Paris 1900 at the Frist: a Tangent

A lady of the night, by Toulouse-Lautrec; Paris 1900.
Toulouse-Lautrec nightlife grotesquery.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (On-‘hree duh Too-‘loose Low-‘twhek–say it fast) mastered the grotesquery I so lovingly associate with Parisian nightlife at the turn of the century (the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth), an era taking center stage right now at the Frist Art Museum in their show, Paris 1900: City of Entertainment. Grotesque–curled and crinkled like gargoyle faces, sneering–not to shame the women involved, but to highlight the excesses of high society men, who could afford to lay out all night, imbibe spumante (while the poor artists imbibed absinthe, and sometimes the not-so-poor, like our dear Henri), and secure the services of singing and dancing courtesans. It really is like in the movie Moulin Rouge–maybe not as polished, or as over-the-top theatrically, as the perfected routines and filmed angles of the movie, but in spirit, a match. I imagine the can-can was quite a spectacle for the booze-buzzing minds of men with no fear of repercussions for lecherous behavior. It is not for me to judge those men, but it is for me to acknowledge that without them, there may not have been a “Belle Epoque,” at least not in the charmed, green-glowing, guiltily pleasurable fashion which art history has handed down to us. And I wouldn’t want a Paris 1900 without Toulouse-Lautrec in it, without the features he painted so fantastically distorted by excess.

I think of the approach of World War I, during which the youth of France would be decimated in a war for which no one was prepared–the first modern war, with long-range artillery and machine guns; trench warfare, with all its dismal living conditions: arms and legs of the dead protruding from the soft mud. I swear I’m not judging those wealthy, lecherous men, on display in so many of the paintings in Paris 1900. What else could well-off men be expected to do? Besides, the war was a good fourteen years away. No one saw it coming–not yet.

Ladies of the night, by Jean Beraud; Paris 1900.
Detail from “Les belles de nuit au Jardin de Paris (The ladies of the night at Le Jardin de Paris),” by Jean Beraud (1905).

Paris 1900 would’ve been a good time to be alive, if you were a man of means in the City of Lights. Maybe, too, if your were a woman of means, though I suspect the same freedoms weren’t afforded you, regardless of social class. Imagine the wives of these men at home. It’s two a.m., the men are out, drifting through Montmartre, brain-blitzed on champagne, and their eyes have begun seeking unfamiliar entertainments. The wives at home are trying to sleep, trying to convince themselves their husbands are only out laughing with friends and have lost track of time, essentially remaining faithful. They suspect otherwise, but they’re not ready to accept it (and they might never be). And they wouldn’t dare threaten their own fragile position by making accusations of infidelity. They’d do it subtly, with guilt and moralistic innuendo. And the men may or may not take the bait, yielding to the hints of their wives, and the damnable situation proves to us, one-hundred-eighteen years later, that the women–even the rich ones–held staggeringly little influence over their well-heeled husbands. I may have this all wrong, but I look at the ghostly profile of a mustachioed man puffing a cigar in Beraud’s painting, and his top hat is more solid than his face, and he’s more-or-less a demon, or if not a demon, then an apparition of debauchery. An apparition in a long coat. And that’s when I feel I’m dead-on about the dynamic at home for these men and their beleaguered wives: lots of things left unsaid. Just as there are lots of things the paintings aren’t saying. But it’s not like we need them to.

**Paris 1900: City of Entertainment is up through January 6 at Nashville’s Frist Art Museum.

Alan D. Tucker Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist
Alan D. Tucker
Content Blogger,
Essayist, & Novelist

 

 

 

Demystify Your Art Making

As an art student, I fell in love with Cezanne’s brushstrokes.

Demystify your art making, at least for the sake of getting it done. Whether your art be painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, singing, acting, dress making, crochet, needlepoint, woodwork, bread baking, stenciling, scrapbooking, cello playing, guitar strumming, furniture restoration, hair cutting, stand-up comedy, or collage.

I will create something like a parable, except my protagonist is a true historical figure, and the moral may be murky, if existent at all. But the thing is, the accepted cultural narrative, i.e., art history as we know it, depends on an outcome other than what this “parable” offers. Nonetheless, here’s a brief, alternative, anti-art history:

Suppose the painter Paul Cezanne (pronounced say-‘zon, or says-‘awnh, if you’re being snooty), having returned to the French countryside after a stint in Paris, decided to pursue other things besides painting. In Paris, he’d hung out with important painters and gained valuable artistic insights, but feeling himself more a rustic, he followed his heart back to the provincial environs of his youth. He told himself he’d paint mountains and forests, rock quarries and the Mediterranean Sea.  His intentions were good. But when he got there, a procrastination set in–one from which he’d never fully recover.

