Jazz-age Paris, the era of Ernest Hemingway’s “moveable feast,” burns bright in the romantic imaginary as a time of liberty and libertinism. This euphoric vision is at once confirmed and denied in the Musée du Luxembourg’s “Pioneers,” a survey of women artists who worked in 1920s Paris. As curators Camille Morineau and Lucia Pesapane explain in the opening wall text, for women, the years following World War I were as much about resistance and repression. The decade was a paradoxical time of feminist advancement and defeat, the latter crystallized in the French state’s refusal to enfranchise women—a bitter disappointment to suffragists in view of women’s national service during the war. The show considers how female painters, photographers, and sculptors, drawn to Paris from near and far, navigated the era’s tensions, finding ways to insert themselves into a still male-dominated art world and proclaim their right to self-determination.
The first part of the show attests to the role of women in abstract movements, shining a light on forgotten avant-gardists such as Franciska Clausen, a Danish-born painter who trained with Fernand Léger. The curators then briefly examine women’s experiments in fashion and set design, displaying work by better remembered names like Sophie Taeuber-Arp, who often undertook commissions in these fields because of the gendered limitations on opportunities in fine art. The bulk of the exhibition, however, focuses on women artists’ approach to figuration. If, as the curators suggest, the artists in the first gallery were drawn to abstraction as a way out of the charge to represent their womanhood, the majority of those featured in the show took another approach, addressing the subject head-on so that they could provide their own expansive interpretations of the meaning of femininity.
A gallery devoted to the garçonne features paintings that revere a “new woman” frequently mocked and demonized in the interwar press, paying homage to the girls who bobbed their hair, smoked cigarettes, wore pants, and played sports in defiance of social norms. A woman sits on the beach post-swim in Jacqueline Marval’s La Baigneuse au maillot noir (Bather in Black Swimsuit, 1923), her bathing shorts tightly drawn against her exposed pale thighs. In Latvian painter Aleksandra Beļcova’s La Joueuse de tennis (The Tennis Player, 1927), we stare into the eyes of a sharp-faced athlete gripping a racquet, her clipped mane secured in a modish turban, and her lips lacquered crimson. The image is a rebuttal to all those who saw femininity and athleticism as incompatible.
The topic of gender bending is further elaborated in galleries on homosexuality and the “third sex.” Here, artists glorify queer relationships—see Tamara de Lempicka’s sensuous painting of lesbian icon Suzy Solidor—and celebrate what is now understood as nonbinary identity, as in Claude Cahun’s photographic self-portraits or Gerda Wegener’s series of canvases on her partner, the transgender painter Lili Elbe, depicted wearing strings of pearls, corsets, and sunhats while surrounded by blooming flowers.
In addition to representing taboo subjects, women artists offered nontraditional takes on established genres, including the nude and the mother and child. In a portrait from 1930, Nu au deux masques (Nude with Two Masks), Russian painter Marie Vassilieff renders her subject’s body angular and awkward, and enlarges the hands and feet to comically undainty proportions. In a similar move away from convention, Mela Muter and María Blanchard chose to source their mother figures not from the alabaster Madonnas of the Louvre, but from the lower-class neighborhoods of Paris, making workers and immigrants the symbols of French maternity.
Muter and Blanchard were born in Poland and Spain, respectively, and the curators note that their status as immigrants is part of what made them empathetic to foreigners. This empathy was also, the last gallery proposes, prevalent among women more broadly. In the show’s final room, titled “Pioneers of Diversity,” the curators attempt to make the case that there was some sort of complicity between women and people of color, suggesting that even French-born women artists were generally tolerant of racial and ethnic difference by virtue of their own relative social marginality. Works by Juliette Roche, Anna Quinquaud, and Suzanne Valadon offer supposedly compassionate takes on “diverse” subjects sourced from France’s empire, while pieces by Brazilian modernist Tarsila do Amaral and Hungarian-Indian painter Amrita Sher-Gil provide examples of “diverse” women artists welcomed into Paris’s interwar art scene.
The thesis of female broad-mindedness—itself precariously established—is undercut by the gallery’s bizarre organization, a disjointed grouping that ends the exhibition on a sour note. Like Tarsila and Sher-Gil, a good number of the artists featured in the previous galleries were born outside France: in addition to Muter and Blanchard, Taeuber-Arp was from Switzerland; Beļcova and Vassilieff, Russia. Why display Sher-Gil’s exquisite self-portrait, which shows her nude from the waist up, apart from the earlier gallery dedicated precisely to this topic? Why not include Tarsila’s La Famille (The Family, 1925), a painting dominated by interlacing images of mothers and children, in the section on maternity? Isolating Tarsila and Sher-Gil from the other figures in the show, the curators seem to hierarchize categories of immigrants, reinforcing links between Europeanness and whiteness. They undermine their own curatorial premise by calling attention to the fragility of “woman” as an organizing category.
Suffragists were not the only people who thought that the end of World War I might bring about an improvement to their circumstances; French colonial subjects held a similar hope for new rights and privileges. “Pioneers” offers an interesting attempt to rethink 1920s Paris through the lens of feminism, but a feminism that is, unfortunately, undertheorized and overconfident.