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The next time you admire a Picasso, thank a lesbian

Bettmann Archive / GettyPerfection may be the enemy of good enough – but apparently no one told James Joyce that. In Paris in 1920, when his modernist masterpiece Ulysses was already in print, Joyce made further changes to his 600-page novel, which he had been working on for seven years. He revised the manuscript daily and then revised the printer’s proofs – to get the novel to print – like mere drafts, adding about a third of the book after it was supposedly already complete. The handwritten changes not only required the assistance of a typist to understand Joyce’s scribbling, but also required rearranging the printing machine letter by letter. Two years of seemingly endless change resulted in half a dozen typists quitting and adding additional printing costs that accounted for nearly 5 percent of expected net sales. The editor of Joce, Sylvia Beach, contributed these last minute changes like no other publisher likely could have. “The patience she gave him was feminine, even maternal in relation to his book,” said Janet Flanner, Paris correspondent for the New Yorker of Beach and Joyce. The publication of Ulysses is just one of the many times that author Diana Souhami argues in her book No Modernism Without Lesbians that without women like Beach there would be no modernist men like Joyce. The Steins Collect at the Metropolitan Museum is Blake Gopnik’s Daily PicNo Modernism Without Lesbians is a collection of four biographies of women who made significant contributions to the modernist movement in literature and art: the owner and publisher of Shakespeare and Co., Sylvia Beach, patroness of the Arts Bryher, author and art collector Gertrude Stein and celebrity Natalie Barney. Souhami convincingly shows how these four women are responsible for the modernist movement, although it is typically associated with men like Joyce and Pablo Picasso. Through Close Up, a magazine about films brought out by Bryher, the western world was exposed to the revolutionary images of Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, whose battleship Potemkin is still considered one of the greatest films of all time. In addition to writing her own books such as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Tender Buttons, Stein was one of Pablo Picasso’s earliest collectors and a lifelong advocate of his work. Barney’s weekly salons brought up emerging writers – including TS Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, William Carlos Williams, and Rainer Maria Rilke – with the French Academy to win the latter’s recognition. And, of course, Beach had to wear Ulysses as a cross. In this light, no modernism without lesbians could be considered revisionist in the best sense of the word: that of correcting the record. “I wanted to turn the problem around,” says Souhami of women’s contributions to modernity, “get the upper hand. Get away from the campaign and argument for acceptance and civil rights and show what women are doing in same-sex relationships – individually and above all together – in this crucial twentieth century transition to new perspectives. “The women who make Souhami profiles are also united by their love for other women: Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Bryher and Hilda Doolittle, Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Barney and, as the author writes,” all of their lovers, too many, to list them. ” Despite these well-documented relationships, Souhami recognizes the difficulty semantics pose in describing these women who lived at a time when society prevented them from openly naming their lovers as such and making them mere “friends” close. The author opts for the term lesbian, but other identities along the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender could also be applicable – such as trans in the case of Bryher, who rejected her maiden name and gender at a young age. Bryher, Beach, Stein and Barney were further united by their love of interwar Paris. All were expatriates – Bryher from the United Kingdom, the last three from the United States – who made their way to France in the 1920s. All have been evicted from their homes trying to suppress the “indecency” in personal life and in the arts, as marked by prohibition and censorship. Paris, on the other hand, was cheap as France was still recovering from the carnage of World War I and Paris society had little expectations of expatriates. A comment from Picasso on Beach could represent everyone’s Parisian perspective: “They are not men, they are not women, they are American.” The freedom these four women found in Paris extended from their own Life to their artistic endeavors. In Paris, Beach not only found and fell in love with Moore, she also published Ulysses, which had previously been foiled by censors in London and New York. There, as in Paris, the publication of the novel was supported by lesbians who questioned society’s control over what they could read and love. But only in Paris, where self-realization and artistic progress were not restricted by patriarchal control, could modernism flourish fully. Souhami’s lesbians saw themselves differently – as independent and not as daughters, women or mothers of men – why shouldn’t they see the world differently – through streams of consciousness in literature or cubism in painting? The personal and the political, the romantic and the artistic did not have to be separated in Paris. As Souhami writes in “No Modernity Without Lesbians”: You were interested in Paris and each other, turned your back on patriarchy and created your own society. Instead of staying where they were born fighting censorship and outrageous denials and inequalities enforced by male lawmakers, they took away their own power and authority and defied the stigma conservative society was trying to impose on them. Everyone made a contribution individually; Together they were a revolutionary force in the breakaway movement of modernity, the shock of the new, the innovations in art, writing, film and lifestyle, and the break with 19th century orthodoxy. If Souhami’s revisionism succeeds in reintroducing the role of women in the history of modernity, other questions remain unanswered. The first is the less flattering aspects of some of their subjects – for example, Stein’s relationship with and early support for fascists in Spain and France, which Janet Malcolm extensively describes in her biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, but Souhami only mentions in passing. The second is the question of the women of color who appear occasionally in No Modernism Without Lesbians – like Josephine Baker, who redefined dance in Paris in the 1920s – but whose general absence becomes particularly evident when Souhami begins tracking down Barney’s lovers . and the lovers of Barney’s lovers, a long list of white women: “The availability of research material was a limiting factor,” Souhami explains the absence of women with color in her work. “Another reason was the reluctance of mainstream publishers to commission books about little-known people. Still, I hope I’ve made a contribution. “No modernism without lesbians is undoubtedly a contribution that corrects the history of modernity to take a closer look at the women who have made such lasting change in literature and art possible. Despite the advances made by Bryher, Beach, Stein, and Barney, it is evident that there is still a long way to go. Souhami says it was the first time in decades of writing about lesbians that a mainstream publisher was open to using the word on a book cover. Without modernism without lesbians, Souhami opened the door to history a little wider and made more valuable space for the whole truth. Read more at The Daily Beast. Get our top stories to your inbox every day. Sign up now! Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside delves deeper into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.

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