Émilie Charmy – A Visceral Voice at The Fralin Museum of Art

Detail of Self-Portrait with an Album, by Émilie Charmy. c. 1907-1912. Detail of Self-Portrait with an Album, by Émilie Charmy. c. 1907-1912.

The Émilie Charmy retrospective currently on display at the Fralin Museum of Art is perplexing.

Most of her paintings have a fierce inquisitive quality. Her application of paint gives expressive life to simple compositions. Single thick brush strokes resolve into a small elegant wrist or a delicate twist of hair. Although a few paintings, like “Nu tentant son sein,” appear fast and crude, her work cultivates a rough and layered visceral quality. The show culminates with a painting so thickly built, it brings to mind the Balzac story “Unknown Masterpiece.” Mounds of paint construct an obscure image, a self-portrait which viewers experience more as brush stokes than a foggy-edged figure haunting the picture plane.

While Charmy’s craft is fascinating to explore, her content is slightly odd. Her paintings initially seem to be an artifact of her times, nudes reminiscent of Manet’s Olympia and blocked color scenes recalling the primitivism of Gauguin’s landscapes. As one studies the paintings, however, it seems that Charmy shifts the focus on the female-body-object to include immediate sensuality. She also creates distinct moments which build notes of fashion and character in her figures. These notes are subtle, and her images threaten to settle into the niche of patriarchal misogynist tropes which dominate much of art history and particularly the canvases of Charmy’s contemporaries. This is not inherently bad, it is only to say that Charmy is more distinct for her rugged love and care for painting than for the fact that she was a female artist during the time in which she lived.

As such, the Fralin does Charmy a disservice when it describes her as “one of the most original female voices of modern art in Paris during the first half of the 20th century.” Rather Émilie Charmy should simply be described as one of the most exquisitely inquisitive and visceral voices in modern expressive painting.

~Aaron Miller and Rose Guterbock