Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Do you know this woman?

Whenever I research a novel, there comes a point where I arrive at a little green door. It's not actually a little green door, I just think of it that way. On the green door is a plaque with a startling historical fact that challenges all my assumptions and changes the way I think about the world. Most likely it'll be something seemingly small and subtle, as well as counter-intuitive and improbable. For example, I could be reading about two people who were friends or lovers at a time when such a connection should not have been possible, according to the social codes of the era.

So I arrive at the green door, I'm intrigued, I open it, and guess what? There's a whole party going on, a room full of people, conversations, connections that somehow haven't made it into mainstream history. This party tends to be so fascinating that I forget all about my novel and spend a few weeks or even months there, catching up on all these stories I never knew existed. After a while, I decide to go back to writing my novel, knowing that some of what I saw at that party will make it into the story, but most of it won't.

For my current novel-in-progress, the little green door is actually a painting. It was created by Pan Yuliang, a brave and unusual woman who was born in China in 1895 and went on to become a celebrated avantgarde artist in Paris. There are hundreds of accounts of Pan Yuliang's life on the Internet. Most of them say that she was sold into a brothel as a child and ended up marrying one of her clients, who then paid for her to go to art school in Shanghai. Apparently this story is not true. Sadly, there's a lack of reliable accounts of her life, thought over the past few years, scholars seem to have taken a renewed interest in her.

Well, I was noodling around on the Internet, looking at Pan's Parisian paintings, when I came across the one shown above.

Who is this woman?

The painting seems to be from the 1930s. Most artists in Paris at the time were white and male, most models were white. Yet here was an Asian woman painting a nude portrait of a Black woman. The drawings in the background seem to hint at some African connection, though that doesn't mean the woman would have necessarily been African - she could have been African-American, or a Frenchwoman from somewhere like Martinique. I couldn't find any reference to her, though I did come across another Pan Yuliang portrait of possibly the same woman.

From Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/spkushner/1411131776/in/set-72157602091277443

Were they friends? Acquaintances? Was the black woman also a painter? A professional sitter? A celebrity of some sort, or just someone Pan Yuliang met by chance and found inspiring? It's a beautiful portrait, and without going too deeply into the "male gaze" debate in art, I think it's noticeable how different it is from most traditional (and indeed avant-garde) female nudes. The model is not offering herself to the viewer in the traditional full-frontal, available way. She is naked, but not exposed. Her gaze is sceptical rather than flirty. It's a very sensual painting, but there is also a sense of ease and familiarity.

Well, I looked and looked but I could not find out who this woman was. So I checked out possible candidates. There was a boom in black entertainment in Paris in the 20s and 30s, and the most famous artist in that scene was obviously Josephine Baker. I found plenty of photos online of Baker wiggling her hips and rolling her eyes, and then I came across this one:

Look at the eyes, the mouth and the facial expression. Now take another look at the nude:

I thought the resemblance was pretty striking.

The other portrait seems to hang in China's Capital Museum. I used to hate people who walk through museums snapping all the paintings, but now I'm grateful. Again, the eyes, mouth and expression kind of match the photo of Baker.

From Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/spkushner/1411131776/in/set-72157602091277443

Sadly, the museum's website doesn't seem to have any information on the painting or the model. If the paintings are indeed of Baker, the connection between the two women becomes even more interesting. After all, Baker was known to be close to many avant-garde artists. Apparently, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo when the Mexican painter was visiting Paris. Baker also had affairs with other women. Even if Pan Yuliang did paint Baker in the nude, this obviously doesn't mean they were romantically involved. But still, it's an intriguing possibility.

So that was the green door. I opened it. I spent far too much time trying to find out who the woman in the painting was. And then I started looking up other European avant-garde paintings of people of colour. There are more than you might think. An excellent project called The Image of the Black in Western Art has made it its mission to document this hidden seam in art history. Once you start noticing it, you will never think of European art history - or indeed European society - the same way. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, Europe was much more multi-cultural than is often assumed. But many of these paintings were lost or forgotten because of the Nazi persecution of modern artists. Other paintings were preserved but clearly not considered important enough to identify the sitter. There is also a self-reinforcing narrative bias, whereby later writings and works of art tend to refer to the dominant cultural model of the time and ignore artists and models who seemed to be outliers. Anyway, here are a few examples:

Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner, model unknown? Kirchner was labelled a "degenerate artist" by the Nazis and committed suicide in exile. He worked with several men and women of colour, mostly circus performers. 

Elfriede Lohse-Waechter, "Jealousy", 1929. Lohse-Waechter was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and murdered by the Nazis under their euthanasia programme.

Christian Schad, "Agosta and Rasha", 1929 (Tate Modern). Unlike most of his contemporaries, Schad was not persecuted by the Nazis, possibly because he was not that famous, or because his style was relatively traditional.

Felix Vallotton, La Blanche et La Noire, 1913. So mysterious and intriguing, but sadly, nothing is known about the models.

Shalva Kikodze, Paris 1920. I thought the woman in the centre could be Baker but it doesn't fit with her biographical dates. Model unknown?

Josephine Baker by Picasso's friend, Kees van Dongen. I'm not a big fan of this painting. When you compare it with Pan's painting, it's almost as if van Dongen captures the stage-Josephine - all banana skirt and rolling eyes - whereas Pan captures the woman behind the mask. I know, I'm getting carried away, it may not even be Baker.

Jan Sluiters, Tonia Stieltjes, 1922 or so. Sluiters was a Dutch painter, Stieltjes was his mistress.

That's it for today. Time to get back to work. But if you've come across any striking portraits of men/women of colour in the pre-1945 period, do get in touch. And if you happen to know anything about a possible friendship between Pan and Baker, definitely get in touch.

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