PRINT September 2020


Marie Laurencin, La femme-cheval (The Woman-Horse), 1918, oil on canvas, 24 3/8 × 18 3/8". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

I haven’t come across a single mention of what perfume you wore. Perhaps Le Rose de Nicole Groult or Le Bleu de Nicole Groult, scents launched by Nicole Groult in her (and your) roaring heyday, some in flacons designed by her husband for Daum? Hard to believe you wouldn’t know notes of either—lily of the valley, lilac—on your pulse points. Nicole Groult synchronized the beat for the happiest moments of your life, as her name does this letter.

Le Rose de Nicole Groult glass perfume bottle, 1923. Photo: Perfume Bottles Auction.

She dressed a staunch, arty syndicate: Dorothy Parker, Virginia Woolf, Sara Murphy, Olga Picasso, Marie-Laure de Noailles, Madge Garland; all grooved wearing Groult. I’m looking at a receipt (“20 décembre 1920”) for eight items of clothing for you from her fashion salon, 29, rue D’Anjou, Paris. After all the turd-buggered wartime slaughter—fresh air, fresh rhythms. Gabrièle Buffet-Picabia, never your biggest fan (she thought you entirely self-centered), helped Nicole Groult set the shop back up. It specialized in the garçonne look, among others, and favored tones pinched from your palette: dusty rose, coq-de-roche orange, seashell gray, jade green, tender blue, yummy muddy values. The word for a painter’s canvas in French, toile, is also the word for “web” and for “fabric.” Did you like to believe your bond with Nicole Groult, your addresses extending beyond tutoyer, skirted tedious definition, unmuddied? Is that love? I often wonder how much freedom is squandered now that no one believes in discretion. The women in your paintings are rarely ever disrobed.

Marie Laurencin, Marie de Médicis, 1926, oil on canvas, 36 5⁄8 × 29 1⁄8". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Did you think of such comportment as discretion? Madge Garland described you as “‘both Bohemian and bourgeoise,’ at once ‘the independent New Woman [and] . . . the most enclosed, most feminine’ person.” One of your other great loves, Apollinaire, his poet’s GPS inverting chronological order, homed in on similar tensions: “On peut placer Mlle Laurencin entre Picasso et le douanier Rousseau.” Your pale procession presented so many kinds of inversions, subversions, reversions, but did you yourself feel so in-between? Is “in-between” the way to describe anything of what you felt? Was it only in your paintings that you loved the pastel la-di-da of it all, a soigné ladies-who-lunchness, coolly modulated into the key of bi? Your figures’ wrinkleless faces anticipate Warhol’s blown-out Polaroid face-lifts. Stinger in hand, Sondheim might have written a musical about you for Elaine Stritch or Bernadette Peters.

I often wonder how much freedom is squandered now that no one believes in discretion.

In the lithograph La créole, 1924, a chorus girl sits on a heart- or trefoil-shaped pouf at the edge of a dark wood, moonlit or sunlit; or she’s just on a cigarette break at the music hall. A little dog has escaped its handler, tugging the black marabou boa around her neck and shoulder, which snakes down her side as she glares at anyone who dares to question her ontological status other than herself. Marks in black, gray, and white model the planes of the women’s faces that allure in so many of your paintings, as if always caught partially in shadow. Is it merely a lighting effect, many of your figures frozen mid-performance, onstage or ready in the wings? Or a Cubist hangover? Or is it a way to represent some actual or phantasmatic biracial ancestry? The author of your catalogue raisonné claims you often mentioned your Creole descent, “one of [your] ancestors being métisse.” Whether deco Rachel Dolezal or emblem for an all-too-felt difference, embraced or orphaned, La créole, her black eyes peerless as an owl’s, appears to have seen it all.

Marie Laurencin, La créole, 1924, lithograph on paper, 15 3/8 × 12 1/4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

“Marie Laurencin–eyed,” a phrase of James Schuyler. “To have a black eye,” as if to acknowledge the violence done to women because of what they’ve seen. What they know. Fermata swipe of a palette knife. Black eyes that see night as night would, eyes of agate, fathomless. Nicole Groult said your eyes were two blue birds, your breasts two white birds, your lip a bird of fire. Did you tease her that she must write all that down in a poem, or would your thoughts fly away as your ring finger followed the song of her thigh? Is that love? She was married when you met her, remained married as long as you were together. “Men strike me as difficult problems to solve,” you wrote. Women are a different kind of problem. Nicole Groult purred that your neck was a thrilling bird, your hands two rose birds that flew in charming gestures and settled cool on her burning brow.

