Art Essays

Modern Woman

Published April 21, 2012
Edgar Degas, France 1834–1917 Seated dancer leaning forward, massaging her left foot c.1881–83 Pastel, brown paper backed with cardboard 62 x 49cm

Rather like its subject, Modern Woman is one of those exhibitions that must be approached with no fixed expectations, for it has the capacity to instill both disappointment and delight. Any event that includes names such as Degas, Bonnard, Renoir, Manet, Pissarro, Millet, Rodin, Vuillard and Toulouse-Lautrec, would seem to have ‘blockbuster’ written all over it. Yet the composition of this show means that great figures may be represented by minor works, while the most interesting contributions come from artists previously unknown to Australian viewers.
We tend to have high expectations of the accredited genius, but none whatsoever of the also-ran who never made it into art history’s pantheon. One should, however, allow for regional differences. Parisian audiences are so spoiled for masterpieces that it is almost humdrum to walk into a gallery to be confronted with a dozen Cézannes or Monets. In Australia these works are so scarce – thanks to the short-sighted acquisition policies of the past – that we treat every little daub as if it were pure gold.
Consider then, that if artists such as Pascal Adolphe Jean Dadnan-Bouveret, Marie Bracquemond, Emile Boilvin or Emile Barthélémy Fabry, had come to live in Sydney or Melbourne in the late nineteenth century, they would now be acclaimed as giants of Australian art. Practiced exponents of le juste milieu (‘the happy medium’), such as Albert Besnard and Henri Gervex, would be classed as radical innovators by Australian standards.
I’m not saying local audiences shouldn’t be too fussy, for it is only by demanding the best that we exert pressure on Australian museums to secure quality touring shows. But in this instance, there is a case for forgetting about the names and simply enjoying the art. In the hierarchy of international exhibitions, Modern Woman is a modest proposition, but it rewards the viewer prepared to take time with these works.
A survey of drawings is by necessity a more intimate experience than a show of paintings or sculpture. Many drawings are simply quick observations or first ideas jotted down on paper, but even the most elaborately finished pieces can have a provisional feel. A drawing preserves traces of the artist’s hand in a way that most paintings do not.
A drawing often has a directness – an appealing spontaneity – that is lost in a painting. A mediocre painter might be an outstanding draftsman, although this probably does not apply in reverse. Great painters who left few drawings were not devoid of skills, they merely internalised the process, with the drawing going on in the mind.
In Modern Woman those drawings made with the greatest freedom are by sculptors, Rodin and Bourdelle; although Bonnard is not far behind. While the sculptors set out to capture a sense of arrested movement and the energy contained within a gesture, there is a Bonnard sketch of a woman’s silhouette (cat. 13) that is hardly more than a sooty, abstract blur. The subject seems to be spinning on the spot, like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil.
In his other pictures Bonnard is still much looser than most of his peers, a trait that may be explained by the importance of colour in his work. Take away those dense purples and yellows, those murky blues and reds, and you are left with the merest outline.

With the exception of pieces by Fabry, Émile Levy and Léon Kamir, the most delicate pastels belong to female artists such as Mary Cassat, Eva Gonzalez and Berthe Morisot. Pastel is an unforgiving medium and very few artists were brave enough to use it as freely as Degas. One suspects Cassat and her colleagues felt they had something to prove in an art scene dominated by men.
At the same time they took pains to preserve a distinctly feminine dimension, with their subjects being mainly women and children, captured with a freshness of colour and softness of touch.
Even as I write this, I’m aware that ‘the feminine’ is a much-debated term. If a certain delicacy of colour and handling are characteristic, then many male artists might also be allowed to have feminine traits. Renoir, for example, is considered too soft and sentimental for some tastes, although his pleasure in the female form is voracious.
Degas, as always, is the exception to every rule. Having just seen the exhibition, Degas and the Nude at the Musée d’Orsay last week, I’m freshly amazed at the originality of his portrayal of women. On one hand he could have said, like the photographer, Helmut Newton (also currently the subject of a Paris retrospective), “I’m a professional voyeur.” On the other, his nudes have an objectivity that is almost unbelievable.
Degas and the Nude may only be seen in Australia in the form of a handsome book published by Thames and Hudson. In Modern Woman, Degas is represented by portraits, ballerinas, and one lively genre scene – At the Milliner’s. All the nudes seem to have remained in Paris, which is a shame, because Degas’s images of women in bath-tubs are like nothing previously attempted in the history of art. They record private, domestic acts, by women who do not resemble Greek goddesses.

The naturalisation of women in art is one of the achievements of the Belle Époque: a process that brought ‘Woman’ down off her pedestal, but allowed female subjects to be treated like human beings rather than symbols of virtue or vice. If they were still cast as objects of titillation for the male gaze, as in Giovanni Boldini’s Nude woman in black stockings lying on a sofa (c.1880), this is not a tendency unique to any place or time.
This process of naturalisation is one of the few significant topics raised by curator, Isabelle Julia, in a catalogue essay that is as light as a meringue. It is a sign that this show is to perceived as an entertainment rather than a scholarly endeavour, because the subject of women in late nineteenth century Paris has been a boom area for historians. There have been countless studies devoted to women as wives, mothers, courtesans, seamstresses, prostitutes, cabaret performers, writers and artists. Women have been examined by sociologists, philosophers and statisticians. If the curator had wanted to delve into this material by writers such as Alain Corbin, she would have had the makings of an important book.
Instead, we have a brisk, impressionistic overview that leaves us with a scattering of random observations. Judging only by the works in this show, one would have to say that Constantin Guys (1802-92) – who found his moment of fame as the inspiration for Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life (1863) – was a remarkably clumsy draughtman. Another experienced graphic artist, Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923), is arguably the star of this collection.
Steinlen was also a painter but he is best known for the volume of illustrations he produced for satirical magazines such as Gil Blas. The discipline of having to produce drawings to a deadline, in a highly competitive environment, made him adept at jotting down rapid, distinctive sketches of everyday life. Steinlen’s On a café terrace (c.1900-1910), is the work of a few minutes, but it tells us a great deal about Belle Époque Paris. A woman sits with her legs crossed, leaning back on a chair and puffing on a cigarette. Her companion plonks both elbows on the table as she pursues the conversation.
The image tells us that old-fashioned models of polite behaviour and deportment were breaking down. Two women are shown sitting at a street cafe, acting in a manner that is most unlady-like. They are the epitome of the modern woman, and may even be lovers, as Paris had an easy-going attitude to the Sapphic persuasion. We don’t know who these figures are, but we recognise their strong, assertive personalities.
In other sketches Steinlen shows us a man and woman locked in a furtive embrace on a bench, and the downcast faces and slumped shoulders of travellers on a train or trolley car. His most striking image is saved for the end of the exhibition. Study of a nude personifying the republic, seen frontally, brandishing her sword (1915), depicts a middle-aged woman, with sharp, intelligent features, standing with legs and arms spread. She is a modern variant on the theme of naked truth, but so obviously a figure of flesh and blood that she lends a robust, erotic charge to the passion for ‘La Patrie’ usually symbolised by Marianne in her Phyrgian cap. There is a subtle difference when she wears only the cap. We are looking at a mature female, not an emblem. She may represent the Republic but she also stands for the newly liberated attitude of the French woman.
Modern Woman: Daughters and Lovers 1850-1918, Drawings from the Musée d’Orsay, Paris,
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, March 24  –  June 24, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, April 24, 2012