“Pioneers” exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg shows female artists of the 1920s
There’s a particular dynamic in the art world that we’ve gotten a little too used to: the woman as art, the man as artist. Even when we try to focus on women artists, they are often left out of the larger historical discussions of major art movements. There almost seems to be a belief that women artists simply didn’t exist before the 21st century.
A new exhibition in Musée du Luxembourg tries to change that, with Pioneers: Artists in Paris in the Roaring Twenties. The exhibition, which will be on view from March 2 to July 10, 2022, re-examines the role women played in the development of several important art movements in the early 20th century, including Cubism, Surrealism, Neo-Plasticism, Dadaism, Fauvism and more. The exhibition delves into a variety of mediums, including theatrical design, fashion, painting and sculpture, to show how the “modern woman” dipped her toes into all available realms.
In celebration of the art made from Women, the exhibition hopes to reclaim that picture the woman who is so often sexualized or idealized in art created by men. A room full of Maria Blanchard’s maternity paintings reimagines the Christian and artistic ideal of the Madonna, usually painted as a beatified figure, but here shown exhausted, baring breasts to feed her babies, earthy and grounded and far from heavenly Glory.
Blanchard and her contemporaries were able to portray their subjects with a sense of neutrality, at least compared to the male gaze so often tinged with desire. The cubist painter Mela Muter, born Maria Melanie Mutermilch, painted women marked by time and work, stylistically and symbolically fragmented.
Suzanne Valadon’s work shows a similar sincerity and realism, reinventing the odalisque to depict, in La Chambre Bleue, a sex worker in her pajamas smoking a cigarette after a long night’s work. She is known to have painted several self-portraits of herself at various ages, including one at the age of 70, one of the few artists at the time who dreamed of painting an aging woman. And when she wanted to show her painting “Adam and Eve” in the Salon des Independents, the fully naked male figure was considered so shocking that she had to add a leafy loincloth to cover for him. The completely naked woman next to him? Absolutely okay.
However, desire is not the only domain of men. In a room dedicated to “Les Deux Amies,” a derogatory euphemism for lesbians, paintings by Tamara de Lempicka reek of sensuality. Not the timid looks that line the halls of most contemporary art museums, but something richer and more open.
Queer artists are given a dual role in this exhibition, with a space that grapples with the idea of le troisième genre. Self-portraits by a non-binary French artist Claude Cahun, née Lucy Schwob, are of great importance, as are some portraits by the Danish artist Gerda Wegener of her partner “Lili”. Anyone who saw the 2015 film The Danish girl might remember Lili ElbeBorn Einar Wegener, received the first documented sex confirmation surgery in 1930. Before Lili discovered her gender dysphoria, she sat for Gerda in drag, and the result on screen is a vibrant, dynamic, perfectly modern woman, wholly owned by herself.
The exhibition closes with a celebration of the diversity of 1920s art, centered on Juliette Roche’s monumental masterpiece ‘American Picnic’. Inspired by Henri Matisse’s “La Danse” and Indigenous American art, the painting depicts black, white, and orange figures lying nude at a picnic. Paintings by various modern artists such as Amrita Sher-Gil and Tarsila Do Amaral complement the collection, although overall this department felt it could have done more to represent non-white women artists of the time.
Overall, this exhibition felt like a breath of fresh air. The difference in energy in the rooms and in the art is palpable, open and honest, but no less nuanced and complex. There is still work to be done to level the scales of representation in art, however pioneers definitely pulls its weight.