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

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

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,” seem merely 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 Masterpeice.” Mounds of paint construct an obscure image, a self portrait, which viewers experience more through the care of each brush stoke than the foggy edged figure which haunts 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. However as one studies the paintings, it seems that Charmy shifts the focus on the female-body-object to include an immediate sensuality. She has also created distinct moments which build notes of fashion and character in her figures. These notes however are subtle, and her images threatened to settle into the niche of patriarchal misogynist images 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.