PARIS — Perhaps out of a kindred permissive, libertine spirit, prostitution — both chic demi-mondaine and lascivious, pierreuse street-walker style — played a central role in the nascent development of modern painting. Far from being confined to private boudoirs or lewd red-light areas, sex workers inhabited the public space of Paris throughout the 19th century, their trade widely accepted as a sordid but necessary vice. This is not to suggest that I am not sharply aware of the uncritical acceptance of sexual stereotypes and scopophilic power relations at work deep at the heart of prostitution, where mere nominalist positions are most often taken for granted. But it is true that glamorous (if syphilitic) brothels — and the dandy male gamesters who frequented them — fascinated many generations of painters and photographers.
The emphasis of the Musée d’Orsay’s Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910, despite its red-plush aesthetic, is sociological and historical. With more than 400 works of art and ephemera in various media placed hither and thither, it is the first vast public exhibition devoted to the theme of prostitution. Its dynamic cluster, containing early hardcore porno photos (including a set of non-heteronormative images of male sex partners) and movies shown in sealed-off, age-restricted rooms, police reports, a “Fauteuil d’amour” — the Prince de Galle’s 1890 Neo-Rococo, threesome-facilitating sex chair — brothel calling cards, along with paintings by Edvard Munch, Frantisek Kupka, Georges Rouault, Auguste Chabaud, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees Van Dongen, and others, copiously demonstrates how voyeuristic artists in Paris between the Second Empire and the Belle Époque sympathetically took to this non-sentimental sexual subject matter with amoral ease. Though erratic and elusive, prostitution was fairly rampant in Parisian society and in the wake of Charles Baudelaire, who famously proclaimed: “What is art? Prostitution.” Many artists saw it as the modern subject par excellence. It might even have appeared luxurious and opulent to them, because it often was.
I would have opened the show with only a famous, intimidating stare: that of Édouard Manet’s magnificently scandalous “Olympia” (1863). Rather, she is placed near the end of the exhibition, mixed in with other pieces of varying quality. But she still held my rapt attention. If placed alone, smack dab at the entrance, her examining, scrutinizing gaze could have driven the show to an immediate aesthetic high, one that would have contradicted the dominant and obvious clichés at work here: clichés that continually place prostitution within the fairly regimented grooves of masturbatory male heterosexual power over women. A good example of this exercise in supremacy is Jean-Louis Forain’s softcore porn painting “Le Client” (1878), where a frumpish and frogish man in top hat and tails ogles and selects from five mostly naked women in a red-walled brothel.
Giovanni Boldini’s “Scène de fête au Moulin Rouge” (ca. 1889) situates multiple male clients in a Montmartre carnival setting of frenzied intensity, full of delirious exploration (for the clients) and juicy mind game mingling for the women. Painted in a loose yet precise style, form and content come together in the canvas to create a sizzling mood at once celebratory, farcical, satirical, and almost aching.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s interpretation of the exciting érotique promise of pleasure, and transgression tumbled out of the clubs and brothels into the cafés and brasseries where Manet (with his stunning, black-and-white “Masked Ball at the Opéra” from 1875), multiple Edgar Degas works, and some previously unseen minor Vincent van Gogh paintings picked up on it, blurring the boundaries of prostitution by portraying cocottes — courtesans, actresses, singers, or dancers financially supported by rich protectors. Jean Béraud’s haunting lady-in-waiting, “L’Attente” (1880), is a very good painting and a very good example of this ambiguity of identity.
A scandalous shell bed that belonged to the famous courtesan la Marquise de la Païva (Esther Lachmann) makes for a curious decorative object to meditate on. Coming from the extreme poverty of Moscow’s Jewish ghetto, Lachmann, who devastated many a man’s fortune during the Second Empire, was one of the sources of inspiration for Émile Zola’s novel Nana, the ninth installment in the 20-volume Les Rougon-Macquart series. La Païva’s mansion, at 25 Avenue des Champs-Élysées, was famed for its ostentatious decoration and scandalously known for its silver bath tub that had three taps — for cold water, hot water, and champagne.
Having grown up in Chicago, I was delighted to find an old, instructive friend from the Art Institute in this erotic carnival setting, Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Au Moulin Rouge” (1895). In the sketchy but masterful Toulouse-Lautrec paintings “L’Inspection médicale: femme de maison blonde” (1894) and “Femme tirant son bas” (1894), a weird, isolated sadness prevails. This poignant theme was first picked up by Degas in his dour “L’Absinthe” (1876) and recurred in Manet’s “La Prune” (1878). Pablo Picasso, in his melancholy blue painting “Femme Assise au Fichu” (1903), perfectly refines the heartbreaking theme with his moody color choice. Donald Lowe really hit this dehumanizing male nail on the head in his book History of Bourgeois Perception (1983), where he identified the male bourgeois perceptual gaze as a visual mode that is fundamentally non-reflexive and objectifying. What is suggested in the lonely, champagne-free sadness of the blue Picasso is the loss of psychological contentment of the sex worker, to an extent to which the descriptions provided by scientists and doctors cannot do suitable justice.
Indeed, a happy hooker is a rare sight here, but there is at least one crazed one: Gustav Adolf Mossa’s rather grotesque, Symbolist, and decadent “Elle” (1905). The painting depicts a young and curvaceous naked woman perched on a huge pile of suffering, tiny naked men. A kitty cat defines her pubic area. Such dark allegorical imagination, here matched only by that of the Belgian artist Félicien Rops, is just the right cautionary note on which to end this splendid but miserable show.
Splendours and Miseries. Images of Prostitution in France, 1850-1910 continues at the Musée d’Orsay (1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur, 7th arrondissement, Paris) through January 17, 2016. The exhibition is next on view at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, which co-organized the show, February 19–June 19, 2016.