Tempe Nell, Public Programmes at The Courtauld Gallery
The period between 1870 and 1914 has been called by some La Belle Époque – or the Beautiful Era – a time when Paris grew as a hive of musical, literary and artistic activity.
French and international composers, artists and writers congregated in the bohemian cafes and dance halls of Montmatre, where they shared creative and political ideas.
I have put together a Belle Époque themed playlist ahead of this week’s Bohemian Paris Late
In this post I am going to look in detail at how composers, artists and performers came into contact with each others’ work through the café culture of Paris in the late 19th century.
I am also going to focus on how the sexuality of women became a major theme across the arts during this time.
Cross-fertilisation in the arts
Collaboration and cross-fertilisation between the arts was rich in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The poet Charles Baudelaire, who provided inspiration and friendship to many fellow creative professionals, called for the arts to portray modern life honestly in his influential essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863).
Modern Life is a theme synonymous with the French Realist and Impressionist painters, particularly for the work of Édouard Manet (Bar at the Folies Bergere), but modern life also characterises the lyrics of popular songs of the Café Concerts.
Baudelaire explored the interlinking of the sensory worlds of the arts in his poem ‘Correspondances’ (1857), writing:
“Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,
Perfumes, sounds, and colours correspond.”
(translation William Aggeler, 1954)
Composers including Erik Satie and Claude Debussy immersed themselves in café life, enjoying their bohemian freedom and eclectic company. Satie wrote for and performed in the nightclub Le Chat Noir, although this was partly out of necessity to make a living (Satie – Gymnopedie (1888) and Gnossienes No. 1 (1890)).
Satie also drew, playing with caricature designs for his own bust, which was never realised (see above). Debussy explored sound worlds that adopted the ephemerality and atmospheric qualities we associate with Impressionist art, although he was himself critical of such associations (Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (1894) and Nuages [Clouds] (1899)).
The composer Saints-Saëns painted exquisitely rich imagery through his music ‘The Carnival of the Animals’ (including The Swan, The Fossils and The Aquarium).
Women and objectification in Belle Époque Music and Art
The role of women at the beginning of this period was still very much determined by their relationship to men.
Artists such as Degas, Renoir and Manet repeatedly portray women in various different guises, often betraying their own anxieties about the sexuality of women in the modern world. Female performers, prostitutes and courtesans in particular presented a challenge to men as they crossed the boundaries between private and public life.
The Moulin Rouge, Chat Noir and Folies-Bergère played host to performances ranging from cabaret to acrobatics and versatile star performers, such as the dancer Jane Avril painted by Toulouse Lautrec (Room 7) enjoyed great celebrity.
Two other performers portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec were Yvette Guilbert (see below) and Polaire who performed comic and sometimes lewd songs often about the lives of performers, prostitutes and courtesans during Café Concerts.
Madame Arthur and Le Fiacre were written and performed by Guilbert, the first describing a courtesan with a trail of suitors and the second, a woman’s bumpy ride with a gentleman in a horse-drawn carriage.
Tha-ma-ra-boum-di-e (1891), an American song became a major hit for Polaire at the Folies-Bergère music hall, recounting the story of a young woman’s awakening sexuality. For a little light contrast, the song Frou Frou humorously explores the dangers of women cycling in trousers (!).
Performers themselves often involved in prostitution, even the young ballet dancers from the Opera as painted famously by Edgar Degas would be preyed on by gentlemen audience members who could pay their way backstage.
Emile Zola’s novel Nana (1880) follows the story of a courtesan and theater performer, whose sexuality and powerful stage performances attract and repulse her audiences and destroy her pursuers. Manet used the title ‘Nana’ for his portrait of the theater performer and courtesan Henriette Hauser in 1877.
This painting was rejected by the Paris Salon, which remained a formal environment where such themes were unacceptable. Ballets and operas also addressed the sexualisation of women in a public arena, for example in the ballet Coppélia by Léo Delibes (1870) where the fantasy of an automated dancing doll threatens the relationship of a young couple, and in Bizet’s opera Carmen (1874) where the seductive title-figure expresses her sexuality openly.
It was not uncommon for female employees cabaret venues to sell their bodies to supplement their wages. In Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) he leaves open the possible interpretation that a negotiation of such a transaction is being made between the barmaid and a customer in the mirror reflection on the right.
Themes of prostitution and crime are dealt with more explicitly in the café song A Saint-Lazare by Artistide Bruant in the voice of a prostitute writing to her pimp from prison where she is being treated for a venereal disease. Even female audience members couldn’t escape objectification, for example in Renoir’s La Loge (1874) a gentleman audience-member ignores his companion, possibly his mistress judging by her make-up and bright clothing, and leans back with his binoculars to ogle another attractive woman in the audience who is out of view.