Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 @ Musée d'Orsay

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Edouard Manet, Bal masqué à l'Opéra, 1873

I am still digesting the Splendour and Misery exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. I don’t know whether to celebrate or commiserate its staging as one of the major exhibitions in Paris this fall. In the first text panel on entry into the exhibition, there is a very bold pronouncement of how surprising it is that men were the ones to paint images of prostitutes in the period (1850-1910). This lack of self-consciousness is indicative of the entire exhibition. Of course, it is only men who painted prostitutes because the kind of paintings the Musée d’Orsay exhibits are all made by men: paintings that demonstrate the coincidence of the rise of prostitution and high modernism. But then, I wonder why I was so surprised, because experimental, amateur and private images made by women in the late 19th century are not going to bring in tourist euros.
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Louis Anquétin, Femme sur les Champs Elysée la nuit, 1889-93 

For all the paintings by French fathers of modernism, there were some interesting photographs and behind closed curtains, some glorious daguerrotypes and early films depicting and advertising sex. These images, like many of the paintings by Musée d’Orsay favorites--Manet, Degas, Forain, Béraud, and Anquetin--were provocative and interesting for many reasons, few of which were raised by the exhibition. In spite of its title and publicity, the exhibition is staged as a history of the rise of prostitution in France.  Thus, paintings and some photographs are used to document the life of prostitutes “in the modern age.” In the couple of rooms that draw attention to the coincidence of technological modernity and prostitution, the paintings are posed as documents of historical events going on outside of painting. Thus, Louis Anquétin’s Femme sur les Champs Elysée la nuit and other paintings in the L’Heure du Gaz room, show that prostitution flourished at night under city street lights. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - At the Moulin Rouge - Google Art Project.jpg
Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Au Moulin Rouge, 1892-95
Little is said of the complexity of representation found in significant paintings that critique this world. For example, Manet’s Bal masqué à l’Opéra documents the habit of poorer women to find prospective husbands and benefactors at the opera. Manet’s painting is an exquisite representation of class and gender visualized across space, in gesture, costume and in framing, as well as brushtroke and the sweep of the crowd in the composition. All of the replication of the commodification of sex and female sexuality for sale by the complex transformation of Manet’s modernist canvas is lost in an exhibition that prefers to titillate than understand modernist art.

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Louis Béraud, L'Attente, vers 1885
Also troubling about the exhibition is its framing of women as victims of modernity, suffering the social transformations that brought the commodification of sex and men’s desire to exploit women’s bodies for pleasure. Modernity is also about pleasure having an expression or needing to be expressed. What’s missing altogether is any appreciation, let alone, understanding of the different ways that the male artist represented the prostitute. Béraud’s placement of the faceless woman in L’Attente, vers 1885, as an object to be looked at by the spectator as well as the man in the painting is given the exact same status of historical document as Manet’s Irma Brunner, 1880. Manet’s portrait is painted with a face, in profile, given a dignity and an identity equal to that of a noblewoman. And Manet’s empathy for La Prune, 1875 in sumptuous pink, in closeup, bored, beautiful but trapped and framed by the devices around her gives her an identity, a personality and a fate, that is not solely dependent on the men who might be watching her. Looking and who looks at who, or how the woman is positioned within the frame is so different from painting to painting. However, this is completely effaced by an exhibition that is interested in using paintings to tell a story.
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Edouard Manet, La Prune, 1878
Even without going into the theoretical issues of vision and visuality that went hand in hand with prostitution and the transformation to representation in modernity, there are other elements of the paintings that are glossed over. The changing definitions of portraiture that see Toulouse Lautrec’s images of women turned away from him and the viewer, the portraiture of everyday people, how prostitution was also all about performance and parading of sexuality -- going hand in hand with costumes, shopping, the changing identity of men in modern society, questions of spectacle, disconnection, all of which are articulated through looks as well as dress, makeup, lights, performance. These levels of complexity are not foregrounded by the exhibition

Of course, it’s always a treat to see so many great paintings on display in one space. And there are many in this exhibition brought from all over the world. However, in direct proportion to the apparent liberation and equality of women apparently intended by the museum, there is also a persistent oppression and devaluation of women. Of course, we can’t do anything about what painters and photographers in the late-nineteenth century saw on their streets, or how they saw it, but surely we are compelled to educate the next generation of women of the prejudices they face on a daily basis? An exhibition that uses paintings of prostitution to tell a story from the perspective of the men who wrote it--but not always the painters who painted it--does not take responsibility for that education.

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