Cheff on Fraquelli and Kang, eds. (2023)

Fraquelli, Simonetta, and Cindy Kang, editors. Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris. The Barnes Foundation and Yale UP, 2023, pp. 208, 112 color + 64 bw illustrations, ISBN 978-0-300-27363-2

In Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris, editors Simonetta Fraquelli and Cindy Kang present a collection of essays about the understudied twentieth-century visual artist Marie Laurencin. The contributors’ voices, corralled here to accompany an exhibition of the same name by the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, sing Laurencin’s praises and advocate for viewing her work through the lens of sapphic modernity—espousing the idea that the freedom to experiment sexually was an integral part of modernism’s innovations. Each of the volume’s essays builds upon the exhibition’s central thesis: that Laurencin was a central figure in the development of “a notion of sapphic modernism that privileged women’s relationships with other women and the alterity of their position as a foundation for modernist practice,” as Thom Collins notes in the catalogue’s foreword (vii). Its scope is impressive without becoming unwieldy. The essays are grounded in Laurencin’s engagement with the feminine and strike an enviable balance between biography and visual analysis. 

This volume consists of five essays, including an introductory essay written by the two editors, as well as a foreword, and an appendix of Laurencin’s female associates. The first two essays in the collection focus on Laurencin’s relationship to her contemporaries and to cubism. Fraquelli and Kang’s initial intervention questions the traditional artist-muse dynamic used to characterize Laurencin’s relationship to Pablo Picasso. In their analysis of a photograph of Laurencin in Picasso’s studio, they note that she “appears as an adjacent figure to cubism” (1). They then shift focus to a portrait of Laurencin taken by Berenice Abbott, an American expat photographer living among the lesbian avant-garde in 1920s Paris. In this image Laurencin is front and center, a perfect visual allegory for the exhibition’s aim: placing Laurencin not as adjacent but rather central to a rich sapphic subculture at the very heart of modernism. 

Christine Poggi’s essay, “Marie Laurencin's Cubism,” explores how Laurencin, a key figure in the “bande à Picasso,” incorporated select elements of cubism into her art while cultivating a distinct visual style. In her analysis of several Laurencin self-portraits, Poggi emphasizes that Laurencin’s sophisticated-yet-naïve signature style is a major part of her deliberate self-fashioning. This essay is grounded in Laurencin’s creation of an idyllic female-centered visual world. Laurencin’s Les jeunes filles replaces a traditionally masculine element with a biche (doe), where many cubists include a voyeuristic satyr in their interpretations of the same scene (as in studies for Picasso’s Les demoiselles, for instance). Poggi draws the reader’s attention to the double entendre of biche: French slang for “lesbian” and a representation of innocence and femininity, thus illustrating how queer femininity is coded into Laurencin’s oeuvre. The signs of queerness are obvious to the canny viewer, but they are invisible for those not in the know. The evocation of the doe here and animals elsewhere in the catalogue signal one aspect of the study that could be fleshed out more as only cursory attention is paid to the relationship between Laurencin’s female subjects and the animals that frequent her canvases. 

The collection treats several aspects of Laurencin’s life and oeuvre. Fraquelli’s solo essay recognizes Laurencin’s exile in Spain as integral to her artistic development, even if her poetry and letters from that time reveal that she despised being away from Paris. Kang’s intervention focuses on Laurencin’s foray into the decorative arts, tracing her involvement in the development of a ballet for the Ballets Russes, Les biches, which, as in Laurencin’s Les jeunes filles, plays off biche’s double entendre. Jelena Kristic’s essay illustrates Laurencin as an avid reader and as André Billy’s titular “bespectacled muse” (107). She underscores her contributions to the print culture of her time. The material Kristic works with is perhaps the most outwardly “queer,” with Laurencin producing prints based on Pierre Louÿs’s erotic and sapphic poetry collection, Chanson de Bilitis and Édith de Beaumont’s translation of Sappho’s poetry. Each of these essays reiterates Laurencin’s dedication to self-fashioning and definition, best summed up by Kristic: “The multiplicity of secondary roles Laurencin occupied—the muse, the courtesan, the princess—further reinforces her entire practice’s programmatic strategy of generating a space of self-determination from within a position of staged subordination” (116). 

Rachel Silveri’s essay “No Modernism without Marie Laurencin: Picturing Queer Femininity” (a reference to Diana Souhami’s 2020 book No Modernism with Lesbians) is the most compelling of the collection, taking the strongest stance in opposition to both traditional masculinist art history and more recent feminist scholarship which often excludes Laurencin. Silveri contends that scholars should not view Laurencin’s use of stereotypical femininity as diametrically opposed to feminism or queerness, but rather as a means of embedding queerness into her work without sacrificing commercial success. Silveri is especially persuasive, artfully drawing attention to how Laurencin’s depiction of female intimacies and of surplus femininity works as a queering of femininity. Though she never mentions it by name, her essay gestures toward a kind of high femme queer camp that emerged after Laurencin’s lifetime. The beauty of this essay is that it could only have been written in the twenty-first century, reiterating the importance of revisiting the past with contemporary eyes.  

The catalogue’s main shortcoming is that each essay is too brief. Though this is a symptom of the genre and likely purposeful to keep it accessible to a larger audience, the reader is left wanting more from each essay: deeper analysis, more biographical information, a wider array of artworks. The choice to include translations of Laurencin’s poetry along with short biographies of important women in her circle successfully illustrates the titular “Sapphic Paris” to which Laurencin belonged. One wishes, perhaps, to read more about the reception of Laurencin both within and without sapphic circles. The pinks, grays, and blues of Laurencin’s art create the illusion of a feminine utopia and readers are left to wonder why Laurencin’s work is as understudied as it is. That said, the catalogue is not written with specialists in mind, but is rather a point of departure, leaving space for the Laurencin studies of the future.

Victoria Cheff
Brown University