Archive for August 31st, 2009

Lucie Cousturier, Self Portrait (1919)

“It is very early in the morning … The address provided by a young Ouolof who had been my pupil in France, led me to the extremity of the craftsmen’s precinct … The yard of sizable dimension that I entered contained only one tree, slightly bigger than our orange tree, a small kitchen-shelter and the dwelling, also made of timber and covered with tiles. The master of the house, resting on a white goat-skin, was finishing the salam … I mentioned his cousin. He introduced me to his wife, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law and offered me hospitality, as I had no place to stay. And what about my official engagements in the white quarter? They disappeared into the background due to the circumstances. Everything was too easy, too miraculous.” (At Dakar, p.11)

Dear Friends,

I came across the above image while I was reading about the life of Felix Feneon (1861-1944), fin-de-siecle art critic, anarchist, journalist, translator by Joan Ungersma Halperin. I’ve written a blog about Feneon and his translation into French of Austen’s Northanber Abbey and a brief essay on “Jane Austen in French” has been accepted by an online women-centered progressive group blog in French.

But I cannot write an essay on Lucie Cousturier. Why not? Not enough of even her story has been allowed to come through lest it disturb anyone by telling a truth about a not atypical woman’s life.

Cousturier, Summer Afternoon, probably reflect Lucie’s flat in her last year of life

In an article on Cousturier (“Rene Maran on Lucie Cousturier, Champion of Racial Understanding,” Research in African Literatures, 34:1 (2003):126-36), Roger Little explains how he was unable to find out fundamental information about her: he couldn’t find out what was her maiden name, when she married, if she had any children, what happened to her paintings. No archive of her papers was ever formed. He had only learned about her from his research on Rene Maran, who wrote an important novel on Africa when young, met her when she was not far from death, living alone, reclusively in a flat in Paris, and then honored and attempted to memorialize her as “Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe” of France.

An article by Richard R Bretell (“The Bartletts and the Grand Jatte: Collecting Modern Painting in the 1920s,” Art Institute of New York Museum Studies, 12:2 (1986):102-113) informs us that we owe to Lucie our possession and knowledge of George Seurat’s painting made famous as Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim:

Georges Seurat (1859-91), Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grande Jatte (1884)

Lucie owned it in her old age, a gift from Seurat whose mistress she had been (or friends and more fleetingly lover), and we watch her desperately sell it to two collectors for $20,000 to gain some support in her old age. It’s just two paragraphs in an article otherwise on a rich collector — though it is central to the piece.

Why is so little know about Lucie since it’s conceded her art is superb? For a start it seems that as a matter of course women artists are still repeatedly excluded from exhibits of impressionists and post-impressionists. I went to an exhibit of impressionists at the Phillips and not one woman artist was exhibited although there were several great ones. Recently on WWTTA two friends went to exhibits of post-impressionist and surreal art and not one woman was shown.

Cousturier, Nature Morte

I love the long green beans. The way they are arranged, the dark green colors, and the orangy-gold fish in the bowl. The wine seems so sober standing there too. The cup in Cousturier’s still life really closely recalls a cup and saucer in a still life by Modersohn. I’ll lay a bet Cousturier was quoting this cup and saucer from another woman’s still life.

Fran on WWTTA thought it particularly “reflected perhaps Cézanne’s influence more than Seurat’s this time?”

But in old age Lucie travelled to Africa and lived among the people there and wrote a memoir,
Mes Inconnus chez eux and developed real friends who wanted to make her remembered. Her memoir was published in 2001 and this does tell us a great deal about her radical and humane politics.

La VérandoLucie Cousturier
The Veranda (she treats African people with the same respect she does Europeans here)

Why no archive, then? Well, it appears from Hagermas’s book that Lucie supported herself partly by sex, not through marriage, the conventionally acceptable way but as a mistress and free lover; although common in life then and now still (and as Germaine Greer says one of the reasons we know little for real about Aphra Behn is it was probable she was mistress to this man and then that), while for men okay and then not spoken of unless it’s glamorous for some reason, for women it’s enough to silence everything about them — by their families and friends too. It was common for women who didn’t marry and had no cache of relatives to support them to find men to support them or live catch-as-catch can through offering sex to men. This is recorded quietly everywhere in literature and records (from Chaucer through Trollope, Miss Mackenzie, from police archives to private letters).

