japonisme: 1/27/08 - 2/3/08

02 February 2008

courtesan sidebar: Salomé-mania!

Early twentieth-century Paris saw an embarrassment of half-naked women dancing with seven veils and papier-mâché heads: ‘Salomania’ had gripped the capital. By 1913 Salome was a regular feature on music hall show-bills, besides the balletic and operatic stage.

...Three variations on Salome's notorious Dance of the Seven Veils, [were] performed by Loie Fuller (1907), Ida Rubinstein (1909) and Maud Allan (from 1906) on music by Florent Schmitt, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss respectively. 1

what about this moment in time brought about this mania?

Bram Dijkstra has written of the general fin-de-siècle interest in Salomé that "Salomé's hunger for the Baptist's head thus proved to be a mere pretext for the men's need to find the source of all wrongs they thought were being done to them. Salomé, the evil woman, became their favourite scapegoat." In order for the spirit to triumph over the body, Salomé had to be executed "in a cleansing massacre." Her death became the triumph of the Victorian male over sexual temptation. 2

Christians traditions depict her as an icon of dangerous female seductiveness, for instance depicting her dance mentioned in the New Testament (in some later transformations further iconised to the dance of the seven veils), or concentrate on her lighthearted and cold foolishness which according to the gospels led to John the Baptist's death.

A new ramification was added by Oscar Wilde, who in his play Salome let her devolve into a necrophiliac, killed the same day as the man whose death she had requested. This last interpretation, made even more memorable by Richard Straus's opera. 3

Joseph Cornell's L 'Egypte de Mile, Cléo de Mérode, 1940, is not the Egypt seen by Flaubert, detachedly noting the gleam of his white socks at mid- night on the Nile. Cornell had never been, or wished to go, to that Egypt. But in his mind the image of Cléo de Mérode, a courtesan who so enraptured Paris society in the '90s that even Proust is said to have murmured "Gloria in excelsis Cléo!" when she walked into Maxim's, fused with those of Cleopatra and the Sphinx. 4

Within a short number of years, Otero grew to be the most sought after woman in all of Europe. She was serving, by this time, as a courtesan to wealthy and powerful men of the day, and she chose her lovers carefully. She associated herself with the likes of Prince Albert I of Monaco, King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, Kings of Serbia, and Kings of Spain as well as Russian Grand Dukes Peter and Nicholas, the Duke of Westminster and writer Gabriele D'Annunzio. Her love affairs made her infamous, and the envy of many other notable female personalities of the day.

Six men reportedly committed suicide after their love affairs with Otero ended, although this has never been substantiated beyond a doubt. It is a fact, however, that two men did fight a duel over her. She was pretty, confident, intelligent, with an attractive figure, and was famed for her voluptuous breasts, and one of her most famous costumes featured her breasts partially covered with glued-on precious gems, and the twin cupolas of the Hotel Carlton built in 1912 in Cannes were modeled after her breasts.

It was once said of her that her extraordinarily dark black eyes were so captivating that they were "of such intensity that it was impossible not to be detained before them." 5

The Belle Epoque, the period that Otero symbolized, was famous not only for its writers, artists, playwrights, and actors but also for the glittering social scene which was staged almost continuously on the Grands Boulevards in Paris, the epicenter of the atmosphere, and the stage on which the courtesan played a vital and charismatic role. 6

Just as Venus arose from the sea instead of a lake or a river, the courtesan emerged from a very particular medium. The waters of her birth, salted by the bitter tears of women who were condemned to penury and by those of wealthy and poor women alike who lamented the rules that limited and constrained their erotic lives, were made up of a perfect blend of injustice and prudery.

The genius of the courtesan was in how she turned the same ingredients to her advantage. Considering the distribution of power between men and women in the times during which she lived, to say that she turned the tables would be an understate- ment. If we ponder very long the fact, for instance, that La Belle Otro, the famous courtesan of the Second Empire, successfully demanded from one of her lovers the priceless long diamond necklace that had once belonged to the former queen, Marie-Antoinette, we may begin to appreciate the dimensions of the reversal. Yet exactly how this stunning victory was achieved remains a mystery.

Some clues are given to us in a story that Colette tells about a conver- sation she had while she was still performing in music halls with La Belle Otro. Thinking the young woman somewhat green, Otro offered her some advice. "There comes a time," she said, "with every man when he will open up his hand to you."

