12 February to 5 July 2015
François Boucher, La Jupe relevée 1742 ? Ou début des années 1760 ? Huile sur toil 52,5 x 42 cm Collection particulière © Christian Baraja
The Musée Marmottan Monet sits on a quiet, leafy corner of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine in the sixteenth arrondissement. Boasting a large collection of works by Claude Monet and other French Impressionists, it is in their recent exhibition The Invention of Privacy that highlights art historically and culturally the evolution of corporeal rituals where largely women are observed and represented in either groups or on their own.
These selected works depict sexuality and beauty, erotica and fetishism. The exhibition brings together works by major artists of the fifteenth century to the present day, about the rites of cleanliness, their spaces and their gestures. This is the first time such a subject is presented in the form of exposure that reflect everyday practices that might seem mundane. Some of the works have never been shown since their creation as the museum has brought many international collections together. Works on display are by Durer, Boucher, Manet, Degas, Lautrec, Picasso to Bettina Rheims and Gloria Friedmann.
The exhibition is hung chronologically and starts with a Sixteenth Century tapestry depicting a woman bathing surrounded by nature with elevated scenes of servants playing musical instruments, perfumes, adornment and food with vibrant colours suggesting sensory alertness. A lithe, slender, young body is celebrated as an ideal, giving visual form to beauty. The frame is the site of meaning, where vital distinctions between inside and outside, between proper and improper concerns are made. These threads connect the works throughout this tightly hung and intimately spaced show, as well as documenting the socio political environment of the time.
In artworks after this period the nude took on a new realism as maids were often the models, isolated from the rest of the world and there was the absence of water. Washing is often limited to few body parts – feet, hands and hair and some were still dressed or partially dressed as they are seen adorning themselves in front of a mirror, the sensual context often highlighted by an image of a lover in a frame, or a statue of lovers embracing. Through the act of painting, women can become culture – she is framed, she becomes an image and the wanton matter of the female body and female sexuality is regulated and contained. Etchings, paintings and tapestries are all displayed depicting the toilette. From the Renaissance to the 18th Century we glimpse at the public toilet and then move on to a new kind of privacy – one woman making herself up in mirror. This has been a social rite in the past and now made more intimate in Francois Boucher’s 1738 La mouche une dame à sa toilette, an oval canvas that enacts a keyhole into a private world. Here a woman applies a beauty spot which highlights her pale complexion, she is lost in her own thoughts and absorbed by her reflection as she makes herself up for the man she holds in the pocket medallion.
Bathing has been replaced by an intimate and secretive ritual about skill and accessories and here it is given approval and celebrated – we are invited to watch the private pampering of a woman as an erotic spectacle. There are two divided moments – social bathing in groups and the private ritual of intimate grooming where we the audience, become the voyeur.
Francois Boucher will often have a before and after painting of a woman in her parlour fully clothed going about her daily routines, and then in another she is voyeuristically depicted in the same setting and clothes, but this time in a state of undress adjusting a stocking or going to the toilet with her animals present who bear witness to her private grooming as in his c. 1742 painting The Raised Skirt. Boucher’s paintings bring gender identities to the fore and the inherent differences between the sexes.
Late 19th Century saw more nude women at their mirrors, the bodies were sometimes heavy, less elegant and in less traditionally elegant poses, adopting a more natural and animalistic quality as painted by Manet and Lautrec. In Degas 1883 Femme dans son bain s’épongeant la jambe the representation of the toilette as gestures of washing the body and hygiene are brought into painting. We are a voyeur into a private world whilst a woman bathes in her bedroom.
Soft pastels evoke the sensations of loving flesh and soft hair; the face is averted as the limb she is washing captures our attention, there is no romantic idealisation, this is a modern feature and highly sensual – a wet sponge on skin, the viewer often can’t see the breasts or full body, they are obscured but still erotic. A new relationship emerged of someone forgetting and finding oneself. The bathroom became a refuge from the world, a moment where time no longer existed.
The war years saw a shift from soft forms and luxurious time spent in the tub to sharper angles and colours, with form presiding over content and we enter a place where maybe we should not be, like in Kupka’s The Lipstick and Leger’s Women at their dressing table. Cubist ideas that emphasize the fragmentation of planes moves away from imitation and only allude to the figurative, Picasso’s 1906 Femme se coiffant, Josef Capek’s 1920 Toilette, Wilfredo Lam’s 1942 Femme à sa coiffure all highlight geometrical forms in either primary colours or grey tones and black and white with uncertain depths: there is no sentimentality seen in the ancient study of the nude as in previous times, these works are painted in the tragic context of war where care for the self has become tense; the movements are sharp and joyless.
As the exhibition is brought up to current time we see a displacement of the gaze. For centuries women at their toilette were watched without their knowing it. Bettina Rheims’ work pushes the boundaries of how sexual identities are depicted. Both celebrities and unknowns have posed for her in various staging of glamour and fame, of fashion, beauty, sex and seduction. Her subject is the visualization of female eroticism in its sensual, emotional and disquieting varieties. She has a sensitive and delicate, yet provocative approach to the subject. Rheims interrogates sexuality from the viewpoint of gender, emphasizing both the way women perceive their own body, and male fantasies about what goes on in the bathroom.
In her Karen Mulder portant Un tres petit sout- ien-gorge Chanel Janvier 1996, the portrait of model Karen Mulder is of her wearing a face mask and her beauty routine revealed as she knowingly stares at the camera. It is an ironic game of a woman being photographed by a woman, her nipples covered (only just), she could even be post-surgery. Rheims interrogates sexuality from the view-point of gender, emphasizing both the way women perceive their own body, and male fantasies about what goes on in the bathroom.
Interestingly, a portrait that is not in the exhibition but displayed in the back of the publication, is of Simone de Beauvoir, standing naked with her back to the camera in front of a washbasin.
‘the intellectual woman knows she is offering herself, she knows she is a consciousness, a subject; one cannot wilfully kill one’s gaze and change one’s eyes into empty pools’
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Not circulated till years after her death in 2008, de Beauvoir knowingly allows a photo to be taken of her nudity, whilst an intellectual and feminist, she is also a young, amorous and free body, ‘a body that reaches out to the world cannot be thwarted and metamorphosed into a statue animated by hidden vibrations’.
The lesson of the bathroom has become the lesson that women wish to dictate: they will no longer allow the male gaze to govern their image, but play on their revealed or marked nudity, and on the arousal or frustration of desire. Women artists are using images of the female body in order to make visible a range of feminist identities. It is a fight for visibility on one’s own terms. For feminists to reclaim the female body, this means to challenge the authority of boundaries – of gender and identity, between art and obscenity, the permissible and forbidden.
written by Melissa Budasz
ArtVerve – on women’s art | An SLWA Publication | Issue 4 | Sep 2015
Extracts from The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, published by Vintage 2015 Le Deuxième sexe by Simone de Beauvoir © Éditions Gallimard, Paris 1949
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris publication La Toilette Naissance de l’intime by Hazan, Paris 2015
The Female Nude Art, Obscenity and Sexuality Lynda Nead by Routledge, Oxon 1992