japonisme: 1/20/08 - 1/27/08

26 January 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part I Whores

MARCH 1911

It trou- bles me to think that I am suited
for this work — spectacle and fetish —
a pale odalisque. But then I recall
my earliest training — childhood — how
my mother taught me to curtsy and be still
so that I might please a white man, my father.
For him I learned to shape my gestures,
practiced expressions on my pliant face.

Later, I took arsenic — tablets I swallowed
to keep me fair, bleached white as stone.
Whiter still, I am a reversed silhouette
against the black backdrop where I pose, now,
for photographs, a man named Bellocq.
He visits often, buys time only to look
through his lens. It seems I can sit for hours,
suffer the distant eye he trains on me,

lose myself in reverie where I think most
of you: how I was a doll in your hands
as you brushed and plaited my hair, marveling
that the comb — your fingers — could slip through
as if sifting fine white flour. I could lose myself
then, too, my face — each gesture — shifting
to mirror yours as when I'd sit before you, scrubbed
and bright with schooling, my eyebrows raised,

punc- tuating each new thing you taught. There,
at school, I could escape my other life of work:
laundry, flat irons and damp sheets, the bloom
of steam before my face; or picking time,
hunchbacked in the field — a sea of cotton,
white as oblivion — where I would sink
and disappear. Now I face the camera, wait
for the photograph to show me who I am.

from Bellocq's Ophelia, Copyright 2002 by Natasha Trethewey. All rights reserved.

whores are the lowest on the ladder of status, perhaps in all of society, but certainly in the world of companionship for money. in the early 1900s, prostitution in new orleans was limited to a neighborhood nicknamed 'storyville' after mr. story, who passed that law.

e. j. bellocq, as fictionalized in louis malle's 'pretty baby,' took photographs of women who worked there. sixty years later, mayumi oda paid them tribute in woodblocks, and another thirty years after that natasha trethewey did so in verse.

each saw beyond the frame, beyond the neighborhood, to young women who had made very difficult choices. none glamorized nor condemned. it is interesting to me that we in this country have only photographs, from that time, and not the fine arts that we have from japan, and france.

it's by no means meaningless that the US was founded by puritans. this is not to say that the real lives of the women in japan and france were all that wonderful, but the art was glorious. more next post.

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23 January 2008




Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Wallace Stevens

From Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens by Wallace Stevens.
Copyright © 1954 by Wallace Stevens.
Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

(see also)

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22 January 2008

museum tuesday

After the tsars

A number of objects found their way to the Hermitage after the revolution. These had originally been the property of individuals or private collectors and had been confiscated by the Soviet regime. In this fashion, a cupboard by the French trading company Escalier de Crystal arrived from the palace of Grand Duke Vladimir. This cupboard was a fine example of proto-Art Nouveau and illustrated the importance of Japanese art to the development of Art Nouveau during the last twenty five years of the nineteenth century.

The Hermitage Amsterdam will be dedicating its eighth exhibition to the beauties of Art Nouveau. The objects produced within this movement are the highlights of the Western decorative arts collection in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. This collection of Art Nouveau has not previously been on show in the Netherlands. Amongst the major works are the gifts to the last tsars made by the

glassmakers Émile Gallé and the Daum brothers; works by René Lalique and Carl Fabergé will also be included.

an exhibition at the hermitage amsterdam

Japonisme: Selections from the Elisabeth Dean Collection of French Prints

The Elisabeth Dean Collection of French Prints includes an extraordinary selection of lithographs and wood block prints indicative of the profound influence of Japanese art on many of the French Post-Impressionistic artists.

By 1862 the study and inspiration of Japanese art began in earnest and was marked by a keenly receptive cultural interest by Europeans in the Japanese aesthetic.

The nineteenth-century brought about a radical transformation of the role of the European artist. Instead of working on commission for aristocratic patrons, artists

in all media were more and more left to their own devices, creating works of art alone in their studios and then sending them into the market place hoping to attract a buyer and secure a sale. Innovative forms, new subjects and styles emerged from the changing economic structure brought about by the dawning of the industrial age and the importance of urban cities. The new clientele the artist sought to attract was increasingly comprised of the nouveau riche and the urban bourgeoisie and by the mid-nineteenth century the involvement of an anonymous public in artistic matters was an irrevocable fact that had been secured by mass production. New processes in lithographic printing and of the photographic print made art available to the general populace – the democratization of art coincided with the diversity of the japonisme movement of nineteenth-century France.

