"Amazons in the drawing room"
Commentary on the exhibition & press reactions

“Amazons in the Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks” at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.: June 29 - September 24, 2000

The show of paintings and drawings by Romaine Brooks that Whitney Chadwick and Joe Lucchesi put together for NMWA is really splendid. It was beautifully hung in DC: subtle muted colors for the walls, and the rooms were intelligently organized and works nicely spaced. It was a very satisfying exhibition for me because it included several new works (paintings and drawings) from a private collector in Paris that Joe Lucchesi contacted while he was doing his dissertation. Joe persuaded the collector to let the works travel, and they have not been shown in the US before.

I had seen Brooks’s works before but long ago, so it was a real pleasure to see them again and observe the strength and subtlety of her drawing, the incisive contour definitions of portrait studies, and the depth of nuanced colorism in her whites and greys, contrasted by those delicate touches of red. There’s a wonderful self-portrait from a small French museum, titled “At the Edge of the Sea,” showing Brooks with her head bare, hair blown by the wind, and wearing a long cape, that is quite moving. It is softer, poignant in expression, and very different from the familiar top hatted self-portrait that is so mesmerizing in its apparently cool and distanced contemplation of the viewer.

One can enjoy the familiar portraits of Paris lesbians and also learn more of Brooks’s early work from the series of portraits of women and girls that opens the show. Then, at the end, there’s a whole room of the paintings of her lover Ida Rubinstein and a small selection of the nude photographs that Brooks took of her. There is also a large selection of drawings in one room, some of which were also from private collections and not previously published. I think we should be grateful that NMWA ventured out further than they have gone before in sponsoring this exhibition.

Helen Langa
Associate Professor, Art History
American University

A review of the press reaction
by James Saslow

No doubt Joe Lucchesi, curator of the Romaine Brooks retrospective that recently left Washington, D.C. for the UC-Berkeley Museum, thought he was simply updating the art world on long-established wisdom when he declared in the catalogue that his main focus was how her “identity as a woman and a lesbian impacted her work.” While the press duly reported his goal, critics had some problems wrapping their brains around what seemed news to them -- and one stirred up a tempest in the publishing teapot by protesting his overemphasis on the L-word.

“Amazons in the Drawing Room” opened in June at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Brooks’s first major show since the memorial exhibit of 1971, which was still uncomfortable with her sexuality, it brings to a wider public what the GLBTQ crowd has known for decades: that her life and art, so bound up with early gay cultural circles, provide a touchstone for lesbian artists today. In Lucchesi’s words, since Brooks’s death “a methodological transformation of art historical scholarship has opened up works of art to considerations of gender, class, and sexuality... as determinants of meaning.” The works are largely familiar (though some paintings and photographs of female nudes surfaced for the first time), but he makes no bones about identifying every important dyke she painted. Washington post critic Jo Ann Lewis, reviewing the show on July 9, praised two portraits of Brooks’s short-lived lover Ida Rubinstein as “the best things ever to come out of that relationship.” But she found other nudes “bad illustration,” and naively asked Lucchesi how to explain Brooks’s affair with a man, the poet D’Annunzio -- as if she had never heard of Kinsey’s 6-point scale. Holland Cotter, in the New York times (August 25), acknowledged that her “memorable portraits ... succeeded in establishing a lesbian visual presence in early-20th-century art,” but cast a vote for the exhibit as “the most far-out show of the moment.” Meryle Secrest then weighed in with a letter to the Post on August 29, tarring the show as “reductionist” and pleading, “Please don’t judge her by the sex of the people she went to bed with.” Secrest, whose biography of Brooks came out in 1974, still seems stuck in the ignorance and shame that lingered after Stonewall. Someone should tell her that two-thirds of Americans now oppose most discrimination; to acknowledge is not necesarily to judge. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is a dubious military policy, but it’s even sillier in art history.

The Post ran a second article on the same day as Secrest’s letter, gleefully noting the Lucchesi-Secrest spat with the tabloid lead, “Lesbianism may be all the rage, but what does it have to do with an artist’s work?” The piece then got out of taking sides by declaring that the show was ultimately not about gay subculture, but a (presumably more “universal”) “paean to womanhood.” Oh, pullease.

James Saslow
Queens College, CUNY