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

 

 

 

Pretending Something’s Great

Fergie defines cringeworthy.

Pretending a thing’s great, because we’ve already decided it’s great (or the media or an authority figure has convinced us it’s great), is an affliction suffered by many (particularly in the insecure American middle class). For example, people sometimes praise a film because respected and intellectual movie critics give it a high rating; when those same people watch the film, they find in it virtues that may not really be there, simply to avoid feeling like they don’t “get it.”

This tendency creates some awkward public situations. Imagine a famous singer waiting to sing the national anthem before a game. She stands center-court or midfield, depending on the sport, knowing whichever team loses will see its season end this very night–that’s how important the game is. The singer’s voice is the source of her fame. When she performs, people expect flourishes, tonal modulations, effortless vibrato–a general mastery overall. The lights are brighter than those of the venues to which she’s accustomed, and it’s odd to be alone in the center, with no backstage to retreat to, and all that anxious energy stewing in a ring around her. Nevertheless, she’s a professional. Clutching the microphone with both hands, the tip comes to rest lightly on the indentation between her chin and lower lip, and she begins.

Except on this occasion, she starts the song a couple steps high, effectively placing the word “free”–the big climax, seventh word from the end–just out of range. No one knows this but her, and she struggles to keep a quaver from her voice. This game is televised–the effects of a screw-up are infinite. The audience assumes she can sing anything, and in any range. As long as she’s playing to her strengths, which would normally be the case, she can prevent them ever knowing she has limits. But tonight, apparently, a limit was going to reveal itself. The word approaches. She feels she has no choice but to go for it. So with all her respiratory might, she belts it out long and loud, and it’s a half-step flat, and there’s an obvious strain in her voice. Anyone not tone-deaf would notice. She is mortified, but manages to finish the song.

The audience goes wild with deafening cheers and applause. A generous observer might credit their enthusiasm to their esteem for the American flag, and for a handful, this may be true. Still, others might simply be getting a head start cheering for whichever team they support. But the majority of the crowd is clearly blinded by celebrity–by what they expected to hear, as opposed to what they did hear. They react out of the foregone conclusion that Singer X is great, that she is a famous singer because she’s a phenomenal singer; that money follows quality. You can be certain, though, there’s another, more quiet contingent who feels extremely awkward right now, because they’re honest with themselves about what they just witnessed: a famous singer blowing it on a really big stage. And it somehow makes it worse that people are pretending it didn’t happen. In fact, they’re going beyond pretending it didn’t happen: they’re acting as if it was wonderful.

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