Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Art of Romaine Brooks at the Polk Museum of Art

"Self Portrait" (1923)
Discovering an artist whose work you love is always exciting. And so I felt a little surge of adrenalin as I entered the gallery featuring the art of Romaine Brooks -- and that was before I learned the incredibly interesting story behind Brooks and her work. She is truly an artist who was ahead of her time.

Like many artistic souls, Romaine Brooks had a difficult childhood. Brooks' parents divorced when she was young, leaving her emotionally traumatized mother to raise her and her mentally ill brother. Despite the fact her maternal grandfather was a multi-millionaire, Brooks' mother didn't turn to him for help. Instead, she fostered Romaine out to an impoverished family living in a NYC tenement. Brooks was eventually returned to her grandfather, who promptly shipped her off to boarding school. In the long run, her family ended up supporting Brooks and her art. When her mother and grandfather passed on, Brooks inherited great wealth that enabled her to live her life in the manner she chose.

Brooks' life as an artist began when she traveled to Rome in 1893 to take art classes. The 19 year old Brooks registered for a life drawing class, a style of art deemed wholly inappropriate for women. While the male students sketched from the model, Brooks was relegated to working from casts. In her later work, Brooks painted nudes of her (female) lovers. Her bold work in the genre showed the artistic community she could paint in this tradition as well as any man.

"Una, Lady Troubridge" (1924)
In her self-portrait, Brooks employs the gray palette for which she became known. She is dressed in an androgynous style of clothing adopted by gay women of the day. While her eyes are shaded by her top hat, she gazes directly at the viewer.  She seems to be declaring, "This is who I am."

Brooks' subjects tended towards progressive female writers, intellectuals and artists. Her portrait of Una Troubridge was perhaps my favorite painting in the exhibit. As in Brooks' self-portrait, Troubridge's look is androgynous. She wears aristocratic clothing befitting of her background.  Dachsunds take the place of the hunting dogs one would typically see in a portrait of an upper-class English gentleman. I particularly love the monocle, a reference to Troubridge's work as a literary translator. Then there's the fact that, between the haircut and the monocle, it's hard not to think of actress Linda Hunt, now on CSI: Los Angeles. But I digress....

"Ida Rubenstein" (1917)



Russian dancer and arts patron Ida Rubenstein was a frequent model for Brooks' paintings. The two were lovers.

Like Brooks, Rubenstein rebelled against the mores of the day. Always progressive, she crossed the line in 1908 when she stripped during a performance of The Dance of the Seven Veils from Oscar Wilde's "Salome." Clearly crazy to have so fully inhabited her character, she was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility. She escaped and fled from Russia to Paris, where she danced with the Ballet Russes and performed in avant garde theater. (For more on Ida--and to see one of Brooks' nude paintings of her--click here.)

"La France Croisee" (1914)



An opponent to WWI, Brooks supported the relief effort with her painting "La France Croisee."  Ida, who volunteered as a nurse during the war, served as the model for this painting. Always one for a bit of drama, Rubenstein recited poetry to the soldiers and people she met during her travels.

The work depicts a heroic looking nurse against the background of the burning Belgian city of Ypres. Prints of the painting were sold, with the proceeds benefiting the Red Cross. Brooks was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor by the French Government in 1920 for her contributions.

The painting also played a bit part in the romantic triangle of Brooks, Rubenstein and writer Gabriele D'Annunzio. D'Annunzio wrote the musical The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian with Claude Debussy in which Rubenstein played the title role. D'Annunzio fell madly in love with Rubenstein, who was madly in love with Brooks. A 1915 exhibit of this painting also included several poems written by D'Annunzio. (To read one, click here.)  I'm betting the opening of that show was a bit awkward.

The Art of Romaine Brooks is on view at the Polk thanks to its affiliation with the Smithsonian American Museum of Art. Next up at the Polk is an exhibit featuring the work of Degas. Another road trip seems in order. Maybe I'll even have time to check out the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at Florida Southern College. There's never a lack of fun outings in Southwest Florida.

 To learn more about the Polk and its upcoming exhibits, click here.












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