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(response by Adrienne Rodriguez


Romaine Brooks
Exhibition Response

By Adrienne Rodriguez

The Romaine Brooks Exhibit held at the Berkeley Art Museum (as well as at the National Museum of Women in the Arts earlier in 2000) from October 11, 2000 through January 21, 2001 was the first West Coast Exhibition of her work. Romaine Brooks is a noted expatriate who lived in Europe and painted mostly portraits. She painted during the early part of the century however, her style is unique and does not resemble more popular styles seen in that period like Cubism, Dadaism, Fauvism etc. Her tones and hues were similar to Whistler, whom she admired. Her subject matter is widely discussed by art historians and critics because of its sometimes lesbian content. Being lesbian herself, she explored or rather just painted a different type of sexuality in portraiture that she drew from her friends. Brooks portrayed her friends dressed in drag, androgynous, nude, in mythological contexts, and traditionally. Yet the media has been hooked on her nude portraits and friends in drag.

According to an Associated Press article at CNN.com the "show features work of expatriate artist who painted lesbian nudes." If anyone is familiar with Brooks’ paintings they know the bulk of her paintings are portraits. Some are nude, some are lesbian, but these are not her main focus, and this label hardly encapsulates her artistic endeavors. The article continues to focus on her expatriate identity, living in "enemy Italy." I found that this brief article painted her portrait as a lesbian, feminist, fascist, expatriate-extremist who was unfortunately allowed to have a show 30 years after her death. Instead of focusing on the show, its contents, and her contributions to the art world, the Associated Press article took a destructive path. It used quotes completely out of context, leaving the reader unsettled about Brooks and her art. For example, "Brooks belonged to conservative circles that hated President Roosevelt." What does this quote have to do with the upcoming show? I found the article to be unflattering and filled with frivolous information that had nothing to do with her artistic style except for the sentence "She defied the trends of the times in her work, too, ignoring cubism, surrealism and other movements of the late 1900’s." The article includes this quote: "Una Troubridge, for example," says the label of one, "had recently left her husband" – British Admiral Sir Ernest Troubridge – "to begin a lifelong relationship with the British female writer Radclyffe Hall, the author of the controversial 1928 lesbian novel, "The Well of Loneliness" They fail to depart from this sensational topic of lesbians in drag and therefore fall short of giving Brooks a substantial review.

Romaine Brooks: Amazons and Artists by Nancy Warren presents a different angle to the exhibit. Her article for the SF Gate, the online division of the San Francisco Chronicle, was enthusiastic and well-researched. She spoke about the praise Brooks received then and now. She argues that critics are still not comfortable with her subject matter, which is complex, because of its "overt canonization of the lesbian image." Warren discusses her technique and style. For example, she writes, "But while Brooks shattered artistic conventions with her choice of subject, she was ultra-traditional stylistically, ignoring many important art movements of her time, including Impressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism." Warren even publicly announces she is a bit uncomfortable with Brooks’ politics "bordering on fascism." Instead of tarnishing her entire analysis of Brooks like the Associated Press article, she declares her feelings about Brooks’ politics and says only "the downside to our talented portraitist was her increasing conservatism."

One of the least informed articles on Romaine Brooks was written by Anne Y. Keehn for a web site called RINTIN.ART. This article is approached in a hip-hop style that falls short of executing the conceptual power of Romaine Brooks and her art. She likens Brooks to Madonna during the Blond Ambition tour pushing the envelope when it came to portraying lesbian sexuality. She praises Brooks as a rebel by "turning out paintings of sexually charged female nudes" and "using her art as a rebellious statement." First of all, how does she know if Brooks thought of herself as rebellious in any nature or thought that she was going against the grain? Keehn describes that "to see Brooks’s every artistic gesture as a studied posture of rebellion (again think Madonna)." "Romaine Brooks was attracted to female beauty – but not a T & A type sexually charged beauty." "In this age of Cosmopolitan and Vogue, anorexia and Ally McBeal, Romaine Brooks’ paintings are like tragically unnoticed omens." She takes Brooks out of her social context and reads it from a 21st century perspective that only serves to demean the art and the show. She does make a few good points such as "She highlighted the collarbone, the hollow cheek, and the protruding skull at the temple – the angular and delicate aspects of the body, as opposed to the fleshy and soft." Perhaps Keehn was trying for a younger audience, but she falls short of doing the exhibit justice. Keehn writes "It is easy to peg Romaine Brooks as an oddball curiosity, destined to be shelved under the loaded category of Feminist Painter. Don’t do this. It would be an affront to her life-long struggle to create Art fit for the mainstream – that is, Art to be viewed alongside her male contemporaries." She really means to say she cannot capture the essence of Brooks in this article so one needs to see it themselves.

The most solid and intelligent article was written by Tirza Latimer for the East Bay Express. In this article she plots point by point how the show works and who Romaine Brooks was and is. She discusses Brooks’ stylistic change: "Whether the Great War and its aftermath positioned Brooks to paint from a different perspective, whether Barney’s Sapphic militantness set her on a different course, or whether the artist’s critical success of the 1910’s gave her the confidence to take less conventional tack, Brooks approach to portraiture changed quite radically in the 1920’s." She also mentions her immersion in Parisian life. "Brooks migrated from the parlors of her aristocratic sitters into another type of salon society, a largely lesbian and largely literary society that revolved around another culturally ambitious American heiress, Natalie Clifford Barney." Latimer also analyzes the show and its content in relation to its purpose as an introduction or survey of Brooks. Latimer writes: "If the exhibition first presents us with an introduction to, and overview of Brooks’ portraiture , it then proceeds to surprise us with works in genres that most people do not associate with this painter." She, unlike other writers, has a strong art historical perspective that gives the reader a text-book account of the show æ one that is factual, critical, and insightful for readers who know nothing about Brooks and her part in the early 20th century art culture.