It started as anxiety: a lurking fear that he’d fail to achieve what those great Parisian painters had achieved. What’s left for me to discover, he often wondered. He knew he should weather this anxiety and get to work anyway, but being of a passive temperament, he often let it get the best of him. And in those days, there were no anti-anxiety meds to ease the mind. A prescription for Lexapro might’ve made all the difference. Instead, he sipped coffee all day, willfully blinding himself to the exacerbatory effects of caffeine on his anxiety. By late afternoon, he’d be a jittery wreck, unable to paint, unable to do anything thing but laze about Pontoise, growing bitterer by the hour, mean-mugging the villagers who hadn’t grasped the great destiny that was meant to be his. How could they? But he afforded them no grace. He’d escape to the woods, taking long walks on old wagon roads, cursing life for not delivering on its promise of artistic renown, carrying his sketchbook but drawing nothing. I’ll figure things out eventually, he’d think.

Soon, however, he afforded himself no grace, either. He became quite the wallower in self-pity. What had gone wrong? He was supposed to be the father of some great art movement, but he was merely the son of a banker, living off a great inheritance, producing no art. His palette grew dusty, his brushes stained and stiff with inactivity. In the village, he wasn’t even known to be an artist anymore. All he was was the son of Monsieur Cezanne, the deceased banker. At one point, local officials wanted him to run for office, thinking he was somehow qualified because his father had been a prominent citizen back in Aix. But Paul knew he wasn’t the public service type, so he graciously denied their request, though they plied him with brandy and rare tobacco. To be honest, he did consider it; it would be a level of prominence, after all. They were standing around him in the courthouse basement, the brandy working its intoxication, the conversation flowing, and he thought maybe, just maybe. But the next morning, in the grip of a pulsing headache, he remembered he was supposed to be an artist, and he was just foolish enough to believe it might still happen. He stood by his original decision not to run for office.

This parable is starting to run thin. Here’s the point: if the real Paul Cezanne had had any kind of sense of the greatness that was to come, he might’ve gotten nothing done. If he’d thought he might one day be referred to as the Father of Modern Art, then there may have never been a series of paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, or of his influential bather scenes. Card players, Madame Cezanne, still-lifes–so many monumental works we wouldn’t have. He would’ve sabotaged his own greatness. That mantle–Father of Modern Art (who could live under that expectation?!)–would’ve gone to someone else.

The point behind the point: demystify your art making. Demystify your writing. Demystify your singing. Demystify your acting. Demystify your whatever. Do it all for the joy of doing it, or for your obsession with it. Any reason is better than doing it because you think it will one day lead to greatness. If you do it because you think it will one day lead to greatness, then not only will you probably fall short, but you’ll be letting down our species by wielding such a shallow motive.

Maybe greatness is the wrong word, because art deserves the pursuit of greatness. Striving to make great art is worthwhile, but striving to have art be proof of your own greatness–that’s the shallow part, the seedy part. I’m confident in saying that the real Cezanne pursued greatness in art, but not greatness through art. I suspect he didn’t care about personal fame at all.

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer,
Essayist, & Novelist

Longboard Dad

People in Nashville don’t expect to see a grown man on a skateboard, at least not in the suburbs. That’s what I deduced on a recent outing with my boys. They had their bikes and I had my longboard (which is exactly what it sounds like, for those unfamiliar with skater lingo), and we pushed and pedaled around the parking lots and walking track of my oldest son’s school for a couple of hours. The clear, cool day brought out other people, too, so we had a little company: walking middle-aged couples (probably close to my age, actually); a teenage kid blasting hip-hop in his headphones and doing basketball moves with no ball; a man giving his daughter a driving lesson. The basketball kid paid us no mind, and the father giving driving lessons checked to make sure we’d be in a different part of the parking lot, but the walking couples stared. Rudely stared. Some said hi, but others had this bemused look, like they thought I was kidding about being a longboard dad, or that any moment I might break into a Rodney Mullen street routine. It got a little awkward.

I’m jealous of two kinds of people: really tall people, and people who don’t care what anyone thinks of them. As hard as I try, when someone outright stares at me, I can’t ignore it. I may not look at them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel their eyes burning whichever side of me happens to be facing them.

The longboard stayed, of course, because thankfully I’m too stubborn to let a little awkwardness deter me. But it would be nice if the stigma of skateboarding being only a thing for kids would go away. I can’t see why it’s any less a legitimate activity than riding a bike.

Anyway, that experience has me thinking about the awkwardness and vulnerability artists undergo for the sake of their work. It’s risky to take something you created and place it in front of others. It’s risky because an artist’s work is built from the raw materials of his own life; to put it simply, it’s intimate. The best artists hold nothing back. It terrifies me to think of holding nothing back. Yet to be honest and to be good, artistically speaking, that stuff has to come out. Like a longboard.

Alan D. Tucker
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist