A history of the world’s oldest profession, told through a series of masterpieces.
Édouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ (1863).PHOTO: PATRICE SCHMIDT/MUSÉE D'ORSAY
TOM L. FREUDENHEIM
Early on in the Musée d’Orsay’s “Splendours and Miseries: Images of Prostitution in France, 1850-1910”—a compelling, if exhausting, exhibition of more than 400 works of art and ephemera in various mediums—we are confronted by the arresting juxtaposition of Edgar Degas’s familiar “L’Absinthe” (1875-76) with images of similarly dour women: “La Prune” (1878) by Édouard Manet and “Au Café: Agostina Segatori au Tambourin” (1887) by Vincent van Gogh. They set a fairly morose mood that never really lets up, despite the array of women, ranging from overly dressed to undressed, who fill the show’s canvases. That’s in line with what Guy Cogeval, the Orsay’s president, describes in the show’s catalog as the museum’s policy of taking “a fresh look at nineteenth-century art . . . [including] opportunities to highlight a darker side to modernity and its origins.”
Splendours & Miseries: Images of Prostitution in France, 1850-1910
Through Jan. 17, 2016
While the exhibition is more a lesson in the history of prostitution in France than a history of art, the curators—Nienke Bakker, Richard Thomson, Isolde Pludermacher and Marie Robert—include many significant works by artists too easily overlooked by those of us lured to the familiar. These include Louis Anquetin’s “Portrait of a Woman (Marguerite Dufay?)” (1891), whose come-hither smile and fleshy bare-breasted figure combine for a rare moment of jollity in a show that reeks of sadness. Among the many other notable and rarely seen works here are Jean-Louis Forain’s “Le Client” (1878), in which a seated man ogles five women in a red-walled brothel; József Rippl-Rónai’s Fauve-inflected “Prostitutes Getting Dressed (Red Furniture and Yellow Wall)” (1912-13); and the formally dressed men mixing with dancers in Jean Béraud’s “Backstage at the Opéra” (1889), which suggests a riff on Degas’s ballet images (whose better-known ones are also on view).
Edgar Degas’s ‘L’Absinthe’ (1875-76).PHOTO:PATRICE SCHMIDT/MUSÉE D
It can be unsettling to view those beloved dancers in light of this exhibition’s theme. Did we once believe they were innocent young things? Suddenly we might sympathize with the arrogant “Woman in a Carriage” (1889), by Anquetin, as she peers disapprovingly through her lorgnette at something unseemly.
Alphonse Mucha’s famous 1889 poster of Sarah Bernhardt as Marguerite Gautier, the courtesan in “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas, fils (better known to us as Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s “La traviata”), raises another issue addressed here: “that women who became famous on the stage risked assumptions being made about their private life,” as Mr. Thomson puts it in his catalog essay. This question of ambiguity—being unsure about how to interpret the subject in a painting—pervades the exhibition, and is likely to stay with viewers for a long time.
Another theme explored is the blurring of lines in pornography. In the most powerful of their images, the fetishism and occasional sadomasochism depicted by Félicien Rops and others exude a disturbing allure. This is missing from the work of artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose bizarre soft-porn nude sculpture “Corinth” (before 1903) is shown next to “Elle” (1905) by Gustav Adolf Mossa, an almost grotesque painting that resembles contemporary Japanese pornography and depicts a naked woman proudly sitting atop piles of naked bodies. Both seem comical in contrast to the hard-core porn of photographs and early movies (shown in age-restricted rooms).
Once your vision has been changed by a powerful exhibition, a lot else can start to look different. Nowhere is this more true than at the Musée d’Orsay. Entering “Splendours and Miseries,” one might not have noticed Thomas Couture’s gigantic “Romans of the Decadence” (1847) across from the entrance. But its overt sexuality—and that of much else on view throughout the museum—slaps you in the face once you’ve been corrupted by this show. I wonder whether that extra impact will be as evident when the exhibition is next on view at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, which co-organized the show.
Encountering Édouard Manet’s magnificent “Olympia” (1863) near the end of the exhibition provokes that “aha” moment when you are once again awe-struck by what makes a painting iconic. Its formal qualities, so deeply anchored in memorable art-historical precedents, along with its elusive meanings, make you wonder whether placing the work within a specific subject such as prostitution might trivialize it. But new contexts can provide added meanings, even to familiar works. Manet’s arresting study in black-and-white, “Masked Ball at the Opéra” (1875), and Picasso’s majestic Blue Period “Femme Assise au Fichu (Melancholy Woman)” (1902) are among the many works that will never look quite the same to me again.
It’s probably coincidental that the exhibition is occurring at the same time as the international debate sparked by Amnesty International’s call for the decriminalization of prostitution. Nor should we assume that there’s a tie-in with discussions, yet again, about the corruption of the art market. But Charles Baudelaire is quoted on the back of the excellent and informative catalog: “What is art? Prostitution.” Considering its French origins, perhaps this wonderfully sprawling exhibition should have been called “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
Mr. Freudenheim, a former art-museum director, served as the assistant secretary for museums at the Smithsonian.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.