“What kind of a woman are you?” Henri Matisse screamed at his model as he stood before his canvass. He and dozens of other Parisian painters in the 1920s, Chagall, Cocteau and Braque among them, would never find out. Only Picasso refused to paint Mari Lani, a model who became known as the woman of a hundred faces. The phrase was also the proposed title for a film in which she was to star. Or so the story went.
No one knew where she came from or if she really was an actress. They had only the word of her husband and promoter, Maximillian Abramowicz. His plan was to advertise his upcoming film by coaxing famous artists to commit his wife’s image to canvas. After which, there would be a grand exhibition. (“Muse Without A Trace,” by Bryan Moynahan, Vanity Fair, September 2018, pgs. 206-212.)
Though not a striking beauty, once Lani was accepted into Jean Cocteau’s circle friends, other artists became fascinated by her. She was accused of having a chimeric or insubstantial air. Fifty-eight portraits were completed for the project, each of them her likeness, yet so different in the aspect, one couldn’t be certain it was the same woman.
Abramowitcz capitalized on his wife’s allure yet seemed to be a legitimate producer. Certainly, his two collaborators, slotted to help write the script, were beyond reproach: Thomas Mann and Louis Bromfield. The first was already a Nobel Prize winner. The second would soon earn a Pulitzer. Because of them, Woman of a Hundred Faces was on everyone’s lips. Then, one day, the couple disappeared. No one spoke of fraud. Most of the paintings remained in Paris. Many went to important museums. Collectors purchased the others. In 2013 Christie’s auctioned off one painting for $28 million.
Where had the couple gone and why? Writer Bryan Moynahan fills in some of the blanks in his article for Vanity Fair. Suffice to say, the film never got off the ground. Lani’s previous acting career proved to be a lie. Both she and her husband were of humble Polish backgrounds. They arrived, penniless, in Paris at a time when the fluid social milieu allowed minnows to swim with whales.
Mari Lani’s obituary tells us she died at 58 of a brain tumor. Prior to that, she and her husband visited the United States, still promoting his dream, though they got nowhere. Eventually, the pair returned to France to live a quiet life outside Paris. After his wife’s death, Abramowicz eked out a living as an art critic, traveling between the south of France and Paris, but after an earlier falling out with Cocteau, he lost his key to the magic kingdom and no longer enjoyed the privileges of society’s inner circle.
I wonder what Leonardo da Vinci would have done with Lani’s image. Her smile was as enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s, apparently. With her as his model, who knows how many myths his work would have generated? Mari Lani’s portrait beside the most famous one in art history? A stitch in time and it might have happened.
The idea is a dream, of course, like the Polish couple’s desire to be famous. That she is remembered at all is a triumph. But what does fame matter to her now, or to any of the greats long since buried?
(Originally published 9/6/18)