Katherine Anne Porter portrait with typewriter and Juniper (kitten). 1946, Santa Monica, California. / Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland Libraries

Modernism, Lesbianism, Paris, and Transit Points Between

There are many definitions of Modernism, but for the moment we can think of Modernism as an artistic and social movement that reacted to the constraints of the old: backward looking, holding onto tight class and artistic structures and concrete gender roles, spawned and enforced in particular by English and American strict heteropatriarchal culture.

The new culture embraced freedoms that sought the liberation of the arts and people’s lives, especially sexual norms. Especially for women.

Today, Modernism’s heroes are lionized, outsized figures — well, men — such as Picasso, Ezra Pound, Henri Matisse, and James Joyce. Important figures all, and all with Parisian lives and connections during the years from the turn of the 20th Century to World War II.

But while things may have gone Modern, the same viewpoints and chains proved stubbornly resistant to expurgation. So it is hardly surprising that today there are unrecognized and generally unappreciated lesbian/gender nonconforming women’s contributions to Modernism. But these women were upending artistic and cultural norms. We need to recognize that the transformative hand here was not so male.

In Paris, women breathed fresh air, created, squabbled, took lovers, and upended expectations. They consciously sought to shed the iron encumbrances of fathers, husbands, brothers, children. And they founded and refined new lives.

The married, expat American writer Katherine Anne Porter also lived in Paris during this time, and was possibly envious of the freedoms of the “Amazons,” as they were known. On the occasion of Gertrude Stein’s death, Porter wrote a piece about her in Harper’s Magazine. Here’s a small excerpt:

[There was] the company of Amazons which 19th Century America produced among its many prodigies: not-men, not-women, answerable to no function in either sex, whose careers were carried on, and how successfully, in whatever field they chose … who lived in public and by the public and played out their self-assumed, self-created roles in such masterly freedom that only a few early medieval queens had equaled. Freedom to them meant precisely freedom from men and their stuffy rules for women. They usurped with a high hand the traditional masculine privileges of movement, choice, and the use of direct, personal power (quote from Paris was a Woman—Portraits from the Left Bank, by Andrea Weiss, 1995).

I have written before about Ada Smith, better known as “Bricktop,” the Black impresario with clubs in the Montmartre district. I wish to introduce some of the “Women of the Left Bank.” They were largely European, American, and white, but their contributions need recognition, and I propose some reckonings.

I propose to depose some of the Amazons: Natalie Clifford Barney, of course. She was the first. She arrived in Paris in 1902, the 22-year-old “wild girl from Cincinnati.” She ran a salon for “Amazones et Sirènes” for 60 years, and loved untold hundreds upon hundreds.

And Colette, the writer who caused riots with her performances. In 1907, she and her lover, Mathilde de Morny (who insisted on “Monsieur le Marquis”) appeared at the Moulin Rouge to a black tie crowd. Such rioting broke out over the scandalousness of the show that the police were summoned to break it up.

Naturally, Janet Flanner and her column, “Letter from Paris” that ran for five decades in The New Yorker. Those who stayed after the 1929 market crash. There are some great love stories, as well as art, that come from this t