PRINT April 2016


sex and art from Fragonard to Manet

View of “Splendeurs et misères: Images de la prostitution, 1850–1910” (Splendor and Misery: Images of Prostitution), 2015–16, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Foreground: Auguste Clésinger, Femme piquée par un serpent (Woman Bitten by a Snake), 1847. Background: Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Photo: Sophie Boegly.

TWO MAJOR EXHIBITIONS in Paris this fall examined the entwinement of modern art’s history with the history of sex. At the Musée du Luxembourg, “Fragonard amoureux: Galant et libertin” (Fragonard in Love: Suitor and Libertine) surveyed the career of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806), France’s last and best Rococo painter, through the lens of what the museum’s literature called the “love prism.” At the Musée d’Orsay, “Splendeurs et misères: Images de la prostitution, 1850–1910” (Splendor and Misery: Images of Prostitution) presented “the world of love for sale” as the trope par excellence of late-nineteenth-century Parisian art production. It has long been an academic truism that questions of sex shaped the early history of modernism. Whatever the motivations of these museums—Le Monde fretted that French institutions had “discovered an infallible means of ensuring success by betting on . . . sex”—the synchronicity of these exhibitions was propitious. Visiting the two in sequence, museumgoers could track across several centuries palpable vicissitudes in the aesthetics of the erotic and the erotics of the aesthetic.

Two slogans on the back covers of the exhibitions’ accompanying catalogues capture their very different moods: on one, Fragonard’s famous but still enigmatic brag—“I would even paint with my ass”—and on the other, Charles Baudelaire’s gnomic catechism “What is art? Prostitution.” From an atmosphere of warm and bawdy physicality, suffused with humor and even gentle self-mockery, we emerge some fifty years later into a world more cerebral and self-serious, which thinks about sex more symbolically and with evident ambivalence.

The Luxembourg’s exhibition charted a “progress of love” from the middle to the end of the eighteenth century, demonstrating how Fragonard’s pictures dovetailed with different phases of Enlightenment eroticism: the tender sociability of galanterie typified in the new pictorial genre of the fête galante; the diffusion, by midcentury (through illustrated novels, principally), of libertinism as a philosophically oriented practice of voluptuousness and sexual freedom; and the ascendance in the last decades of a new ideal of romantic, conjugal love. But consistent throughout the artist’s amorous imagery is an emphasis on the female subject’s enthusiastic, almost histrionic receptivity to love in both sentimental and carnal varieties.

Several works in “Fragonard in Love” depict situations in which men appear to force themselves on unwilling women, most explicitly in Le verrou (The Bolt), ca. 1777–78, the painting emblazoned on the exhibition’s promotional materials. Fragonard’s rape scenes, however, invariably conjure the convenient “No means yes” cliché of eighteenth-century libertine literature—simulated resistance as a calculated strategy for stoking male desire. The greater number offer less equivocal expressions of feminine sexual ardor. Certain works even toyed with inverting the roles of the vanquished and the conqueror; a drawing known as La résistance inutile (The Useless Resistance), ca. 1770–73, which shares its generic title with a canvas of a man molesting a chambermaid, showed a half-naked girl encircling her arms around a boy’s neck as if he were prey that might escape her bed.

Le colin-maillard (Blindman’s Buff), 1754–56, the show’s opening picture, announced Fragonard’s concern to foreground the female’s enthusiastic complicity in the game of love. Here, an eye peeking out jauntily to meet the gaze of the viewer signals that the blindfolded woman knows what’s up. She assumes one of the artist’s favorite bodily postures—both arms raised up and outward, at or above the level of the shoulder. Recurring across key works in the exhibition—the surprised female in La poursuite (The Pursuit), ca. 1771; the levitating putto in L’amour folie (Love as Folly), ca. 1775—such upraised arms register at once a somatic response to internal commotion; sudden, uncontainable emotions or sensations; and open-armed welcome to other bodies, in and outside the picture. Le colin-maillard’s blindfolded shepherdess walks knowingly toward the precipice of a step at the canvas’s bottom edge as if she wants to tumble down into the arms of the viewer.

The central gallery devoted to “Dangerous Reading” underscored the interest of Fragonard and his contemporaries in sexuality as a product of fantasy. La lecture (Reading), ca. 1765, by Fragonard’s studio-mate Pierre-Antoine Baudouin, was undoubtedly the key work here: a gouache of a lady enjoying one of those “dangerous books” that were, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s words, “read with one hand.” The masturbating female novel reader, a figure of obsession in this period, did not surface in Fragonard’s pictures. The works themselves appear as externalizations of masturbatory fantasies. The sketch-like execution Fragonard perfected solicited the viewer to mentally “complete” the work. And his preferred formats contribute to a sense of being in a realm of the fantasmatic: The masterpieces of “Fragonard in Love” were all toiles ovales. Something about the ovoid canvas—especially when horizontally oriented—was particularly suited to conveying Fragonard’s erotics. Not simply because the oval mimics the soft edges of pillows and clouds that tend to provide the requisite atmosphere for sexual contact but also because these “medallions of nudity,” as the Goncourt brothers described them, appear less as windows onto observed slices of life than as thought bubbles or dream clouds, perhaps.

