Second-year Master’s student Laura Ryan sums up her experience working in France with an amusing anecdote: “I went into a quaint café to try some authentic French food and found they only serve six types of baked potatoes… not exactly what I was looking for!”
As the Parisian libraries are inundated with research requests, the bureaucracy becomes a bit of an uphill battle, imposing limits as strict as that café’s menu. Frequent bank holidays, minimum multi-day waiting periods, a circular quest for a reading card, lost copyright clearances, and limits on the number of archival boxes she could request a day all made Ryan’s research path much more meandering than she anticipated. In her last of three weeks abroad, Ryan finally got ahold of the right boxes of materials, finding a treasure trove of letters and sketches by Sonia Delaunay, her subject artist.
Ryan in front of Sonia Delaunay’s Young Italian, 1907 (left) and Yellow Nude (1908) on display at the Nantes Arts Museum in France.
After a long standing interest in primitivism and the ongoing question of why an artist, particularly a female artist, would want to intentionally create art that looks unskilled, Ryan chose an early figure painting by Delaunay for her thesis topic. She focused in on the textile in the background of Yellow Nude (1908) and found a trans-national history incorporating Jewish labor, Central Asian design, Russian production, and European export. This hybrid tale mirrors the biography of the artists, leading Ryan to argue that the textile, normally overlooked in scholarship, presents a very specific, personal statement—especially as it is in the largest work in Delaunay’s debut exhibition in Paris. Working through these complexities with the advice of Dr. Juliet Bellow, a leading Delaunay scholar, Ryan came up against a lack of source material on these early years. She applied for and received a College of Arts and Sciences Graduate Research Award and a Carol Ravenal Art History Graduate Travel Award which allowed her to go to France over the summer to research further.
While the Parisian experience provided a lesson in tenacity, Ryan’s day at the Nantes Arts Museum was the exact opposite. Archivist Anne Maleyrot rolled out the red carpet, getting Ryan free admission, access to all of the curatorial files, time in the museum library, and showing her the museum’s catalog with Yellow Nude as its cover, currently selling in the gift shop. Ryan spoke enthusiastically about her day there:
“The museum clearly has a lot of pride in their Delaunay collection and it was a real honor to visit the institution and learn about all of their efforts to feature her artwork. Anne was a truly wonderful resource for me—she had every document she could think of laid out in wait. She also asked me to be sure that I sent her and the museum a copy of the finished thesis as she was really looking forward to reading all about my work!”
In the end, despite initial roadblocks, Ryan ended up enjoying her time in Paris as much as she did the café’s chorizo baked potato. Reviewing the documents from Nantes and the letters she was able to see in Paris (those written to the artist are available for professional research, letters from the artist are kept under lock and key), Ryan reassessed her view of Delaunay’s early work and her debut exhibition. She found that Delaunay was in close and constant contact with other Russian immigrants and friends still living in Russia after her move to Paris. This allowed Ryan to think of Delaunay’s art on two levels, how it would read to the European audience of Paris and how the other immigrant artists in Montparnasse, many Jewish and Russian as well, would see her biographical experience framed for the consumer market in this savvy painting.
Ryan will present a portion of this research at the 2018 AU/GW Graduate Art History Conference on October 27, 2018. She is writing her Master’s thesis under Dr. Juliet Bellow and expects to graduate this spring.
The narrative hook chorizo baked potato from Josephine Café in Nantes.