“Prostitution in French Art” is the exhibition’s subtitle. It shows works from roughly 1850 to 1920. It includes works by painters who inspired van Gogh. It includes works by van Gogh and contemporaries. It ends with works by painters inspired by him.
The exhibition covers the whole range of French prostitutes of the era, from poor street-walkers to the most expensive courtesans. One suspects the painters were not simply fascinated by the poor prostitutes. These models probably did not ask much money, were as poor as most painters, frequented the same bars and neighbourhoods.
Artists were more aware of the harsh conditions these women worked under and more sympathetic to the women. In France, prostitution may have been tolerated under certain conditions, authorities did not have much sympathy for “fallen” women. The exhibition is not only about fascination but also about double standards.
The first room on the ground floor of the wing, shows examples of the poorer prostitutes. Women who needed extra cash to support themselves or a family, or to tide themselves over during lean months of seasonal work. There is a beautiful picture of a tired washer-woman sitting on a bench being ogled by men.
Hidden clues are explained, showing what seems to be a painting of ordinary “bourgeoises” being actually “one-night-stands” being arranged. A skirt is lifted slightly higher than necessary? Feet, ankles, legs – usually covered by layers of skirts – were titillating and sexually charged. An unaccompanied woman walking alone through a a deserted street around dusk … preparing for business?”
After works which may have influenced van Gogh, there are portraits he painted of prostitutes. These do not include any he painted while still living in the Netherlands. There are portraits of Belgian prostitutes he knew.
On other walls are paintings of the more expensive girls. They would not mind sitting for a painter, provided he was good enough. It was another way of advertising or shocking society and get free publicity. Here one comes across the names of a few “grandes horizontales” like Cora Pearl.
There is a bed and painting of “La Paiva”. It is not clear if the bed originates from her home once situated at 25 avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris. From the painting, one can guess men must have been enthralled by her body. Apparently, her personality was a different matter: “one great courtesan who appears to have had no redeeming feature.” Regardless, like a few other “grandes horizontales”, she was a savvy investor and patron of the arts and architecture. Like many “grand horizontals” she also married well.
Quite a few exhibition cases contain guides to Paris, describing not the sites to visit, but the various prostitutes, specialities, prices. One can also look at police ledgers containing photos and descriptions of prostitutes. While I was being rather overwhelmed by photos – used as business cards by the women – and even sexual instruments some girls used, I noticed plenty tourists left this exhibition after only visiting the ground floor. If you visit this museum, please realise this temporary exhibition sprawls over three floors!
The second floor for instance, shows many works by Toulouse-de Lautrec and Degas. It also has an accompanying set of short videos in a separate room. A dad of a young toddler explained: “you’re not even 18 months old, it’s for 18-year-plus!” Museum staff does keep an eye on who enters this room.
Toulouse-de Lautrec treats the women with humanity, kindness and sensitivity. The works by Degas show a totally different aspect of him and one which is usually glossed over by museums and exhibitions. There are samples of works hidden in his studio and only discovered after his death. The first floor also has paintings by van Gogh followers, like van Dongen and others.
The second floor goes into the secret circles of collectors. Not art collectors, but collectors of pornography. There are prints as well as photos. The double standards certainly are highlighted: the sometimes explicit paintings could be hung on walls, but possessing works exhibited on this floor was a crime.
The exhibition also contains early photos of prostitutes whose bodies are destroyed by sexual diseases. It shows paintings and drawings of the institutes where the used, diseased, discarded women ended up in. The career of a prostitute could be cruelly short. A caption under a print on the ground floor records an exchange between elderly man in smoking and young prostitute: “Oh, fifteen years old? Why, a bit long in the teeth already!.”
Yes, this exhibition can be confrontational. It is also very interesting and contains quite a few beautiful works. However, a visit to an exhibition on late 19th century prostitution may not be your ideal cultural family outing – though those younger than 18 months probably have no clue what some exhibits are about.
Easy Virtue. Prostitution in French Art, 1850-1910 runs till 19th June 2016. The permanent collection with works by Vincent van Gogh can be found in the museum’s other wing.