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September 28, 2006
The acidental surrealist: Mary Reynolds, American in Paris
The accidental surrealist: A link from Mark Woods of wood s lot (one of our deeper bloggers) unearths yet another American who took a flyer on freedom when most early 20th-century women were privately struggling with corseted convention.
Warm Ashes: The Life and Career of Mary Reynolds is astonishing. Why haven't we heard of Mary Reynolds before, in the same breath as Anais Nin and Djuna Barnes?
Perhaps because she did not write. She bound books.
In a time when the world was small enough that all the artists seemed to know each other, Mary Hubachek Reyholds, born in 1891, lived in Greenwich Village with her soulmate husband, enjoying Bohemia. He enlisted in WWI sixteen months into their marriage, and died of the flu somewhere in Europe two years later.
Pressured by her parents to move on, remarry and start a family, she fled to Paris, to Montparnasse. She took up with Marcel Duchamp, who would be, despite rocky early years, her lover for the rest of her life, and eventually took up bookbinding as her own art.
Mary Reynolds' binding for Les Mains libre (Hands free), Paul Eluard's poetry accompanied by Man Ray's drawings. (More photos of her work)
Susan Glover Godlewski, in this profile of Reynolds at the Art Institute of Chicago, writes,
The 1930s marked a period of tranquillity, contentment, and artistic achievement for Reynolds. Her relationship with Duchamp had settled into a comfortable intimacy. Her creativity and binding production were at their highest levels. She held an open house almost nightly at her home at 14, rue Hallé, with her quiet garden the favored spot after dinner for the likes of Duchamp, Brancusi, Man Ray, Breton, Barnes, Guggenheim, Éluard, Mina Loy, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Samuel Beckett, and others.
Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, and Mary Reynolds at Villefranche, France in 1929.
When life became dangerous, Mary refused to leave Paris with Duchamp, and became instead a leader of the Resistance, harboring refugees as "Gentle Mary."
I am trying to profit by the times here....it is a bill in my personal life. I said try—don't laff—to make myself a better character—a little late. It is a curious life of anguish and such luxury as I have not known for a long time—the evenings more or less alone and away from the world like a desert island—and I enjoy that.
She finally fled just ahead of the Gestapo by walking over the Pyrenees to Spain. After being debriefed by the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), forerunner of the CIA, she tried to join them, in the foreign service, but was rejected for "age"; she was 52.
Reunited with Duchamp in Greenwich Village, she sorely missed Paris, and returned six weeks after the war ended. He joined her, but liked the art scene and collectors in New York too much to stay.
She died in 1950 at her Paris home of uterine cancer, with Duchamp at her side.
Duchamp stayed on at 14, rue Hallé taking care of Reynolds's affairs, cleaning the house, and most importantly, organizing her bindings, as well as the books, art, and ephemera that she had gathered during her three decades in Paris. These he had carefully packed and shipped to her brother, who had decided to donate the collection to The Art Institute of Chicago in his sister's memory. Hubachek (her brother Frank) and Duchamp worked assiduously on the organization and publication of the collection for nearly six years. When the collection catalogue, Surrealism and Its Affinities: The Mary Reynolds Collection, was published in 1956, Hubachek made certain that as many of his sister's friends as he could locate received a copy. He obtained names and addresses not just from Duchamp, but from Cocteau, Barnes, Calder, Flanner, and others. Tributes poured in. One of the most touching was from Cocteau, who wrote to Duchamp, "My very dear Marcel—It is rare that death leaves warm ashes. Thanks to you, this is what is happening for Mary. I congratulate and embrace you."
Her friend, the writer Janet Flanner, wrote of her,
How intimate she was with the artery-stream of Paris, in the pulse of its creators, major and minor. There was something immediate in her sense of appreciation, she seemed to be right at the side of writers and artists as they became themselves, so she was a continuous witness.
There is something poignant about the Mary Reynolds presented here, an early Forrest Gump, present at everyone else's creation, while her own efforts remained obscure.
The Vassar girl from Minneapolis took freedom as far as she could. I hope she found that enough.
Man Ray. Photograph of Mary Reynolds and Marcel Duchamp. Gelatin silver print; 15 x 14.9 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Frank B. Hubachek (1970.796).
Posted by Sheila Lennon at 7:07 AM | Permalink
This is awesome! I had no idea. I love discovering thhe amazing things woman have done in the arts. Growing up with the history of woman in the arts invisible, it's a new found treasure with stories needed to be told. So many amazing women behind the well documented front stage men. Thank you for sharing!
Posted by: Kate Pabst on December 16, 2006 10:14 AM