One of my favorite museums in Paris is the Orsay Museum. And there’s a good reason for that: Impressionism. Which I love.
What’s more, I love the building that houses this museum: the former Orsay railroad station, a Belle Epoque building of great beauty. And as the Impressionist period basically corresponds to France’s Belle Epoque - usually defined as running from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 - it’s very fitting that the Ministry of Culture, in its infinite wisdom, chose to repurpose this Belle Epoque edifice as the showplace of Impressionism.
Right now there’s a major art show at the Orsay: Splendor and Misery - Images of Prostitution in France. “Oh, those French,” I can hear you say. “Trust them to put sex into an art show.”
Well, not having a clear idea what a exhibit on such a topic would offer, I decided to go find out. And I’m glad I did because, as with any major exhibit, there are artworks here that you will never see together in one place again. Although the majority come from the Orsay’s own cache, along with quite a few from another Paris museum, the Carnavalet, there are also works from The Met in New York City, Chicago’s Art Institute, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and even one from Williamstown, Massachussets. And as there are many works by Van Gogh, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has also sent many of its masterpieces to Paris for the event.
All French museums, including Orsay, like to explain to you what you’re seeing. Although the lighting is dim to protect the artworks, you can read huge panels - in French with an excellent version in English - at the entrance to every room. There are smaller ones for individual works, but they’re only in French, so perhaps you’d want to rent the audiocassettes*, which I think run only 5€.
There are many interesting facts on these panels. One speaks of “amours tarifiés”, a tongue-in-cheek definition of prostitution as “love at a price”. The panel at the very start states that this theme of prostitution was exclusively a masculine realm. No Suzanne Valadon or Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt here. It goes on to say that this first section is a reflection of “the ambiguity of the era’s social situation”, “the burden of the feminine condition of modern times”. And it adds something that could apply to our own era, more than a century later: “In working-class circles, women who had modest jobs - such as manual workers, milliners, florists or laundresses - were too poorly paid to afford decent accommodations or feed themselves adequately, especially if they had a family to support. Some therefore occasionally resorted to prostitution to supplement their earnings.” (I also learned that laws then prohibited soliciting during daylight, and thus the origin of the term “ladies of the night”.)
|The Absinthe Drinker, Edgar Degas|
There are many different mediums in this first section, running the entire gamut: pen-and-ink, gouache, pastels, oils, etchings and lithographs.
After several rooms focusing on women who might be plying their wares, either as a trade or as
|Au Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec|
Display cases hold sheet music sold in the street - even in Edith Piaf’s time - illustrated by drawings by famous artists. As some songs in those days were about the ladies of the night...
To include a sociological viewpoint, there’s documentation on the jails where these women often ended up, or the hospitals where their syphilis and other venereal diseases were treated. There’s even a side room, closed off with red velvet curtains with signs forbidding access to those under 18. As curious as ever, I went in, but soon left because porn films and photos, albeit from the Belle Epoque, aren’t my thing. More interesting was the furniture and furnishings from the homes of those rich courtesans, although the style is a bit too over-the-top for me,
And I learned something I didn’t know: that Picasso’s famous "Demoiselles d’Avignon" - which normally lives in New York’s MOMA - is not just a bunch of nude ladies with strange faces. They’re not bathing in the Rhone River in Avignon, France, as I thought. They’re waiting for clients at the Avignon Bordello in Barcelona. Another illusion dashed. Guess I lead a sheltered life.
It’s an interesting exhibit, if only for the first section. You can go at your own speed, gloss over what you don’t enjoy and focus on what you do. Besides, there’s the entire rest of the museum to explore as well. Not to mention lunch or tea in the Belle Epoque restaurant, with its beautiful brass and mirrors and all the rest of what goes with Belle Epoque décors. But be sure you get the right place; it’s located above the entrance and is not to be confused with the snack bar on the top floor.
P.S. If you wonder what that lub-dub lub-dub sound is you hear and feel as you go through the lower rooms of the Orsay, it’s the trains rolling along the rails on the line running under the museum.
Splendeurs et Misères - Images of
Prostitution in France (1850-1910)
1 rue de la Légion-d’Honneur; 7è
Métro: Solférino, RER B Musée d’Orsay
Until January 17, 2016
T-Sun 9:30-6 / Th open until 9:45
11 & 8.50 €