It riles me to think how Sondheim must’ve known about her and ignored her — lest she upstage Seurat who is of course him. Think of it: we’d not have Seurat’s painting but for her. She kept it; he gave it to her. Instead he makes up an ignoramus personality for a model we are to laugh at in part, condescend to.

And much can be found out in the memoir published in 2001 as Mes Innocus chez eux (see above link). Says one site of this:

Lucie Cousturier gave an enlightening account of her relationship with the Tirailleurs sénégalais during World War I in a book titled Des Inconnus chez moi [Some strangers in my place]1. Mes Inconnus chez eux [My strangers back home] proposes an equally fascinating account of the author’s subsequent travel to West Africa between October 1921 and June 1922. Cousturier’s travelogue is irreverent, witty and devastatingly critical of French colonial ventures in Africa.

She found herself beset upon, her insistence she was not official (which she wasn’t), and ignored because she listened to other women empathetically. In Halperin’s book there is a small drawing of African women but it’s so small and doesn’t come out well when I scanned it. Since I recently read a short story by Anthony Trollope showing such absolute disdain of native peoples he travels through (disgust) and unashamedly inveighing against not forcing natives to be hungry since then they won’t work, a text commonplace in his day. Against such as these, Cousturier just stands out in my mind for her instinctive humane reactions. She identified with these people.

On WWTA a member who works in the field of art was able to discover that Cousturier wrote a biography of Seurat & also one of Paul Signac. In the Harvard libraries however that there are a few of her books recently re-published by an academic press with the name Roger Little appearing as editor. Rachel told us

It’s remarkable that we are still making these sorts of discoveries about women artists (in all genres). When I was an undergraduate at Calif. Inst of the Arts in 1972, I was a student of Arlene Raven, one of the first feminist art historians (and I believe the class was the first, or among the first certainly) explicitly feminist art history courses. What a shock it was then to learn that Diego Rivera had a wife who painted! And what pictures–content no one had ever dared to broach. Now Frida Kahlo is a household name, but she functions as a token woman in the wider context of art history. Most women artists remain marginalized, as Ellen mentioned. Last year, for example, I saw an exhibit in San Francisco, “Women Impressionists.” At this stage in history, why isn’t integration normal? A show such as this one would have been deeply unsettling to the status quo back in 1972. It struck an odd note after all these years.

Cousturier, A woman crocheting (in the manner, or using Mary Cassat’s typical upper class white women’s flattering content)

I remember this from my 1980 days in the Library of Congress when the only 18th century novels by women I could find were copies in rare book rooms. When I discovered for the first time there were women Renaissance sonneteers, how shocked I was that no one had mentioned this in all the courses I ever took. Things have improved there, but only in the feminist ghettoes — and if you refuse to create these, you will be nowhere and with no one. So our intrepid author can’t find out anything about Cousturier’s maiden name, when she married, her childhood, and there is no Archive. Very important. A huge cache of Anna Barbauld’s papers were destroyed in WW2 because the British Library refused to keep her papers and they were destroyed by a bomb fire.

I did learn about her from Hagermas on Feneon. As I wrote about him, once he was imprisoned for bombing a restaurant and then released, even more than earlier he lived in quiet deliberate obscurity, often not signing his name to what he wrote. The book took Hagermas over 25 years to glean and gather what she could.

I’m sort of glad to tell myself — it makes a part of the pleasure — that in reading Feneon’s French translation of Austen’s Northanger Abbey I came closer to Cousturier for after all she was Feneon’s mistress in the 1890s and who knows? maybe she read the ms before it was published. Why not speculate and imagine reading her along too 🙂 My paper on Austen’s Northanger Abbey for JASNA, Portland 2010 (if I get to do and then give it) will have a footnote about this — though my topic will be the serious one of wife abuse reflected in the gothics.

Cousturier’s Flowers and Fruits, in a distinct application of the pointillist style


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