Woman of the Week: Suzanne Valadon (née Marie-Clémentine Valadon)

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Self-portrait (1927)

‘Suzanne’ Valadon (1865-1938) was born as the bastard Marie-Clémentine Valadon, and only acquired the name by which we know her today as an adult, when her work as a live model for the artists of Montmartre earned her the nickname derived from the biblical story, Susanna and the Elders. She graduated from modelling to using models herself as a painter and artist, and became known for the individuality lent to her work by her female perspective, although she is, somewhat sadly, perhaps best remembered as the mother of Impressionist painter Maurice Utrillo.

Though born in Bessines, Suzanne moved to Paris as a small child. She began to work when she was just 11, finding various jobs including waiting tables and factory work, until she ended up performing as an acrobat in a circus around the age of 15. Though she wanted to continue in this line of work, a serious back injury obtained from a fall whilst on the trapeze prevented her from pursuing this passion, and she turned instead to modelling.

Her first known employer was Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, with whom it is generally assumed she had some kind of romantic or sexual relationship. However, she also had a relationship with Miguel Utrillo, beginning in 1881, and it was he who eventually claimed paternity of the illegal child that Suzanne gave birth to in 1883. Maurice Utrillo, as he became known, was raised largely by his grandmother as Suzanne continued to model and started her career as an artist.

Though her career started with Puvis, Suzanne had become a popular model for many other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir, who is attributed as the inspiration behind her nickname. She cultivated strong relationships with many of them, being romantically involved with Lautrec while becoming firm friends with Edward Degas, one of the most ardent advocates of her work. Through her observation of their techniques while they painted her, and with their instruction and influence, Suzanne became a self-taught artist who specialised in the female nude and frank, candid portraits.

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Danse à Bougival (Pierre-August Renoir, 1883) features Suzanne Valadon as the principal dancer

As models, Suzanne frequently used her own mother and son, depicting domestic scenes with a gratifying sincerity that can be found equally in her female nudes. Criticised by some for her bold style, with her figures being accused of being ‘too masculine’, others consider her startling honest treatment of the female form as the evidence of her talent. Although other female artists, such as Berthe Morisot, also favoured female subjects, Suzanne’s lower-class background gave her the liberty to paint nudes where their bourgeoisie roots held them back. Thus, Suzanne provided some of the first widely known representations of the female form produced from a female perspective.

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Catherine reclining nude on a leopard skin (1923)

In 1894, Suzanne became the first woman to ever exhibit at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, though it was only after her marriage to stockbroker Paul Mousis in 1896 that her new-found financial stability gave her the time to dedicate herself to her art. It was in the early 20th century that her perhaps most famous tableaux, such as Adam and Eve, Casting the net and The joy of life were finished. These large-scale oil paintings became famous for daring to show men as an object of desire for women, and for being the first pieces by a female artist to focus on sexual pleasure in general.

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Casting the net (Le lancement de fillet) – 1914 (Centre Georges Pompidou)

The subject of these paintings was her significantly younger lover, a painter named Andre Utter who was a friend of her artist son’s. She divorced Mousis in 1913 to remarry Utter, and the three artists lived together in Montmartre, where their former atelier now forms part of the Museum of Montmartre, supporting themselves off their work. By the 20s, though, their relationship had declined, and the pair eventually separated unofficially. Suzanne died in 1938, suffering a stroke whilst painting at her easel and dying in hospital shortly after.

Woman of the Week: Marie Laurencin

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Self Portrait (around 1905 – Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris)

Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was a contemporary of Picasso and Delaunay and friends with both. Despite the significant role she played in the Paris avant-garde movement, her artwork remained largely uninfluenced by the Cubism being developed by her close associates, and is frequently forgotten today.

 

Marie, illegitimately born to Pauline Laurencin, cited her date of birth as 1885, claiming that ‘the age of a natural child is always mysterious – it is found neither in reality nor in dreams, it is not determined by a date.’ Her father, a tax collector who refused to officially recognise his daughter, visited her rarely.

Marie’s career began officially when she went to Sèvres to study porcelain painting at the age of 18. She soon returned to Paris to study at the Académie Humbert, where she turned her focus to oil painting, one of the mediums she would use most often in her recognisable works. It was there, too, that she first met George Braque and Georges Lepape, fellow students who were impressed equally by the fantastic, whimsical canvases she executed with such apparent ease, and her engrossing personality – ‘my name’s Marie Laurencin,’ she told the curious Lepape, ‘but call me Coco.’

At the age of 24, Marie exhibited at the famous Salon des Indépendants for the first time. She met Picasso, who in turn introduced her to Guillaume Apollinaire, and soon became ensconced in the circle of artists and writers that made up the avant-garde movement and particularly the Section d’Or, which focused on Cubism and Orphism. She began a long-term romantic relationship with Apollinaire, being generally recognised as his muse and particularly as the Tristouse Ballerinette from his 1916 work, ‘Le Poète assassiné’.

Marie married a German artist, Otto von Wätjen, in 1913, causing her to flee to exile in Spain when war broke out a year later, as she had lost her French citizenship upon marriage. She remained there until 1919, finding solace and inspiration in the works of Vélasquez and Goya, and beginning friendships with various new artists, including Gleizes, Delaunay and Picabia, the latter two with which she would later exhibit. She divorced her husband in 1921, and would go on to have various affairs, often with well-known figures such as diplomat Philippe Berthelot and lesbian literary expatriate, Natalie Clifford Barney.

