Easy Virtue: Prostitution in French Art 1850-1910

This exhibition was fascinating, sumptuous and just a little bit naughty.  The Van Gogh Museum has put together a thorough exploration of ‘venal’ women.  From the book to accompany the exhibition:

The nineteenth century obsession with prostitution is a constant.  It is characterised first by a desire to control it, notably in order to prevent the spread of venereal disease.  But prostitution was also viewed as a routine source of entertainment.  Paris at the turn of the century was seen as the new Babylonm and not a few tourist guides listed must-see ‘pleasure’ venues’, which were all sociable places.

Moving back and forth between the levity that we find in the shows and the press illustrations of the dayand the gravity of prostitution-related issues, it shows how the clash of sex and money is a core feature of creative powers.

The press release gives full details of the exhibition http://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/about-the-museum/press/press-releases/easy-virtue-prostitution-in-french-art-18501910 and here are a selection of my favourite pieces:

‘Waiting’ and ‘The Proposition’ by Jean Beraud

Both of these painting are set on the same street, Rue de Chateaubriand c 1885.

The first girl looks almost hesitant, stepping forward as she looks towards the man at the lampost – but which one is doing the waiting?  The man is facing the girl with an arrogant stance, while she daintily places her umbrella in front of her to lean on.

With ‘The Proposition’ or its alternate title, ‘The Assignation’, it is all about the body language.  She faces away from the man, eyes demurely lowered to look at the floor, but her left leg is taking the weight and there is a subtle movement towards the man who is speaking directly into her ear.  His hands clasped behind his back gives him a kind of swagger – he has done this before and the fact that the girl does not looked shocked possibly means, so has she!

‘Absinthe’ and ‘On Stage Ballet Rehearsal’ by Edgar Degas

Both of these are well known and ‘Absinthe’ is on the cover of my battered copy of Zola’s L’Assoimmor which has just been taken off the shelf again!  I adore the weariness of the woman sitting with her drink – her whole body screams exhaustion, even down to her feet being turned over at the ankle.  The famous ballet dancers that Degas drew and sculptered are in rehearsal here and the subdued palette of this painting is what makes it a standout piece.

The use of colour here in Andre Derain’s ‘Woman in a Chemise’ or ‘Dancer’ from 1906 was astounding and the way in which the exhibition also included objects gave an understanding of the way in which opulance and destitution were all factors in how to reflect the subject matter.

Finally, it does pay not to do too much research into what you might find in a themed exhibition as I came across two Walter Sickerts right at the very end and given that I am developing an small obsession with his Camden Town works, I was delighted to find ‘Woman Washing her Hair’ and ‘Reclining Nude: Thin Adeline’ side by side:

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Walter Sickert

During my Art journey, Walter Sickert has been an ever-present. As someone I knew about as being a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders – thanks Patricia Cornwall- I hadn’t taken too much notice of the late Victorian painter. But, in every other artist from that period, Sickert was an influence.

At the Courtauld Gallery – one of my favourite places- they have these two:

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The Iron Bedstead

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Dawn Camden Town

Sickert was keen to reveal a part of society that had not really been explored before. A murder in Camden town was the catalyst to this element of social realism.

The Iron Bedstead is a particularly difficult painting to stand before as we are on the role of voyeur and Sickert does not want us to feel comfortable with looking, unlike artists such as Lord Leighton who was still producing images of the nude that came from classical  depictions of women.

These two are so worth seeing – the use of impasto on Dawn, Camden Town is quite wonderful to be close to.