less like an identifiable person than versions of some Brooks-imagined goddess--an archetype seen again and again in these galleries of long-necked, gray-skinned, androgynous sylphs. Several portraits stand out from the parade, particularly "Baroness Emile d'Erlanger," a true Amazon with a flame-red shock of hair, broad shoulders and an animal-print gown. Like all of Brooks's mature portraits, the gaze is direct and fearless, heroic.

One of Brooks's most distinctive works is "Muriel Draper" of 1938. After the '20s, Brooks pretty much gave up painting, focusing on finishing her autobiography ("No Pleasant Memories," never published) and creating a series of almost graphite drawings, 28 of which are included here. One of the last paintings ever made by Brooks, the Draper portrait shows Brooks's always meticulous attention to the face, but it moves in a direction away from the more familiar, Whistler-like monochromes composed in charcoal, slate and taupe to a bleached palette of off-whites and a sinuous line whose draftsmanship is a direct descendant of her explorations with pencil and paper.

It's a shame Brooks never more fully developed this new style.

Ultimately, "Amazons in the Drawing Room" is neither celebration nor survey of the gay subculture of the roaring teens and '20s in which Brooks was such a player: The artist was the model for the character Venetia Ford in Radclyffe Hall's controversial 1928 novel of lesbianism, "The Well of Loneliness," and Hall's lover, "Una, Lady Troubridge" is the cross-dressing subject of Brooks's most comical painting. The show's more a paean to womanhood.

Some find something cold and dead about the waxy skin and sculptural impersonality of Brooks's immortal ladies. They say they don't look like real people. Neither do the faces on Mount Rushmore.

AMAZONS IN THE DRAWING ROOM: The Art of Romaine Brooks -- Through Sept. 24 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Metro: Metro Center). 202/783-5000. Web site: Open 10 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays; Sundays noon to 5. Admission is by suggested donation of $3; $2 for students and seniors.

Public programs in conjunction with the exhibition include:

Aug. 16 at 7 -- Two films by French feminist Germaine Dulac: "The Smiling Madame Beudet" and "The Seashell and the Clergyman." $5. Call 202/783-7370 for reservations.

Sept. 23 from 1 to 4 -- Symposium: "No Color, Only Nuance: Romaine Brooks, Her Circle, and Her Legacy." $20. Call 202/783-7370 for information and reservations.

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