Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris

Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris

Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris

Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris

Synopsis

What does it mean to look like a lesbian? Though it remains impossible to conjure a definitive image that captures the breadth of this highly nuanced term, today at least we are able to consider an array of visual representations that have been put into circulation by lesbians themselves over the last six or seven decades. In the early twentieth century, however, no notion of lesbianism as a coherent social or cultural identity yet existed. In Women Together/Women Apart, Tirza True Latimer explores the revolutionary period between World War I and World War II when lesbian artists working in Paris began to shape the first visual models that gave lesbians a collective sense of identity and allowed them to recognize each other. Flocking to Paris from around the world, artists and performers such as Romaine Brooks, Claude Cahun, Marcel Moore, and Suzy Solidor used portraiture to theorize and visualize a "new breed" of feminine subject. The book focuses on problems of feminine and lesbian self-representation at a time and place where the rights of women to political, professional, economic, domestic, and sexual autonomy had yet to be acknowledged by the law. Under such circumstances, same-sex solidarity and relative independence from men held important political implications. Combining gender theory with visual, cultural, and historical analysis, Latimer draws a vivid picture of the impact of sexual politics on the cultural life of Paris during this key period. The book also illuminates the far-reaching consequences of lesbian portraiture on contemporary constructions of lesbian identity.

Excerpt

Mythology is history.

—Charlotte Wolff,
Love Between Women

This book began as the story of one portrait—Romaine Brooks’s Self-Portrait of 1923—which has both personal and professional significance to me (fig.1). My awareness of alternatives to the scenarios of marriage and motherhood that shaped a woman’s destiny when I was growing up in my sheltered Connecticut suburb owes an enormous debt to a very limited repertoire of images, images that sparked in me a sense of recognition, unnamed potential, unimagined horizons of possibility. Brooks’s Self-Portrait is one such image. I first stood face to face with this near life-scale portrait at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., over thirty years ago, when I was a college student. As my eyes took in the artist’s daring statement of self—the defiant stance, the sober costume with its rakishly turned collar, the unyielding set of the chin, eyes ablaze from the shade of an outsized top hat—I experienced a shock of recognition: She’s my kind of woman, I said to myself, not needing confirmation from the wall text (which offered none in any event). As it happens I was reading the visual cues correctly, although I was unaware at that time of either the complexity or the history of the codes that underwrote the portrait’s legibility to me as a statement of lesbian identity, of autonomy and active desire—and as such, a statement of emancipation from the bounds of femininity. That was the beginning of my attraction to and curiosity about Paris of the 1920s. It was also the beginning of my own ability to imagine myself, to see myself, not just as a woman who loved women but as a member of a visual (if not always visible) community— . . .

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