Avant-garde Painting, the Body and Sexuality


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Starting from the later nineteenth century of Paris, a group of avant-garde painters embraced new modern subjects from the world of leisure and entertainment. Cafés, bars and brasseries on the streets gradually became the core interactions of Parisian economics and social lives, which raised specific fascination towards the issue of women labor in these places and further brought out the controversial debates of body and sexuality for sale with public consideration. In addition, reports pointed out that large numbers of female labors who skilled in different works such as grisette laundresses and etc. were underpaid to meet their basic life demands. Thus, forced by the aggravated impoverishment, these women had to seek out other ways of living by doing part-time jobs or even turning themselves into unlicensed prostitutes. Soon, the rise of the new type of prostitution that practiced beyond the legal registration system was drawing wider attention among the society: the ambiguous connections between the modern secretive prostitution, the female drink servers in bars as well as the women sitting alone at café tables were highlighted by various artists especially Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Writers Georg Simmel and Karl Kraus suggested that prostitution was a condition of dominance and degradation because it exchanges female bodies as commodities into different prices and values within the new and powerful modern society. Overall, the category of prostitution circulated under the bourgeois community and further became the main representation of modernity in Paris in the 1860s.

Coming to Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, they are two of the most influential Impressionist and Realist Avant-garde painters who were active in such social context by taking up modern life and subjects as well as dealing with the contentious issue of body and sexuality for sale in the second half of the 19th century in Paris. Speaking of Manet, he was dedicated to updating conventional genres of painting by integrating new contemporary realities, and applying his unique techniques of paints, volumes, and tones to create a flatness quality or in other words, the reality. The Bar at the Folies Bergeres in 1882 is Manet’s last masterpiece, which plays with the surface of painting and depicts a bar scene of the Folies Bergeres: we see champagne bottles and expensive fruits on the counter table, a mirror behind the woman which reflects all the surroundings inside the bar including the concert audiences and a bourgeois man with a typical top hat approaching the barmaid. Yet this work received a variety of comments and criticisms on its unreadability and ambiguous compositional logic.

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First of all, the Folies Bergere was a type of café concert famous for its garish decorations and public display of beautiful women, which became a fair of prostitution by the time Manet painted. In addition, Manet’s artworks shown in the Salon of 1882 were seen as the most precise representations of such Parisian modernity because of his intention to not avoid all kinds of things happening including the new labor formation of prostitutes, wider application of electric lights and so on. Looking closer to this piece, a British art historian and writer Timothy James Clark proposed that this is a painting of surfaces and people should acknowledge the fact that painting is a surface. For instance, numerous historical painters aimed to follow academic perspectives and techniques to immerse viewers in the illusion they created by denying the flatness reality of painting. However, what Manet did here was to deliberately emphasize the quality of flatness and urge the public to admit this truth through all the marks putting on this piece: the black and white brushwork without transitions on the champagne bottles, the plane tones of the flowers, the abrupt white pigments on the oranges as well as the collar and cuff of the barmaid and so on. These dry and scratch-like brushstrokes act as diverse effective signs to illustrate the inevitable flatness of a pictorial surface and further push the image forward to the edge of fragility.

Addition to that, a mirror behind the girl of the counter seems to be the main arrangement, which reflects all the activities happening inside the bar to the viewers, but at the same time, it aroused a lot of discussions and criticisms on the overall logic: if this is a mirror, where is the top-hatted man that is supposed to appear in the foreground next to the barmaid? What is his relationship to the girl and that to us as audiences? All these unsolved questions add an extra layer of mystery and uncertainty to the picture, which promote viewers to think profoundly about the relationships of spaces within the painting as well as those between the real-life spaces. According to T.J. Clark, the mirror here is a metaphor for painting, which uses its own qualities of two dimensions, plain effects of vision and fixation to emphasize the reality of flatness in painting on canvas. In other words, a mirror in real life reflects things onto itself in a two-dimensional space and however real the things are or whichever the way people see and approach them, they are undoubtedly flat, fixed and framed within the two-dimensional space. That is also true for painting because no matter how realistic you paint the subjects using skills including three dimensional perspectives, light and dark shading and etc., what you paint can only exist on a flat surface – the unavoidable reality.

