Kim Rae Taylor’s Mature Modernism Puts Ageing Artists Back into the Spotlight
Whether we believe modernist periodisation begins with Woolf’s infamous starting point of ‘on or about 1910’ and ends with Tyrus Miller’s assessment of the late 1930s, the fact remains that many modernist authors lived years beyond; Zora Neale Hurston died in 1960, Jean Rhys in 1979, Djuna Barnes in 1982, Leonora Carrington in 2011. There are many, many more; often artists who created up until their death. These modernist women are all documented in Kim Rae Taylor’s ‘The Modernism Project’. Colour spills from each image, brushstrokes alive with storytelling. Each image takes its subject head on, often with defying gazes staring out from the canvas. I caught up with Kim to find out more…
Could you give a quick run-down of ‘The Modernism Project’ — what inspired you to start looking at female modernists in their advanced years?
I’m an artist, educator and feminist. My scholarly research looks to fill in the many gaps within the canon of art history where women are underrepresented or entirely omitted. My primary area of interest is the modernist period, and about three years ago I began to take notice of just how many women lived long lives, beyond the designated period of twentieth century Modernism. I wanted to learn more about the work from their later years and this became something of a visual quest because I was just so curious to see how they looked as elderly women. Once I had a running file of images, I started making these loose pencil sketches, but then a 1967 photo of Peggy Guggenheim, by photographer Ron Galella, really grabbed my attention. I was intrigued by the confrontational way she stared into the camera’s lens, without her usual oversized sunglasses, and I loved this idea that she was reversing the gaze. It felt powerful to me in an unexpected way. So it was really Guggenheim who sparked the series since it was this image that seemed to naturally evolve into my first painting. That was summer 2015, and the portraits have just continued from there.
Your images are full of colour and bold brushstrokes — does the form fit in with your own views on ageing?
My earlier figurative work employed the female body to convey subtle narratives tied to gender and female sexuality. I’ve since been exploring abstraction in recent years, but regardless of my subject matter, I like to play with forms, sort of compartmentalize undulations and contours, including the body and face. I really love paint and I’m never bored by its possibilities. The process of painting gives me this space to explore and it leads me into unexpected directions, which I think is why, with this portrait series, each woman’s face tends to look a bit skewed. There’s something errant in certain proportions and alignment, which to me is attractive, much like the qualities of an aged face. There’s so much trial and error in how we just live life, and I believe we all carry that in our face, our expressions. The idea of trial and error is one aspect of my approach with both brushwork and colour, so in that regard it does tie my painting process to the process of ageing.
“Painting the modernist women in old age has also provided a unique, visual extension of my research; I feel I’m able to understand them in a more personal way”
The texture of the paintings is also very dynamic, what led you to oil paints?
A great deal of my work relies on the buildup and layering of paint while examining colour relationships that happen along the way. I might have a general notion of what I want the palette and surface textures to do, but much of the rendering is through experimentation. Process is important to me because it provides a dialogue with what I’m thinking and what I’m doing. I prefer oil for painting, though I will often use a variety of other media embedded within the paint. The portraits are all oil, but I usually block in colour / establish the under painting with acrylic. I would never enjoy using acrylic on its own because it doesn’t give the tactile quality and depth of colour I want to see.
How do you feel the values of ‘modernism/modernity’ works with (or against) our contemporary conception of ageing?
I’m not so sure I can answer that, at least not at this point in my project. I get frustrated with some of the tropes of the modernist period, in particular this romanticized notion of the bohemian artist who struggles and sacrifices all for art, especially as it’s applied to the hyper-masculine male. Think Hemingway. Or Picasso, who famously continued making art up until his death in his early nineties. He was a name, a brand of his own making, so anything he created was considered a masterpiece and his age just seemed to heighten the cultural perception of his work’s importance.
In looking at the women who emerged from the modernist period, I see parallels to broader segments of society in the way women often become less visible with age. As for our contemporary views of ageing, there is definitely ageism, in particular a bias when it comes to older women. Of course we can look to the media, but there’s also the argument of a systemic attitude about age that places more value on the paradigm of youthful beauty. I’m not sure that specifically answers your question, but I know my own understanding of aging holds some influence in how I perceive the women I’m studying / painting.
