Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On the painter Suzanne Valadon...

First, some recommended listening: One Day International's "Sleeping on Trains" and "Miss Your Mouth". Listen, listen, listen here.

And now, in the spirit of celebrating under-recognized female painters,  immortalized in oil by the artists for whom they modeled, let's talk about the lovely Suzanne Valadon. She, like Victorine Meurent (whom we talked about last week), modeled for Renoir, Degas, pretty Berthe Morisot, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

The child of a laundress, Valadon began working as a circus acrobat at the age of 15. But when a fall from a trapeze ended her career two years later, she was forced to turn to modeling for money. Of course, modeling for artists usually led to more intimate relationships, and apparently, it was not long before she was pregnant. According to a bawdy joke later told by Diego Rivera, she first went to Renoir, but he disavowed paternity, indicating the color was all wrong. Next, she went to Degas, who indicated the form was all wrong for the baby to be his. Finally, after she belched her tale of woe to a Spanish painter named Miguel Utrillo y Molins, he declared, "I would be glad to put my name to the work of either Renoir or Degas!" And so, Maurice Valadon (the baby in question) was officially (if not accurately) legitimized and became Maurice Utrillo. Thanks to Valadon's training and encouragement, Utrillo, who long suffered from emotional difficulties and alcoholism, became a successful artist in his own right. But that's another story for another time.

Suzanne Valadon. Reclining Nude, 1928.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Valadon, unlike Victorine Meurent, enjoyed professional esteem in her lifetime.  Her earlier work, in collections as prestitgious as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, seems influenced by Pierre Bonnard, while her later creations...say, from the mid- to late 1920s, seem flavored by the robust line and geometric contours of Cezanne. Dig Reclining Nude, 1928 (at right) for example. I see Cezanne's fruit there, don't you? Well...come on now. I didn't mean it that way. Seriously, there's Post-Impressionism all over the place in this painting, no?

Suzanne Valadon,
Portrait of Erik Satie.
 Apparently, Suzanne Valadon also completely bewitched the composer Erik Satie, whom she met while he played piano in a raucous bar with the refined name, Auberge du Clou. An eccentric bohemian, the penniless composer (who had a strong affinity for medieval plainsong and was soon to be associated with Rosicrucianism) carried on a six-month affair with Valadon, while they lived in adjacent rooms at 6 Rue Cortot. Satie, whose room held two pianos (one atop the other, with connected foot pedals) and a rather strange collection of 100 umbrellas, proposed to Valadon after their first night together. He soon nicknamed her "Biqui", and wrote her voluminous love letters. The couple even made portraits of one another, and while she gave her portrait to Satie, he kept the portrait he made of her. These were found together in his room, after his death.

But this is Suzanne's story, not Satie's, so back to it: Valadon was a perfectionist, reportedly working for well over a decade on her paintings before ever showing them. And it was not until 1909, when Valadon was 44, that she began painting full-time. By 1911, she had her first solo show, where she earned significant critical acclaim and garnered the patronage that allowed her to sustain herself for her remaining years. She reached the apex of her fame in the 1920s and enjoyed four retrospective exhibitions in her lifetime. She was held in such high esteem within the art world that Picasso and Braque even attended her funeral.

So what separates her fate from Victorine's? How is it that she has left her mark on art history (although, of course, it is a significantly more shallow a mark than that made by any of her male contemporaries thanks to traditional art historical narratives)? Persistance, I suppose. Where Victorine destroyed some of her paintings and fell into alcoholic obscurity, choosing instead to tell stories about her time with Manet for the price of a drink, Suzanne Valadon was creating, quietly, in relative sobriety, all along. She may have been no less promiscuous than Victorine, but she was productive and persistent, applying the kind of sustained concentration that earned her respect.

Interesting is that one of Valadon's most famous works, The Blue Room, seems to reference Victorine, since it bears a strong resemblance to Manet's Olympia. 
Suzanne Valadon, The Blue Room
Just as with Manet's work, Valadon's woman remains solid, significant, a different kind of female figure. She is not merely on display, but herself holding court to an unseen audience and completely at home with herself. Moreoever, she is wearing pants...presumably pajama pants, but pants nonetheless. Perhaps this is a reference to the Orientalism of the harem, but a pants-wearing female from the time of George Sand onward indicated the wearer's economic and emotional independence. This notion seems underscored by the books on the bed and the cigarette in her mouth, symbolic of independent thought and action during a period when  intellectual pursuits and public smoking were still considered inappropriate activities for women.

Perhaps then, this is a perfect portrait of Valadon herself, who achieved what Victorine did not: fame that extended beyond her physical attributes and into a fourth dimension, a kind of creative immortality.

1 comment:

  1. Suzanne Valadon corrigée / Suzanne Valadon corregida