Marie Laurencin: depicting the feminine

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Born in 1883 into the cultural melting pot of Paris, Marie Laurencin was one of the few female Cubist painters of the avant-garde movement. Studying fine art painting at l’Académie Humert, she became integrated into Parisian artistic circles, meeting people such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, and later marrying the German painter, Otto von Wätjen. Laurencin had relationships with both men and women, notably having a forty-year-long relationship with the fashion designer, Nicole Groult.

Inspired by the structural analysis of Cubism, the use of vibrant, non-realist Fauvist colouring, and the graceful use of light in the Rococo movement’s study of love, femininity and elegance, Laurencin created beautiful paintings that shone with feminist and lesbian liberation in a time of prevailing modernity. Akira Mizuta Lippit argued in his book Electric Animal that modernity could be understood as the disappearance of wildlife in everyday life substituted with cultural productions of nature. This can be seen in Marie Laurencin’s masterworks of art as through her aesthetic of pastel hues and curvilinear forms, Marie painted a natural world in which women are in harmony with animals.

A delicately feminine cubist utopia

Having first seen her artwork when I was 8 years old in the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, I fell in love with the way in which she painted a delicately feminine cubist utopia. Unfortunately, despite having hundreds of artworks in the Musée de l’Orangerie, many from artists like Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh, and so on, there were only a handful of paintings by Marie Laurencin and I have not been able to find much of her artwork elsewhere. This is despite the fact that she was a prominent figure in the art world of early 20th-century Paris, being called by Vu magazine “one of the three most celebrated women in France”. 

Upon deeper research into the history of her art, I find that it was not only recently that her artwork has been given less credit than she deserved, but it became like this soon after her death in 1956. This is because many critics of the time characterised her art by purity, naiveté and narcissism. Art critic Roger Allard discussed Laurencin’s work in the 1920s saying that her art is “an egotistical and charming art […] which relates everything to the self. She had scarcely any subject other than herself, not any curiosity than to know herself better the whole of nature for Marie Laurencin, is but a cabinet of mirrors.” Since her death, her work was mostly forgotten until the 1970s due to Feminist and Queer Art historians. In 1983, a collector of Marie Laurencin’s paintings, Masahiro Takano, founded the Musée Marie Laurencin in Nagano, Japan.

Enshrouded in feminine mystique and animalism, her art has faded into white noise in the history of art as many considered it anti-feminist as it portrayed a view of femininity associated with delicacy, elegance and sweet beauty. In her art, she painted dreamlike scenes focusing on women. Cindy Kang asserted that “one issue Laurencin did have with being taken seriously by, say, feminist art historians in the ’90s is that she was so feminine”. Nevertheless, this completely overlooks and simplifies her inspiration. Marie Laurencin envisioned and painted diaphanous worlds in which there were no men with the focus being on female and lesbian independence. Given that the art world was dominated by men, it is rather ironic that she became an esteemed artist at the time by painting a feminist utopia without men, then was disregarded for not being feminist enough.

Laurencin created beautiful paintings that shone with feminist and lesbian liberation in a time of prevailing modernity

Milo Wippermann asserted that the neglect of Laurencin’s feminism and queerness was a consequence of ‘femme invisibility’. This term refers to the misrecognition of female and queer individuals, denying Laurencin the recognition she deserved. The third-wave feminist movement created the concept of ‘lipstick feminism’ which fights for feminism and equality whilst also leaving open the option of being feminine. Cindy Kang argued that in embracing a feminine aesthetic influenced by Symbolist poetry, Laurencin adopted a queer feminine gender performance that has largely been misunderstood throughout history as belittling to women. However, with further exploration and study of gender theory, I hope for a future in which Laurencin’s surrealism is celebrated not as an unempowering portrayal of femininity, but rather as a liberating celebration thereof.

Photography credit: Camille Hine, of Marie Laurencin’s oil painting ‘Les Biches’ (1923)

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