Conflict and the poetics of a fragile space

Women Artists and the Parisian Avant Garde - Modernity and Nostalgia

April 4, 1997

In Modernity and Nostalgia, Romy Gorlan says, with great certainty and no small amount of daring, that the transfer of avant-garde activity from Europe to America began to happen as far back as 1918 and not, as most commentators assert, after the second world war. This is an original perspective, given that the story of French cultural life from the great war to Vichy is generally considered, at least by most art historians, as the heroic period of avant-garde postures and projects; the energy of the avant-garde being most visibly incarnate in the Parisian Surrealist adventure and its renegade outgrowths. At the same time the interwar years were also the "golden age" of high modernism, which the Parisian scene helped define and of which Paris elected itself the capital city.

Aware of the tensions of the age, Gorlan is interested in the fact that avant-garde experimentation coexisted with a neo-traditional belle-peinture, a tendency which moved from naturalism and antimodernism to a mannered style rustique. Gorlan picks apart the ambiguities of a period which spanned about 20 years, but in the course of which the French lost their sense of themselves and moved from la grande patrie to la petite patrie. In doing so, Gorlan tells us a great deal about the emotional content of fascism a la francaise, emphasising in particular the revenge of the provinces on Paris in art and politics.

Gorlan charts this trajectory in a manner which places art history firmly within its historical and cultural context. She notes, for example, that fascist sympathies, overtly present in the writings of literary stars like Rebatet, Brasillach and Celine, were also the central concerns of now forgotten writers like Alphonse de Chateaubriand, Joseph de Pesquidoux and Henri Pourrat, whose novels of country life were a central part of the emotional climate which led to Vichy. Similarly, she notes how representations of Spain in the French imagination shifted from the fantasy of 19th-century espagnolisme (peasants, Gypsies and guitarreros), to paralysed political will and stunned disbelief at unfolding events in the Spanish civil war. This was, she claims, the catalyst for the final collapse of nerve in avant-garde circles, although the rot had set in a long time before.

Although she looks at more or less the same period, Gill Perry, in Women and the Parisian Avant-garde, is concerned less with the drift of history and more worried about perceptions of a "feminised" version of art history which, she says, actively overlooks the contribution of women artists to the male world of the avant-garde.

It is interesting that Perry talks about les femmes peintres in much the same way that Helene Cixous or Luce Irigary talk about ecriture feminine, that is to say a female symbolism rooted in female identity and libido. It might, therefore, have been interesting to widen the discussion and see how this psychoanalytic model stands in opposition to the mystical ambitions of those women artists of the 1930s, women like Leonara Carrington, Valentine Hugo, Eilleen Agar who embraced the Surrealist revolution (which Perry confusingly describes as being "rooted in left-wing politics") and sought to redefine femininity in terms of hermetic or magical philosophy.

Such a discussion may have gone some way to explaining why les femmes peintres, even those like Blanchard, Marevna and Alice Halicka who had been involved in Cubism, rejected the adventure of the avant-garde and turned towards the more marketable forms of naturalism associated with the School of Paris, the very strain which, Gorlan argues, works against the modernising drift of the century.

Nonetheless, Perry describes a generation of women artists, including Suzanne Valadon, Marie Laurencin and Halicka, who are brave and beautiful and who set out to separate themselves and the viewer from a view of the female form as a sexual commodity, while still retaining a sexualised version of the human body. Perry terms this a "fragile space" in art history which is "constantly open to negotiation and redefinition".

Her own exploration of this space opens up new and valuable perspectives on the interrogation of meaning and substance which are at the centre of contemporary debates about the avant-garde, while, at the same time, bearing witness to a crucial moment in the history of art this century.

Andrew Hussey is lecturer in French, University of Huddersfield.



Women Artists and the Parisian Avant Garde: Modernism and 'Feminine' Art 1900 to the Late 1920s

Author - Gill Perry
ISBN - 0 7190 4164 3 and 4165 1
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Price - £45.00 and £ 16.99
Pages - 186

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