The Modern Woman explores the male gaze
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 6
“I paint with my prick.” So claimed Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Asked what motivated his representations of plump, rosy-cheeked young women, he’s also reputed to have said his art was all about tits and ass. As for Edgar Degas—the perennial bachelor, anti-Semite, and misogynist—he said he wanted to view women in intimate settings, as if he were looking at them “through a keyhole”. That reads a lot like voyeurism, especially in light of his drawings and paintings of naked women drying themselves off after a bath, seemingly unaware of the viewer. Then there’s the aristocratic Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who hung out with and depicted women who worked in brothels, bars, and nightclubs. He died of syphilis and tuberculosis in 1901 at the age of 36. How and when the prostitutes died is not recorded here.
It’s an odd trio to headline a show titled The Modern Woman—odd but not surprising. Subtitled Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, this is the Vancouver Art Gallery’s big summer show. Clearly it’s designed to attract tourists and leisure-time locals, and nothing lures like Impressionism. (Dollops of Realism, Symbolism, and Post-Impressionism are also on view.)
Women or girls are the subject of the exhibition’s 96 drawings, created between 1841 and 1933. However, of the artists surveyed, including Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Auguste Rodin, and Georges Seurat, only one, Berthe Morisot, is female, a clue that this show is not about “The Modern Woman” at all. It’s about the way French male artists, within an emerging modernist movement, viewed the women of their time. Which is not to say you shouldn’t see the exhibition. Please do. It’s absolutely gorgeous, filled with drawings of extraordinary accomplishment and, often, acute observation. Just be aware of the treachery inherent in the title and in the way these images have been contextualized—or not.
To a degree, the show registers the massive changes that affected Frenchwomen during the belle époque, including industrialization, urbanization, and the growth of the middle class. It also hints at the loosening of social constraints, which allowed women the freedom to shop, attend concerts, and sit unchaperoned in coffee shops, as in Paul Helleu’s lonely and enigmatic Woman Leaning on a Table. Not, however, the freedom to matter politically or professionally. Frenchwomen did not win the vote until 1944, and there are no images here of female doctors or lawyers or engineers. A succinct indication of the conflicted role of the middle-class female is Young Woman Standing on a Balcony Contemplating the Paris Rooftops by Jean-Louis Forain. As deftly interpreted in the accompanying label, this work situates the tightly corseted figure in her high-necked dress on the domestic side of an iron railing, looking out at but not participating in the “modern” world beyond.
The exhibition also reflects the avant-garde’s break from the Academy in both the how and the why of representing naked women, although again, this was more of a boon to men than women. From the mid 19th century, French art students no longer had to work from a plaster cast but could, for the first time, draw and paint from an undressed female model. And artists rebelled against the tradition of representing nude women as historical, mythological, or allegorical figures and began depicting them as ordinary, nonidealized (and often unnamed) beings. Still, it’s disconcerting to see how many drawings in this show, including sketches by Rodin, Bonnard, and Degas, obscure or avert the faces of their naked female subjects.
The Modern Woman is organized into sections, such as The Portrait, The Nude, and The Private Realm. In the section titled—ironically, one assumes—Women at Work, the career opportunities illustrated include being a prostitute and standing in line, nether regions exposed, waiting to be inspected by a doctor, as in Toulouse-Lautrec’s Blond Madam. Or how about working as a milliner, a ballet dancer, a cabaret singer, or—subtext to The Nude—an artist’s model? All such jobs, depicted here, were tainted with sexual compromise, with the trading of sexual favours for financial security.
The most admirable occupations for women recorded in this show, although not in Women at Work, are writer and artist. In the Portrait section, look for Degas’s charcoal and pastel drawing of painter Mary Cassatt and Manet’s lively little gouache of writer Nina de Villard. The image of de Villard is one of the very few here in which the female subject looks directly at the artist, returning his gaze with her own forthright assertion of agency and individuality. Curious, however, that Manet’s drawing of her is so very, very small.