"But when is that?" Colette asked.

"When you twist his wrist," Otero replied.

Like many courtesans, Otero was known for her wit. Doubtless, that is why Colette remembered the dialogue. Indeed, the key we are seeking to the mystery is less in the content of Otero's answer than in the way it was given. She delivered her last line with con- summate timing. And looking further at what she told her young protegee, it becomes quickly evident that the crucial phrase in her advice is not in the last line but in the first phrase, "There comes a time." The secret of her success was that she chose exactly the right moment to twist her lover's wrist. 7

And there is reason for the disappearance of this tradition. The temper of the times has shifted, too. Technically speaking, many women today do what courtesans did; it is quite common still for a married man to support his mistress, and a whole population of highly cultivated and elegant women serve today as escorts, call girls, and modern hetaerae. But just as surely as the role of the courtesan was created by historical conditions, she was also inextricably linked to a historical mood that had come to an end by the third decade of the last century. In 1948, after visiting La Belle Otero, Anne Manson wrote: "When Otero departs there will depart with her the last symbol of an epoch, superficial, light and at the same time virtuous and cynical, covetous toward others yet madly extravagant in its pleasures, full of faults but not without its splendors." 6

i didn't expect to go here, but here came to me, with six of these women having been known as being courtesans in addition to being in the theater. another writes about courtesans, but, as phyllis rose says, "Colette's courtesans don't die of tuber- culosis. They guard their jewels and railway shares and, with good humor and a firm hand on the servants, gracefully grow old." (8) others are dancers, actors, authors, yet inseparable from that moment's demi- monde. one more installment in paris tomorrow, and then we visit another time and place where there was a very very similar demi-monde.

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01 February 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part IIIB Courtesans

from fiction we can learn a tremendous amount about how courtesans lived, how they were perceived, and how, in the stories, operas and tales written by men, die in the end.

from an english translation of camille (dumas):

In the midst of these thoughts I fell asleep; I was awakened by a letter from Marguerite containing these words:

"Here are my orders: To-night at the Vaudeville. Come during the third entr'acte."

I put the letter into a drawer, so that I might always have it at
band in case I doubted its reality, as I did from time to time.

She did not tell me to come to see her during the day, and I dared not go; but I had so great a desire to see her before the evening that I went to the Champs- Elysees, where I again saw her pass and repass, as I had on the previous day.

At seven o'clock I was at the Vaudeville. Never had I gone to a theatre so early. The boxes filled one after another. Only one remained empty, the stage box. At the beginning of the third act I heard the door of the box, on which my eyes had been almost constantly fixed, open, and Marguerite appeared. She came to the front at once, looked around the stalls, saw me, and thanked me with a look.

That night she was marvellously beautiful. Was I the cause of this coquetry? Did she love me enough to believe that the more beautiful she looked the happier I should be? I did not know, but if that had been her intention she certainly succeeded, for when she appeared all heads turned, and the actor who was then on the stage looked to see who had produced such an effect on the audience by her mere presence there.

And I had the key of this woman's room, and in three or four hours she would again be mine!

People blame those who let themselves be ruined by actresses and kept women; what astonishes me is that twenty times greater follies are not committed for them. One must have lived that life, as I have, to know how much the little vanities which they afford their lovers every day help to fasten deeper into the heart, since we have no other word for it, the love which he has for them. 1

her allure was irresistible, and bestowed upon her by the devil. it is her fault entirely that he feels such desire, and so her inevitable death at the end is just. apparently.

from an english translation of nana (zola):

He, who had never seen the Countess Muffat putting on her garters, was witnessing, amid that wild disarray of jars and basins and that strong, sweet perfume, the intimate details of a woman's toilet. His whole being was in turmoil; he was terrified by the stealthy, all-pervading influence which for some time past Nana's presence had been exercising over him, and he recalled to mind the pious accounts of diabolic possession which had amused his early years. He was a believer in the devil, and, in a confused kind of way, Nana was he, with her laughter and her bosom and her hips, which seemed swollen with many vices. But he promised himself that he would be strong—nay, he would know how to defend himself.