Do you feel like you have to actively engage with a ‘modernist’ aesthetic at all?
At first I thought what I was doing somehow borrowed from this notion, but in the end, I’m not at all conscious of a specific aesthetic point of reference. I think adhering to something ‘modernist’ in a deliberate, perhaps very literal interpretation, of how I perceive that aesthetic, would limit the possibilities. I need to latch on to something that’s somehow personal, thinking only of each woman’s life story as I translate the photographs into painted portraits. Since I’m limited to only working from photographs, it’s essential I establish a more visceral connection, not something calculated.
How do you choose which modernist subjects to engage with?
I’ve kept an ongoing list of women since the project was getting started, and at this point it’s well over a couple hundred women, along with most of their photos, though I’m always searching for more since I prefer the images are from as late in life as possible. Also, the idea of “old” to me is somewhere after the age of 70, which I know seems subjective, even vague, because I’ve been especially drawn to those who lived into their nineties. And some, like Dorothea Tanning, reached the centenarian mark. I’ve also painted women who weren’t elderly by contemporary standards, including Claude Cahun and Radclyffe Hall, both of whom died in their early sixties. With all of the subjects, I must have an interest in their work. It’s not essential that I like it, just an interest. I also don’t necessarily have to like what I learn about the women themselves, but there must be some kind of connection so I’m invested in the process of painting them. I never want it to feel like a chore or some kind or rote exercise.
Right now I have a Zora Neale Hurston painting in progress and then plan to start Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) who, in learning more about her, seems like a woman I would not have enjoyed to be around! I’m still quite ambivalent about her paintings, yet I want to visually explore her face since she was a meticulous portrait painter. Jean Rhys is also on my radar because there’s so many great photos of her as this saucy old broad. Oh, and textile artists Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl. If you have suggestions, I’m always open to new subject matter.
“I do think some of the modernist women genuinely struggled with what ageing represented in terms of what is lost — vitality, youthful beauty, perhaps even personal relevance to art and literary culture”
Do you think it is important to remember these avant-garde artists in their old age, as much as in their youthful association to C20th art movements?
I absolutely do. I also find the later work of these women to be of greater importance; they’ve matured as artists with broader points of reference to draw from due to life experience. It’s typically the work they created during the interwar years that receives the most recognition, but the totality of their careers — including their output in the latter part of the 20th century (and in some cases, early 21st century) — gives a more complete understanding of their entire oeuvre.
Méret Oppenheim is a great example since she is best known for Object, her fur-covered teacup, which is such an iconic example of the quintessential surrealist object. She was so young when it earned her remarkable praise and recognition, but she eventually left Paris and returned to Switzerland, sporadically making art, while also struggling with depression for some years. Once she seriously resumed her art practice she was incredibly prolific in the quantity and range of media and ideas she expressed. She also spoke of ageing as the development of an “entirely different attitude.” And I’ll circle back to my mention of Picasso, whose later work was described by Oppenheim as “plain boring” due to his failure to evolve in this way.
Obviously Oppenheim is just one example, and there are exceptions where the women slowed down or completely stopped working as time passed, but others like Leonora Carrington, Lotte Jacobi, Kati Horna and Hannah Höch remained highly committed to their artistic practice. There are also disciplinary shifts, such as Mina Loy who worked more as a visual artist later in life, while Dorothea Tanning began writing poetry.
We’ve both mentioned how we were surprised to find out how many women modernists lived long lives — why do you think so little is known about these women in later life?
I think it goes back to the reality of how women artists have been historically recognized in the first place, regardless of their age or point in time. In the context of Modernism, I see how often these lesser-known women are discovered in the first place: by way of the male artists with whom they were associated. I teach an art history survey course, Women in Art, where I try to offset the male-dominated texts used in most art history curricula. If the women aren’t mentioned, or blatantly underrepresented in the first place, then their later years aren’t even a consideration. There’s some excellent scholarship in the field, giving many of the modernist women the recognition they deserve.
