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'The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes'
ART REVIEW: BROOKLYN MUSEUM
by Kelsy Chauvin
2012-03-28

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Djuna Barnes ( 1892—1982 ) was just 21 when she marched into the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and declared, "I can draw and write and you'd be foolish not to hire me." Her statement says much about this brassy "modern" woman. She was so far ahead of her time in terms of moxie and self-sufficiency, her early work is considered "proto-feminist"—since feminism as the equal-rights movement we know today did not yet exist. Rather, most forward-thinking women and men of the 1910s were focused on suffrage, which culminated with the 19th Amendment in 1919.

Uniquely audacious, Barnes had such daring she likely would stand out no matter what era she lived in, and no matter which gender. To showcase some of her innovative early writing and illustrations, the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art has installed Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913—1919, in its always illuminating Herstory Gallery.

The admittedly modest exhibit packs a punch, composed of the potency of Barnes' early work. In just six years of journalism displayed here, it's clear that she was eager to perform dangerous feats for the sake of an exciting news report in one of several publications she wrote for. Whether that meant letting a firefighter "save" her from a rooftop by descending with only a rope around her waist ( part of her "My Adventures Being Rescued" series ) , or being tied to a gurney for the story of "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed"—in response to British authorities' tactic on imprisoned, hunger-striking suffragists.

However, it wasn't just a dramatic article Barnes was after. As an intrepid reporter, she sought the subjective view. It meant putting herself in the shoes of those she wrote about—contrary to the "just the facts" journalism of her peers. This approach allowed her creativity to emerge in tandem with her feminist voice. "Politics Through Personalization" is how the exhibit explains her early journalism. It was through her trademark first-hand experiences and reports that Barnes spotlighted political disparities and untold truths.

Writing wasn't her only forte. Since photojournalism would not become a newspaper staple until the 1920s, Barnes often included hand-drawn "snapshots" with her stories. Her figurative illustrations are pictorial representations of everyone from nightclub patrons and ladies who lunch, to soldiers and the homeless. She was as interested in high society as she was in bohemian artist circles and seedy downtown saloons. All of them made great subjects ( and surely were just as much fun ) .

Her visual art was influenced by art nouveau and Japanese woodblock styles, always in simple media like ink and watercolors. She embraced a modernist elegance in her drawings, earning her the covers of magazines like Vanity Fair, and the acclaim of her artistic peers.

It's clear that Barnes also was privileged to work with editors who appreciated her inventiveness. Her early columns quickly morphed into short fiction stories for the New York Morning Telegraph and other publications. Sackler Center curator Catherine J. Morris asserts that Barnes' early voice in these tales would evolve into her later writing style of "modernist narrative fragmentation," as seen in Nightwood ( 1936 ) , her most famous novel.

Barnes' personal history explains where some of her atypical sensibilities came from. She was raised in a non-traditional household even by today's standards. Her childhood home in Long Island, N.Y., included her eight siblings, both parents, her father's mistress and her paternal grandmother. Far from a conventional upbringing, she steadily grew more independent and her perspective more cynical. She moved to New York City and began to study art in her late teens. By 1915, she found an apartment in Greenwich Village and assumed the life of a writer.

Hers was a particularly long and colorful life. It included living through Paris in the 1920s and the Village thereafter. Enjoying a remarkable period of liberal sexuality, and the joys and heartbreaks of her own unabashed lesbian relationships. The Depression also took its toll, and Barnes would never go on to make a king's ransom for her significant contributions to the literary and artistic worlds. However, that's another story.

This exhibit of just 45 objects, while compact, reveals much about the worldly, modernist author and artist. Morris explained that it was Barnes' early training in newspaper fiction and experience with diverse networks of characters that "paved the way for the dramatic life and literary accomplishments that would follow."

For Barnes, to revel in one's own daring is a life worth sharing, and lucky for us, she shared it.

"Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913—1919" will be on view through Aug. 19 at the Brooklyn Museum; call 718-638-5000 or visit www.brooklynmuseum.org .


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