15 January 2016

Three Paris Exhibitions: (2) Splendeurs et misères

Shows seen last month in a city subdued and uncrowded after les évènements of 13 December 

Of the three exhibitions I saw in Paris in December 2015, I have already posted about Picasso.Mania
at the Grand Palais, and the next will be on Villa Flora at the Musée Marmottan Monet. This post is about Splendeurs et misères, images de la prostitution en France (1850-1910) at the Musée d’Orsay, an exhibition which will reappear later in 2016 at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, to be called Lichte zeden (Easy Virtue). The Paris title presumably refers to a part of Honoré de Balzac's La Comédie humaine: Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, (The Splendours and Miseries of Courtesans or A Harlot High and Low) published in four parts from 1838-1847. The Musée d’Orsay is not reluctant to take on difficult subjects, their male nude show in 2013 being an example. Splendeurs et misères, examining prostitution, not just in art but as an aspect of the social history of France, is certainly another, a revelation of misery for the many and splendour for a few.

The d’Orsay version addressed five themes and was spread over 15 rooms with numerous pictures and photographs. The first theme, Ambiguity, looked at the position of women, respectable or otherwise, in public places during the daytime and at night in cafés, cabarets and at the opera. Procurement and soliciting were often near the surface at any time of the day, for example in Giovanni Boldini’s En traversant la rue (1873/75, below left) and James Tissot’s La Demoiselle du magasin (1883/85, below right):

Women drinking alone in cafés is a recurrent theme in the art of the time, as in Degas’ L’Absinthe (1875/76, below left) and Manet’s La Prune (1878, below right). Agostina Sagatori au Tambourin (1887, seen earlier in 2015) was on loan from the Van Gogh Museum which also holds Toulouse-Lautrec’s Poudre de riz, (1887).

The cabaret pictures included Lautrec’s Moulin de la Galette (1889, below upper), on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, and, from the Ny-Carlsberg-Glyptothek Copenhagen, the less well-known M Delaporte au Jardin de Paris (c1893, below lower):

At the opera, Eugène Giraud’s Le Bal de l'Opéra (1866, below top) and Edouard Degas’ Masked Ball at the Opera (1873, below lower) convey the same scene, the latter being far more compelling in its composition: 

After Ambiguity, Brothels - more Lautrecs, of course and photography (there are two sections of contemporary photography). Again from Chicago, Courbet’s Mère Grégoire (1855, 57/59, below left) refers to a character from a popular song, the proprietress of a Parisian brothel. An unfamiliar Lautrec from Budapest was Les Dames au réfectoire (1893/5, below right) conveying the unhappy position of the women employed as prostitutes who had to undergo frequent medical checks – a study for Rue des Moulins, (1894), was in this show, but not the final work, now in Washington.

Prostitution operated at all levels of society including the highest (for which abolition would only finally come in 1946). The section, Les Grandes Horizontales, included, as well as a Fauteuil d’Amour (below top), reputedly used by the Prince of Wales in the 1890s in pursuit of entente cordiale, Rolla (1878, below lower) by Henri Gervex:

followed by Manet’s Olympia (1863, below), bought by the French government in 1890, and introducing the final, rather diffuse, sections of the show:

... Prostitution and the imagination and Prostitution and modernity. Lautrec reappeared with the famous Au Moulin Rouge (1892/95, detail in the poster above), again from Chicago, and the Courtauld’s Private Room in the "Le rat mort" (1899, below left) leading on to, among much else, some Picassos from 1901 including Nu aux bas rouges (below right):

Two final images from a show which is informative if not uplifting: Picasso’s La Buveuse d’absinthe (1901, below left) and Kees van Dongen’s Liverpool Lighthouse (1897, below right):

Splendeurs et misères, images de la prostitution en France (1850-1910) ends on 17 January but will be at the Van Gogh Museum from 19 February to 19 June. Unfortunately, although Professor Richard Thomson from Edinburgh University was one of the curators of the exhibition, it will not be coming to the UK.


If one measure of an exhibition is whether it alters one’s ways of seeing, Splendeurs et misères was a success – as recently Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882, below) in the Courtauld Gallery, London.

And in case anyone should choose to believe that Paris and London were quite different in their mores, The Awakening Conscience (1853, below) by William Holman Hunt clearly shows a man and his mistress, though sanctimoniously overlaid with religious salvation, in keeping with the susceptibilities of Victorian England.

No comments:

Post a Comment