SO FUNEREAL are the paintings and drawings in "Conversations with Another World: Romaine Brooks," that baskets of daisies decorating the exhibit at the Museum of American Art look like memorial flowers placed at a grave.
Romaine Brooks painted with shadows, portraits in gray, black and white, with perhaps a touch of red on the subject's lips. Her colorless line drawings are grim retchings of the subconscious, personal ghosts and sinister reveries. Once upon a midnight dreary, Brooks saw disaster at every turn.
In the early '60s, Brooks gave the museum 37 such drawings (as well as a number of paintings). She drew them in 1930 while writing her memoirs, entitled "No Pleasant Memories." She couldn't shake a miserable childhood. Her father left home shortly before she was born. Her brother was insane and her mother forced her to be his companion, as she made him calm. Her mother -- short- tempered, devil-worshipping and ultimately mad -- would not allow her to draw.
Breaking free, developing as an artist, Brooks was an American who worked in Europe and remained unknown in this country.
The paintings show that representation came easily to her. "Una, Lady Troubridge" is bizarre in her tuxedo with monocle and watch fob and two dachshunds. Brooks, too, chose to dress like a man, and, although married once briefly, made her lasting attachments with women.
Women form most of her subjects here. Brooks painted an opalescent nude lying dead on a white sheet, her raven hair cascading into the black nothingness around her. With its profile of a woman, Brooks' painting "Le Piano" is reminiscent in color and composition of Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother"; Brooks greatly admired Whistler.
Brooks was called "thief of the soul" for the insightfulness of her portraits, but it is her drawings that really plumb the psychological depths -- the inner reaches of the artist herself. In that she never knew what she would put down, they were a sort of automatic writing. The drawings encompass such tormented scenes as a woman being pulled into the water by her own reflection; a woman trying to escape animalistic spirits; and a woman attempting to bolt from "Enemy Fat."
Beyond cynicism, Brooks showed parents and children in the "Sorrow of Rebirth," where the man and woman cradle two sleeping victims between them, engulfing them in a history that will repeat itself. In "Unity of Good and Evil," child and mother sleep while serpents slither. This is all done with intertwined lines that turn back on themselves.
No one gets out alive. The expressive line of sorrow continued in her own life, and in 1970 she died alone in Nice at age 96, in a room with black curtains.