Furthermore, this is an image of a woman working in a bar setting with the counter table as a central element in the foreground, which raised another question upon the consideration about the social issue of sexuality for sale in Paris: whether the girl is selling drinks or herself as well? Firstly, the scene of a counter filled with goods to sell by either salesmen or saleswomen standing behind and one or more customers standing in the front was widely shown in magazines, which indicated the discourse of mass consumption during that time in Paris. Some critics pointed out that the woman working at the counter table was the “salesgirl” who existed under the buying and selling modern atmosphere with an ambiguous identity belonging to a new-formed class of the petite bourgeoisie or the petty bourgeoisie. For instance, it’s a social class that distinct from the proletariat who depends wholly on selling labor for survival and from the high bourgeoisie class who owns the production and buys labors to work for them, the petite bourgeoisie is the group that’s neither the exploited nor the exploiters. Other than that, the dress worn by the woman seemed to please the bourgeois client and was probably authorized by people who hired her to attract public attention for more sales, which is what A. Tabarant described as the “costume of her employment”. In other words, what she wears is determined by what she does as a proper occupation, meaning that if she is a barmaid selling beverages, then she has to wear the kind of attractive dress to prompt customer attention to come and buy drinks from her in order to increase drink sales and get more payment for living. However, gorgeous clothing presented by a young and beautiful girl may lead to extra fantasies from the clients about the actual products she sells, which links to the issue of sexuality for sale under that particular social context.

Moreover, the concern of the unshown capitalist male figure reflected in the mirror could be a trick that Manet applied to imperceptibly engage viewers into becoming part of the work itself through mixing the two-dimensional pictorial space with the three-dimensional real-life space. As we all know, women have played the role of a passive object and spectacle for male-dominated gaze in the historical visual culture for a very long time. And in this case, when people the capitalist Salon viewers especially get closer to scrutinize the female character in this artwork, they are at the same time consuming the woman just like the bourgeois male figure who approaches the barmaid in the reflection of the mirror, which further implies not only the idea of male gaze but also the issue of female body consumption in the modern society. Overall, this artwork highlights flatness in general in terms of showing people what things look like when they are reflected by a two-dimensional vehicle, which is the mirror. Also, it leaves the girl’s social identity as an unfinished story to let audiences and critics actively add their voices on the basis of Parisian Modernity or their diverse backgrounds.

Moving on to Edgar Degas, he focused on making strong and powerful paintings that could interpret the modern realities through tracing the most significant social struggles, which are the issues about women bodies, sexuality and classes of the nineteenth century Paris. In addition, Degas’s period of creating realist paintings often aroused the Parisian modernity by taking up inspirations from streets and cafés, singers and ballet dancers as well as laundresses and milliners.

One of Degas’s representative works called Absinthe in 1876 concentrated on the shifting role of women after the Commune of the third Republican of France, which further emphasized the significance of women seating in the café. Critics such as George Moore proposed that this piece is a portrait of two respectable individuals who weren’t drinkers but instead identifiable people the painter Marcellin Desboutin and the actress Ellen Andree. Indeed, this artwork can’t be easily categorized as a genre of portraiture, but rather, it’s portraying the modern life in an everyday scene. However, this image received various comments around the imbalance of composition and the rare triangular point of view. For example, there were too much weight and focus been putting on the figures on the right with part of the male figure cropped out of the pictorial frame in comparison with fewer emphasis on the left side of the painting; also, the three tables across the foreground filling with the woman’s dress in the middle formed a unique triangular angle of vision. As a result, these ingenuities may likely stem from Degas’s great interests in breaking down conventional pictorial compositions and viewpoints.

What’s more, Degas’s painting Absinthe triggered the issue of prostitution and particularly the unlicensed prostitution within the society. Many sociologists underlined the specific relationships between the modern secret prostitution and the women working to sell alcoholic drinks in bars or women sitting in a café alone. On the other hand, the pictures of the clandestine prostitutes were metaphorically referred to the nature of a spider hunting and depicted as seductresses sitting in the café alone and waiting for victims to fall into a snare in order to highlight not only the secretive and fragmentary expressions of the sitters but more importantly the alarming and dangerous facts that the clandestine prostitution brings about.

In conclusion, both works respectively created by Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas make the modern life of Paris in the second half of the 19th century visible discussing the issues of female body, sexuality, and class with different visual languages and spectacles. For instance, the avant-garde utilized the myth of modernity, the rising of the petite bourgeois that was excluded from either the bourgeois or the proletariat social classes, as a breakthrough point into analyzing the modern Parisian life. In addition to that, the avant-garde artists tended to bring forward the situations of modernity to viewers by mixing all the ambiguities of daily life circumstances in order to blur the boundaries between the general and the marginalized groups as well as loosening the gaps within different classes in the capitalist society in Paris at the later nineteenth century.

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