Goddesses of Bohemia – Newspaper Kommersant No. 140 (7102) from 08/10/2021

In the Pushkin Museum. Pushkin (more precisely, in the Gallery of Art of the Countries of Europe and America of the XIX-XX centuries) an exhibition “The Muses of Montparnasse” is being held. Contrary to the name, it is not so much about those who inspired, as about those who created: about artists – famous and undeservedly forgotten, who, along with male artists, made the glory of the bohemian district of Paris, but who gave them places of honor in the generally accepted history of art of the twentieth century. The glimpse of creative, personal, sexual freedom of the era of annees folles was fascinated Igor Grebelnikov.

The poster of the exhibition is adorned with the painting by Jacqueline Marval “Coquette” (1903): three ladies in the interior of a rich house are having fun with a black kitten – in fact, a rather apt broadcast of both the message and the mood of the exhibition dedicated to women in art and the life of Montparnasse. It is about emancipation, but by no means in those avant-garde-revolutionary tones to which the temporary coverage of the exhibition seems to be obligatory – from the beginning of the century to the 40s.

Rapidly changing directions in art, the First World War, the “Mad Twenties”, the economic crisis, the premonition of the Second World War – all this is reflected in one way or another in the works collected mainly from private collections and galleries. But at the same time, behind all this, there is an amazing flair of carelessness, narcissism, rapture with your feminine world, which for once became possible to show without looking back at the masculine. Yes, in academies and studios – and Montparnasse by the beginning of the twentieth century became a world center for teaching art – male artists teach, but in the photographs from the “women’s classes” (they open the exhibition) they are so closely surrounded by students that it is obvious: “women’s revolution” in art it was inevitable. It is another matter that for a long time it was not noticed, although, of course, individual names stood out, and at the beginning of the 2000s the Guggenheim blockbuster “Amazon of the Avant-garde” was thundering (in 2001 this exhibition was shown at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts).

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But the attitude towards “female art”, the main strategies of which were laid down in Paris in the 1920s, has been drastically changing in recent years. Extensive sections devoted to artists appeared in the world’s largest museums, Marie Laurencin and Camila Claudel were awarded individual museums (both are represented at the current exhibition at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts), and now Pushkinsky has taken the liberty of revealing new names from the same cohort to the capital’s public.

However, the first halls of the exhibition are the well-deserved pride of Russian art: Nadezhda Udaltsova, Lyubov Popova, Alexandra Exter, then the famous sculptors Vera Mukhina, Anna Golubkina and the less famous Nadezhda Krandievskaya and Hanna Orlova. By the end of the 19th century, women in Russia could already study at art academies, but they were eager to continue their studies in Paris, where recognized masters and a freer approach to the educational process reigned: for example, in one of the photographs, a fellow practitioner and model Mukhina Isa Burmeistr stands in a workshop side by side side with a completely naked model. The sculptural hall is one of the most spectacular and harmonious at the exhibition: the bronzes of Claudel and Golubkina, exhibited in the same showcase, may bear the stamp of the teacher – both of Rodin’s students – but at the same time give out a very special feminine sensuality in the depiction of the body.

In assessments of female art, emotionality, bordering on mannerism, was often reproached, but these qualities are now rehabilitated. The languid creations of Romain Brooks, Tamara Lempitskaya, Marie Laurencin fully met the canons of the Art Deco era and the tastes of collectors, but today they reaffirm the actual Brooks axiom: “To be who we can, and not who we should be.”

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However, women who found themselves in the Montparnasse environment did not at all disdain the “male gaze”. This is confirmed by the impressive story of Maria Lani, an Eastern European beauty and adventurer who introduced herself as an actress who stopped in Paris before her American tour. She charmed the artists so much with the desire to pose for them and present their work overseas (according to the actress, she needed different images for future tours) that she easily got 59 of her portraits, painted by the most famous artists, including Matisse, Chagall, Modigliani, De Chirico, Bonnard, Braque, Soutine – a whole museum of itself. At the exhibition, the image of Maria Lani is responsible for the canvases of Robert Delaunay and Albert Marquet, the drawing of Francis Picabia and the catalog of the exhibition of her portraits with a foreword by Jean Cocteau.

Other heroines of Montparnasse are models without an adventurous streak, but nevertheless they have been praised many times in painting, photography, cinema and literature. For example, the beautiful Kiki, who openly posed for Moise Kisling, Tsuguhara Fujita, Manu Rei, but at the same time tried herself in singing and drawing. In addition to the marvelous portraits of Kiki herself, the exhibition contains her drawings, including a portrait of Sergei Eisenstein.

And yet the refrain of the exhibition is women through the eyes of women. It sounds in different pictorial variations on the theme of “The Three Graces”, where Innocence, Beauty and Love seem to undergo various tests – the serenity of coquettes with the cat Jacqueline Marval is long gone. Not only emancipation, but also other, obviously external, incidental circumstances turn into either mental suffering, as in the painting by Marie Blanchard, or quite erotic languor, as in the naked Jacqueline Marval, or in the horrors of occupation and emigration, as in the painting of the Portuguese woman Maria Elena Vieira da Silva … And in this talent to do without men, both in creativity and in personal life, is also an important lesson of the exhibition “The Muses of Montparnasse”, which ends with photographs of the surrealist Claude Caon, who in the 1920s was desperately destroying gender stereotypes in her self-portraits. “Male? Female? It all depends on the situation. Neutral is the only gender that always suits me, ”the artist declared many decades before the right and such a choice became the norm.

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