Marie Laurencin’s costume design for Francis Poulenc’s ballet Les biches (The Does), 1924. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

You conjured a portrait of the artist as an Ingres-fingered lady centaur for La femme-cheval (The Woman-Horse) in 1918, a still-ominous year. I say centaur, but grisaille draping obscures her horse parts, if there are any. A bluebird dresses the creature’s poodle-y hair, teased tall as a Tannenbaum, as a whelp stands, black paw raised, ready to whisper its secrets, all while one of her hands manipulates a scarf-mane-throw wrapped around her like a cape; the other hand, trig as a mantis, holds a second bluebird-bedecked paintbrush, with which she/it/you—face, yet again, partially in shadow, jet eyes and lips—paints a rosé void. “Le vide?” I hear you mumble dismissively, raising an eyebrow. Gertrude Stein called it Pink Melon Joy. Painted pictures, the best of them, are realer, vivider, than the world of the studio as well as the studio of the world. Hippanthropic, equinoctial, you moved between artistic modes—from painting to costume design (Les biches! [1924]), from illustration (La dame aux camélias [1937] and Poèmes de Sappho [1950]) to scenography—a maîtresse transforming and/or fading into the gray scale of her surrounds, into the miasma of your marks. Meanwhile, La femme-cheval finds her way into a future liberated of a need for representation. Romancing a better world, you knew a better self—only one of the reasons paintings are painted—was work never completed or always avoided, in either case all too human. The Woman-Horse will eventually wave the fiesta voile of her neckerchief to it all in strange adieu.

“Two naked girls were dancing before a background of blue and mauve which was like a picture by Marie Laurencin,” Jean Rhys wrote in Quartet (1928), her protagonist wishing, How awfully nice it would be if they were perfectly still. Like a painting. Rhys understood creolization as well as the desire for things to be perfectly still. So much time in the studio can be spent on sadness and thinking, no matter the pleasure the so-called results might bring others. There, painting, you’d realize all sorts of things. “The value of an illusion, for instance, and that the shadow can be more important than the substance,” as that brilliant, difficult woman put it.


I WAS GOING TO START a second letter, and it was going to begin,

Chère Maudlin Laurencin,

but then I decided that all your complications shouldn’t be so easily separated by rhetorical cordon sanitaire. Maybe you were just the Margaret Keane of the Bateau-Lavoir. Maybe Picasso really did nail it when he said, after you broke with Apollinaire, that you were no longer talented. Do we, our selves, however that confabulation is construed, always become a parody—of ourselves as much as anything else?

Marie Laurencin in Pablo Picasso’s studio, 11 Boulevard de Clichy, Paris, 1911. Photo: Pablo Picasso. © Picasso Succession.

After investigating likeness and its limits, you glided away from your vital Cubist clique into the world of fashion and fairy tale to see if anything of the world painting was made in, and the artist lived in, still held, ever held or needed to. Not quite necropolises, not simply modern fêtes galantes, your salons of equivocating painted forms assembled as regions of unlikeness, typologizing a specific groove of desire. Certain clients returned their commissioned portraits, cf. Coco Chanel, not recognizing themselves in the pictures you presented. Tant pis. Delight was your forte: hedonism transvalued, vehemence pasteled, vision shaded by the intractability of gender and spiked with tribadic menace. “Frozen through and through,” in Moscow on January 15, 1927, Walter Benjamin looked fondly at the “physiological configuration” of a small canvas of yours in the Sergei Shchukin collection, noting “the head of a woman, her hand extending into the painting, a flower rising out of it.”

Marie Laurencin, Portrait de Mademoiselle Chanel, 1923, oil on canvas, 36 1⁄4 × 28 3⁄4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Delight was your forte, hedonism transvalued, vehemence pasteled, all of it shaded by the intractability of gender and spiked with tribadic menace.

But then the insipidness of so many of your boneless Little Bo Peeps, churned out of dragées, tainted buttercream, and drool—something in you curdled. From ignorance? Fear? Or did a congenital cravenness finally, blithely, manage to find its hostess? “Taking my colors for a stroll on the canvas,” you submitted, “I feel like I’m watering flowers.” I’m not sure whether to applaud or roll my eyes. Madge Garland recalls that you “frequented Natalie Barney’s salon and . . . disliked painting men, rarely did, and asked a higher fee to do so.” Yet in the 1930s you shifted associations, cozying up to Arno Breker, one of the Führer’s favorite sculptors, and Karl Epting, head of the German embassy in Vichy Paris. Did you really think it was sweet good luck when only your paintings escaped the auto-da-fé in which “degenerate” works by Míro, Suzanne Valadon, Klee, Picasso, and other friends and acquaintances with whom you’d shown and shared galleries for years were destroyed? The lawyer Maurice Garçon records in his journal a November 1941 luncheon chez Georges Braque. You interrupted your bubbly account of Marcel Jouhandeau’s recent trip to Germany for Goebbels’s Weimar Congress only to blurt out: “I must say the Germans are very nice to me.” Did you hear the advocate’s sigh become a groan? “Poor Marie, lacking the good sense of Apollinaire, who passed as a birdbrain but wasn’t.”

