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A year after the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage, and during a political season in which transgender rights are in the spotlight, it’s a fitting coincidence that the Smithsonian American Art Museum hosts a monographic exhibition of the paintings and drawings of Romaine Brooks.
Brooks, who stopped painting in the 1930s, was nearly forgotten until a resurgence of figurative painting in the 1960s. In 1971, a few months after her death, The National Collection of Fine Arts (now SAAM), hosted its first retrospective of her work. In 2000, a retrospective of her work had been organized at the National Museum for Women in the Arts, and that exhibit confronted her sexuality (by that point, she had been a gay icon for some years and was known for her portraits of women in masculine clothing). Now, 16 years later, her work seems as relevant as ever.
The exhibition of Brooks’ work starts evenly. Her paintings present a consistent grayscale palette with sparse use of color. A kinship is often made between the work of Brooks and that of James Abbott McNiell Whistler. It’s certainly there in the manner by which Brooks was able to capture a humanity within her figures that extends beyond mere likeness (the catalog title of her first retrospective was entitled “Thief of Souls”). It’s there in the fierce determination and thousand-yard stare of the nurse in “La France Croisée,” a painting that protested the onset of the first World War.
Although Brooks consciously eschewed more popular styles of Cubism and Fauvism so prevalent throughout Europe at the time, the European masters may still have wielded some influence. The gaunt angularity of many of her subjects and muted palette also bring to mind Picasso’s blue period. Edouard Manet’s influence is also present, at least in one painting. “Azalées Blanche” features a reclined nude woman positioned similarly to the main figure of Manet’s “Olympia,” only positioned in the opposite direction. Whereas Manet’s “Olympia” stares directly at the viewer, the subject of Brooks’ “Azalées Blanche” faces the end of the canvas. Hardly shocking, unless you consider the frequency with which previously known female artists depicted fully nude women in their works. It’s a sparsely populated sorority and Brooks may well be its founding member.
That rules-bending persists throughout other works, especially when her female figures present themselves in masculine dress. While it’s commonplace now—post Annie Hall, post Hillary pantsuits—such presentation in the early years of the 20th century might have been cheeky. Although, unlike Marcel Duchamp’s “Rrose Sélavy,” the intent was not ruse. It was identity.