8:50 am Feb. 13, 2012
“I can draw and write, and you’d be foolish not to hire me.”
These words, painted in black on a white wall, hover over the exhibit Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913-1919, up now at the Brooklyn Museum (through Aug. 19).
Bold words for an inexperienced journalist (as Barnes was in 1913) who walks into the offices of a newspaper uninvited (as Barnes did); bolder still for a twenty-year-old lady journalist who couldn’t even vote. But the Brooklyn Daily Eagle gave her the gig, and it kicked off Barnes' long and varied career, in which her worked ranged from news and illustration to plays and novels. This exhibit focuses on just one small sliver of that career, but the works hint at the confident and experimental artist she would become.
In a display case at the beginning of the exhibit are two photographs of Barnes, both taken in 1914. In one, she sits in a chair, not quite looking at the camera. She wears a long skirt and a white lace collar, and her long hair is done up in a bun. In the other, she clings around the waist of a fireman who is himself attached by harness to a rope, several stories above ground outside a brick building. Barnes looks up at the camera, her legs demurely crossed at the ankles while her feet, in heels, dangle in the air. The latter photo was taken to accompany a first-person article titled “My Adventures Being Rescued,” wherein she attended a training session for New York City firefighters and assisted the students by letting them “rescue” her three times. That was Barnes at her best: reporting a story from the inside and with a sense of humor.
“You can see her hand," said Catherine Morris, curator of the exhibit and of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art where it is on view, describing the value of seeing the original works despite their availability in print. The exhibit is made up mostly of original copies of her newspaper work, both writings and illustrations, yellowed and crumbling but well preserved behind glass.
"You can see how she drew, and how she conceived of things visually,” Morris said, “but then you can also see how they reproduced in the printed media at the time.”
Djuna Barnes is the latest selection for the “Herstory Gallery,” which exhibits work by the 1,039 important feminists listed in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, the permanent anchor piece of the Sackler Center. It’s a small but fascinating collection of curios, forty-five objects in all, borrowed from an archive at the University of Maryland. There’s something about old newspaper clippings that makes you want to lean in close—especially when they have period-specific headlines like “THE WOMAN OF TO-DAY.”
Barnes was adventurous and inquisitive, exploring the margins of society and interviewing strange New York characters wherever she went. She embellished scenes and fabricated characters when she thought it necessary—a practice that at the time was not frowned upon. For one Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about a new dance hall, she invented an interaction between a wealthy bachelor and a lower-class shop girl to illustrate the surprising ways in which different social classes were meeting there.
“Couples who will never meet again take sodas together,” read the caption of one of her sketches for the article. A sidebar helpfully provided instructions for dancing, while noting that the “Bunny Hug and Turkey Trot are Taboo.”
Barnes also skewered her subjects whenever she felt like it—subjects who probably never saw it coming. A 1915 piece, “Jess Willard Says Girls Will Be Boxing for a Living Soon,” consisted mostly a dialogue between herself and a professional boxer. Willard thought he was being charming.
“I really don’t understand why pretty girls like you reporters have to stick at a dingy job on a newspaper,” he said, and told her he was in the market for a wife. Barnes knew this was a lie—he was already married—and printed it.
“This is a part of the interview I should like to have left out,” she wrote, “but he said it, and so I give it up reluctantly to the judgment of the public.”
In a satirical style she wrote a piece about the hipsters of 1916, “How The Villagers Amuse Themselves.”
“It’s sordid and hard, but it must be done. There are those beastly early taxing breakfasts in bed, there is the nerve racking half hour before dinner when the incredible folly of the world must be tabloided into wisdom….”
Barnes was also a Greenwich Village bohemian, famously, living a life of art, culture, and gender-blind love. But for the purposes of her writing, she always maintained a distance from her subjects, even when she was writing about a group to which she belonged. A vocal feminist and suffragist, when tasked with covering a two-week suffragist course, she nevertheless managed to mock the group’s strict rules and methodology.
“70 Trained Suffragists Turned Loose on City: Grist of Vote-Getters Ground Out of School in Rapid-Fire Two-Week Course—Principles of Women’s Rights Crammed Into Heads Eager for Wisdom.”
"It also speaks to why she called journalism 'newspaper fiction,'” said Morris. “She's constantly positioning herself as an observer, no matter how far into something she may be, for all intents and purposes, she still very much positions herself as somebody who's watching, and cataloguing, and critiquing."
While there is a lot of humor in the exhibit, Barnes' political writing takes a more serious tone. In response to news that hunger-striking suffragists in France were being force-fed in prison, Barnes subjected herself to the same. She described in chilling detail every step of the dehumanizing procedure, documenting it in a piece for New York World Magazine called “How it Feels to Be Forcibly Fed.”
It’s unusual to find a journalist’s work in an art museum, but Djuna Barnes’s work lends itself well. At a time when newspapers had not yet fully incorporated photographer, Barnes often illustrated her own articles and essays. The “bohemian” piece was accompanied by a caricature that could have come right out of an Aubrey Beardsley chapbook. She illustrated other pieces with casual, expressive line drawings of people that evoked the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec. A charcoal drawing of a WWI doughboy with a bayonet that was commissioned for the cover of Trend magazine in 1914 is perhaps the most emotionally evocative.
Morris said that she didn’t want Newspaper Fiction to try to tackle Barnes’ entire biography.
“This very concise moment in her life seemed to offer a lot of different opportunities to talk about her life—as an artist, as a writer, as a proto-feminist, and as an individual living in a very interesting time in New York history,” she said.
So the the exhibit's scope extends only to 1919, after which Barnes left New York for the expatriate scene in Paris, where she would fall in love with her longtime partner, Thelma Wood, and write stunningly for Vanity Fair. It was there that she interviewed James Joyce, who influenced the development of her modernist writing which she desployed most famously in her novel Nightwood. After she returned to New York during the Second World War the city was less kind to Barnes; she struggled with alcoholism, wrote less, and became reclusive.
What sort of journalist would Barnes be today? Morris said that, regardless of the format, Barnes would be “engaged with very radical politics.” She added that some of Barnes’ “stunt” journalism, such as the force-feeding piece, foreshadowed some of the most persuasive immersive writing of our time. For Djuna Barnes, the political was always personal.
Newspaper Fiction: The New York Journalism of Djuna Barnes, 1913-1919, is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 19).
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