Félix Buhot, French, 1847-1893: Japonisme, ten etchings on yellow Chinese paper, 1885

the spencer museum of art at the university of kansas in lawrence apparently has quite a commitment to the art of printmaking, and have a very interesting collection.

in addition to someone who we've mentioned here before, gustave baumann, the museum has a collection from felix buhot, one of the earliest and thus influential french practitioners of japonisme.

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21 January 2008

grun: the first and last of cool

When the Bal Tabarin opened, it was a collaborative effort between two seasoned show-business entrepreneurs: Lajunie, the owner of the Treteau de Tabarin and Auguste Bosc, the conductor of the Moulin de la Galette orchestra. Located in Montmartre, which was already a thriving village on the outskirts of Paris, they hired Grun to design the poster. The result is one of Grun's last classic images, that is populated with many of the artist's favorite subjects: a sexy young woman in Grun's near-fetish, red dress, an older, "fun-loving" bourgeois and in the background a black dandy wearing a bowler. This is the original version of the poster. A later version exists where the black character has been replaced by a white man with a too-slick moustache.

Much of Montmartre's excitement at this time came from such activities as satires and performances that tested the limits of the cabarets and café-concerts, and bawdy displays in the dance-halls.

On the right the Catholic Church resisted repub- lican attempts to wrest educa- tion from its traditional grasp, both sides realizing that their future influence, even survival, depended on their ability to inculcate their own values, whether religious and hierarchical or scientific and egalitarian, in the next generation.

The liberalizing of censorship in 1881 was a republican reform that released the shackles of satire, sparking the cabarets, illustrated magazines, and climate of irreverence.

The critique of decadence -- drawing attention to society's class divisions, moral corruption, and sexual exploitation -- came from various quarters. Conservative forces might use it to condemn modernity in relation to the superior values of the past, while the left used it to promote its own radical agenda. The republic reacted defensively, with moralizing propriety allied to a degree of censorship... Songs performed in the cafés were controlled, Yvette Guilbert being obliged to drop a verse about lesbians from Maurice Donnay's song "Eros vanné."

Maurice Talmeyr accused contemporary posters of being a corrupting influence, typically modern and decadent in their feverish commercialism and lack of respect for women, religion, and authority, calling for them to promote more elevated values... it was argued that the recent proliferation of the multicolored poster was a lively counter to the regime's stuffiness.

The decadent critique was central to the "Montmartre" culture of cabarets, illustrated periodicals, and popular song... The easing of the censorship laws in 1881 gave scope for the younger generation's perception of the bourgeois republic as corrupt and venal, stuffy and hypocritical. During the early 1880s Montmartre rapidly developed into the locale where such anti-establishment attitudes were stridently voiced.

The momentum of this surge of pleasure seekers is downward -- it is, literally, decadent... The smart bonnets and top hats [in the artwork] reveal [the audience] as bourgeois; their fictive presence in a dance hall watching a working-class woman dancing provocatively suggests the decadence that the Montmartre entertainment industry so assiduously marketed. The decadent critique, taken from wider social debate and geared into commercial entertainment became what unified Montmartre in the eyes of Parisians, French, and foreigners.

By the later 1880s the dance halls of Montmartre were attracting more and more audiences from outside the quartier, and in 1889 Oller and Zidler launched the Moulin Rouge to capitalize on this by presenting a wide range of attractions. Growing activity and increasing investment led to greater media coverage and to still greater momentum within what could now be defined as the Montmartre's entertainment industry. That momentum is evinced by the rapidity with which the promotional machinery seized on a new "star" and propelled him or her into instant celebrity. Take the case of Yvette Guilbert, a nobody performing in the provincial cafés-concerts of Lyon in the summer of 1889. Yet by December 1890 she was being lauded by the influential journalist Jean Lorrain as a deluxe product: "the article de Paris most in fashion."

Success led to over-exploitation: a constant appetite for novel and not necessarily better acts... But by the mid-1890s momentum and originality were waning. The Moulin Rouge was increasingly a tourist trap; the Chat Noir closed its doors in 1897. The lively posters made at the turn of the century by artists such as Jules-Alexandre Grün were advertising a faded "Montmartre," in Grün's case explicitly, for the foreigner.

The quartier's subculture, based as it had been on a critique of contemporary society's decadence, had itself become shallow, exploitative, and decadent.

(mostly excerpted from coverage of the national gallery of art's exhibition entitled toulouse-lautrec and montmartre.)

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