Your image of Simone de Beauvoir is very interesting, especially considering her own ambivilant (and sometimes actively angry) response to ageing. Do you take into consideration your subjects ideas of ageing when you’re painting them?
That’s always in the back of my mind, but I don’t typically make a deliberate attempt to convey their individual feelings about old age. An exception is the portrait of Djuna Barnes, where the background space provides a darker, more somber tone than the other portraits and she has an uncomfortable expression. It wasn’t an intentional decision to use colour in what I see as a rather symbolic way, or make her look displeased somehow, but I find these details to be reflective of her famous quote: “Life is painful, nasty and short. In my case it has only been painful and nasty.” It was absolutely on my mind as I painted her.
It’s also interesting you bring up De Beauvoir, because she is one of the women I feel highly deficient in understanding in this way. I’m in no way a scholar of her work, so I know I’m not equipped to comment on her in a meaningful context, but I’m completely fascinated by her for a variety of reasons, especially some of the contradictions between her life, her image, and her writing. As you point out, she definitely had a specific point of view regarding ageing. I recently read a 1965 interview with her by Madeleine Gobeil, published in The Paris Review. In response to a criticism of her “unpleasant” views of old age, De Beauvoir states, “I think that people who glorify old age or death too readily are people who really don’t love life.” For me that statement sort of upended this idea that we have to fully embrace our own mortality, though my views on ageing and death are more in unison with the fact that they’re simply just part of living. Our human condition. If we live long enough, old age is something we all must embrace (or at least reckon with) on some level.
De Beauvoir was one of the first women I painted when the portraits were not yet officially a “project.” I can’t even recall the origin of the photo I used for reference, but I’ve recently been drawn to a series of photographs of her taken at Sartre’s funeral in 1980 because they feel so utterly raw, so honest, to me. Her advanced age is accentuated by what’s clearly a profound sense of grief, which she wears like a mask. I want to work with these images for another portrait idea. I’m intrigued by the fact that she died a day before what would have been the six-year anniversary of Sartre’s death.
With an artist like Claude Cahun, known for their own experimental approach to self-fashioning, is there a tension or responsibility felt in representing them in old age?
Cahun is one who I’m very much drawn to, but difficult to capture as elderly, mainly because she died shortly after turning sixty. It seems her life was cut short because her health never quite recovered from her imprisonment by the Nazis. The art and writing she created with her partner and step sister Marcel Moore is groundbreaking on its own, but their resistance tactics were truly creative, not to mention extremely courageous.
By all accounts, both women suffered a great deal once they were discovered and imprisoned. They were sentenced to death, though it was never carried out. The Barbara Hammer film about them, Lover Other, delves into this. I have a hard time separating the resistance activities from the art; it seems to be another extension of their artistic output. The portrait I created of Cahun is really a study, and I just started with a painted sketch, cropping her face using a 1945 photograph where she’s defiantly facing the camera, clenching a Nazi badge between her teeth. She and Moore continued their exploration of photography until Cahun’s death in 1954. There are some later photos taken in a cemetery, with Cahun dressed in ethereal dress, wearing a mask, so it seems like a portent, an embrace of mortality. Moore reached the age of 79, committing suicide in 1972. I want to represent both women, but I still haven’t solved how to paint them in a way that expresses the complexity of their lives and work.
“These women had many chapters to their lives, something I also find compelling when considering the totality of their careers”
Finally, what’s next for ‘The Modernism Project’?
The paintings do continue, along with the research. Though the project examines these women within the context of age and gender, it’s also become relevant in light of the current socio-political climate. As an American woman, living in this alarming era of Trump, I see these women as my shield in some way.
Now that I have a significant number of paintings, 36 and counting, I’m looking to be more proactive in getting them out into the world. Thirty of the paintings were just exhibited in the Triangle Gallery at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio, where they served as teaching tools for fine art, art history and women’s studies classes. I want this series to serve an educational purpose, so my goal is to primarily exhibit in academic settings. I’m interested in collaborating with other women from different disciplines to expand the project. I’m also planning to create an artist book. And I’ll definitely continue painting.
— Kim Rae Taylor, January 2018