GREENWICH.- The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, presents a fascinating array of both famous and little-known works in its new exhibition and catalogue Paris Portraits: Artists, Friends, and Lovers, which is on view through January 4, 2009. This is the first museum show to feature the great mosaic of Parisian art as a “group portrait” of its leading practitioners. Kenneth E. Silver, Bruce Museum Adjunct Curator, curates the exhibition and authors the catalogue. The exhibition is graciously underwritten by Betteridge Jewelers and Van Cleef & Arpels. Additional support has been generously provided by First Republic Bank. Further support is provided by the Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund and a Committee of Honor under the leadership of Carol and George Crapple, Jean Doyen de Montaillou and Michael Kovner, Coverly and Homer McK. Rees, and Michel Witmer.
At no other time and place was the art of portraiture as rich in expressive potential as early 20th-century Paris. The cult of personality that drove the brilliant careers of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and Marcel Duchamp demanded new forms of human likeness. While naturalistic portraiture still flourished in the French capital, entirely unprecedented kinds of portraits - Fauve, Cubist, Dada, Surrealist, and Expressionist - now joined the avant-garde comédie humaine.
In 1839, when French artist Paul Delaroche, upon seeing a daguerreotype for the first time, declared, “From today painting is dead!,” he seemed to mark the end not only of a medium but also of portraits in general. Why bother to paint or sculpt one’s contemporaries when photographs could make lasting records with much greater ease and, at least from the looks of it, increased veracity? Yet, by the early twentieth century, modern artists had overcome whatever anxieties they felt about the challenge posed by the new medium. Contrary to Delaroche’s declaration, photography had the effect of liberating painted and sculpted portraits from their merely mimetic function and freeing artists to depict themselves and their contemporaries with an unprecedented intensity.
The Parisian portrait in the early years of heroic abstraction was founded on the primacy of introspection. Rare was the avant-garde artist who did not depict him or herself as observed in the mirror, or in the mirror of the mind. Paris Portraits includes a suite of remarkable and rarely seen self-portraits by Matisse, Chagall, and Marie Laurencin, as well as by the Japanese artist-in-French residence, Foujita – shown with his trademark circular eyeglasses and his cat – and by Margit Pogany, better known as Constantin Brancusi’s most famous sitter than as an artist in her own right. One of Brancusi’s great Pogany portraits is also included in the exhibition. Whether seeking to convey heightened sensitivity to the viewer or overwhelming manual skill, these autobiographical essays are the jump-off point for all the portraits that follow.
Depictions of spouses and romantic partners, in which potent signs of love, desire, and sometimes estrangement are manifest, form the next section of the exhibition. Whether it is admiration for the elegance and beauty of Angeline Beloff, as in Diego Rivera’s exquisite portrait, or the easy familiarity of the intimate, live-in model, like Jean Metzinger’s lively, surprising Cubist portrayal of his wife, these intimate works display a radical Parisian updating of venerable romantic themes.
These most personal of portraits are followed by depictions of the larger Parisian art world, including the paid, professional models who were so important to contemporary artistic creation. Portraits of Ambroise Vollard by Fauve painter Jean Puy and by Pablo Picasso attest to the centrality of the art dealer (an art star in his own right by the early 20th century) in the Parisian avant-garde.
The painting of friends and cronies, especially of critics and other writers who might help promote one’s reputation, could be both affectionate and opportunistic. Juan Gris’s masterful pencil portrait of Max Jacob and Jacques Lipchitz’s great bronze portrait head of Gertrude Stein, both of which are seen in Paris Portraits, are examples of these Janus-like works. Josephine Baker, African-American music hall and film star, is seen in her portrait by Paul Colin, part of his splendid pochoir series of Parisian celebrities, Le Tumulte Noir. (The pochoir stenciling process was popular in France in the 1920s and 1930s, and is characterized by its crisp lines and brilliant colors.)
Finally, portraits of the urban legends of inter-war Paris round out the exhibition, including faux film-star Maria Lani who, after being painted, sculpted, and drawn by almost every leading artist in the Parisian avant-garde, fled the country with her cache of Paris portraits. Portrayals of Lani by Henri Matisse, Chana Orloff, Jules Pascin, and Chaim Soutine will be exhibited together in Paris Portraits for the first time since 1930, when the prestigious Galerie Bernheim-Jeune unwittingly enabled the beautiful Lani, who was really a stenographer from Prague, to fool the celebrity-obsessed and innovation-hungry art world of Paris between-the-Wars. Yet, the Lani saga is telling. It reveals the avant-garde’s excitement about the myriad possibilities of modern portraiture at a moment in time when there were as many ways of perceiving a sitter as there were brilliant artists to depict her.