Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard
Poems and Essays by Diane Kendig
Review by Anne Whitehouse
Publication: June 2021
Woman with a Fan is poet Diane Kendig’s historical inquiry and personal journey into the life and career of turn-of-the-century Spanish painter María Blanchard. Although Blanchard worked in Paris among the modernists, she was little celebrated in her lifetime, nearly forgotten after her death, and only recently rediscovered. Her quintessential Cubist painting,
Woman with a Fan, is now prominently displayed in Madrid’s Reina Sofia Museum, “a floor above Picasso, next to Rivera,/ where we see her work large as theirs for the first time.”
In the sixteen poems and three essays that comprise Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard, Kendig meditates on Blanchard’s art, life, and character and explores other points of connection between herself and her subject. In Blanchard’s short lifetime (1881-1932), marked by poverty and ill health, she produced representational and abstract works of great poignancy. She was born in Santander, Spain, in the same year as Picasso, and she suffered from a congenital birth deformity: “a kyphosis, which is to say, a double deviation of the vertebral column with posterior and lateral curvature…with a prominent humpback.” Like her New England contemporary, the great neglected writer Katharine Butler Hathaway, who had a similar deformity, she developed a hypersensitive awareness of others. Like Hathaway, too, she was rejected romantically because of her appearance, and, like her, she channeled her unfulfilled yearnings into her powerful art. Blanchard’s painting, “The Ice Cream Cart,” features a debonair young man, walking away from the gaily decorated cart with his ice cream prize, while a tiny girl, appearing almost as a baby, strains in vain on tiptoe to reach the cart, her dress billowing over her back and her cane discarded on the ground, forever condemned to frustration.
In Kendig’s poem commemorating the painting, “The Ice Cream Cart,” she relates how, at first glance, she missed the figure of the straining girl, focusing instead on the satisfied boy. Not until her “friend, a nurse, said, ‘Look at the girl behind the cart,’” did she notice Blanchard’s depiction of herself as a child, “barely able to stretch/to hold the ledge of the cart.” Short in stature herself, Kendig identified with Blanchard’s physical frustrations:
…I remember that reach
to the shelf that held suckers at the bank,
to the bookshelf where the librarian waved for me
to get books for myself though I was not tall enough to.
Kendig also identifies with Blanchard’s attachment to her only sister. “In the depths of her penury, she bought back her painting Two Sister from a collector because she felt the collector could not appreciate what it meant to her, sister of two sisters as she was.”
There are poems about Blanchard’s individual paintings and her complicated connections to Picasso and Diego Rivera. Both notorious womanizers, Picasso and Rivera rejected Blanchard as a sexual partner because of her hunchback, yet Picasso admired her enough to attend her funeral, and Rivera, though he shared a studio in Paris with her, was unable to pressure her to wait on him, like Lupe, Frida, and the other women in his life.
In her poem, “The Communicant,” Kendig places Blanchard’s self-portrait as an adult wearing a girl’s first communion dress within the genre of First Communion portraits and the historical context of Spanish art, comparing it to Velázquez’s seminal painting Las Meninas.Blanchard painted
The Communicant, Kendig tells us, after her grant money ran out, and she “had to leave Paris/and settle with her mother on Goya Street in Madrid.”
Blanchard’s relationship with her mother was troubled. Now we know that “fetal injuries are rare in cases of falls…[and] her deformity appears to be more suggestive of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.” Yet Blanchard’s mother was blamed for her daughter’s congenital deformity: “María’s disability came from her mother’s fall from a horse.” As a result, her mother was “cold and distant…María’s mother felt the shame and guilt of creating an imperfect child…caus[ing] an insurmountable rift.” It must have been unpleasant for both women when Blanchard was forced by poverty to return to her mother’s house, yet in “The Communicant,” the subject’s expression is enigmatic.
In “Lorca’s Elegy,” Part One of her multi-section poem, “Speaking of María Blanchard,” Kendig offers a new translation of Lorca’s elegy of Blanchard. In her essay, “Afterword: Speaking of María Blanchard,” she relates how Lorca’s elegy introduced her to Blanchard and explains some of the creative decisions she made in her translation. For Kendig, Blanchard’s life offers an inspiring example of perseverance despite difficulty: “Perhaps just by being María Blanchard, she is giving…a lesson in getting the work done, despite disability and pain, despite poverty, despite gender and the lack of critical acclaim. Despite all that, an artist finally is not necessarily the one with wealth or health or fame: she is the one who creates art.”
Insights like these might seem self-evident, yet we constantly need to be reminded of them. Kendig’s Woman with a Fan: On María Blanchard is a poignant introduction to the artist and her life, as well as a living testimonial to the influence that one artist can exert on another, despite living in different eras, speaking different languages, and working in different genres.
Lady with a Fan is available now from Shanit Arts.
About the reviewer:
Anne Whitehouse’s most recent poetry collection is OUTSIDE FROM THE INSIDE (Dos Madres Press, 2020), and her most recent chapbook is ESCAPING LEE MILLER (Ethel Zine and Micro Press, 2021). She is also the author of a novel, FALL LOVE. Her chapbook, FRIDA, about Frida Kahlo, is forthcoming from Ethel Zine and Micro Press.