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Portrait de Mademoiselle Chanel (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

In this period, Marie made a name for herself as a portraitist, with the famous faces gracing her canvases ranging from ladies of nobility to Coco Chanel. In 1923, Serge de Dhiagelev asked her to undertake the décor and costuming for his ballet, ‘Les Biches’. Her work was received successfully, and ballet costuming and décor became a new facet of her creative expression.

Though criticised for her repetitive subjects and relatively unvaried style, Marie’s work remains highly recognisable for those very reasons. She preferred to depict young girls with dreamy, mask-like features, accompanied by various animals, from unicorns to swans to faithful hounds. Both human and beast frequently have a strong sense of unreality, with figures appearing to undergo transfigurative processes within the image. She focused on themes of femininity, relying heavily on pastel shades of blue, pink and grey which she felt helped to express these themes.

Upon her death in 1956, caused by cardiac arrest, Marie was buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery according to her wishes: dressed in, with a rose clutched in one hand and the love letters written to her by Guillaume Apollinaire laid across her heart.

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Watercolour for ‘Les Biches’ (1923 – Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

 

 

 

On Glimpses of the true Paris

I’m currently living in France, ostensibly to learn the language but largely to ensure that I don’t fall into the habit of becoming too entrenched in my Australian habits and can maintain the illusion of being cultured and worldly. After all, if all Australians thought my accent sounded Australian when I am, after all, Australian, how would I live with myself?

After just 3 months, it’s hard to judge how much I’ve changed. I have learned, for instance, not to question the young man with his two freshly-purchased baguettes strapped perpendicularly to the parcel rack of his bike like some delicious, gluten-heavy stabiliser. In fact; I commiserate with him. Baguettes are delicious but terribly impractical for shoving into your hold-all handbag, and so I always glance at the mothers pushing prams with half a metre of bread sticking out of them with a sense of quiet fellowship.

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This is a thing people actually do. Although not necessarily so stylishly.

But I still can’t help but wonder at the well-dressed woman on a bicycle stopping at the red light with her 3 inch shiny black heels just barely touching the ground. Her attire is perfect corporate-elegance, and I’m sure her makeup is impeccable. The neon yellow high-vis vest is the only thing that looks out of place, but I’m glad to think she’s not sacrificing her safety to the ever-greedy fashion gods.

 

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Every so often, I start to feel the dark tendrils of guilt creeping across my soul as I stroll idly about the city, doing little more productive than Snapchatting museum displays and reading Elizabeth von Arnim books at the train station. A few glimpses of what I would like to assume are the true Parisians, though, have reassured me. My favourite instance might be that of the two men I’d call middle-aged to their face but describe as old to my friends, sitting on a bench outside the Pere Lachaise cemetery and drinking a bottle of red wine from disposable plastic tumblers at 11 in the morning. They helped remind that whenever I’m focusing simply on dissolutely enjoying myself, I am, in fact, getting perfectly into the spirit of Paris.

On Refugees and how we see them

In France, the question of refugees has become truly pressing only in the last years thanks to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ affecting Europe. Their issues are vastly different to our own decades-long struggle in many ways, including the nature of the refugees, the sudden increase and France’s own cultural and socio-political differences, but the situations are alike in the most vital details: each country is currently dealing with large numbers of genuine asylum seekers who we expect our government to aid according to the human rights convention.

Australia’s island state has prevented us from seeing the same sudden arrival of so many asylum-seekers, as the difficulties of the ocean voyage leads to most refugees being detained and sent to off-shore detention centres for processing before they reach the mainland. In comparison, the most popular tourist destination in the entire world – Paris – is also a makeshift home for up to 3000 refugees. There are the lucky ones, in organised camps, but walking through the city still means walking past whole families tucked onto a doorstep with plastic shopping bags spread over their few belongings to keep off the autumn rain. At Saint-Lazare, one of Paris’ largest stations, the repetitive melody of the metro announcements mingles with the haunting tones of the refugees who wait at the top of the escalators, begging for sympathy from the commuters.

Yet the vast majority of commuters treat these refugees as little different than any of the usual beggars, rarely stopping to toss them a few coins. The most common reason stated for not giving money to beggars on the street is that the would-be giver fears their donation will be wasted on alcohol or illicit substances, as they assume these are the reasons for the beggar’s current state. But with refugees, there’s no evidence to suggest they have any issues apart from being cruelly mistreated by chance and other humans’ selfish actions, and as such, no reason to withhold your spare change. Sadly, though, it is human nature that when confronted with mass suffering, aware we cannot give to everyone in need, we tend to give nothing – justifying it by telling ourselves we can’t save them all.

These are heartbreaking scenes, and unlike what we see in Australia, even though the deplorable conditions of our detention camps and the seemingly endless time periods required for processing prompts many Australians to consider the government’s policies an aberration of human rights. Yet there remains one silver lining in this dark cloud, and that is our maintained interest in the welfare of these displaced peoples. Thanks to our outrage at our government’s policies, there are constant lobbies and protests, and the media continues to report on the conditions. We stay invested in these people kept out of sight on far-away islands in a way that would likely not occur if the same people were lining our city streets with their handwritten cardboard signs.

Gerda Lerner, famous feminist scholar, once noted that it took ‘long periods of organised effort to accomplish any advance in social policy’, and her point is, sadly, very apt. Change of any kind comes gradually, and only when we refuse to give up – and our outrage at human rights violations is exactly what fuels such determination. As much as our government policies may displease us, we can be glad that they have kept us angry, and in doing so, kept us resolved to change the current state of affairs instead of turning away for fear that because we can only make a small difference, it is not worth trying to make a difference at all.