The humor always present in Fragonard’s pictures resides in the way they so often abandon any pretension to plausibility to instead acknowledge their own contrivance to the absurd demands of prurient fantasies. Emblematic of this tendency were Les pétards (The Fireworks) and Les jets d’eau (The Jets of Water), both ca. 1763–65, a pair of brown wash drawings, likely set in a bordello dormitory. In the first, a disembodied hand reaches down through a trapdoor in the ceiling to explode a few firecrackers into a room populated by a kitten and three sleeping women, who flail wildly in alarm, exposing legs and breasts in the process. In the second, two thick jets of liquid are hosed at the women through a square aperture in the floor, producing similar revelations. The slapstick comedy running throughout Fragonard’s erotic pictures is crystallized in these two practical jokes, which also actualize, with deliberately outrageous schematism, the artist’s preferred explosive metaphors for male and female orgasm.

Fragonard’s private patrons were mainly rich or aristocratic men, but it is significant that contemporary vitriolic attacks on his Rococo aesthetic alleged that the style was geared specifically toward the delectation of women. Undoubtedly the artist’s works are fulfillments of male fantasies, but they are fantasies that often hinge on the ardent female and the satisfaction of her dreams of erotic pleasure. The exhibition’s best example of that proclivity was La chemise enlevée (The Chemise Removed), ca. 1770. A woman lies sleeping on a luxurious bed (probably in a brothel) as a winged cupid flies down to peel off her nightgown. Her whole body, her bottom especially, flushes pink with pleasure. It was a pity that La chemise enlevée was not accompanied by the work known as Le feu aux poudres (Fire to the Powder Keg), ca. 1765, a work identical in oval format, sometimes regarded as its pendant. In his excellent catalogue, curator Guillaume Faroult refers to this canvas as one of the best examples of “desire according to Fragonard.” The painting brings to a logical conclusion the dream depicted in La chemise enlevée: A trio of putti reach between the legs of a supine slumberer to ignite her sex with flaming torches. Such fireworks recur in Fragonard right until the end. (After the revolution, he abandoned painting to become a curator at the newly public Musée du Louvre.) The final series of his career, the “Allegories of Love,” climaxes with Le sacrifice de la rose, 1785–88, an allegory of defloration in which a cupid sets fire to a rosebud over a Roman cinerarium as a young girl swoons in the ecstatic posture of Bernini’s Saint Teresa.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, L’amour folie (Love as Folly), ca. 1775, oil on canvas, 22 × 18 1/4".

SEEN IN JUXTAPOSITION with “Images of Prostitution,” “Fragonard in Love” gave peculiar resonance to the Goncourts’ assertion that Fragonard represented “the final bonfire of the eighteenth century.” Moving into the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition, one felt a visceral plunge in temperature. If women burning with pleasure were a leitmotif for Fragonard, the most iconic representations of women in “Images of Prostitution,” such as Édouard Manet’s Olympia, 1863, were striking for their coolness. Many of the exhibited works, especially those by less complicated and sophisticated artists, radiated misogyny that was unambiguous. It would be nostalgic folly to view the ancien régime of the 1700s as a ladies’ paradise where woman reigned as “sovereign of all thinking France,” enthroned in a “cloud of apotheosis, crossed by flights of doves and the fall of roses,” as the Goncourts liked to imagine. Still, one sensed keenly that something was lost after the revolution, in terms of a rich pictorial vocabulary for celebrating female appetites and passions.

A sprawling buffet of more than four hundred objects associated with venal nineteenth-century sex, “Images of Prostitution” was an exhibition of unrelenting grimness beneath a veneer of titillation. The curators, Marie Robert, Isolde Pludermacher, Richard Thomson, and Nienke Bakker, brought together a deliberately heterogeneous roster of some sixty artists (that all were male was one red thread). Pictures by formally innovative modernists (Manet, Degas, Cézanne, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch, Picasso) were interspersed with Salon portraits and nudes, academic versions of modern life subjects, and selections of early pornographic films and photographs. The show encompassed prostitution in all its various ranks and guises: state-sanctioned bordellos, celebrity courtesans, and the lower classes of unregistered prostitutes who sat in cafés, worked in the new brasseries and clothing shops, or walked the streets of Paris. This last category, the preferred subjects of major Impressionist-era artists whose works were highlights of the exhibition, stood at the visual and sociohistorical core of “Images of Prostitution.” The ever-growing prominence of such women, which followed the 1789 revolution and flourished through the following century in tandem with the rapid expansion and modernization of Paris, instigated the particular urgency of prostitution as a topic of anxiety and fascination.

The Baudelaire quote on the back of the catalogue—“What is art? Prostitution”—implies identification. One can easily imagine how certain changes in markets and audiences wrought by the massive development of capitalism in nineteenth-century France would have invited artists to identify in new ways with the figure of the prostitute. But neither the show nor the catalogue fleshed out this association. “Images of Prostitution” was really an exhibition about the iconography of prostitution, and by extension the iconography of women.

