Predictably, the male gaze prevails almost exclusively, and one has to look at length for the only woman featured, the Castiglione, as the co-author, with Pierre-Louis Pierson, of one of the photographs displayed. If the socio-historical aspect is particularly well addressed in the exhibition (and well analyzed in the catalog, despite some redundancies from one essay to the other), the fantasmatical dimension of prostitution –which one and all try to express, from Courbet and his Mère Grégoire to Picasso and his Melancholy (for the sketches from the Demoiselles d’Avignon which conclude the visit belong to another world)– is visible, obvious even, yet it does not really moves us, since this realm of hypocritical prohibitions seems so remote to us nowadays. In lieu of lust, it is empathy we feel in front of the injustice, in front of this sexual and economic domination by men: maybe it is the wretched Munch (one of the few foreigners featured here; but Paris was the capital of arts and brothels at the time…) who translated it best in this crushing lithograph.
The only glimpses of humanity in this exhibition probably lies in what Toulouse-Lautrec, so close to the girls, captured in two or three oil on cardboard paintings in which sentiment finally appears. Finally, the look shared by these two girls expresses deep emotion, at the very moment of their reclaiming of their bodies and sexualities through lesbian love, when they won’t be solely objectified. Others do denounce prostitution, such as Octave Mirbeau or Josephine Butler, but through texts, discourses in the written form, and not through art.The importance of photography in the exhibition is to be noted (as well as Marie Robert’s essay in the catalogue): the majority of the photographs are displayed in two secluded rooms, in which minors are not allowed. Indeed, photography frees the gaze and glorifies the erogenous eye. It is valued for its recording abilities, its indexing of truth, and thus it can be all the more scandalous. Rather than Pierre Louÿs’s roguish niceties (the French weekly Le Point prudishly reframed the picture), or Jeandel’s mysteries, I have chosen to offer you this beautiful composition by Disdéri: the legs of sixty-one ballerinas from the Opéra de Paris, identified by their initials only –youthful talents at the mercy of paunchy old Misters roaming the Opéra’s Foyer, which was a hotspot to connect with the demi-monde.
Original publication date by Lunettes Rouges: October 20, 2015.
Translation by Lucas Faugère