Then with brain on fire Muffat decided to walk home. The struggle within him had wholly ceased. The ideas and beliefs of the last forty years were being drowned in a flood of new life. While he was passing along the boulevards the roll of the last carriages deafened him with the name of Nana; the gaslights set nude limbs dancing before his eyes—the nude limbs, the lithe arms, the white shoulders, of Nana. And he felt that he was hers utterly: he would have abjured everything, sold everything, to possess her for a single hour that very night. Youth, a lustful puberty of early manhood, was stirring within him at last, flaming up suddenly in the chaste heart of the Catholic and amid the dignified traditions of middle age.

Thereupon Nana became a smart woman, mistress of all that is foolish and filthy in man, marquise in the ranks of her calling. It was a sudden but decisive start, a plunge into the garish day of gallant notoriety and mad expenditure and that daredevil wastefulness peculiar to beauty. She at once became queen among the most expensive of her kind. Her photographs were displayed in shopwindows, and she was mentioned in the papers. When she drove in her carriage along the boulevards the people would turn and tell one another who that was with all the unction of a nation saluting its sovereign, while the object of their adoration lolled easily back in her diaphanous dresses and smiled gaily under the rain of little golden curls which ran riot above the blue of her made-up eyes and the red of her painted lips. And the wonder of wonders was that the great creature, who was so awkward on the stage, so very absurd the moment she sought to act the chaste woman, was able without effort to assume the role of an enchantress in the outer world. Her movements were lithe as a serpent's, and the studied and yet seemingly involuntary carelessness with which she dressed was really exquisite in its elegance. There was a nervous distinction in all she did which suggested a wellborn Persian cat; she was an aristocrat in vice and proudly and rebelliously trampled upon a prostrate Paris like a sovereign whom none dare disobey. She set the fashion, and great ladies imitated her. 2

(and again... to be continued...)

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30 January 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part IIIA Courtesans

In a memorable scene from Colette's novel Gigi, the daughter of a courtesan is carefully taught to tell the difference between a canary diamond and topaz; a cocotte's cache of gems served both as an emblem of success and as a fund for her retirement.
[and table manners--click image for clip]

many many years ago, when we were young feminists, we went to an all-day workshop at a church in san francisco. the two things i remember about it were sitting in a circle with a mirror and a speculum looking at our own and each other's cervixes.

the other was a speech by margo st. james called "getting paid for it." listening to that speech then, and even remembering it now, i am reminded how difficult it is to draw a line between "respectability" and, well, "non-respectability." her point at that time exposed the possible underside of marriage: how far different was the wife whose husband sets her up with an art gallery, for example, from the woman who does the same without the marriage? the more i read the more i realize that the answer is inevitably very very little.

as with a mistress, an affair with a courtesan was rarely just a one-night stand, that is where the similarity ends. Courtesans could be both less and more than mistresses. Less because they were by no means always faithful. Usually, they had several lovers, some who contributed to the household expenses and some who did not... And unlike the mistress of a married man, who is often kept hidden, just as the courtesan was proud of her jewelry, she too was proudly displayed. She was expected to accompany her various lovers to public places and events, cafés, restaurants, balls, parties, the theatre, the opera, even hosting gatherings of her lover's friends at her own home.

During the Belle Epoque in Paris, among the wealthy playboys, aristocrats, and businessmen who belonged to the exclusive Jockey Club, it was considered de rigueur to keep a courtesan -- so much so that even homosexual men felt they had to do it for show... But perhaps the greatest distinction we must make here between kept women and courtesans is that the latter were personages. They were, indeed, what we call today celebrities. Friends of kings, regents, emperors, statesmen, financiers, famous writers and painters, they were the constant subject of columns printed in weekly journals, gossip about their romances, what they wore and what they did providing continual fodder for public curiosity.

Flaubert, Zola, Balzac, Colette, the Goncourt brothers, all based major characters on the lives of courtesans. And of course, from Praxiteles to Titian to Manet, they were favored as subjects by painters and sculptors... For this reason, a courtesan had to be highly cultivated. Often born to poverty, with no education and lacking upper-class manners, a young woman would have to be taught many skills in order to play her new role. As in Shaw's play Pygmalion (or the musical that followed, My Fair Lady), she would have to learn to speak with an upper-class accent, dress well if not lavishly, arrange her hair fashionably, walk gracefully, dance, and play the piano. She would be required to know table manners, of course, but also different protocols, including at times the protocols of the court. A woman who may not even have been able to read very well would now be expected to know the plots of operas, recognize literary references, and have some familiarity with history. Only the brave and intelligent would be able to survive the course... Many courtesans exceeded these requirements... More than can be counted were notable actresses, dancers, singers, music-hall and circus performers.

