Discussion by David C. Ward, co-curator of “Hide/Seek” and Historian at the National Portrait Gallery.


Janet Flanner (1892-1978) :In 1922, Janet Flanner settled in Paris with her lover, Solita Solano. She would spend the next fifty years writing her "Letter from Paris," a column that appeared regularly in the New Yorker. Flanner and Solano became fixtures in the salon life of the city, their homosexuality providing a crucial entrée into the most fashionable literary groups, which were then dominated by wealthy expatriate lesbians. Flanner signed her column with the decorously French and sexually ambiguous pseudonym "Genêt." She used "Genêt" to hide her identity, but like most masks, the name revealed as much as it hid. With her campy prose and focus on known gay and lesbian personalities, Flanner provided a knowing glimpse of the Paris "in" crowd. In this portrait by Berenice Abbott, Flanner wears two masks, which--like her pseudonym--suggest her multiple layers.


Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) Gelatin silver print, 1927 Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Djuna Barnes (1892-1982): Berenice Abbott’s photograph captures the sexually provocative appeal of Djuna Barnes, one of the leaders of 1920s modernism, both as a writer and personality. Brought up in a sexually extravagant and dysfunctional household (her father was a polygamist), Barnes had a tempestuous life. Her passage through postwar Europe and America was representative of the era's sexual and artistic experimentation. In her first book of poems, The Book of Repulsive Women (1915), Barnes’s description of lesbian sex was so explicit that she escaped prosecution for obscenity largely because straight society could not comprehend her audacity. Some critics compared her innovation in language in the experimental novel Nightwood (1936) with the work of Gertrude Stein. Barnes’s experience presents an interesting study in how marginalization leads to artistic and linguistic innovation that expresses one’s distance from the society that one observes.

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) Gelatin silver print, 1926 National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

"Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" was on view at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, from October 30 through February 13, 2011.

For more on the exhibit, visit the exhibit website at: http://npg.si.edu/exhibit/hideseek .


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