Saturday, July 14, 2012

Women as Artist and Muse

This blog edition comes from rainy Paris where I am awaiting the beginning of the International Jewish Genealogy Conference. We have been busy visiting art exhibitions in the few days pre-conference so I won't be too tempted to skip out on conference sessions once it begins. It is Paris after all and filled with many temptations. While steady rain and misplaced luggage have added a bit of complication, they have not slowed us down much.

Yesterday we took in three exhibitions, all of which were quite interesting. One was at a new museum, the Pinacotheque that opened in 2007. We are always in search of new museums and were quite pleased with this discovery. This museum assembled the works from the former collection of Jonas Netter, an Alsatian Jew and fairly unknown collector of many of the Paris artists. Through a partnership with art dealer Zhoborowski, Netter acquired 15% of Modigliani's work as well as many works of Soutine, Utrillo and other artists working in Montmartre at that time. I observed that several of the artists in his collection died in the Holocaust and wondered what became of Netter. He apparently survived the war dying in 1946, but I was unable to learn his personal story.

I was particularly taken with the work of Utrillo during his white period when his use of white dominated his paintings and created a kind of distressed surface that brought depth to the image. I also was pleased to see a selection of work by his mother Suzanne Valadon whose use of line was quite extraordinary. This was the first time I had seen a cross-section of her work. Always intrigued by women artists I learned that she began her career as a circus acrobat, then became a model for Toulouse Lautrec and Renoir among others. Degas was a close friend and encouraged her in her own artwork.

We then focused upon another female artist from an earlier era, Artemisia Gentileschi who painted in the 1600s and was influenced by Caravaggio. The Maillol Museum which we discovered on an earlier visit had an extensive show of her work. Artemisia's father was a talented artist and taught his daughter. Later she was taught by another artist, Tassi, who ultimately was charged with raping her. Of course thumbscrews were applied to Artemesia to ascertain if she was telling the truth. Her subsequent work seemed to focus on Judith's beheading of Holofernes which caused me to wonder if there was a connection with her personal experience. Her Judith is a strong character who one wouldn't wish to be on the wrong side of.  Just ask Holofernes. Artemesia's work was quite recognized in her day, an unusual position for a woman.

We ended our day with one more celebrated woman Misia Natanson/Edwards/Sert. Misia was not an artist, but rather a muse. The D'Orsay had a special exhibition of the work that was created with her as a model and out of the salon that she spearheaded. I had read a biography about her by Arthur Gold and Robert Fitzdale so knew a bit of her story.  In the course of her life she was an advisor to Diaghilev and friend to many composers and artists. She was painted by Renoir, Vuillard and Bonnard. Her own story was rather sad with two husbands abandoning her for 19 year olds and one trading her to another in exchange for covering his debts. Ultimately she died alone as a morphine addict.

After making our artistic rounds we connected with a young man from Poland to whom I had been introduced through a Polish friend. Lukasz is a Phd student at the University of Warsaw and coincidentally was in Paris during our visit. He is focusing on the experience of Jews who returned to Poland and specifically Radom after the war. We compared notes on the experience of survivors with whom I am familiar and soon realized it is a small world in the Radom community. While survivors and their descendants are scattered around the world there are many interrelationships between them. Our evening concluded with a dash through the drizzle as we sought to catch our metro home before midnight.

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