A few, such as Sarah Bernhardt and Coco Chanel, became far more famous in other professions... But if these women were remarkable in their accomplishments, they were exceptions among the already exceptional. Altogether, there can be no doubt that courtesans were extraordinary women, not only considering their talents but because, as Simone de Beauvoir writes, they created for themselves "a situation almost equivalent to that of man... free in behavior and conversation," attaining, "the rarest intellectual liberty." For centuries courtesans enjoyed more power and independence than did any other women in Europe. To understand why this was so, we must consider the history of women in Europe, a history that is by no means always the same as the history of men. 1

Copyright © 2001 by Susan Griffin

[this topic has proved richer than i'd imagined. this is just part one.]

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29 January 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part II Prostitutes

as you study this subject the realization that begins to dawn on you that the two main reasons prostitutes were such favored subjects in france were that the artwork sold well, and artists were often encouraged to paint life in the brothels by their galleries and agents; as we saw in the discussion about grun, an illusion was being constructed, and all forms of artist were enlisted in the name of this goal. but more importantly, many a lonely painter could find insufficient human warmth and solace elsewhere. toulouse-lautrec, degas, van gogh... men known to have never formed a long-term, settled relationship in their lifetimes. the holy grail.

further, visual artists could often escape censorship of their work by its acceptance as illustration, or as art. it was written in guidebooks that whores posted for photographs but it was nicer girls who posed for the paintings. some, like bernard, had never been in a brothel himself, but painted up an entire series of 'visits' and mailed them to van gogh!

van gogh's response: ...And now that I have started thanking you, I thank you furthermore for the batch of sketches entitled “At the Brothel.” Bravo! It seems to me that the woman washing herself and the one saying, “There is none other like me when it comes to exhausting a man,” are the best; the others are grimacing too much, and above all they are done too vaguely, they are too little living flesh, not built up sufficiently. But no matter, these other ones too are something quite new and interesting. At the brothel! Yes, that's what one ought to do, and I assure you that I for one am almost jealous of the damned fine opportunity you will have of going there in your uniform, - which these good little women dote on. 1

There were several different kinds of brothels in Paris during the time of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and like the varying levels prostitutes which corresponded to each social class, there were also several different levels of brothels.

On one side of the spectrum were luxury brothels, which catered to wealthier, bourgeois clients. These offered more elaborate setting as well as more elaborate sexual spectacles and practices. They cost approximately 100 francs a night. The most common whorehouse was geared towards the working class, and offered more traditional settings and practices. (These types usually cost 5-10 francs for a "brief encounter" and 10-20 to spend the night.)

Meanwhile, lower class whorehouses which cost only one franc, were even more stripped down. With each step down in quality and price, the brothel became less refined, as did the clients who frequented them. 2

it has been written that the strong prostitution presence in new orleans came from being settled by the french.

His first commercial poster, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891), contrasts the seductive performance of La Goulue (The Glutton), one of the dance hall's most famous stars, with an anonymous, predominantly male audience identifiable as middle class by the ubiquitous top hat. Such sexually suggestive images—a direct result of the loosening of censorship laws in 1881—created a sensation with the Parisian public as they both assaulted bourgeois morals and transformed Montmartre's working-class performers into overnight celebrities.

By the time of the World's Fair held in Paris in 1900, Montmartre had developed into a veritable entertainment industry, boasting over forty venues comprised of cabarets, café-concerts, dance halls, music halls, theaters, and circuses. The area's underground bohemian culture had become a part of mainstream bourgeois entertainment through the rapid commercialization and marketing of its venues and performers.

As a result, Toulouse-Lautrec and his avant-garde contemporaries lost interest in Montmartre's nightlife and sought their modern subjects elsewhere. What had begun as a critique of decadent society had become a symbol of decadence itself.

Nicole Myers
Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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. 4

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27 January 2008

rising sun

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new bluejeans
My father was a gamblin' man
Down in New Orleans

Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and trunk
And the only time he's satisfied
Is when he's on a drunk

Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun

Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I'm goin' back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain

Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it's been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I'm one


There is a house in New Orleans
It's called the Rising Sun
It's been the ruin of many poor girl,
Great God and I for one.