Marie Laurencin, Les bergères (The Shepherdesses), 1922, oil on canvas, 36 1⁄8 × 28 3⁄4". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Of course, in so many dismissals of your enterprise, the shiv of misogyny stabs out, but was it callousness, careerism, or a shitty twist of both that made you so sanguine when people watched Albert Speer gently salute you at Maxim’s? Did you mistake his Sieg heil! for coquetry? The mewling complicity of passive consent produces powerful hallucinogens—or maybe you really did just see the world as you painted it: through fogged-up, rose-colored glasses. You certainly toed the Pétainist line and reproached the Groults for their support of the English bombings of 1942. During the occupation, you employed a bland little blonde as a model. You called her your white blood cell.

Yet powerful members of the Maquis worked with you during the war and after the armistice—Jean Paulhan and Paul Éluard, among others—some even sitting for portraits. You intervened with comfort and petition when Max Jacob suffered, before he was dragged off to the Drancy internment camp, where he died. After the liberation of Paris on September 8, 1944, you were arrested at home for having received Germans during the war and were taken to Drancy too. But in little more than a week, the purification commission cleared you of all charges of collaboration. Marguerite Duras, no wallflower during the resistance, was waiting for you upon your release, welcoming you home. One account sketches a postwar life of maybe some resignation but not total shame: You color your hair, travel, buy a country house and flip it for frocks from Chanel, not Groult. You adopt Suzanne Moreau, your maid, whom you “looked after” for thirty years, supposedly at the suggestion of that shifty Jouhandeau. She continued serving as your maid and companion, whatever those terms might cover, soon ending up as the executrix of your estate. Am I being indiscreet if I confess that I pick up a Sarah Paulson–Holland Taylor vibe in the arrangement?

Guillaume Dustan celebrated Duras for her alcoholizations of the first person, her “bad French, her badly written books of the ’eighties and ’nineties.” He suggested it was only then that the lady was truly “liberated.” Perhaps that’s how to negotiate your painterly sugar hiccups, shadiness, and final, clumsy representations, when you got most of the water on the paving stones and not the flowers. Wonderful. La vie matérielle.

The mewling complicity of passive consent produces powerful hallucinogens.

Horses, doves, bluebirds and other kinds of fanciful fowl (your patron John Quinn once raced around Paris to bring you a singing canary), roes and hinds, deer when they’re does, pooches, kittens: nuzzling, nuzzled, scampering, curling up on a lap, butting a hand for a stroke of the pelt, alighting on paintbrushes, on canvases, galloping, heat steaming through the nostrils—all treating humans better than humans treat each other. I now look at so many of your paintings and flash on the last rabid pages of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936), see you walking “the open country . . . pulling at the flowers, speaking in a low voice to the animals. Those that came near, [you] grasped, straining their fur back until their eyes were narrowed and their teeth bare, [your] own teeth showing as if [your] hand were upon [your] own neck.”

Marie Laurencin, Femme peintre et son modèle (Woman Painter and Her Model), 1921, oil on canvas, 31 3⁄4 × 25 5⁄8". © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

In addition to being women at work, making their way in the world—all your performers (ballerinas, actresses, circus troupes, prostitutes), all your “painters” and “models” (cf. Femme peintre et son modèle [Woman Painter and Her Model], 1921)—all these pairs of women so often read as couples, which they are, as is evident in the cold erotic charge between them; perhaps they should be seen as self-portraits of your divided nature, and as some of your abreactive enterprise to come to terms with the bad faith at art’s, or at least representation’s, heart: the fact that every act of representation conceals cruelty, pleasures, as Paul de Man was always a little too eager to remind anyone who would listen, “that have to do with the inflicting of wounds rather than with gracefulness.” A self, that radical menagerie, in bestial contiguity with its other and its fictions.

What does it mean to be in a painting? For something—politics, life, or their inversion—to be painted? Do your illustrations for Alice in Wonderland cause it to molt into a tale rewritten by Céline? You created congeries of the frivolous and the point-blank. I keep wishing to insert seemingly before one of those terms that both entice and abjure it. The two women in the green wild of Dans la forêt (In the Forest), 1916: Are they definitively women? One femme, reclining, come-hither, her legs extending beyond the confines of the scene, of the margins, leaning on, what, an outré Récamier, a basket of flowers nearby; the other not stone butch but certainly garçonne, a dyke twink, sporting a sailor-collar top and breezy slacks: Neither seems nonplussed by any of it. As nothing but strokes of paint, how could they be but devices of that crucial becoming? Louis Aragon warned that, “like it or not, a painting . . . has its canvas margins and its social margins, and your Lullaby League, Marie Laurencin, was born in a world where the cannon thunder.”

“But Louis,” I trust you’d retort, “when haven’t there been cannon thundering somewhere? My sense, my sensibility, is spent as quickly as cents or scents, and my images bear as much weight as ghosts.”

Marie Laurencin, Dans la forêt (In the Forest), 1916, oil on canvas, 39 3⁄8 × 26 3⁄8". Photo: Collection of the McNay Art Museum, Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

Haunted by the peril that I’ve discerned nothing of what you portended, I remain,

Of two minds simultaneously, yours . . .

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.