The Mysterious Face of Fifty Portraits

Jules Pascin, Maria Lani, not dated. Charcoal on paper, 26 1/4 x 20 3/4 in. Gift of Jean Goriany, 1943. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.

Cruising through our collection on the Google Art Project, I came across this charcoal portrait of a woman who called herself Maria Lani by Jules Pascin. I was drawn in by her confrontational pose, the arched brows, her offered jaw and aligned bobbed hair. Consulting the library’s copy of the always entertaining Kiki’s Paris: Artists and Lovers 1900-1930, I found the kind of good story I was hoping for.

Lani was a mysterious woman of Polish descent (she also went by the name Maria Ilyin) who arrived in 1920s Montparnasse with her husband, a Russian man named Maximilien Abramovitch. Though without a cent, the pair had a story of wanting to produce a film, starring Lani, and featuring a collection of portraits that would menacingly come to life. Using her intellect and beauty, Lani was able to persuade a shocking number of artists into painting, drawing, and sculpting her likeness, including Jules Pascin. The apotheosis of her apparent scheme were gallery shows of over fifty of the works. A Berlin show at Alfred Flechtheim’s gallery included works by Braque, Chagall, De Chirico, Cocteau, Derain, Dufy, Léger, and Matisse, just to name a few! (The book notes that Picasso was one of the only artists to turn her down.)

After a 1930 show in Paris at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, apparently Lani disappeared with all of the works and needless to say, the film was never made. There is still not a great deal known about Lani; a Google search reveals quite a few images, but not much biographical information, not even an obituary. (Though the book referenced an article in Paris Match in 1954 when she died.) You can find a YouTube video of John Galliano’s Spring/Summer Ready-to-Wear 2011 collection in which he cites Lani as his inspiration. At 1:11 in the video, you can hear him tell her story. Something about this woman made her a popular muse.