Other, less metaphoric Baudelairean statements were useful for comprehending distinctive properties of some of these images. The Intimate Journals (published posthumously in 1887) profess Baudelaire’s love for “girls” (i.e., prostitutes) as opposed to “philosophizing women.” (It was the “pleasure of the pederast,” the poet asserted, to “love intelligent women.”) That opposition itself betrays remoteness from Fragonard’s moment, for the philosophizing prostitute was a staple of libertine literature; many of the eighteenth century’s most popular pornographic novels—Thérèse the Philosopher (1748), Margot the Stockingmender (1753), Venus in Rut (1771)—are narrated by highly intellectual whores, who digress frequently to discuss religion, politics, and other pressing Enlightenment topics. The classic nineteenth-century novels of prostitution, such as the one that lent this exhibition its title, Balzac’s Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (1838–47), employ omniscient third-person narrators. That narrative shift suggests an artistic tendency toward distance rather than identification, and a muffling of the potentially “intelligent” voice of the prostitute. With a realist impulse antithetical to Fragonard’s self-consciously fantastic aesthetic, artists began to cast a clinical eye on the prostitute, in a manner that often reaffirmed her status as—in the words of one character from Splendors and Miseries—“in the files of the police, a number, apart from all social beings.”

In Fragonard’s oeuvre, milkmaids, prostitutes, mythological Venuses, and women of leisure do not exhibit fundamentally different comportments; all conform to a shared ideal of feminine warmth, effusiveness, and receptiveness to pleasure. How to comprehend the disappearance of that eroticized type in the Orsay’s exhibition was one of the most provocative questions raised by the juxtaposition. Obviously, the absence of evident ardency or enthusiasm in these representations of women can be understood to reflect the actual tenor of “love” as a financial transaction. At the same time, one might view some of these images as participating in the birth of a new eroticized archetype, that of the “frigid woman.” This ideal, according to Walter Benjamin, triumphed circa 1900 in the decorative aesthetics of Jugendstil but traced its roots back to Baudelaire. Indeed, the Intimate Journals express a preference for a female temperament quite the opposite of the one Fragonard’s pictures venerated. Itemizing the eleven “charming airs” possessed by women, the poet began with “the blasé air,” moving onto cold, bored, evaporated, and ending ultimately with “the air of the cat, childishness and nonchalance mixed with malice.” What made Manet’s works in “Images of Prostitution” stand out like beacons was the vividness with which they formalized the new sorts of “charming airs” Baudelaire appreciated.

When Olympia debuted in the 1865 Salon, the catalogue entry included a poem whose final line names the painting’s protagonist “the august young girl in whom the flame keeps vigil.” Given the infamous coldness of her gaze, so seemingly bored, blasé and “mixed with malice,” the designation of Olympia as a keeper of passion’s flame seems deliberately ridiculous. If flames of passion live on in Manet’s pictures, they do so in the commodified form of mass-produced cigarettes, a stock attribute of prostitutes in nineteenth-century iconography, much in the manner of cupids to Venuses. Thus in Manet’s extraordinary Plum Brandy, ca. 1877, a young girl sits alone in a café (her “charming air” hesitates between meditative and “evaporated”), holding between her fingers an unlit cigarette. While the girl’s social status is ambiguous, her cigarette signals sexual readiness, seemingly serving, as Thomson’s catalogue essay states, as an “alibi to facilitate contact.”

“Comedy has disappeared from Olympia’s world,” T. J. Clark wrote toward the conclusion of his now-classic essay on Manet’s picture. Certainly, lighthearted comedy in the spirit of Fragonard has vanished. But it remains in the form of bitter irony or farce. Tropes and leitmotifs of Rococo eroticism, like fire, return to be travestied, a tendency that emerged most explicitly in the etching Pornokratès, 1896, by another of Baudelaire’s friends, Félicien Rops. Here, in a caricature of the previous century’s pastoral games of blindman’s buff, a blindfolded lady shepherds a pig as cupids with razor-sharp wings thrash in the sky above her.

From bordello scenes of putti ministering torches to the “powder keg” of the female sex to the listless fingering of an unlit cigarette—how far we have traveled toward an impoverished vocabulary for sexual desire and pleasure. Indisputably, this impoverishment acknowledged and at times critiqued the alienation of prostitutes and their clients in the sexual marketplace of nineteenth-century Paris. Even so, one senses that many of these works derive their particular erotic charge precisely from the fact that alienation expressed as coldness has itself become a lure, or a “charming air.” One of the most affecting works in “Images of Prostitution” was a selection from Émile Bernard’s Au bordel (At the Brothel), 1888, a suite of eleven drawings inscribed with captions of a young prostitute’s thoughts, such as, “At fifteen I’m disgusted by life because I’ve lost my illusions.” When Bernard sent these drawings to his friend Vincent van Gogh, he prefaced them with a poem containing the following reflection: “Ugliness is the infernal thing that arouses the spirit / And we have really finished with loving women / With a languid gaze, like a nude by Fragonard.”

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen is an art historian and critic based in New York.