June 25, 2012

"Misia, Queen of Paris" at the Musée d'Orsay

In my twenty plus years in the art world, the name Misia Sert has surfaced many times.  I must admit that I had only the vaguest idea of who she was, basically one of the "characters" of the early 20th century.  So when I saw a poster for the newly opened exhibition "Misia, Reine de Paris" at the Musée d'Orsay I was delighted - here was the perfect opportunity to learn more about this mystery woman in one of my very favorite museums!

What became immediately apparent was that Misia Godebska - Natanson - Edwards - Sert was at the center of the artistic and literary community in Paris from the Belle Epoque of the 1890's through to the Great Depression.  While she herself was not a creator or performer, she was the muse for some of the greatest artists, composers, writers and choreographers of her time.

Marie Sophie Olga Zénaïde Godebska was born in Saint Petersburg in 1872 with a drama that foretold the adventures to come!  Her mother died in childbirth after rushing from Belgium, heavily pregnant, into a harsh Russian winter to confront her husband, the sculptor Cyprien Godebski, and his mistress.  Misia and her two brothers were raised in Belgium and France and "La Polonaise", as she was called, studied piano under Gabriel Fauré.  While a gifted musician she did not pursue a professional career as a pianist.  She was, however, often painted at the keyboard by some of the luminaries of the age including Bonnard (see "Misia at the Piano", left), Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec and Vallotton, and she is credited with inspiring some major composers of the era such as Ravel, Satie and Stravinsky.

In 1893, Misia married Thadée Natanson, who, along with his brothers, had founded an artistic and literary publication called "La revue blanche" after its distinctive white cover.  It was considered one of the most progressive periodicals of the time and while Madame Natanson was not a direct contributor, she was its major facilitator.  Her American biographers Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale described Misia as "the feminine touchstone of one of the most talented circles of artists that Paris has ever known".  She was the consummate hostess with a salon that included the most influential and prominent Parisian artists and composers of the time - most of whom were madly in love with her.

The marriage, like the magazine, did not last.  Deeply in debt, Thadée Natanson pushed his wife into the arms of a wealthy creditor, Alfred Edwards, whom she married in 1905.  Although the passion soon dissipated as Edwards fell in love with the actress and courtesan Geneviève Lantelme and Misia with José Maria Sert, a Catalan painter, the marriage provided Misia with the means to finance her latest passion.  Introduced by Sert to the impresario Serge Diaghilev, Misia became godmother to the fledgling avant garde ballet company the Ballets Russes.  Although considered by many, including her dear friend Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, to be the arbiter of taste and fashion in Paris, Misia allowed Diaghilev full artistic freedom and supported him unstintingly.  It is thanks to Misia that today's ballet audiences can enjoy such masterpieces as "The Rites of Spring", "The Afternoon of a Faun" and "Parade".

Divorced from Edwards in 1909, Misia married José Maria Sert in 1920.  Once again marital bliss evaded her as Sert became infatuated with Georgian sculptress Isabelle Roussadana Mdivani (Roussy) who actually moves in with the couple at the Hotel Meurice in Paris.  The ménage à trois could not continue and Misia was granted her third divorce in 1927.

By this time Misia was nearly blind and addicted to morphine.  Nevertheless she traveled to Venice to be by the side of her dear friend Diaghilev as he lay dying.  She also accompanied Chanel to Hollywood where Chanel was to design the costumes for four movies.  In 1950, having lost an eye, been arrested for drug possession, and virtually alone, Misia passed away at her home on the rue de Rivoli.  Gabrielle Chanel dressed her body before the ceremony at the Polish Church in Paris.

Christened the "Queen of Paris" by the press, Misia was renowned for both her love life and her social life - a major unsung influence on 20th century art, music and literature revered by some of the greatest genius' of the age.  Once a doyenne of Paris café society, she died alone and forlorn.  Thanks to this marvelous exhibition we can better appreciate her huge contribution to our modern culture and her memory lives on in glory!

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