29 May 2011

Art Deco Woman

“She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s.  She started all that.  She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht and you missed none of it with that wool  jersey.”

 “Oh, you always have someone in the trade,” Brett said.
  “This fellow raises the grapes.  He ‘s got thousands of acres of them.”
“What’s his name?” asked Brett.  “Veuve Cliquot.”
“No,” said the count.  “Mum.  He’s a baron.”

The most fully realized female character in the fiction of Ernest Hemingway appeared in his first novel  The Sun Also Rises (1926). We only know (Lady) Brett Ashley through the words of Jake Barnes who, like his creator, can hardly be a reliable narrator in spite of his attraction to her.  When Jake calls Brett a "bitch" he renders Hemingway's verdict and we are meant to concur.  
Brett is a strong, independent woman who charms everyone she meets, a goddess with a bob who rejects a mythic role for herself.  I suspect Hemingway had a sneeking fondness for such boyish women.  His initial description of Brett (at top) is instantly recognizable as Hemingway-esque.  What may take a bit of reflection  to recognize in the dialogue is how the characters occasionally get away from their author.  We are intended to condemn Brett's garish ways but remain to be convinced that wandering from bar to bar, as Jake and his friends do, is superior to going from relationship to relationship. 
Although the novel takes place mostly in the Paris of 1925, it is the recent war that shaped their characters; Jake has become impotent and after her sweetheart dies, Brett is noncommittal with men, even her two husbands, whom she has divorced before the story begins.   This character who combines disparate qualities within herself, masculine/feminine, strength/vulnerability, morality/unreliability, is an Art Deco woman, like the style of the day that contained curves within geometric figures and speed within static images.

1. unidentified artist - Blanco y Negro, 1934, Art Archive, UK.
2. unidentified artist - Vogue Summer Travel Issue, 15 May 1932, Kunstbibliotech, Berlin.
3. Jean Dunand - Leda, 1932, Galerie Felix Marcilhac, Paris.
4. Doccia & Agata - bowl, c.1920, National Ceramics Museum, Sevres.
5. Jean Lurcat - The Siren Rug, 1920s, Musee des Arts decoratifs, Paris.


DSM said...

I haven't seen the (Sevres) bowl in years! It's just wonderful.

Hels said...

I loved those women with geometric figures and lots of speed, and I particularly loved their non-committal attitude towards men. They were modern, confident and energetic.

But I am not sure Hemingway enjoyed their company. And they probably didn't like his much, either.

Jane said...

DSM, you are fortunate to have seen it in person. I read that he 'Siren Rug' is a recent acquisition for Musee des Arts-Decoratifs.

Jane said...

Hels, as you can imagine, critics in recent decades have noted Hemingway's misogyny by name. Ernest was married to Hadley, his first wife, when he wrote 'The Sun Also Rises.' He treated Hadley very badly but it took more novels for him to perfect that practice in fiction. Brett Ashley got away from her creator, in spite of his snide comparisons of her character to a puppeteer, etc. He portrayed a woman of the time, in spite of his lack of sympathy for her.