If I had of listened to what my mother said,
I'd be at home today,
But I was young and foolish poor girl
Let a rounder lead me astray.

Oh mother, mother, tell me why
You treat that rounder cold,
I'd rather be that rounder's wife
Than to wear your crown of gold.

Now tell my sister in Baltimore,
Not to do as I have done
To shun that house in New Orleans,
It's called the Rising Sun.


There is a house in New Orleans,
They call it the Rising Sun,
An' when you want your pecker spoilt
That's where you get it done.

O tell my youngest brother
Not to do what I have done
And to shun that place down in New Orleans
That's called the Rising Sun.

Beware the red light out in front
An' the pictures on the wall,
An' yellow gals dressed in purple shoes
Without no clothes at all.

Shun the red light an' flowin' bowl,
Beware of too much drink,
Them whores will take an' lead you on
To hell's eternal brink.

They drink all day an' fuck all night
Until your money's gone;
They kick you ass out in the street
When the second shift comes on.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
Where many a poor boy to destruction has gone
And me, Oh God, I'm one

I'm going back to New Orleans
My race is almost run.
Gonna spend the rest of my weekly pay
Beneath that Rising Sun.

john says:

There was at least one "house" in pre-Storyville New Orleans that featured Japanese whores. A verse collected by Randolph refers to "yellow gals." Japan is the "Land of the Rising Sun." This all hangs together to suggest that House of the Rising Sun could have been the place with Japanese women. 1

and thomas said:

When Myrna first began singing The House of the Rising Sun, I realized that the song has been routinely misinterpreted. We faced constant hostility from those who thought that it was heresy for an Asian woman to sing the blues. But, The House of the Rising Sun is the most widely known blues song in the world. And, once Myrna began to sing it, I realized that the song was written for an Asian woman. The house in question is a whorehouse specializing in Asian women, located in Storyville, the legendary red light district of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz and blues. 2

but zora neale hurston said:

"high yaller, yaller, high brown, vaseline brown, seal brown, low brown, dark brown" 3

the bbc says:

In 2005 this site [where the house reportedly had existed] was excavated by archaeologists in search of ancient Native American artefacts, and some interesting things were unearthed, making the former hotel 'look impressively like a bordello', according to Shannon Dawdy, the lead archaeologist. Dawdy cited finding combinations of broken pieces of 'tons of liquor bottles' and several rouge pots. 4

but dave van ronk said:

There is one final footnote to that story. Like everyone else, I had always assumed that the "house" was a brothel. But a while ago I was in New Orleans to do the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and my wife Andrea and I were having a few drinks with Odetta in a gin mill in the Vieux Carr, when up comes a guy with a sheaf of old photographs -- shots of the city from the turn of the century. There, along with the French Market, Lulu White's Mahogany Hall, the Custom House, and suchlike, was a picture of a forbidding stone doorway with a carving on the lintel of a stylized rising sun. Intrigued, I asked him, "What's that building?" It was the Orleans Parish women's prison. So, as it turned out, I had gotten the whole business wrong from the get-go. Pity I didn't think it was a Sunday school -- I might have never sung the damn thing in the first place. 5

The traditional version, as written by Georgia Turner and Bert Martin, is as follows:

There is a house in New Orleans.
They call the Rising Sun.
It's been the ruin of many a poor girl.
And me, Oh Lord! was one.
My mother was a tailor,
She sewed them new blue jeans.
My lover he was a gambler, Oh Lord,
Gambled down in New Orleans.

My lover, he was a gambling man.
He went from town to town;
And the only time he was satisfied.
Was when he drank his liquor down.
Now the only thing a gambling man needs.
Is a suitcase and a trunk;
And the only time he's ever satisfied.
Is when he's on a drunk.

If I only list'nd when my dear mother said:
Beware, my child, when you roam,
Keep away from drunkards and all those gambling men,
It's best by far to come home.
Go and tell my baby sister.
Never do like I have done,
But to shun that house in New Orleans.
That they call the Rising Sun.

With one foot on the platform,
And one foot on the train.
I'm goin' back to New Orleans.
To wear the ball and chain.
I'm going back to New Orleans.
My race is almost run;
I'm going back to spend the rest of my life.
Beneath that Rising Sun. 6

their bodies were used for projection of all kinds of fantasies. we use them still.


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